Activists Attack Moroccan Fest

A Moroccan festival aimed at giving locals the chance to see top international artists free of charge has come under attack from activists inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

The pro-reform February 20 movement, which is trying to push King Mohammed VI toward constitutional reform, reckons the eight-day Mawazine world music festival is a symptom of the country’s “corruption and cronyism.”

It’s not the first time the event has come under fire, as last year religious conservatives criticized it for being decadent for featuring openly gay performer Elton John.

This year’s Mawazine has come at an awkward time for the February 20 movement, which takes its name from the date it first convinced tens of thousands of Moroccans to protest in the streets. The king stole its thunder when promising electoral reform in a speech he made March 9.

The group is carrying on with its online protests and street gatherings and the venom of its attack on the festival is based on the premise that the millions of dollars it cost should have gone toward education and development.

It believes the reported $7.8 million outlay, which came from corporate sponsors, is a hefty price tag in a country lacking the oil of its North African neighbours and with at least 30 percent unemployment, especially among urban youth.

“We just think it’s a waste of money. It could be invested in more constructive projects,” explained local schoolteacher Zineb Belmkaddem. “Presenting Kanye West and Shakira for free is ridiculous in a country with so much poverty.”

“The struggle against the Mawazine is the struggle for democracy,” said Rachid el-Belghiti, a freelance journalist who heads the National Campaign to Cancel the Mawazine, a Facebook group with more than 30,000 members.

There is suspicion that the Internet campaign is actually aimed at toppling King Mohammed, in the same way that Egypt and Tunisia overthrew their leaders, largely because he’s taken to sending in truncheon-wielding policemen to break up the street protests.

Charges of cronyism relate to the fact the sponsors, which include Maroc Telecom and the national airline, are at least partly owned by the state.

The Moroccan royal family is also closely associated with the festival and Mounir El Majidi of the nonprofit Maroc-Cultures association, a close confidant of the king, runs the event.

Critics say the festival underlines how intertwined the royal palace remains in Morocco’s economy.

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.

The acts appearing at Mawazine May 20-28 included Kanye West, Cat Stevens, Earth Wind and Fire, Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones, Joe Cocker, Yusuf Islam and Sugababes.

The event uses eight venues around Rabat, the Morrocan capital, and also features the cream of Arab pop stars.