As a rule, this blogger tries to comment on the Western Sahara only minimally, mostly for lack of deep personal interest and partly because of its contentious nature. And yet it is a key issue in regional politics and is all too often neglected in the popular mind outside of the region — even as tensions and worrying trends seem to rise — as the Arabist noted last week.
The following is a guest post by Alle, a long-time friend of the blog, comments haunt and veteran Sahara watcher of Western Sahara Info and Maghreb Politics Review fame (both now defunct). He prepared this quick (though not short) analysis for TMND. The views below are his alone.
As Maghreb-watchers reading this blog are undoubtedly aware, the past few days in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara have been violent.
A protest camp of traditional Sahrawi tents was recently set up in Gdeim Izzeik outside the region’s capital, El Aaiun, and it quickly filled up with Sahrawi families. The most recent estimates was that some 12,000 people from El Aaiun and neighbouring communities had relocated there. This is a big protest by any measure, and particularly given the form chosen: not a one-off demonstration, but a commitment to live for weeks in the desert. Also, huge, given the small size of the Sahrawi population in the territory, of some 200,000 people (including more Moroccan Sahrawi immigrants). And all this in a territory were the mere hint of even peaceful political dissent could land a Sahrawi in jail or worse.
Interestingly, the demands of the protesters were not overtly political. Rather, the organizers focused on economic demands, such as jobs and investment in the territory, and appear to have kept their distance from overtly pro-POLISARIO forces. Even so, POLISARIO has persistently tried to paint the protests as being mainly about independence, in its international propaganda. But, on the ground, the group seems to have settled for supporting the movement, on the argument that it’s better to try and use and influence this impressive popular mobilization than spend their energy trying to control it.
It’s easy to see why. While the thrust of the protest was about economical demands, there was also clearly an undercurrent of nationalism – asking for Sahrawi natural resources to be directed to the Sahara rather than Morocco is not an innocent proposition in this conflict. And as the weeks went by, the self-conscious affirmation of Sahrawi national identity in a state of semi-rebellion against the Moroccan army, obviously began to take on a political importance of its own.
While there were no Sahrawi flags flying over the camps, neither were there Moroccan flags. Had these protests been as non-political as Morocco claims, red-green flags and pictures of the king would have been displayed everywhere to ward off the evil eye of the authorities. That was not the case, in what should be considered a rather significant statement by omission.
It was after the king’s speech on the anniversary of the Green March that police started readying for an assault on the camp, which had previously been surrounded by military units and road blocks to prevent access. A fourteen year-old Sahrawi kid had already been shot to death, in what may have been an attempt to run the roadblocks. Now, on November 8, the camps were invaded by police.
Sahrawi activists have always been surprisingly Internet-savvy, and there are already some dramatic videos up on YouTube.
The raid appears to have immediately triggered resistance, and swiftly spread to neighbouring el-Aaiun. In a first for Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara’s social and political protest movement, violence immediately became lethal. During the past 24 hours, three Moroccan police and civil defense men have been stabbed to death, while numerous Moroccans and Sahrawis have been injured – conflicting figures circulate about Sahrawi deaths as well. At least one dead Sahrawi has been named by POLISARIO, but Morocco denies it.
It’s much too early, and I’m much too far away, to analyze this in any serious fashion, but I believe a few things should be said:
This is without a doubt a very significant moment for Sahrawi nationalism. Exactly how things will play out remains to be seen, but the violent nature of the crackdown and the protests, and the scale of public protest, is unprecedented. I believe this will become as significant an internal turning point for Sahrawi nationalism as the May 2005 Sahrawi “intifada” in el-Aaiun. While that event passed unnoticed in the larger world, it was the starting point of the recurrent Sahrawi protests and human rights lobbying that has since dominated the nationalist side of the argument, and it has seriously affected the parameters of the conflict.
The 2005 events were also vitally important in changing Morocco’s own perspective. Civil society and the press began to open up to the Sahrawi argument and the old line that Sahrawi dissent is entirely artificial, and all protesters are paid agents of Algeria, was discredited. It was with an eye to the 2005 protests that Morocco began developing a plan for internal autonomy, in the hope of substituting it for the international community’s demand for a referendum on independence.
In addition, the riots are a damning declaration of non-confidence in the official structures of governance in the territory, in particular the CORCAS, Morocco’s only officially sanctioned political entity for Sahrawis. CORCAS was already widely scorned as a powerless puppet body of corrupt local businessmen and pawns for palace and army interests, but it contained several influential local powerbrokers of Sahrawi or related provenance. The political significance of this should not be understated, since the CORCAS was long portrayed by the palace as the cornerstone of the whole autonomy project. The riots will certainly affect the plans to reform CORCAS (which have been long in the offing).
However, it does seem like the Gdeim Izzeik camp had the backing of at least some local strongmen, inside or outside of CORCAS, tribal or otherwise. It is a possibility that the protests were encouraged by such power brokers who felt that they were losing out in the game of influence, and who wanted to demonstrate their importance by giving or withholding aid to the state as protests spiralled out of hand. Palace-sponsored local leaders, including such people as Khellihenna ould Errachid, Hassan Derham and lots of tribal bosses, have been built up as a counter-force to POLISARIO since 1975, into an overlapping web of clientelist networks exploited by various “clans” within the larger Moroccan state. But of course, at the end of the day, few of these loyalist leaders appear very ideologically committed to anything but their own fortunes and family interests, and it’s entirely possible that they may dabble a little in Sahrawi nationalism if it suits their agenda. Whatever the case, one should realize that Sahrawi politics are a lot more complex and nuanced than either Morocco or POLISARIO will publicly acknowledge, with a multitude of overlapping, fluid and competing loyalties constantly at play.
Finally, one should not underestimate the impact this will have on POLISARIO. The group, while clinging to its cherished status as the internationally recognized representative of the Sahrawis, has been sidelined first by the UN-monitored ceasefire and US/French pressure, and now by the growing autonomous nationalist and anti-Moroccan movement in the territory. The Gdeim Izzeik events are a boon to POLISARIO in that it shows that the current status quo is untenable, and that Sahrawi discontent is mounting – not decreasing. But it also threatens the group’s old leadership, a greying collection of veterans from the days of secular-leftist anticolonial nationalism, by empowering Sahrawi political, tribal, ideological and religious factions outside of their control.
It has already been remarked on by several observers of the conflict that not all nationalists in the territory are affiliated to POLISARIO, and that some are privately very critical of the movement. The main force in the rising Sahrawi nationalist movement inside the territories appears to be this youthful, socioeconomically driven nativist phenomenon, outraged by what it sees as Moroccan cultural invasion, high-handedness and exploitation. The political argument, however, is still structured along the ostentatiously non-tribal, anticolonial line proposed by POLISARIO. In this mix POLISARIO and its exile republic, the RASD, have remained the guiding framework, but events such as those at Gdeim Izzeik may in the long term undermine its near-monopoly on channeling social discontent among Sahrawis. Because, what did POLISARIO actually do during these protests? It propagated their cause, sure, and gave verbal support – but at the end of the day, it couldn’t move from its exile in Algeria, and local leaders were the people who mattered.
If the nationalist movement ultimately spins out of control of the old leadership, that will first and foremost be a disaster to Sahrawi hopes for a nation of their own. Not that the old leaders are much to shout about – old, corrupt, authoritarian, and subservient to Algeria – but without an undisputed center, the movement will almost certainly splinter into exactly the sort of super-fragmented tribal community that Morocco is hoping for. On the other hand, such a development could also help boost the nationalist cause more generally, since even though the RASD is a popular rallying point, many Sahrawis are apparently wary of POLISARIO’s internal stagnation, tribal makeup, and ties to the Algerian regime. The end effect may well be to make the conflict virtually unsolveable due to the competing interests on the nationalist side, while at the same time creating a situation of generalized discontent and street-level militancy rife for outside exploitation by populist, islamist and other groups. That could turn ugly, and the “new” stalemate that would follow is in no one’s interest, not even Morocco’s. It’s one more reason that this conflict needs to be moved towards resolution – even painful resolution – rather than kept boiling until the lid flies off.