With Shakira and other top international artists performing in open air venues around Morocco’s capital — often for free — the annual Mawazine world music festival doesn’t at first seem like something anyone could dislike.
Activists from Morocco’s pro-reform February 20 movement, however, tried to get it canceled, describing it as a symptom of the country’s corruption and cronyism.
In the past, religious conservatives have criticized the eight-day extravaganza for being decadent, and last year they were angered that it featured openly gay performer Elton John. This year, however, the attacks are coming from Facebook-savvy youth who would normally be found in the audience of such celebrations of international music.
"The struggle against the Mawazine is the struggle for democracy," said Rachid El-Belghiti, a freelance journalist heading the National Campaign to Cancel the Mawazine, a Facebook group with more than 30,000 members.
He’s using online organizing much the way protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt did in uprisings earlier this year that overthrew longtime authoritarian presidents and sparked protests around the Arab world.
"I love Shakira, I have no problem with Shakira — she gave $400,000 for a school in Haiti — but there are serious education problems here," he said. Colombian superstar Shakira closed the festival Saturday night.
He said the millions of dollars raised for the festival, which come from the public and private sector, should have gone toward education and development — or even other festivals outside the capital.
The festival is put on by the nonprofit Maroc-Cultures association and paid for by corporate sponsors.
Maroc-Cultures, however, is run by Mounir El Majidi, a close confidant of the king, and many of the sponsors, such as Maroc Telecom and the national airline, are at least partly owned by the state. Critics say the festival underlines how intertwined the royal palace remains in Morocco’s economy.
"We just think it’s a waste of money, it could be invested in more constructive projects," said young activist Zineb Belmkaddem, a teacher at a local American school. "Presenting Kanye West and Shakira for free is ridiculous in a country with so much poverty."
According to Abbas Azzouzi, a member of the festival’s organizing committee, the event cost around $7.8 million — a hefty price tag in a country lacking the oil of its North African neighbors and with at least 30 percent unemployment, especially among urban youth.
Protesters against the festival gathered last week in downtown Rabat before they were dispersed by truncheon-wielding policemen.
The festival comes at a delicate time for the February 20 movement, which through demonstrations around the country pushed Morocco’s all-powerful king, Mohammed VI, to start a process of constitutional reform.
The movement, however, has refused to meet with the committee deliberating the new constitutional amendments, because that committee was appointed by the king, and now they risk being left out a reform process expected to stretch through the summer.
Unlike the movements elsewhere in the Arab world that helped inspire it, February 20 is not calling for the departure of the country’s leader, but rather Morocco’s transformation into a constitutional monarchy.
Lacking a cohesive leadership, however, the movement has said little beyond calling for reform and social justice and has had some of the air taken out of its sails by the king’s own initiative.
The regime also appears to have adopted a new zero-tolerance policy toward the movement’s demonstrations and attempts over the past week to rally around the country have been quickly and violently suppressed.
The Mawazine festival began 10 years ago as an opportunity to expose people to music from around the world. But under El Majidi’s tutelage it turned into a mega-production featuring international stars at hefty price tags.
Kanye West, Cat Stevens, Earth Wind and Fire, Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones starred in this year’s festival.
The eight venues around town also feature the cream of Arab pop stars, including the soulful Iraqi crooner Kadhem Al-Saher and Egyptian megastar Amr Diab, as well as several big African acts.
"That’s what Morocco is, its roots are Arab with influences of Africa and links to the West," said festival organizer Azzouzi. "That’s what we want to express through the festival."
He explained that with artists from 60 different countries, the festival’s creed as always been to promote values of diversity, exchange and cultural tolerance, and this year’s 10th anniversary show is the biggest yet.
In the wake of the April 28 bombing at a Marrakech cafe that killed 17, many of the them foreigners, it was even more important to keep the festival going.
"(The cancellation) is what those people, the terrorists are looking for, this has never been considered," he said.
By all accounts, the festival is popular, especially with a certain number of seats kept free at every venue. Azzouzi said 2.2 million are expected to attend with another 16 million Moroccans, in a country of just 30 million, watching it on television.
Activists say that private and public corporations are pressured into donating to a festival under the king’s patronage. Azzouzi dismissed these allegations, explaining that corporate sponsorship of the arts is mutually beneficial and involves no coercion.
The flavor of what the festival first set out to be can be seen at the world music stage, set in a beautifully preserved medieval fortress on the edge of town overlooking a river. The intimate setting of less than a 100 seats features bands from Colombia, South Africa and Iran playing traditional music while overhead soar the castle’s resident population of storks.