Shakira vs. the Democrats

For Morocco's would-be revolutionaries, a popular music festival is a corrupt symbol of the country's misplaced priorities.


Spring in Morocco means longer, warmer days, jacarandas in bloom, the taste of grilled fish, the smell of escargots wafting from street corners — and music festivals. Nearly every city in the kingdom has one, designed to reflect its unique culture and musical taste. The Gnaoua festival in Essaouira attracts fans of jazz, rock, and fusion; L’Boulevard in Casablanca is popular with lovers of hip-hop; the Festival of World Sacred Music in Fez is for aficionados of spiritual music. But the largest, and the best funded, of all the music festivals in Morocco is Mawazine, which takes place in May in Rabat, the capital, and which features huge stars from across different musical genres. This year, Lionel Richie, Amr Diab, Kanye West, and Shakira are all scheduled to perform.

Ten years ago, Mawazine was a small festival that had trouble finding financiers for its sound-and-lights show, but it has quickly grown in size, dwarfing all the other musical events in the country. Its current budget is reportedly as high as $12 million. Perhaps not coincidentally, scandals and controversy have dogged it. Last year, for instance, there were calls by members of the PJD, a religious party in Parliament, to ban Elton John because his appearance would be "promoting homosexuality." (In the end, Elton John performed to sold-out crowds, and there have been no reports of Moroccan men suddenly turning gay as a result of their attendance.) In 2009, 11 people were killed in a stampede at Hay Nahda sports stadium, after a performance by the musician Abdelaziz Stati. (An investigation of the accident is still pending.)

This year, Mawazine has become the focal point of a debate over the powers of the country’s governing elite. The February 20 protest movement, which has been calling for constitutional reforms that limit the powers of the king, has made Mawazine one of its targets. In April, the activists issued a statement asking artists to cancel their scheduled appearances. The large sums of money allocated to Mawazine, the statement said, would be better spent on schools, hospitals — or arts infrastructure that would contribute to sustainable cultural growth for all Moroccans. Slogans repeated during street marches throughout the kingdom in the last few months have included some directed at the festival: "Where is the people’s money? In Mawazine and celebrations." (This rhymes in Arabic.) Facebook groups with names such as "Tous Contre Mawazine" or "stop mawazine" have cropped up.

It’s not difficult to see why the February 20 movement has chosen to make Mawazine one of its issues. The festival is organized by Maroc-Cultures, an organization headed by King Mohammed VI’s business manager, Mohamed Mounir Majidi. Majidi is also the managing director of ONA-SNI, Morocco’s largest business firm, with interests in mining, telecommunications, and real estate, among many other areas. He is an unpopular figure who in recent months has become a symbol of corruption, his picture pasted on protest signs with "WANTED" printed across. Other signs have depicted ONA as an octopus, with tentacles reaching across different sectors of the economy.

But, aside from its association with Majidi, Mawazine also riles up Moroccans with its ostentatious displays. Imagine if, like 15 percent of Moroccans, you and your family lived on less than $2 per day. Three loaves of bread and a bottle of milk cost about as much as that — never mind housing, health care, or education. Imagine if, like a large majority of working Moroccans, you were paid the standard minimum wage of 10.64 dirhams per hour; that’s almost exactly the price of a liter of gasoline. (Assuming, of course, you’ve saved up the tens of thousands of dirhams it takes to buy a car.) Imagine, now, if you found out that Shakira were paid 6.5 million dirhams to perform — nearly a million dollars.

There are others, however, who support Mawazine as a rare opportunity for the public to see Moroccan and international music stars perform locally. They argue that many of the scheduled concerts are free. They point out that the festival is funded by business sponsors and that only a small percentage of its budget comes from the government. In an interview with TelQuel magazine, Aziz Daki, spokesperson and artistic director for Mawazine, said that those who oppose Mawazine are "demagogues" who keep an "obscurantist discourse." And, just as there are anti-Mawazine groups on Facebook, there are pro-Mawazine groups as well.

It is true that Mawazine has many private sponsors, but these come at a much higher long-term cost for the country. In a lawsuit filed in Michigan, Peter Barker-Homek, former CEO of the energy company Taqa, alleges that he was asked by his employers to pay $5 million per year to unnamed Moroccan officials in order to finance a music festival. (Although the festival is not named, it is widely believed to be Mawazine.) In exchange, Taqa would be allowed to extend its electrical plant in Jorf Lasfar, a commercial port on the Atlantic Coast. The behind-the-scenes business deals are particularly relevant now, in the middle of a popular protest movement that has made an end to corruption a central demand.

Mawazine is scheduled to start on May 20. Despite the mounting rhetoric of the past few weeks, a cancellation had been unlikely for some time now. Since the terrorist attack on the Argana cafe in Marrakesh, all eyes have been on Mawazine, an event that normally attracts tens of thousands of spectators. Safety concerns were immediately raised, but the organizers have cleverly portrayed any rescheduling as tantamount to saying that the country is afraid of terrorists.

What’s more, a cancellation would be seen as a capitulation to the demands of the February 20 movement. The Moroccan government’s official position with regard to the reform movement mirrors that of Dr. Pangloss in Candide: All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Khalid Naciri, spokesperson for the government, has repeatedly declared that Morocco has long been engaged in a process of reform. The March 9 speech in which the king announced some constitutional reforms was part of this long-standing process, he said, and not a response to the street protests. In this context, the show must go on.

And while the show goes on, the Moroccan government can continue to deny that it practices torture, and its police can continue their brutal harassment of political activists, including, and especially, activists of the February 20 movement.

Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son, is associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.