Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Beheading the Hydra? Morocco and the Sahrawi Intifada

Since late May, the Moroccan government has been struggling to control an unexpected -- and unprecedented -- native uprising in the section of Western Sahara under its administrative control.

Yesterday Morocco sentenced fourteen key leaders in this movement, handing down sentences ranging from six months to three years. Two of the youngest activists, Aminatou Haidar and Ali Salem Tamek, who have grown up under Moroccan occupation, were given seven and eight month sentences respectively. First generation nationalists and long time human rights activists like Brahim Noumria and Hmed Hamad received longer sentences.

The summer of 2005 saw some of the fiercest resistance to the Moroccan occupation since Rabat marched into the former Spanish colony in October 1975. Like Israel in the West Bank and Gaza, Morocco originally fought an external threat, the Polisario Front, an indigenous Western Saharan independence movement backed by, and based in, Algeria. But now Morocco is facing a full fledged internal 'Intifada' against Morocco's attempted annexation of the territory. Earlier this week Saharan students in primary and secondary schools held demonstrations, unfurling the flag of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, the Polisario's government in exile.

The tensions have led to the beating death of one Saharan youth and, recently, the murder of an elder Saharan at the hands of Moroccan security forces. The later occurred in the town of Tan Tan, a city located in southern Morocco but a traditionally ethnic Sahrawi (Saharan) city.

Indeed, discontent is not limited to the territory of Western Sahara under Moroccan control, but has spread to ethnic Sahrawi areas in Morocco. An ethnic Sahrawi from Morocco, Ali Salem Tamek is the popular face of the new Intifada, which has gained in momentum since exploding into existence in September 1999.

Aminatou Haidar has become a symbol of resistance herself. "Disappeared" by the Moroccan state in 1988, only to reappear in 1991 without redress, Mrs Haidar almost died in August following a harrowing fifty-five day hunger strike.

The Moroccan government's strategy is obviously aimed at decapitating the movement. (Another key leader, Briahim Dahane, is still awaiting trial.) Yet even with the main activists in jail, the demonstrations show no sign of ceasing.

Another possibility is that Morocco is hoping to frustrate the movement so that someone will resort to terrorism. That would give Morocco, , in the eyes of France and the U.S., a blank cheque to arrest thousands, as it did with Islamists following the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca. So far, the Saharan demonstrations have been fairly non-violent, though there are now nightly scuffles between rock throwing Sahrawi youths and baton wielding Moroccan police.

It remains to be seen how the Saharan population will respond to these sentences.

However, if Morocco resorted to massive repression, don't expect the Polisario to sit quietly in Tindouf.


Sunday, November 20, 2005

Peace and POWs: Obscuring the Western Sahara Issue with A Flock of Red Herrings

"I will have liked to die in Tindouf!"
-Corporal Abdeslam Roubal, former Moroccan POW held by the Polisario for 19 years in Tindouf
This past week, the US congress held a hearing on the Western Sahara conflict, its first in over five years. Witnesses ranged from a deputy at the State Department, to the former head of the UN’s Sahara mission, to a noted British observer of the conflict, to a right-wing critic of the botched UN referendum cum peace process.

Another witnesses was a former Moroccan POW, whose presence was an obvious concession to the pro-Moroccan representatives on the convening International Relations Subcommittee on Africa. For example, Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, co-chairman of the congressional Morocco caucus. Diaz-Balart's prepared statement simply reminded the Committee of Morocco’s close relations with the US and the Polisario’s ties with the “tyrants” like Mu‘amar Qadhdhafi and Fidel Castro. No surprise, Diaz-Balart is a republican from Florida. I’m just surprised he didn’t mention the Polisario’s cozy relations with Hugo Chavez.

Rather than focus on how to find a solution, which the hearing’s title implied, "Getting to 'Yes'," referencing an influential book on conflict resolution, Diaz-Balart felt it better to spend his time trying to de-legitimize one of the parties to the conflict -- the Polisario. How this kind of partisanship will advance peace is in the region is beyond me. It only obscures the central issue and makes it harder for policymakers and policy-influencers to make clear choices.

This shouldn’t be surprising though. Morocco’s strategy on the Hill is to undermine the hard won bipartisan support Polisario Front – the Western Saharan liberation movement – has gained over the years: partially due to the fact that their cause speaks for itself, but also due in large parts to the charisma and tireless legwork of Front’s Washington-based representative. To counter this, Morocco has spent millions on direct advertising, funded its own “think-tank” of fomer US diplomats (the Moroccan-American Committee for Policy), and hired at least five of the most powerful lobbying firms on K Street, including the Livingston Group.

One of the persons reportedly coordinating Morocco’s attacks on Polisario is the infamous Lauri J. Fitz-Pegado, the woman who helped concoct the whole Iraqi-soldiers-killing-Kuwaiti-babies story in 1990. Apparently, she was behind a September delegation of Polisario defectors who came to the US to lobby against the Polisario’s student exchange programs with Cuba. Their main claim is that Algerian and the Polisario force Saharan children from the refugee camps under Polisario control in Algeria to study in Cuba, where they receive “political indoctrination” and little else. A Saharan father-daughter team, reportedly foribly separated for years while the latter was in Cuba against her will, toured the Hill and, of course, went to Miami. Having met many Saharan students who have returned from 10 or more years in Cuba, I can say that their only complaint is that life in the refugee camps is far less interesting than their days and nights in Havana. And at least they come back with a skill they can use, something they can't get in the camps.

Another thing worth pointing out is that most of the former Polisario members who defect to Morocco will be compensated greatly if they choose to “speak out” against their former comrades, even if it means lying. Otherwise, they face the grim job prospects faced by all other Moroccans – except that the only thing they can put on their resume is “former separatist.” Any journalist with half a brain could easily find out that Morocco’s propaganda campaigns are as choreographed for right-wing consumption as they are highly deceptive. That should tell you something about the kind of journalists they have at Miami Herald.

However, the most ridiculous claim that Morocco has put forward is that the 100,000 or so refugees under Polisario supervision near Tindouf, Algeria, are prisoners against their own will. This has even been suggested in Washington, and it is starting to come up more and more often in the press. There's even a "civil society" movement in Morocco to "free" the refugees. It is probably important for the Moroccans to believe that the majority of the refugees that have lived for 30 years in exile would actually rather live under Moroccan occupation. But then why did over 90 percent tell the UNHCR in 1997 that they would rather vote for self-determination under Polisario-supervision than under Moroccan-supervision?

A Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabret went to Tindouf and reported the truth of the matter: the camps are relatively peaceful and places of free association, expression and assembly. For that, a Moroccan court tried him in abstentia and stripped him of his right to practice journalism.

In the now 30 year old history of the Western Sahara conflict, few issues have worked in Rabat's favor as much as the Polisario's egregious detention of hundreds of Moroccan POWs past the 1991 cease-fire. The Polisario finally released the last 400 of these POWs this summer under the aegis of US Senator Richard Lugar, who agreed to oversee their release as a sign of the US government’s commitment to the Polisario-Moroccan peace process and Moroccan-Algerian reconciliation. As a reciprocal sign of Rabat’s “goodwill,” repression of Saharans living under Moroccan control in the occupied Western Sahara was ramped up, which now includes the public death-by-beating of a young Saharan demonstrator earlier this month.

As is often noted, the Polisario captured over 2,000 Moroccan POWs during the long war over the territory, 1975-1991. Some captured as early as 1976, they were held in conditions far less than adequate for POWs. Reputable human rights organizations have echoed claims by former prisoners that they were subject to torture, forced labor and extra-judicial execution. In 2003, the French NGO France Liberties released a damning report on the POWs that accused Algeria and the Polisario of some of the worst acts of brutality imaginable. The report, however, was so riddled with a priori falsehoods, that it was hard to take seriously as a respectable human rights report.

For a time, Morocco was the biggest obstacle to the release of the POWs. In the early-1990s, the Polisario released dozens of the most elderly and infirm prisoners, yet Rabat refused to accept them. Indeed, Morocco had long denied their existence of the POWs to its own population. That group of POWs had to be forcefully repatriated to Morocco by an Argentine and US diplomat in the mid-1990s.

Earlier this year, the Polisario came under significant pressure to release the POWs when former Senator John McCain held a press conference expressing his outrage at the continued detention of the Moroccan POWs by the Polisario. As a high profile senator and former POW, McCain helped bring an end to this sad state of affairs. For his service to the Moroccan regime, McCain – along with Diaz-Balart – was conferred a special title as a “commander” by the ‘Alawi monarchy on November 9. Though one wonders if anyone bothered to tell him that Morocco has never come clean on its own Saharan POWs, or the 500 Saharan civilians still considered “disappeared” by Morocco.

One also wonders if McCain will follow up with the Moroccan government on the treatment of most of the POWs since returning to Morocco. A select few lobby Washington – e.g., those who received training at US military bases in the 1970s and 1980s and therefore speak flawless English. The rest are kept under tight control by the state and there are complaints of neglect.

As recently reported by a Moroccan magazine, Tel Quel, one former POW said he’d rather have died in Tindouf:
Tel Quel October 9, 2005
Armée. “J’aurai aimé mourir à Tindouf !”

Un septième militaire marocain libéré par le POLISARIO vient de décéder dans l’indifférence à l’hôpital militaire de Rabat, victime d’un cancer. "Sa femme s’est remariée, sa famille l’a ignoré et surtout l’état marocain qu’il n’a pas arrêté d’interpeller pour lui venir en aide faisait la sourde oreille", nous rapporte un membre de l’association des martyrs et disparus du Sahara. Le caporal Abdeslam Roubal, qui a été relâché en 2000 après 19 ans d’incarcération, jusqu’à son dernier souffle répétait sur son lit de mort: "J’aurai préféré finir mes jours sous une tente à Tindouf."
The problem with standing up for principle, Senator McCain, is that it is rather unprincipled not to defend that principle in all cases, at all times.


Saturday, November 19, 2005

Interesting bits of history to get you started - #2

The Guardian's Ian Black offered a thorough summary of the history of the Western Sahara conflict last week, well worth reading. It's mostly on target except there are a few problems:
".. November 1975, when King Hassan of Morocco launched his famous Green March to occupy the gravel desert that had been evacuated by Spain after nearly a century [of colonialism] ..."
Not quite right. The Green March was launched precisely to drive Spain out. Faced with the prospect of having to kill riled up Moroccan civilians bent on a jingoist "jihad" (Hassan's word) in November 1975, Madrid opted to abandon the territory to King Hassan. Spain didn't formally leave until February 1976.
"But some 150,000 refugees, including those who fled the 1975 invasion and their descendants, remain to this day in grim refugee camps at Tindouf..."
That's the official number -- provided by Algeria. The real number is probably closer to 90,000, maybe as high as 110,000, but not much more. Only 40,000 persons from the refugee camps qualified to vote in the referendum, so either 3/4 of the population was less than 18 years old in 1994 or Algeria and Polisario have been inflating the numbers. Both have refused to hold a census in the camps and the UN World Food Program has unilaterally cut the aid from 155,000 persons to 90,000 recently without providing justification for the reduction.
"In 2003 a UN plan proposed to give the Sahara autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty pending a referendum, a position which Polisario reluctantly accepted even though it fell far short of its demand for full independence. Morocco rejected the plan.
Intense haggling over precisely who is eligible to vote underlines the view that Morocco cannot risk a free vote it knows it would lose."
Morocco officially rejected the 2003 Baker plan because it contained the option of independence after the 5 year autonomy period, saying that its 'territorial integrity' will not be put to a vote. (The Polisario and Algeria, on the other hand, reject anything that doesn't contain an independence option, which they claim is a part of self-determination.) Under the 2003 Baker plan, the majority Moroccan settlers (120,000 versus 110,000 indigenous Saharans) would be allowed to vote, which should have resolved the 'voter eligibility' issues for Morocco. So Morocco's real problem is that it doesn't even trust its own settlers to vote for integration. In a country where at least 75% of the population wants to emigrate, Rabat's fears are probably well founded.


P.S. Here's a letter from the UK-based Western Sahara Campaign in the Guardian in response to Black's article:
"End this neglected injustice: More international pressure must be put on Morocco over its occupation of the Western Sahara, says Carne Ross"

Friday, November 18, 2005

Interesting bits of history to get you started - #1

Editor Benchemsi and friends at the embattled Moroccan magazine Tel Quel have, once again, challenged the national master narrative of Morocco in the Sahara. Not 100% historically correct, but quite interesting, especially given the significant timing around the anniversary of the Green March.

La vérité sur la Marche Verte: Dans les faits, les 350 000 personnes n’ont pas toutes marché sur le Sahara, la majorité sont restées dans les campements. "Tel Quel" (11 November 2005)