Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Autonomy? How about a confederation?

Autonomy for Western Sahara is all the rage. Moroccan officials and parties can’t stop lauding King Mohammed VI’s autonomy project. After thirty years of conflict with the Polisario independence movement, Rabat seems to think that it has found the magic wand. Just grant Western Sahara autonomy and all their problems will vanish.

The Moroccan elite seems to think they can solve the Western Sahara dispute unilaterally without having to sweat the little details -- you know, a twenty-year old bilateral peace process with Polisario, self-determination and the right to vote on independence, decolonization, international law and Security Council resolutions and the fait accompli of Western Saharan nationalism.

But Paris and Washington can’t wait to be done with Western Sahara, so they’re happy to encourage Rabat. The other option, coercing Rabat into accepting the international consensus, the 2003 Baker Plan, is not an option. When it comes to Morocco, its all carrots.

The other problem is that no one really knows what Morocco’s ‘autonomy’ means for Western Sahara because Morocco has yet to produce any details for a specific proposal. Forget the nitty-gritty; we don’t even know the broad generalities. Who will defend the territory, what happens to the settlers, and who can dissolve the government? Does autonomy mean, in reality, just special regional status, or does it mean that Western Sahara will enjoy the same freedoms Catalonia now has from Madrid? Despite these vexing, superficial and preliminary questions, which have yet even been discussed in open, autonomy presses on.

From Rabat to Madrid to Paris to Washington, everyone seems to think autonomy's the natural solution. It’s a compromise! Morocco gets a little and Polisario gets a little. Morocco’s ‘sovereign rights’ are respected, as are Polisario’s national rights. The tricky part is working out the details. Oh, and that pesky right of self-determination that has kept Western Sahara on the United Nations agenda since 1964.

But is autonomy the only compromise? There’s division, of course, but who wants an even smaller, less stable and less secure -- and thus less independent -- Western Sahara? And does Morocco get Al-Ayoun, what many Sahrawis consider their capital? And Smara, their spiritual capital? No, division is not a good option.

So what’s left? Federalism, but which requires a massive overhaul of the Moroccan constitution? So then Moroccan voters would have a veto over the Western Sahara peace process. And even the loosest federalism still makes Western Sahara just another region of Morocco. That's not very attractive to Polisario.

There is another option, one that has been largely ignored. That is confederation: Western Sahara would become largely independent, with its own government and military. In exchange for this freedom, Western Sahara would exist as a part of Morocco’s internationally recognized ‘historical territory’, the Moroccan flag will fly alongside the flag of Western Sahara, and the King of Morocco will approve the Prime Minister of Western Sahara in much the same ceremonial fashion as in the United Kingdom. Morocco gets a little, and Polisario gets a little. Morocco agrees to never invade or interfere with the government of Western Sahara and Polisairo agrees never to secede and to always recognize their deep historical relations. This agreement can be established through a treaty between Polisario and Morocco; no messy constitutional overhaul necessary. We all live happily ever after -- once this is approved through self-determination.

Indeed, the late, great King Hassan II of Morocco once said something to the effect of, leave the stamp and the flag Moroccan, and everything else is negotiable. But the problem is that Mohammed VI isn’t his father … yet.