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The Cost of Authoritarianism: Beyond Dominant Narratives on the Western Sahara Roundtable

[In this photo released by the Moroccan Royal Palace Morocco's King Mohammed VI right talks with Ahmeddou Ould Souilem Minister of the Presidency former member of the Polisario Front rebel movement, left, as Morocco's Interior Minister Chakib Ben Moussa, center, looks on at the Marchane Palace in Tangiers Thursday, 30 July 2009, on the occasion of the king's tenth anniversary accession to the throne. Image by AP Photo/Royal Palace/HO.] [In this photo released by the Moroccan Royal Palace Morocco's King Mohammed VI right talks with Ahmeddou Ould Souilem Minister of the Presidency former member of the Polisario Front rebel movement, left, as Morocco's Interior Minister Chakib Ben Moussa, center, looks on at the Marchane Palace in Tangiers Thursday, 30 July 2009, on the occasion of the king's tenth anniversary accession to the throne. Image by AP Photo/Royal Palace/HO.]

[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.]

The Moroccan regime's reaction and that of its supporters’ to the United States' attempt to extend the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to monitor human rights was predictable and logical—predictable because, as usual, hooliganism was adorned with the mask of patriotism, both in the media and in Parliament. 

The Moroccan regime's reaction was also logical. It felt betrayed—betrayed by an ally, for whom the Moroccan intelligence services willingly carried out torture during the so-called "war against terrorism." Morocco offered "blacks sites"—secret prisons—where Moroccan labor was responsible for doing the dirty work of the United States. For its US ally, Morocco was humiliated before the world when it refused to ratify the treaty of the International Criminal Court (after signing it), because the Bush administration did not want it to. 

Moreover, it is a logical reaction for a regime that wants to take advantage of the spotlight that goes with the status of being perceived as a democracy without having to pay the price. The draft resolution would, in a way, have further exposed this lie.

In reaction to this development, Morocco is trying to achieve two goals: to be an international law abiding member of the Concert of Nations while asserting its sovereignty over what the international community calls the Western Sahara. Morocco could have pursued just one of these two objectives: imposing its sovereignty over the disputed territories to the world. It would have refused the United Nations' involvement and, if necessary, responded to any challenge to its claim with force. It would have chosen isolation and autarky. It is useful to state the implications of such approach as the jingoistic tone of the national debate suggests that we, Moroccans, are willing to pay any price in our struggle to preserve the territorial integrity of our country. It is time we start having an idea of what these costs entail. It is precisely because the Moroccan authorities are aware of the consequences of a rejection of international mediation that they are trying to achieve two goals simultaneously: sovereignty over the Sahara and integration into the international community.

How are these goals being pursued? Incompetently. The recent history of the conflict is littered with tactical failures. But graver still is Morocco’s strategic incoherence. 

The hypocrisy of the expulsion of Aminatou Haidar, the Gdeim Izik fiasco where the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) and Istiqlal took turns fanning the fire, and more recently, the panicked calls for the dismissal of United Nations envoy to the Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, belong to the first category. Politely stated, these are tactical failures. Speaking more bluntly, these moves reflect an unfathomable stupidity. What they have in common is that the palace or its allies initiated these decisions. This is why the PAM secretary general’s, Mustapha Bakkoury, latest proposal to create a national commission chaired by the king to address issues and policies relating to the Sahara, under the pretext that the government has failed, is grotesque hypocrisy. After all, Abdelilah Benkirane and his government had nothing to do with these failures. Yet, Benkirane and his government are complicit at a deeper level. In endorsing an authoritarian institutional system that places the monarchy above any accountability, Benkirane condones the misguided strategies of the royal clan. 

Following the passage of the resolution to extend the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) without adding to its prerogatives Human Rights monitoring as initially requested by the United States, the royal cabinet was quick to issue a press release claiming victory. The obvious goal was to emphasize that it was the palace, not the government, that had thwarted the American initiative. The less obvious goal was deflect attention from a serious failure: How did we get to this point? Why did the United States, a traditional ally, attempt to introduce this resolution in the first place. A rather serious failure because it signifies a strategic defeat.

Numerous international human rights organizations accounts, as well as Juan Mendez’s recent report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, confirm the ongoing impunity of serious human rights violations and exposed the myth that the Moroccan regime has reformed—the myth that the regime has definitively turned the page of human rights violations. The regime believed it could substitute to a real process of democratization alluring few human rights activists tempted by its riches and appoint them at the helm of various commissions. It thought it could do the trick of convincing the international community of its human rights credentials. It also thought that as long as it tortured for the Americans, gave preferential access to its economy to rent seeking French companies, and corrupted the Sahrawi grandes familles, it would have license to do whatever it liked in Western Sahara…and in the rest of Morocco, for that matter. Moral considerations aside, if this was the only way for Moroccan sovereignty in the Sahara to be accepted, then perhaps. But this was not the only way, even though it was certainly the worst.

 

Who still remembers the sizable demonstrations in Laayoune in September 1999, during which neither the flag of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic flag was visible, nor demands for independence? Just over five years later, in May 2005, demonstrations of the same magnitude were held at Laayoune. This time, the demands were clearly for independence. The question is: what happened in the meantime? Or, what did not happen?

After the events of 1999, the king dismissed then interior minister, Driss Basri, under the pretext that the security forces used unjustified force towards the demonstrators. In stride, he announced in his speech commemorating the Green March that he would create a council, the Conseil Royal Consultatif des Affaires Sahariennes (CORCAS), and it would be responsible for the Sahrawis' demands. Additionally, it was announced that the Sahrawi population would elect the council members.

What did the monarchy do afterwards? Nothing. At least not after six years and until the major Sahrawi towns erupted in demonstrations in May 2005. Then under pressure, the king created the CORCA, but with a twist. Its members were not elected, rather, he designated them. What happened from 1999 to 2005 is that promises of a young king, who many believed was willing to democratize the country, were replaced by the renewed authoritarian ethos of a monarchy drunk on power.

The Temara secret detention and torture center, brutal police repression, justice that follows orders, press censorship, and the king’s businessmen gluttonous behavior have turned off a generation of Sahrawis—the generation of Aminatou Haidar, Mohammed Moutawakil, and Ali Salem Tamek. This is the generation that could have subscribed to the “democratic Morocco” project. That was a moment of opportunity for Morocco:  convincing young Sahrawis that their aspirations for liberty and dignity would have better chances to be fulfilled in a democratic Morocco.

The project for autonomy would have made sense. Morocco could have made a case fora choice between a democratic state to which this generation could contribute  and a process for independence that would pit the young democratically-minded Sahrawi generation against the Polisario elites, of whom at least some are still engrossed in a Cold War mentality and under the influence of the Algerian regime.

To make things worse, Morocco’s policy of offering the Sahrawi population exclusive economic support proved to be self-defeating. The majority of Sahrawis benefit from social services, priority access to public sector employment, public investments, and other tax exemptions that have exasperated the less fortunate “northerners.” After Gdeim Izik, when Moroccans saw the horrendous images of an injured police officer being slaughtered by alleged Sahrawi rioter, this resentment was in full display. A sort of uninhibited anti-Sahrawi racism was unleashed in the public debate, further alienating the Sahrawi populations who were depicted as spoiled and ungrateful.  

The withdrawal of MINURSO’s expanded mandate to monitor compliance with human rights has not helped the situation. Added to United Nation’s Juan Mendez’s negative report, it has signaled to Sahrawi activists that Morocco is on watch, even from its staunchest ally. Independentists will be more outspoken because they know Moroccan authorities’ repression will have a cost. In other words, separatist militancy will be, relatively speaking, less costly. The result is something we saw just after the United Nations Security Council’s vote: widespread protests. 

The inclusion of a generation of young Sahrawis—born after the Green March and who attended Moroccan public schools—in the construction of a democratic Morocco should have been Morocco’s greatest boon in settling the issue of the Sahara. Instead, in the absence of credible democratization, this generation has become a formidable adversary.

 

Concretely, these individuals must be allowed to speak freely even when demanding independence. Credible civil society actors must be allowed to increase contacts and build relationships with their peers in the Sahara. We must eradicate the cancer of economic predation. It would send a powerful signal and lend credibility to governance reforms. But this is not possible and would not be credible without a real democratization of the country’s institutions. We missed the turning points of 1999 and 2011. Only the democratization of the country’s institutions will give Morocco a chance to make its sovereignty over the Sahara recognized, and safeguard its territorial integrity.

Morocco has, since the beginning of this affair, relied on the time factor to weaken its opponents. Today, time is working against Morocco’s interests; instead of erasing its mistakes, it magnifies them.  

 

[This article was originally published in French on Lakome.]

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