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Lost in the Debate: Beyond Dominant Narratives on the Western Sahara Roundtable

[Image of Sahrawi women protesting against Moroccan policies in the Western Sahara. Image from Saharauiak/Flickr.] [Image of Sahrawi women protesting against Moroccan policies in the Western Sahara. Image from Saharauiak/Flickr.]

[This is one of seven pieces in Jadaliyya's electronic roundtable on the Western Sahara. Moderated by Samia Errazzouki and Allison L. McManus, it features contributions from John P. EntelisStephen ZunesAboubakr Jamaï, Ali AnouzlaAllison L. McManusSamia Errazzouki, and Andrew McConnell.]

Following the French military intervention in Mali earlier this year in January, and the hostage crisis in Algeria that soon followed, major world powers briefly oriented their regional focus towards the Maghreb and Sahel regions. In the midst of the escalating conflict in Mali, pundits pointed to Morocco’s geopolitical position as an ally of France and the United States for a source of stability in the Maghreb and its neighboring regions. For example, in an op-ed in the New York Times, Anouar Boukhars argued, “Morocco has the will, the influence and the capability to contribute to conflict resolution in the region.” Conveniently omitted from this argument is Morocco’s role in one of Africa’s longest lasting territorial disputes: that of the Western Sahara. Additionally, in light of the United Nations Security Council vote on the renewal of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), there has been a revival of the debate on the Western Sahara. 

The Western Saharan conflict is arguably one of the world’s most overlooked territorial disputes. Western Sahara itself was drawn up by France and Spain during the era of colonialism, and then left to Morocco and Mauritania immediately following Spain’s withdrawal from the territory. Each of these states have laid claim to the territory at some point since its founding.

Yet while colonialism produced the conflict, and it is that colonial legacy that continues to shape the conflict, it was during the Cold War that the conflict grew more polarized and violent. In the early 1970s, Morocco—an ally of the United States—squared-off against the Cuban-Algerian-Libyan backed Polisario Front, a national liberation rebel group fighting for an independent Western Sahara, which was indirectly armed by the Soviet Union. The Polisario Front initially began as a student group comprised of Sahrawis living in Morocco with the objective of fighting for the Western Sahara’s independence from Spain, which took place in 1975. 

King Hassan II of Morocco understood well the dynamics of the Cold War logic driving US foreign policy decision-making. This would begin to mark the nature in which the conflict would be discussed and used for political means. The inclusion of global players, whether indirectly or directly providing arms and aid, shifted the nature of the conflict from a regional territorial dispute to a global proxy war. Hassan II used the Cold War rhetoric to his advantage when appealing to the United States for military and financial support against the Polisario Front, successfully convincing the Reagan administration that the Western Saharan conflict was a “Cold War conflict.” As the conflict escalated and grew increasingly violent, the influx of refugees in the Algerian-based Tindouf refugee camp created a dire humanitarian situation that lasts until today—an aspect of the conflict that remains neglected by both sides in this debate.

Following 2001, the debate surrounding the Western Saharan conflict has moved away from the old Cold War framework and has been refashioned to fit the rhetoric associated with the “War on Terror.” On numerous occasions, supporters of Moroccan claims to the territory have drawn explicit links between the conflict, the Polisario Front, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In a 2009 letter addressed to President Barack Obama and signed by over two hundred Congressional representatives, House members argued that the “single greatest obstacle impeding the security cooperation necessary to combat” AQIM is the Western Saharan conflict. More broadly, claims without much detail or explanation regarding “the curious relationships between the Polisario Front and AQIM” have become rampant. Within roughly thirty years, the Polisario Front has gone from being a Soviet-ally and “communist separatist group” to a friend of an Al Qaeda affiliate. The unsupported claim of the Polisario’s affiliation with AQIM has largely been pushed forth by the Moroccan regime through its lobbying arms in Washington, namely the Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP). 

Moroccan law has gone as far as integrating the Western Saharan debate into its constitution, whereby any criticisms of its policies towards the Western Sahara can be easily interpreted as a threat to its “territorial integrity,” as a means of stifling opposition to its brutal policies in the territory. A main source of contention since the 1991 ceasefire between the Moroccan regime and the Polisario Front has been the issue of the referendum. During the buildup of the conflict, Morocco’s expansion into the Western Sahara territory grew, as did the presence of Moroccans not indigenous to the territory. The Moroccan side of the conflict lobbied for allowing these Moroccans not native to the Western Sahara to participate in the referendum, whereas the Polisario Front explicitly opposed this measure. The initial conditions of the referendum stated that identification would be based on a 1974 census from under Spanish colonization. As a result, the referendum has yet to take place. While the presence of natural resources, namely fisheries and phosphates, in the Western Sahara has been a topic of discussion, the current regime’s policies towards the Western Sahara can be best described as the inheritance of policies from the previous regime under Hassan II's reign.

Forces from outside the regime's hold have increasingly shaped Morocco's policies. Recently, for example, the United States announced its position in support of broadening the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to include human rights monitoring, a measure that the Moroccan regime has staunchly opposed for years. In response to the United States’ position, Morocco canceled its annual military exercises carried out jointly with the U.S. military. Moreover, according to reports, France has no intention to veto any measures pushed forth by the United States, a heavy blow to Morocco's confidence heading into the vote to renew MINURSO. By broadening MINURSO to include the monitoring of human rights, it poses a threat to Morocco's polarizing narrative that has so often relied on narratives of "preventing the spread of communism" or "fighting terrorism" to incite fear and rally support from major world powers. 

Even in light of Morocco's aggressive policies, the other side of the debate has not always been honest. The manipulation of information abounds, recently in an incident in which a photograph taken in Gaza was miscaptioned and printed in multiple Spanish publications claiming it was taken in Laayoune, Western Sahara’s largest city. Moroccan state media seized the incident as an opportunity to discredit its political opponents abroad and dealt a heavy blow to the credibility of Spanish media, which has generally been sympathetic to the Polisario’s goals and objectives.  

Through these instances and others, the discussion and debate surrounding the Western Saharan conflict has become severely skewed and misrepresented across the board. The Sahrawis, especially refugees who are living in deplorable conditions, have been forced to pay the cost of this debate that continues to ignore them and their struggle for dignity and self-determination. The Sahrawi population is not limited to the Tindouf camp alone, but exists beyond the camp into the territory, and in parts of Morocco as well. The largest percentage of Sahrawis lives in the Tindouf camp, making up over one hundred fifty thousand and are Algeria’s biggest demographic of refugees. While their struggle for self-determination is an underlying goal that unites Sahrawis, their views toward the Polisario Front are far more fragmented. While Morocco is undoubtedly the more powerful in this equation, the Polisario’s power has grown as the conflict has stretched out over decades, a result of strategic alliances with Algeria, Cuba, and other countries. Following the years of independence from Spain and when the Polisario gained more influence in the territory, as a governing party, it did not shy away from practices of nepotism based on familial and tribal ties. A Sahrawi who wishes to remain anonymous explained how these ties have an impact on even the most basic needs of Sahrawis not involved in the circles close to the central Polisario authority. Simply the task of getting a form of identification, for example, becomes an obstacle for Sahrawi refugees, whereas those who benefit from their close relationship with Polisario members have the privilege of multiple citizenships, which significantly eases travel restrictions. There is also the general belief among the younger generation of Sahrawis who view the Polisario as an entity that has benefited both politically and economically from the conflict. The Sahrawi argues, “Ending the conflict is not in their [Polisario’s] agenda or interest. As a Sahrawi, I do not believe that the Polisario care about the rest of our population, and such views are shared by many young Sahrawis in both the refugee camps and abroad.”

Despite evidence detailing the dire humanitarian situation on the ground, the discussion about Western Sahara continues to be diverted elsewhere. In August of last year, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights documented its trip to the territory. In a post written for Huffington Post, the Center’s president Kerry Kennedy provided a detailed account along with images of a Moroccan officer beating a Sahrawi woman, Soukaina Jed Ahlou, who had been peacefully protesting. In the article, the images provided show the woman protesting, and in another, she is shown lying down with a bloodied face. In numerous articles published in Moroccan press, the center’s neutrality on the conflict was challenged and there were even theories and speculations as to who truly funds the center. One article argued, “RFK Center Kerry [K]ennedy Champions Western Sahara Separatists Position;” another claimed, “Kerry Kennedy’s ‘pro-Polisario’ positions are ‘known;’” Moroccan state media stated that “the Kennedy Center delegation was keen to meet the [P]olisario puppets.” In no instance was the simple fact that the delegation documented the brutalization of Soukaina Jed Ahlou even mentioned. It was as if the images of her bloodied face were entirely non-existent or that they were somehow less significant than the business of contriving theories for partisan gain. The message could not be clearer--politics matter, not the abuse of civilians in Western Sahara.

Morocco has historically received multi-million dollar military and financial aid packages, especially from Saudi Arabia, to combat the Polisario Front. Given Saudi Arabia’s position in alliance with the United States, starting from the 1970s, Saudi Arabia started sending Morocco an annual allowance detailed specifically as funds for “anti-Polisario activities.” On the other side, Algeria’s support of the Polisario Front has more or less remained consistent since the beginning of the conflict, unlike Gaddafi’s regime, which slowly backed away from its staunch support of the Polisario. And given Morocco’s amicable alliances with other Arab governments, especially with the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, no Arab governments have directly challenged Morocco’s claims.

However that has changed in the past few years, especially in the context of the ongoing crisis in Syria, the discussion on the conflict has been revived in the spirit of political manipulation. Morocco has steadfastly expressed opposition to the Syrian regime, whether by hosting regional meetings or by expelling the Syrian ambassador to Rabat, Nabih Ismail. In response, a video was circulated on YouTube showing the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, addressing Morocco by asking, “Do you want us to open up the case of the Western Sahara?” Ja’afari goes on to bring attention to “the people of the Western Sahara demanding their rights.” Perhaps sensing that a Syrian government official is hardly in any moral position to advocate for human rights, the Polisario Front’s mouthpiece, the Sahara Press Service, did not publish any press release or comment regarding the Syrian official’s support. That did not stop the Moroccan press, however, from interpreting the statement as “Bashar Al Assad embracing Western Saharan separatists.” Regardless, it is very clear that as in previous instances, starting from the Cold War, through the “War on Terror,” and now in light of the uprisings in the region, the Western Saharan conflict is being invoked not out of any genuine concern for the welfare of the Sahrawi people, but instead to score political points in a crisis thousands of miles away.

There is a need for greater international attention to the Western Saharan conflict, and more particularly the abuses suffered by the Sahrawi people. Even in instances where the platform is provided, such as the recent World Social Forum in Tunisia, where the Moroccan delegation verbally and physically intimidated Sahrawi activists, the focus centers on the political confrontation between the two sides rather than the greater struggle for self-determination. Tragically, what little attention it does receive is all too often intended only to smear political parties or peddle propaganda, leaving the muffled voices in the territory to bear the terrible cost of neglect. Finding resolution to the Western Sahara crisis demands deviating from the dominant narrative propagated by the regional powers that be, which has come to shape policy, and ensuring that the voices of Sahrawis are not only included in the discussion of their future, but become the central voice in this debate.

[An earlier version of this article was published on the National.]

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