Argument

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.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

One Step Forward

By acknowledging that interests and values sometimes contradict, President Obama has cleared the path for progress in the Middle East.

President Obama's Middle East speech couldn't possibly have -- and almost certainly didn't -- please all of its potential audiences. His comments, however, were refreshingly honest in acknowledging the limitations of American power and influence and even broke new ground on a number of important subjects.

Obama returned to the theme that characterized his last major Middle East policy speech, on the Libyan intervention: the intersection, and often tension, between American interests and values. He wisely chose not to proffer a facile panacea that would almost certainly have proven unworkable.

Obama was strikingly frank in acknowledging that many Arabs feel the United States has pursued its interests "at their expense." And he bluntly stated that "there will be times when our short-term interests do not align perfectly with our long-term vision of the region," recognizing that there is no clear and consistent formula for resolving the ongoing contradictions between U.S. values and the aspirations of Arab peoples with some of Washington's interests and alliances that are still considered indispensable.

Perhaps the most important change in tone in this regard was on Bahrain, where Obama condemned the crackdown in much stronger terms than the United States has to date. He called for dialogue but noted "you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail." Even more striking, he compared the persecution of Copts in Egypt with that of Shiites in Bahrain, a stronger statement than anyone had anticipated. His remarks implicitly recognized the limitations of American influence with its own allies.

This statement is unlikely to be welcomed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members, whose perceptions have become increasingly at odds with new American approaches to the Arab world, particularly when the Obama administration urged the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak over vociferous Saudi objections. Nonetheless, as the Associated Press reported today, despite these disagreements, U.S.-Saudi defense cooperation is expanding, including the creation of a new "facilities security force" to protect petroleum and other key installations in the kingdom.

Obama's promise of debt forgiveness to Egypt and expanded trade and development programs across the region will be broadly welcomed, as will his commitment to work with Arab reformers and civil-society groups seeking change. In most cases, including Syria, he stopped short of calling for regime change, but suggested that Bashar al-Assad has to either reform or "get out of the way," again the strongest U.S. statement thus far.

On the most sensitive subject of all, Palestine, Obama reiterated familiar U.S. policies in support of a two-state solution and criticized Israeli settlement building. This is noteworthy since the Israeli government just announced major new settlement expansion projects in extremely sensitive areas around occupied East Jerusalem, the continuation of a pattern of such announcements timed to coincide with major meetings with American officials.

Obama bluntly stated that the continuation of Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation." At the same time, he warned Palestinians against efforts to delegitimize Israel and correctly pointed out that symbolic measures in the United Nations would not create a Palestinian state. Obama's invocation of the 1967 borders recalls President George W. Bush's 2005 statement that any changes to the 1949 Armistice lines would have to be agreed by both parties. Obama insisted that "Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state," and suggested that the issues of borders and security should be dealt with first, and that such understandings would be the basis for progress on other permanent status issues. Neither side seems fully comfortable with such an approach.

Significantly, Obama did not close the door on working with a new Palestinian unity government, saying that the Fatah-Hamas agreement raised "profound and legitimate questions" for which Palestinians will have to provide "a credible answer." This is a far cry from Israel's blanket rejection of anything springing from the agreement, although it places the onus on the new Palestinian government to satisfy American and international expectations on its commitment to peace with Israel and the rejection of violence.

In essence, the vision of peace Obama reiterated was nothing particularly new for American policy, but it was considerably at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent speech at the Knesset. Netanyahu demanded as a prerequisite that Palestinians recognize Israel as "the nation state of the Jewish people," implying transhistorical and metaphysical national rights in this territory for all Jews around the world, whether or not they are Israelis. He virtually ruled out any compromise on Jerusalem, spoke of annexing settlement blocs and insisted on a "long-term IDF presence along the Jordan River," ideas that are clearly at odds with Obama's vision of a "sovereign and contiguous [Palestinian] state."

The most important message Obama communicated on Palestine is that he believes a peace agreement is "more urgent than ever," suggesting that in spite of the growing complications and the looming presidential election of 2012, his administration will continue to look for opportunities for progress.

There was a great deal to both please and annoy almost all concerned parties, and Netanyahu has already signaled his displeasure with the 1967 lines. But it was not a bad step forward: Within the constraints of U.S. interests and the limitations of its power, Obama offered a number of important commitments that can, in fact, be fulfilled, and that help to place the United States more on the side of the aspirations of the Arab peoples than it ever has been in the past.