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.