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.