Text of Military Agreement #1

November 8, 2011

In my last post I urged people to contact MINURSO and UN Peacekeeping to ask why vital information on the terms of the ceasefire in Western Sahara has been removed from the MINURSO website, and request that this information be reinstated. Here is the text in question, from Military Agreement (MA) #1, copied from the MINURSO website in October 2008 (from this address, which is now defunct: http://www.minurso.unlb.org/monitoring.html):

“MA#1 divides the disputed territory of Western Sahara into five parts:
• One 5 km wide Buffer Strip (BS) to the South and East side of the Berm;
• Two 30 km wide Restricted Areas (RA) along the Berm. The Buffer Strip is included in the
Restricted Area on the POLISARIO side and the Berm is included in the Restricted Area on
the RMA side;
• Two Areas with Limited Restrictions (ALR), which are the two remaining vast, stretches of
land of Western Sahara on both sides respectively.”

I quoted this text in a Briefing Note I prepared on the partition of Western Sahara, also in October 2008.

For a graphical representation of MA#1 click here. For Map A4-010 showing the ceasefire on the ground, see below, or click here for a jpeg version.

I’ve posted all this before, and will keep reposting it until MINURSO reinstates the relevant ceasefire information on its website, and Morocco’s propagandists stop their attempts to mislead the world into believing that Morocco controls all of Western Sahara, and that the Polisario-controlled areas are in fact an empty “buffer strip” set up by the UN for Morocco’s protection (the buffer zone is just 5km wide on one side of the Berm, and there is parity between the Moroccan and Polisario controlled zones, on either side of the Berm, in MA#1). Morocco is misrepresenting the situation on the ground in order to persuade the world that its “Autonomy Plan” for Western Sahara is viable. It is not, as it does not address the issue of partition, or of the Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. The information presented here, downloaded from earlier versions of the MINURSO website, clearly contradicts Morocco’s representation of the situation. Rabat is desperate to obscure the situation on the ground, and it seems likely that this is why MINURSO removed the information relating to the terms of the ceasefire, as a result of pressure from Morocco and its allies France and the United States, which are pushing for a normalisation of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. If this is not the case, all parties should be happy to see this information reinstated – that would be sufficient rebuttal.

Division of Western Sahara under the terms of the 1991 ceasefire agreement. Map from MINURSO.

Co-opting the peacekeepers?

September 16, 2011

Is the United Nations suppressing information to support an illegal occupation?

In September 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Frente Polisario, the two claimants to the disputed Non-Self Governing Territory of Western Sahara. Morocco and the Polisario had been fighting a war for control over the territory since 1975, when Morocco sent troops and civilians into Western Sahara during its “Green March”, the aim of which was to establish the former Spanish colony as part of a greater Morocco.

As part of the ceasefire, the UN established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (known by its French acronym, MINURSO), a peacekeeping force mandated with monitoring the ceasefire and overseeing a referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara. Some 20 years on, the referendum has still not been held, and there seems little prospect that the ongoing political conflict between Morocco and the Polisario over the status of Western Sahara will be resolved in the foreseeable future.

Currently, Western Sahara is effectively partitioned, with Morocco controlling the bulk (some three quarters) of Western Sahara, and the Polisario controlling the remainder. The Moroccan and Polisario controlled areas are separated by a series of earthworks (variously referred to as the “wall”, “sand wall” or “berm”), constructed by Morocco to secure the territory it has gained through military means during the course of its occupation of Western Sahara.

Under the terms of the ceasefire, a number of zones or areas were defined, and permitted activities inside each area were specified. And this is the crux of this particular blog post.

The various areas defined under the ceasefire, and the activities permitted in each area, were detailed in Military Agreement No. 1 (MA#1) and on Map No: A4-010 (deployment of MINURSO). The text of MA#1, and Map No: A4-010, used to be available via MINURSO’s mission website and local website, located easily by clicking on the links on the latter site’s side bar.

And so back to that crux.

You may have noted the use of the past tense in the above text – these key ceasefire documents “used to be available” via the MINURSO websites. Since at least as early as December 2010, MA#1 and Map No: A4-010 have disappeared from the MINURSO local website (and are not available via the mission website). Given that MINURSO’s principal task (the long-delayed referendum notwithstanding) is to monitor the ceasefire, it seems somewhat bizarre that their website does not include the information on the different ceasefire zones and the permitted activity in each of these zones. This is obviously not simply due to sloppy website maintenance – the MINURSO website has been given a pretty comprehensive overhaul in the past year or so, and now contains lots of information and links to relevant documentation, mostly UN resolutions and letters from the UN Secretary General and the Security Council.

Back in 2010 I contacted MINURSO by email (minursoinformationofficer@un.org) to ask why the detailed information on the ceasefire arrangements had been removed, and where it could be found. This was followed by emails to other public information personnel at the UN who were concerned with Western Sahara. However, I never received a reply to these emails. When I followed this up informally with a UN source, their response was this. “Somehow I doubt, in present circumstances, that you will get a reply from the mission, or at least a reply that will be of any use.” When I asked my source whether they were able to elaborate on why a reply was unlikely “in the present circumstances”, and what these circumstances were, they replied “Not really”. This correspondence took place in early December 2010.

So, why the removal of important information relating to the nature of the ceasefire, and why the lack of response to an inquiry about its removal? And why the secrecy? I’m certainly prepared to speculate – here goes.

There currently seems to be no resolution in sight to the Western Sahara conflict. This has frustrated key players within the UN and internationally. As detailed in Stephen Zunes’ and Jacob Mundy’s recent, and excellent, book, Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution, key members of the UN security council (France and the United States) have long been enthusiastic (to say the least) in their support of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. In the amoral world of realpolitik, these countries in particular view the integration of Western Sahara into a greater Morocco as a practical solution to the conflict. Accordingly, they support Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan”, which would make Western Sahara part of Morocco and give it some token limited autonomy under a partially devolved administration rubber stamped or appointed by the Moroccan monarchy. I’ve written elsewhere about why this “solution” is dubious at best (also here).

So what has this got to do with the information on MINURSO’s website? Well, first we need to recognise that the UN and its various agencies are not independent bodies, but are expressions of the will of the UN’s member states. Particular UN agencies will be of particular interest to certain countries (e.g. those that provide their funding), and these countries will have an influence over their behaviour. Powerful voices within the UN lobby for their own interests and those of their friends, making the UN a forum in which key players compete with each other for dominance and advantage according to their own agendas. In short, UN agencies are subject to influence from powerful interests, and there is no reason to believe that MINURSO is any different.

Second, the ready availability of information on the terms of the ceasefire is an embarrassment to Morocco and, by extension, to those countries who support Morocco in its continuing (and illegal) occupation of Western Sahara. Morocco likes to give the impression that it controls all of Western Sahara, and that all that needs to be done to resolve the conflict is for the international community to accept Morocco’s claim to the territory. The Moroccan line is that Morocco has already achieved de facto integration of Western Sahara, making its control over the territory a done deal – if only the international community would accept this “fact on the ground” the problem would go away.

The Moroccan line is disingenuous, and its Autonomy Plan does nothing to address the partition of Western Sahara or the issue of the Sahrawi refugees displaced by the conflict and living in camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf. The airing of these issues makes the Autonomy Plan look rather flaky and inadequate, and exposes the Plan as a PR exercise to legitimise the occupation rather than a serious, sincere and workable way of resolving the conflict. Under the Autonomy Plan the territory would remain partitioned (or be subject to further fighting as Morocco sought to control all of Western Sahara), and the refugees would remain in exile (Morocco constantly underplays the number of refugees and is unlikely to welcome them as new subjects). The Plan would also fail to uphold the right of self determination enshrined in so many UN resolutions relating to Western Sahara.

Consequently, it is in Morocco’s interests to manipulate information relating to the conflict in order to marginalise the refugee issue and cloud the issue of partition. Morocco’s propagandists have a habit of telling people that the Polisario does not control any territory in Western Sahara, and that what the Polisario and the exiled Sahrawi refer to as the (Polisario controlled) “Free Zone” is in fact a “buffer zone” set up with the tacit approval of the UN to keep the Polisario out of “Moroccan” territory. This is nonsense. There is a “Buffer Strip” under the ceasefire, but this extends only 5 km east and south of the Berm or sand wall into the Polisario controlled areas. On either side of the Berm, a “Restricted Area” extends for 30 km. On both sides of the Berm, the remaining areas are defined as “Areas with Limited Restrictions”. With the exception of the Buffer Strip, which is present only on the Polisario side of the Berm, there is parity in terms of what the Moroccan armed forces and the Polisario are permitted to do on their respective sides of the Berm.

The above is all set out in MA#1, a reading of which reveals that Morocco’s claims (i) to control all of Western Sahara, (ii) that the Polisario has no active or legitimate presence in the territory, and (iii) that the areas in which Polisario might operate are in fact a buffer zone set up for Morocco’s benefit, are all nonsense. Unfortunately, now that MINURSO has removed MA#1 and Map No:A4-010, it is much less straightforward to challenge Rabat’s nonsense using authoritative sources. Well, I say unfortunately, but this is, of course, rather fortunate for Morocco and its friends.

And this is what is really suspicious. The most likely explanation for the removal of this basic, vital and (to the Moroccan camp) embarrassing information seems to be that Morocco and its friends have leaned on MINURSO to remove this information, in order to eliminate a counter to a key pillar of Morocco’s propaganda campaign. If there is a more innocent explanation, why has MINURSO been so reluctant to provide it. Unless they can allay fears that they have been co-opted by Morocco’s propaganda machine, perhaps we should be renaming them the MINUPOSO – United Nations Mission for the Perpetuation of the Occupation in Western Sahara.

Leaked Cables: Morocco and Western Sahara

December 15, 2010

Over at the Huffington Post Stephen Zunes writes about how the WikiLeaks cables illuminate the role of ideology in Washington’s approach to Western Sahara, with a pretty damning verdict on the ex US ambassador to Morocco (now in Cameroon), Robert P Jackson. However, beyond Zunes’ analysis and a few blog posts here and there, what the leaked cables have to say about Western Sahara has, unsurprisingly, received little attention. So, here is an attempt to plug the gap. I’ll try and expand/augment this post in due course, when time permits.

The discussion below is based on two cables circulated by Spanish daily El Pais, and three cables posted by the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar (whose website is down as I write this). The latter are from a batch of nearly 200 cables obtained by Al -Akhbar from a source other than WikiLeaks, according to The Atlantic, which concludes that the cables are most likely genuine. Of course we have to entertain the possibility that they are not, although this seems remote. The cables discussed here date back to 2006 – those prior to 2009 (all but one) were sent when the last Bush administration was in power. I’ve included links to the cables available on the El Pais website. However, as the Al-Akhbar site is currently down, and the other cables do not appear to be available elsewhere, no links can be provided for these at the present time (I’m working from versions printed before the site went down). Some cables released by Al-Akhbar are available elsewhere, such as these from the Algerian embassy.

The cables cover a number of themes, around which the discussion below is organized. Cables are identified by a code indicating the year (first two characters), the place of origin (in this case Rabat and Casablanca), and the number of the cable.

Autonomy/MINURSO: pressure and protection

Cable 06RABAT678 describes a meeting with Taieb Fassi Fihri, Minister-Delegate of the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara was discussed. The tone of the cable is very much one that emphasises what it calls the “difficulty” of Morocco’s position, and Fassi Fihri acknowledged that the Polisario and Algeria are “probably not willing to discuss” the autonomy plan. One thing that is particularly notable in this cable is the statement that “Fassi Fihri wanted to be assured that the US would continue to support MINURSO even if a credible autonomy plan is not submitted in a timely manner.” The US ambassador is reported to have responded that “engagement between Morocco and other actors is necessary and that a substantive autonomy plan and implementation plan must be submitted or there will be no support for a MINURSO extension.”

Two conclusions may be drawn from the above. First, Morocco sees the MINURSO presence in Western Sahara as in its interests. This will come as no surprise to those who conclude that one of the main roles that MINURSO has played has been to freeze the conflict while Morocco entrenches its position in Western Sahara. Morocco’s desire to keep MINURSO in Western Sahara is deeply ironic, given Morocco’s insistence that the referendum that MINURSO is mandated to arrange will never take place. For those unfamiliar with the situation in Western Sahara it’s worth pointing out that MINURSO stands for United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. Second, the US put pressure on Morocco to move forward with the autonomy plan, egging Morocco on in the legitimization of its occupation of Western Sahara.

Corruption: occupation as opportunity

Cable 08RABAT727 addresses corruption in the Moroccan military, which is described as widespread (the term “plagued” is used liberally). The cable claims that “Lt Gen. Bennani [commander of the forces in Western Sahara] is using his post to skim money from military contracts and to influence business decisions”, and that it is rumoured that he owns a large part of the fisheries in Western Sahara. This situation is seen as symptomatic of the legacy of Hassan II’s deal with the military, which is characterised as “remain loyal, and you can profit” (historically, fear of a coup against appears to be one of the main determinants of the palace’s relationship with the military). In this context, the Western Sahara command is apparently seen as particularly lucrative and jealously guarded by a few families within the military. Outside of the military, cable 09CASABLANCA226 concludes that corruption in the real estate sector is increasing rather than diminishing.

Security and Terror: spectres and diversions

The leaked cables highlight Morocco’s strategy of playing the security card in order to bolster its position in Western Sahara, but also illustrate that they are overplaying their hand here.

Cable 09RABAT479 describes how Mustapha Mansouri, President of the Chamber of Deputies, “feared that the loss of Western Sahara would open a vast, anarchic ungoverned space, with no real borders extending thousands if miles east from the Atlantic. Only Western Sahara, under Morocco’s control, was an exception.” Mansouri used some of the arguments beloved of the commenters on this blog, particularly our old friend Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad, to characterise the conflict. He “said that the conflict was really a legacy of the Cold War and of Algeria’s continued attachment to Eastern, socialist models.” Mansouri reiterated the Moroccan position regarding the UN mandated referendum in Western Sahara, that “self-determination could mean autonomy or integration but not independence.” As usual, Morocco believes that self-determination for the people of Western Sahara means something determined by outsiders in Rabat. No further comment should really be necessary here.

[The above cable was sent in the context of visit by a number of US Senators, led by Senator Richard Burr, to Morocco. The cable concludes by saying that the Senators “learned more about Western Sahara”, and Burr “assured Mansouri that he would be welcomed on Capitol Hill.”]

Cable 8RABAT150 covers some similar themes, and describes a meeting with Mohamed Yassine Mansouri (no relation to the Mustapha Mansouri mentioned above), chief of Morocco’s external intelligence service. This Mansouri echoed his namesake, saying that “no Maghreb country, with the possible exception of Morocco, can begin to control its frontiers.” On the Polisario, Mansouri did his best to have it both ways, saying that “the terrorist threat there is real”, while being “very careful to say that the GOM [Government of Morocco] does not think the POLISARIO is a terrorist organization.” However, he did claim that

“…some members of the POLISARIO have joined AQIM [Al Qa’ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb]. Morocco is particularly concerned that should Algeria and the POLISARIO install themselves outside the berm in the no man’s land in Western Sahara, this could become a base for terrorist training and operations, which Morocco could not tolerate.”

We can only presume that Mansouri was engaging in the old Moroccan trick of deliberately confusing the 5 km buffer strip on the east and south of the berm (the only part of Western Sahara that might be described as a “no man’s land”) with the extensive area under Polisario control that, like the considerable large area controlled by Morocco, is designated as an “area with limited restrictions” under the terms of the 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire agreement. This, again, is a favourite tactic by Morocco, which seems desperate to deny the reality that Western Sahara is actually partitioned, with the areas controlled by Morocco and the Polisario having parity of status under the terms of the ceasefire, and therefore in international law (see earlier posts here and here). To acknowledge this fact would be to admit that all its autonomy plan will do is legitimize a partial occupation of Western Sahara, without actually resolving the conflict. As for members of the Polisario joining AQIM, well, show us the evidence. To those of us who have interacted with the Polisario this seems unlikely, to say the least. The Polisario leadership would be very unlikely to tolerate any such conversion, given its fears of radicalization among the population of the refugee camps and its concerns about its international reputation and image.

Cable 08RABAT727 rather deflates Mansouri’s claims, exhibiting a clear understanding of the geopolitical realities in Western Sahara as it talks about Polisario’s “small, lightly armed presence at a few desert crossroads in the small remaining part of Western Sahara outside the berm.” It goes on to say that

“the GOM [govt. of Morocco] almost certainly is fully conscious that the POLISARIO poses no current threat that could not be effectively countered. The POLISARIO has generally refrained from classic terrorist bombings, etc. Although the specter is sometimes raised, there is no indication of any Salafist/Al Qaeda activity among the indigenous Sahrawi population.”

Talking of radicalization, Morocco’s obsession with the “empty spaces” of the Sahara, and with the alleged terrorist threat posed by any settlement of the Western Sahara conflict not in its favour, is put in perspective by the very real and demonstrable radicalization of Moroccans inside Morocco. Cable 8RABAT150 describes how Minister of the Interior Chakib Benmoussa “pointed out that approximately 60 Moroccans had been arrested before they could depart Morocco” for Iraq, and that another 70 were “being watched and/or sought in the country and the region.” Morocco’s external intelligence service “noted that 139 Moroccan foreign fighters had attempted to go to Iraq since 2003,” with a “resurgence in the foreign fighter pipeline in 2006”. 40 Moroccans “had definitely reached Iraq, and 38 of them had participated in suicide missions.” The intelligence service also noted that “Moroccan cells cooperated with individuals and cells in Denmark, Sweden, Span, Saudi Arabia and Syria.” The Foreign Minister “lamented that potential extremists pay too much attention to al-Jazeera,” something that might not be a problem now, since Morocco kicked them out of the country for being too critical of the Moroccan government.

Cable 08RABAT727 briefly touches on the issue of home-grown militancy, stating that “reporting suggests small numbers of FAR soldiers remains [sic] susceptible to Islamic radicalization”, and reminding readers that those behind the 2003 Casablanca bombings included members of the Moroccan military. Following the 2003 bombings, “Morocco’s internal security services have identified and apprehended several military and gendarmerie personnel in other terrorist cells, some of whom had stolen weapons from their bases for terrorism.”

A number of the cables highlight Morocco’s concerns (real or contrived) about Mauritania’s stability, and cable 8RABAT150 reports that Morocco’s external intelligence chief Mansouri argued that “Mauritania’s stability was more important than democracy”. To the Embassy staff’s credit, they responded that they believed it was possible to have both stability and democracy in Mauritania.

The main conclusion to be drawn here is that, while Morocco is keen to see terrorist threats in Western Sahara and among the Polisario and Sahrawi, the real terrorist threats to the Moroccan state are emanating from Morocco itself, and Morocco is playing a significant de facto role in the export of militant Islam.

Deployment: massively committed, thinly stretched, and poorly prepared

Cable 08RABAT727 claims that the Moroccan armed forces (Forces Armées Royales, or FAR) are preoccupied with Western Sahara, with some 50-70% of its strength deployed there at any given time. However, the FAR are reported to be stretched thin in Western Sahara, with operational readiness estimated at 40%.

Foreign friends

February 18, 2009

History demonstrates that unpleasant regimes bent on suppressing dissent and menacing their neighbours can always find foreign apologists who are ready to scurry to their defence without bothering to understand precisely what it is they are defending. It seems that Morocco is no exception in having an army of foreign sycophants ready to fight for its right to expand its territory through force and stamp on anyone who might object to its imperial designs. A growing chorus of appeasement can be heard from lobbyists, politicians and certain elements of the media by anyone who tunes into the news on Western Sahara.

The Francophone world has always been keen on Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara (with some noble exceptions), and this phenomenon shows no sign of abating. The latest bare-faced brown-nosing comes from the mayor for Woippy (no, I’d never heard of it either), François Grosdidier, who also happens to be vice-president of the French-Moroccan friendship group in the French parliament. In a article in Religious Intelligence (no jokes please) he is quoted regurgitating the Moroccan line. Here are a couple of choice quotes:

“Given Morocco’s legitimacy on the Sahara, this autonomy initiative, under the kingdom’s sovereignty, is wise and generous, and provides an honourable way out for all the parties.”

“[The Polisario] approach is useless, there is no point (for them) in continuing and they are no longer in the sense of history.”

It seems that French politicians love to talk about being part of history – Sarkozy has claimed that one of the problems with Africa is that “the African man has never really entered history“. Oh dear – despite the benefits of colonialism and the heroic attempts of Europe to civilise the benighted continent, not to mention all those fantastically well-conceived post-colonial development initiatives, those ungrateful Africans haven’t grasped the nettle of historical progress and lifted themselves “up” to the same level as Europe. What a pity Sarkozy doesn’t realise that ideas of historical progress are based on perversions of Darwinian evolutionary theory that have more to do with justifying racism and colonialism than they do with rational scientific enquiry. Unfortunately the dogma of historical progress is still used to justify aggression dressed up as the promotion and extension of civilisation – something else I’ve noticed in the arguments of those that support Rabat’s military push into the Sahara. But I digress.

Grosdidier also claims that the Western Sahara conflict is impairing international relations, and uses this as an argument for supporting the autonomy initiative. As I’ve argued on several previous occasions (e.g. here), this is indicative of a poor understanding of the the situation, as the autonomy plan does not address the reality of partition or the issue of the refugees around Tindouf – as if Morocco would welcome tens of thousands of independence-minded Sahrawi and make any real attempt to come to an agreement with the Polisario. Grosdidier says that “pluralism does not exist” in the camps, but I don’t see too much evidence of it in occupied Western Sahara either.

I sometimes wonder what drives certain European politicians (and I include the UK here) who seem so eager to offer their services to foreign governments, effectively acting as agents of foreign powers with little or no regard to the interests of the people whom they have been elected to serve. After Blair’s stint as Bush’s enforcer/poodle (delete according to your preference), which served only to support ill-conceived foreign policy adventures and increase risks to British citizens, some of us are a little annoyed with this sort of behaviour. Well, maybe it’s just the money, the power, the foreign junkets, or a simple messiah complex.

It’s not only politicians that are busy appeasing Moroccan aggression, and not only in Europe. I keep receiving news alerts from the African Press Agency (with the byline “Unity is in Truth”), based in Dakar, Senegal, which could have been written by the Moroccan interior ministry. A common theme is how so-and-so supports the autonomy initiative or hails Morocco’s commitment to solve the conflict. The border between Western Sahara and Morocco is conspicuous by its absence on the the maps on the APA website. Hell, they could even use a dashed line rather than a solid one if they wanted to reflect its unresolved status, but I suppose even that would be too much for their Moroccan friends.

Another unedifying spectacle is this love-in between the author and the outgoing Moroccan ambassador. Reading it is like watching two extremely ugly people make out in public – a nauseating experience which makes you think “is that really necessary?” (No offence intended to the extremely ugly by the way.)

The Lebanese Dar al-Hayat has also been at it, or at least one Mohammed el-Ashab has, writing in its pages. el-Ashab talks about the Sahrawi’s “popular reluctance to unite under one umbrella”, which he claims is the biggest obstacle to solving the conflict. So not the partition or the blocking of the referendum then? To cast the problem as one of divisions between the Sahrawi rather than one of invasion, occupation, displacement and partition is disingenuous to say the least. He also talks about “the cease-fire which classified the areas outside the security fence as buffer zones in which no military or civilian movement is allowed.” Well, actually, it didn’t. The buffer zone, into which neither side is allowed, extends for only 5km east and south of the berm, i.e. in the Polisario controlled areas. Restricted areas extend for 30km either side of the berm, and no arms are to be carried in these areas. Outside of the restricted areas are two vast “areas with limited restrictions” in which normal military activity is allowed with the exception of anything that would constitute a concentration of firepower. As I’ve pointed out before, these conditions of the ceasfire are set out on the MINURSO website, which Mohammed el-Ashab evidently has not bothered to examine before putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. Not that he’s unusual in such uninformed pontificating (or is it deliberate misinformation?). Using elections as his theme, el-Ashab strives to convince us that everyone (the UN, the EU) is happy to see Morocco “practicing sovereignty in all its forms – including holding elections in all parts of the country since 1978”. I assume the country he is referring to is a putative greater Morocco which incorporates all of Western Sahara, although he doesn’t make it clear how Morocco has been or will be holding elections in the parts of Western Sahara that it doesn’t control. From his statement about “the frequent announcement of the “Polisario Front” that it operates in regions described as “liberated lands”” it seems that he might believe Morocco’s propaganda line that the Polisario doesn’t control any territory in Western Sahara, but this is not clear. I like the placing of “Polisario Front” in inverted commas – usually a sign of hostility.

There’s much more where all the above came from, and I’ll perodically highlight it. Of course if you want a real giggle you can always go to any number of websites whose purpose is to promote Moroccan interests and push pro-Morocco propaganda, such as that of the Morocco Board, the Moroccan-American Center for Policy, Maghreb Arabe Presse, CORCAS, or the dedicated anti-Polisario (and personal defamation) sites such as Polisario Confidential, Polisario Think Twice, Polisario Cannibals and Polisario Human Sacrifice. OK, I made the last two up, but those are about the only allegations that Morocco has not leveled at the Polisario.

All of this propaganda is designed to give the impression that the conflict is effectively over and that Moroccan control over Western Sahara is all but a done deal. The point of all the misinformation dissemminated by Morocco and its foreign toadies is to persuade people that all they have to do is endorse the situation on the ground and the issue of Western Sahara will go away, userhing in a new era of regional cooperation, development and progress. But of course it won’t, as long as Western Sahara remains partitioned and between 100,000 and 200,000 disaffected Sahrawi remain in camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert. Even if Morocco’s autonomy plan is officially endorsed by the likes of the EU, the USA and the UN, the reality on the ground will still poison the politics of the region. And the African Union still stands behind the Polisario and the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination. Morocco may be planning to further entrench its position by invading the Polisario controlled areas once its autonomy plan gets the green light from the world’s major political powers, but this is hardly likely to achieve the stated aims of all those foreign politicians and pundits who are so keen to promote autonomy in the name of progress.

Related link: http://w-sahara.blogspot.com/2008/09/polisario-confidential-goes-to.html (Western Sahara Info)

Interrogating the occupation

June 25, 2008

Last night I ventured into Westminster to attend the UK launch of Professor Abdelhamid El Ouali’s argument for Morocco’s Autonomy Plan for Western Sahara, in the form of a book entitled Saharan Conflict: Towards Territorial Autonomy as a Right to Democratic Self-Determination (see an earlier entry). The launch was held in the Houses of Parliament, presumably a symbolic choice meant to emphasise the democratic nature of the Autonomy Plan (a link made by the professor in his speech). In brief, the autonomy plan provides for limited self-determination for the disputed territory of Western Sahara within a greater Morocco, while precluding the possibility of full independence for the territory.

It was a fairly low-key affair. Most of the audience consisted of Moroccans, including the ambassador to the UK (apparently not the one who complained to the Foreign Office about my academic activities in 2004), and a fair few embassy staff. Lord someone-or-other introduced Professor El Ouali, but apart from that members of the Commons and Lords were conspicuous by their absence. One or two civil servants (one of whom apparently advised the UK government on rendition), a previous British Ambassador to Rabat, less than a handful of journalists, and a few others with regional interests were also present. Representatives of the publishers, Stacey International, were also there, overseeing sales of the book (£16.95 – no sign of it on Amazon yet).

I went hoping to raise some concerns about the autonomy plan in the question and answer session that I assumed would follow a comprehensive presentation. However, I was disappointed. Professor El Ouali gave a short, fairly informal talk, the gist of which was that times had changed and we had to deal with new realities, independence was no longer relevant or appropriate as an option, autonomy was all about building democracy and securing human rights, and the fact that things weren’t panning out as they should was all down to those awkward Algerians. No mention was made of Polisario. Immediately after his talk, we were invited to enjoy the hospitality (wine, soft drinks, no nibbles), buy the book, and mingle. There was no opportunity for questions or discussion.

Determined not to waste my six hour round trip to the Mother of Parliaments, I duly joined the queue of embassy staff and autonomy sympathisers eagerly lining up to have their copies signed. After a while being bypassed by the queue of admirers, I took my chance to introduce myself to Professor El Ouali and ask the question that has been bothering me for some time.

The question in question is, what is the plan for the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara (i.e. the “Free Zone”) under the autonomy proposal? Are these to be left as a rump Sahrawi state, or will Morocco attempt to complete its acquisition of Western Sahara by force, risking further regional instability and conflict? The professor answered that the autonomy plan could only be implemented if it had the agreement of all the parties to the conflict, including the Polisario.

So far, so good. However, he then went on to say (I’m paraphrasing, but this is a pretty faithful rendition) “You’re talking about the ‘Liberated Territories’ – this is a myth. Polisario has never liberated any of this land. it is a buffer zone set up by Morocco.” Needless to say I pointed out to him that I run a research project in these very territories, and work with the Polisario in this context. Having travelled extensively in the Polisario-controlled areas (Lajuad, Mijek, Tifariti, Zug, you name it), I’m fully aware that the “buffer zone” is a face-saving Moroccan flim-flam, a story concocted to conceal the reality that Western Sahara is in fact already partitioned between the two warring parties.

My unmasking as someone from “the other side” seemed to cause some discomfort, but to his credit the Professor regained his composure and suggested that we talk at greater length later on, which we duly did (after he’d apparently checked up on me with his embassy colleagues – apparently both I and this blog are quite familiar to them, so ahlan wa sahlan if you’re reading).

In our subsequent discussion, Professor El Ouali was very keen to persuade me of the value of the autonomy plan, and of both his sincerity and his credentials (as someone who has worked extensively with refugees and at a high level in UNHCR). He, and some of the other Moroccans there, said that they were very keen on the idea of finding common ground and real, practical, and just solutions to the conflict. I even received an invitation to explore the issue at greater length in Morocco – flattering given that when it comes to politics I’m not exactly anyone’s representative, just a blogger with a point of view and some relevant travel experience.

On the surface this is all very encouraging, and the Moroccans I spoke to all gave the impression that they were keen to find common ground to resolve the conflict (and they were all very personable and friendly, in stark contrast to some of their compatriots who haunt the blogosphere). However, I’m very, very sceptical as to how much will there really is in the Moroccan establishment to find a real solution to the Western Sahara conflict.

Professor El Ouali kindly gave me a copy of his book, and I will make good on my promise to read it. Time permitting, I might even write a review. Having had a quick flick through it, I have to say that I don’t disagree with everything he writes. For example, I concur with his comments about globalisation. However, I think we will continue to disagree about the autonomy plan, for the reasons outlined below. What follows is a general argument about autonomy, not a response to the particulars of Professor El Ouali’s book. However, the argument does hark back to his comments about the nature of the Polisario-controlled areas.

The existence of the Free Zone and of the exiled Sahrawi refugees in the camps around Tindouf together represent a very serious stumbling block to the autonomy plan, under which there seem to be three broad possible outcomes (assuming the plan is to go ahead):

i. Polisario, with the support of the exiled Sahrawi community, voluntarily gives up the Free Zone so that it can become part of an autonomous Saharan region within a greater Morocco. The refugees return home and everyone lives happily ever after. A problem with this scenario is that, even if Morocco granted the refugees the right of return, it’s far from certain that they would want to take it (1). Furthermore, does Morocco really want all those potentially troublesome Sahrawi nationalists flooding back into an autonomous Saharan province, where they may well form a majority of the population? I hear that for all the infrastructure development that is going on in the occupied territories, no plans have been laid to build homes for returning refugees. I don’t think the Moroccans are expecting them back any time soon.

ii. The autonomy plan is implemented, but only in the regions currently occupied by Morocco. The Free Zone is left as a rump Sahrawi state under the control of the Polisario or whatever form of government may evolve among the exiled Sahrawi community. Refugees settle in the Free Zone to the extent that resources (principally water) permit. Whether the Free Zone could support some 160,000 people is debatable. If the Free Zone was settled, Morocco would have to live with a Sahrawi state full of disgruntled inhabitants who would still hanker after their old homeland across the border. This, presumably, is not on the Moroccan agenda. Under this scenario the autonomy plan would merely crystalise the current situation, and might increase tension in the region over the long term.

iii. Morocco extends its control throughout the entire territory of Western Sahara by invading the Free Zone. This would result in conflict with the Polisario, possible conflict with Algeria, and could destabilise the Maghreb as a whole.

Of course there is a fourth option – that the implementation of the autonomy plan depends of the agreement of all the parties to the conflict, that this is not forthcoming, and, er, nothing happens. At the moment this seems to be the most likely outcome, at least in the short term. So what exactly is the purpose of the plan?

The autonomy plan is predicated on two fictions. First, that Western Sahara is simply a part of Morocco with a troublesome secessionist movement, when in reality it is a partially occupied territory that has been partitioned between Morocco and the Polisario. Second, that the refugees in the camps around Tindouf would be happy, and welcome, to return to their homeland as Moroccan subjects. While the proponents of the plan are presumably aware of these problems, they are never addressed, suggesting that the plan does not represent a serious attempt to resolve the conflict. It is the view of this blogger that the autonomy plan is a stalling tactic designed to defuse criticism of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, and to discredit the Polisario (2). It seems to be the latest ruse via which Morocco seeks to avoid the holding of a referendum, while appearing to act constructively on the issue. It may seem like a solution to those not familiar with the realities of partition, which is why Morocco tries so hard to play down the existence of the Free Zone, and consistently underestimates the number, and misrepresents the aspirations, of the Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps. I look forward to finding out if these issues are addressed in Professor El Ouali’s book, but I won’t be holding my breath as I turn the pages.



(1) I’ve often heard from Moroccan sources that the refugees are held in the camps against their will by the Polisario, that they are effectively Moroccan citizens (well, subjects) being held as hostages by a secessionist group, and that they would welcome the opportunity to return to the Moroccan homeland. The truth is somewhat different. The exiles are in the camps as the result of the Moroccan invasion and occupation of Western Sahara (they weren’t kidnapped from their homes by marauding Polisario snatch teams). They are more-or-less free to leave subject to having the right paperwork (as citizens of any country who are lucky enough to have a passport are free to leave their national territories). Sahrawi from the camps travel widely, and they are a pretty cosmopolitan bunch as a result. Many have studied abroad, and international exchanges with solidarity groups in a variety of countries are common. When rains in the Free Zone are good, some of the inhabitants of the camps take their camels there for pasture. So, whatever their flaws and democratic deficits, the camps are not prisons with Polisario troops acting as gaolers. The exiled Sahrawi that I’ve spoken to certainly want to return to Western Sahara, but they do not want to live under Moroccan sovereignty. In their decades in the camps, the exiled Sahrawi have developed a strong sense of national identity. It seems to me that they are more inclined to return to Western Sahara with Kalashnikovs, to attempt to liberate it, than they are to return to live as Moroccan subjects.

(2) As long as the Polisario refused to entertain the possibility of the full integration of Western Sahara into Morocco, Morocco accepted the idea of a referendum with options of full integration, limited autonomy within a greater Morocco, and full independence. However, the Polisario eventually agreed to a referendum including these three options. Having had its bluff called, Morocco rapidly went off the idea – presumably Rabat suffered from a sudden loss of confidence that the Sahrawi (and perhaps even Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara) would vote to be part of the Moroccan motherland.

Spurious academic credibility

June 18, 2008

A new book has been published on the Western Sahara conflict, with the title: Saharan Conflict: Towards Territorial Autonomy as a Right to Democratic Self Determination.

Before those of you interested in the region rush out and buy this to add to your reference materials on the conflict, you might want to think about whether it’s a worthwhile investment. The publisher’s blurb includes the following paragraph:

“In The Saharan Conflict, Abdelhamid El Ouali espouses the establishment of a Moroccan-administered Western Sahara AR [autonomous region], and outlines Rabat’s vision for the Region, its implementation, governance and economic prospects. Professor El Ouali provides a much-needed scholarly account of the struggle for one of the last remaining white spaces on today’s political map of the world – and makes the timely case for its resolution.”

According to the blurb, Abdelhamid El Ouali is a professor with the Faculty of Law at the University of Casablanca. He is described as an international authority on Western Sahara, whose writing on the subject is widely published. A Google search (last checked 21 June) turns up a lot of links to promotional material on the above book, with a good smattering of Moroccan sources, but little else. (Confusingly, some of the Moroccan links refer to a book called “Autonomy for Sahara”, with the same cover graphic – presumably this is the same book.)

From the publisher’s description, it seems pretty clear that this book represents an attempt to give Rabat’s “autonomy plan” some academic legitimacy and produce a “respectable” work to which policy makers can refer when making the case for supporting Morocco’s consolidation, and possible extension, of is occupation of Western Sahara. As such it appears to be part of Morocco’s increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced propaganda and PR campaign (more on this in future posts). One purpose of the book is, no doubt, to give the appearance that “objective” academic analysis favours Morocco’s position.

As an “author many books on international justice, international legal order and refugees” [sic] professor El Ouali is presumably in a good position to make the case that the causes of justice and self-determination are served by denying the population of a partially occupied, disputed, non-self governing territory the right to vote on whether it wants its military occupation by an aggressive expansionist neighbour to continue or not. I’m interested to see whether he proposes any legal and just solutions to the plight of the 160,000 exiled Sahrawi refugees, perhaps involving their return to an occupied Western Sahara or on their dispersal throughout neighbouring countries. The former would not seem wise, given that it would result in the population of a Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara being dominated by Sahrawi who may not relish Morocco’s overlordship. The latter, a “solution” often proposed by Morocco and its supporters, does not seem particularly just. The only alternative to these two possibilities is for the Sahrawi to stay where they are, in the camps, which would hardly fulfill the lofty humanitarian ideals suggested by the publishers’ summary. Whatever one thinks of Morocco’s plans for Western Sahara in principle, it falls down when it comes to the practicalities of how to address the large population of exiled Sahrawi refugees (who are not keen on living in a greater Morocco), and the parts of Western Sahara not occupied by Morocco but controlled by the Polisario independence movement.

The book is being launched in London on Tuesday 24 June, at Westminster Hall. You can request further information (including perhaps an invitation to the launch) from the publishers (Stacey International) at:


Many thanks to Ronnie Hansen for alerting me to this.

An unfortunate choice of words

February 28, 2008

The Moroccan news (and propaganda) agency Maghreb Arabe Presse has run a story claiming that nearly 100 Sahrawi have fled the Polisario-run camps in Algeria in order “to enjoy dignified, united and stable life in Morocco” [sic]. This gives MAP an opportunity to slag off the Polisario and plug Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan”, under which the international community and a pro-Moroccan body of Sahrawi dignitaries would endorse the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara in exchange for a measure of political devolution within the occupied areas of the territory (how big a measure is debatable, and the fate of the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone” of Western Sahara is conveniently ignored).

The article states that several of the alleged Sahrawi migrants participated in a meeting of Sahrawi dissidents held in Gjijimat near Tifariti in December 2007 “to voice adherence to Morocco’s autonomy proposal”. Apparently this was a sort of fringe meeting held at the same time as what MAP refers to as “the so-called 12th Congress of Polisario leadership in the buffer zone[1] of Tifariti” (“so-called” is a favourite turn of phrase of Morocan propagandists when it comes to all things Polisario-related, but at least they’ve resisted the temptation to put quotation marks around the word “Polisario” every time they type it).

The Polisario congress received wide (withing the context of Saharan affairs) coverage – I watched a lot of it on Al Jazeera while sitting in a Polisario base in the far south of the Free Zone (read into that what you will). A search for “Gjijimat” throws up a lot of pro-Moroccan websites reporting on the alleged dissidents’ meeting, but little else, so I can’t report on whether such a meeting took place or on anything that may have resulted from it (although this matter is alluded to on the excellent and relatively dispassionate Western Sahara Info blog, which suggests that, as with all Sahara coverage emanating from MAP, reports about the Gjijimat meeting should be treated with caution, if not buried in a large barrel of salt). If anyone can find Gjijimat on a map, please let me know.

Whether the meeting at Gjijimat was real or a fiction dreamed up by MAP, it was reportedly held under a sign reading “Autonomy as a Final Solution to Achieve Reconciliation and Dignified Return to the Homeland”.

Autonomy as a “Final Solution”? I always suspected as much.

By the way, today’s top MAP story (just beating the story about the alleged flight of the dissident Sahrawi) is titled “King is in Good Health, [according to] Ministry of Royal Household”. Apparently Mohammed VI went to Paris to “take some rest” and “not to receive any health care of undergo whatever surgery” [sic]. Always good to have one’s newspaper lead with an important story about the good health of one’s leader. It helps the democratisation process proceed smoothly, knowing that your absolute ruler isn’t about to cark it.

(For younger readers – not you Will – it might be worth explaining that the “Final Solution” was the name the Nazis gave to their programme of genocide against the Jews and other “undesirable” groups. I’ll resist the base urge to draw further comparisons).


[1] What the Moroccans call the “buffer zone” (or sometimes the “demilitarized zone”) is actually the zone controlled by the Polisario independence movement, a zone which Morocco has not occupied and in which Morocco has no presence (see earlier posts on the partition of Western Sahara). The Polisario and the exiled Sahrawi refer to this zone as the “Free Zone”, and many Sahrawi living in exile in the camps in Algeria (and also in Mauritania) often enter the Free Zone, for example to graze camels when rains result in good pasture, or to attend political events organised by the Polisario. The Moroccan establishment prefers to play down the fact that there is a sizable part of Western Sahara that it doesn’t control, and which is run by a government that it refused to acknowledge. There is an actual buffer zone, or restricted area, extending for some distance either side of the “Berm“, the Moroccan-built wall (really a series of defensive earthworks exploiting the natural topography) that partitions Western Sahara. The restricted area, the limited extent of which leaves the Polisario plenty of space in the unoccupied areas east and south of the Berm, can be seen on this map showing the deployment of UN observers/peacekeepers from MINURSO.