Western Sahara's 48 Hours of Rage

by Jacob Mundy
published in MER257

The first videos posted to YouTube showed a sea of makeshift tents at a desert locale called Gdim Izik, surrounded by scores of men in full riot gear silhouetted in the early morning light. Then came footage of chaos and screams of panic: cars honking, tents on fire, people running, Moroccan security forces systematically taking down every tent in an effort to break up the Sahrawi protest camp. A new batch of videos soon appeared. This time, the scene was Laayoune, the largest city in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. Sahrawi demonstrators had taken over the streets in parts of the city, attacked Moroccan police vehicles and ransacked government offices. Cars exploded on camera and smoke poured out of buildings. Moroccan flags were torn down, replaced with homemade banners of POLISARIO, the Sahrawi independence movement. Another clip surfaced, showing a gang of Moroccan loyalists running through the streets of Laayoune, waving Moroccan flags and brandishing what appeared to be rudimentary weapons. Moroccan settlers, sometimes aided by security forces, also committed acts of arson and looting in pro-independence Sahrawi neighborhoods.

What had begun roughly a month earlier as a non-violent protest camp set up by Sahrawi youths to voice their feelings of economic marginalization under Moroccan occupation quickly transformed that day -- November 8, 2010 -- into the most violent 48 hours witnessed by Western Sahara since a UN ceasefire took hold in 1991. The protests in Laayoune were far larger and more destructive to property than the Sahrawi intifada of May 2005 or the events in 1999, when Moroccan police forcibly dismantled a similar Sahrawi economic protest camp in Laayoune. One of the many victims of the November 8 violence could be the hope that Sahrawi nationalists and the Moroccan government can share power under an autonomy scheme in Western Sahara.

Finding Facts

The most shocking revelation since November 8 is that the Moroccan side apparently suffered more casualties than the protesters. Due to the international media blackout imposed by Morocco on Western Sahara as the situation spiraled out of control, rumors quickly circulated of a massacre against the Sahrawi demonstrators. From its base near Tindouf, Algeria, POLISARIO claimed that three dozen Sahrawis had been killed and placed its military forces on higher alert. Images of bloodied civilian bodies and injured babies found their way onto the websites of prestigious news outlets like the Madrid daily El País, only to be revealed as misappropriated photos from an old Moroccan crime scene and an Israeli raid on Gaza, respectively. One Sahrawi human rights group said a witness reported that “dozens” of bodies were being kept in a Moroccan military hospital morgue. International monitors scrutinized a photo of a Moroccan military truckbed full of lumpy canvas bags the size of a human body. An early investigation by Human Rights Watch limited its focus to the only thing it could confirm: abuse of Sahrawi detainees in the custody of Moroccan security forces. In the days following the raid on Gdim Izik, some 200 Sahrawis were rounded up. Roughly 130 are still being held, some facing proceedings, likely for treason, in a military court near the Moroccan capital of Rabat.

The Moroccan state’s media counter-offensive led with a 15-minute video neatly packaged for the international press corps. Most of the footage was taken from a helicopter circling over the Gdim Izik camp as Moroccan security forces moved in. The video included disturbing shots of Sahrawi protesters waving knives, beating various Moroccan state agents (possibly to death) and urinating on a corpse. At the end of the clip came the most appalling images of all, purporting to show a Sahrawi youth beheading a Moroccan soldier. Unlike the rest of the video, this grainy and jerky sequence was not filmed from the helicopter but shot with what appears to be a cell phone camera; the face of the perpetrator is never shown and it is very difficult to establish the time and place.

According to an investigation carried out by Amnesty International at the end of November, eleven members of the Moroccan security forces were killed during the raid on the Gdim Izik camp and the clashes with demonstrators later that day. Only two Sahrawi deaths have been confirmed. The Amnesty report makes no mention of the alleged beheading or the reports of bodies at the military morgue; indeed, the researchers were forbidden access to Sahrawi prisoners or any of the injured Moroccan security personnel. The report is quite clear that “Moroccan authorities in Rabat and Laayoune provided little information beyond what had already been made public in the media.”

The Amnesty report poured a bucket of cold water on the Moroccan government’s pretext for dispersing the Gdim Izik camp, which at its peak reportedly housed upwards of 10,000 Sahrawis. Contrary to Rabat’s assertions, no evidence could be found suggesting that anyone was being held against his or her will in the protest camp or that the tents were being used as places to plan acts of violence. Morocco’s raid, on the other hand, precipitated the worst Sahrawi-led violence ever witnessed against the infrastructure and agents of occupation. This fact speaks volumes about the extent to which the desert territory has become a tinderbox of social, economic and political frustrations. Moreover, it brings into sharper relief the growing rift between Moroccan settlers and pro-independence Sahrawis, inter-communal tensions that Moroccan authorities in Western Sahara appear to be exacerbating on purpose. Even some of the normally conservative loyalist Sahrawi sheikhs of Morocco’s Royal Council for Saharan Affairs knew that Morocco had gone too far, convening an ad hoc meeting to discuss how they should respond to such heavy-handedness against their kin.

Fallout

Apart from the unusually plentiful media coverage generated by the events of mid-November (including a rare but predictably obfuscatory write-up in the New York Times), the international response was largely commensurate with the Western Sahara conflict’s marginal international profile. A special November 16 meeting of the UN Security Council discussed the situation amidst growing calls for an international inquiry, but issued nothing more than a ritualistic statement of concern.

As a key guarantor of the Moroccan monarchy’s interests, France continued to protect Rabat from the emerging international consensus that the UN mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO, should have a human rights monitoring mandate, as does every other UN mission in the world. Among the members of the Security Council’s Group of Friends for Western Sahara (the United States, France, Great Britain and Russia, along with Spain, the colonial power in Western Sahara until 1975), Paris appears to be the last holdout opposing this modification to MINURSO’s brief. France managed to take such an extreme position in the Council debate that China reportedly could not help but note that, for once, it had been outflanked as the most rejectionist country on an issue of human rights. French obstructionism, however, was unable to prevent the European Union’s parliament from backing calls for an international investigation at the end of November. The fallout from Gdim Izik also put into question the upcoming renewal of the EU-Moroccan fisheries agreement, which currently allows European ships to fish off the coast of Western Sahara to Morocco’s benefit.

The one European country where the Gdim Izik raid received the most attention was Spain. Thousands of Spaniards, including the actor Javier Bardem, marched on November 13 to call on their government to do something more forceful. The outcry was perhaps amplified by the fact that one of the slain Sahrawi demonstrators in Gdim Izik held a Spanish passport. As the former colonial power, the Spanish government is in the awkward position of having to balance across-the-spectrum popular support for Sahrawi national rights -- which encompasses everyone from Communists to right-wing nostalgists for Franco -- with the brute realities of geopolitics: Sitting just ten miles across the Mediterranean, Morocco is a major Spanish partner on key issues like trade, fisheries, migration, energy and counter-terrorism. Moroccan ill treatment of Spanish journalists and activists in the occupied Western Sahara led to an undeclared media war between the two countries, peaking with a November 28 march of tens of thousands of Moroccans in Casablanca who blamed Spain for the resolution in the EU parliament. Given the domestic and regional pressures on Spain, and given the obvious need to counter-balance France’s lockstep position with Morocco, Madrid looks to Great Britain and, especially, the United States to take the lead in the international management of the peace process. Resolution of the Western Sahara question, however, appears nowhere on the Obama administration’s foreign affairs to-do list. The US appears contented with occasional crisis management.

“Stunningly Maladroit Diplomacy”

Tensions on the ground in Western Sahara had been noticeably escalating over the year prior to the November 2010 events.

In the years immediately following the 2005 intifada, Rabat appeared to be taking steps to improve its human rights record in the disputed territory, in concert with its unveiling in April 2007 of an autonomy proposal for Western Sahara. Morocco’s seemingly good-faith effort to sell autonomy to the Sahrawis actually had only one buyer in mind: Elliott Abrams, head of Near East affairs in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. The quid pro quo between the White House and Morocco was apparently an exchange of US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara for Moroccan steps toward the unilateral implementation of an autonomy proposal.

Standing in the way of the Abrams plan were cooler heads at the State Department, who knew full well that such unilateralism on the part of Morocco would neither coax POLISARIO out of exile nor convince its major supporter, Algeria, to withdraw its backing for Sahrawi self-determination. Since Algiers is a key US ally in the war on terror in the Sahel and an increasingly important oil supplier, Washington could not so easily dismiss the Algerian point of view. The Bush State Department had nonetheless come to the conclusion that POLISARIO could not be entrusted with full independence. In a March 2008 meeting with Morocco’s foreign intelligence chief, Yassine Mansouri, then Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch assured his interlocutor that “POLSIARIO would never have an independent state.” When asked during a November 2009 visit to Morocco if US policy toward Western Sahara had changed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that it remained the same. Little wonder, then, that Morocco feels confident in negotiating its 2007 autonomy proposal on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

State Department cables released by Wikileaks, however, reveal that there was significant doubt among diplomats in Rabat as to whether or not Morocco’s 2007 autonomy proposal deserved the praise it won from Washington, Paris and, eventually, the Security Council as a “serious and credible” peace offer to POLISARIO. A candid conversation in March 2007 among political counselors from Spain, the US, Britain, France and Germany suggests a consensus that the proposal does not offer autonomy at all, insofar as “Rabat would retain full control.” The vaunted national consultative process through which Morocco developed its autonomy proposal had actually involved “minimal” “consultation with the Sahrawi [side],” such that the political counselors felt that “no one has yet seen anything that will win many additional Sahrawi hearts and minds.”

Morocco’s half-hearted effort to win the hearts and minds of Sahrawi nationalists came to an abrupt end in October 2009 when seven leading Sahrawi human rights activists were arrested following a visit to the POLISARIO-administered refugee camps near Tindouf. It soon became clear that the Moroccan state intended to charge these activists with treason and try them in a military court. Indeed, their trial is ongoing, and they are now joined by a dozen new co-defendants -- the leading Sahrawi activists rounded up during the Gdim Izik incidents.

During his annual speech marking the November 6 anniversary of Morocco’s invasion of the Spanish Sahara, King Mohammed VI underscored his regime’s attitude toward Sahrawi dissidents as of 2009: “One is either a patriot or a traitor.” He added, “One cannot enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship, only to abuse them and conspire with the enemies of the homeland.” This oddly familiar statement resounded clearly with echoes of the king’s father, the man who took Western Sahara from Spain in 1975 and fought POLISARIO for 16 years to keep it. In his 1993 memoirs, Hassan II admitted, “I have always said that, in this country, the rights of man stopped at the question of the Sahara. Anyone who said that the Sahara was not Moroccan could not benefit from the rights of man.”

A week after Mohammed VI redrew the line in the sand, Moroccan officials forcibly expelled Aminatou Haidar, a recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy human rights award, to the Canary Islands. Haidar’s crime? Writing Sahrawi as her nationality on her disembarkation card at the Laayoune airport.

It was mind-bending to consider what had prompted Morocco to take such precipitous action against the most famous, most honored Sahrawi activist in the world. More puzzling still was the fact that Morocco had decided to send her to the Spanish Canary Islands, a move that would (and did) implicate the Spanish government in the month-long affair and, of course, catalyze Spanish feelings of historical responsibility for the botched decolonization of its former possession.

The standoff between Haidar (who sustained a month-long hunger strike during the ordeal) and the Moroccan government ended when the White House read the riot act to Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri. An epilogue to the Haidar affair from the US embassy in Rabat noted that Morocco had drawn “dangerously close” to “badly jeopardizing its relationships with Spain and other allies through its belligerent handling of the case and some stunningly maladroit diplomacy.”

Cards on the Table

Questions are now being raised about Morocco’s willingness to negotiate the nitty-gritty of power sharing with POLISARIO -- or to negotiate at all. Since Morocco presented its autonomy proposal in 2007, the Security Council has called for negotiations to find a political solution that will achieve self-determination for Western Sahara. The rub is that POLISARIO insists on a self-determination referendum that includes an independence option, whereas Morocco will only contemplate a referendum that confirms or rejects its autonomy proposal. Several rounds of talks under the guidance of UN envoy Peter van Walsum followed the Security Council’s directive. The veteran Dutch diplomat Van Walsum had to fill the very large shoes of former Secretary of State James Baker, who had served as the UN envoy to Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004. In 2008, Van Walsum concluded that POLISARIO had to be told that independence was not realistic. The Security Council, he reasoned, would never force Morocco to allow such a vote to take place because the Security Council had proven unwilling to support Baker in his effort to hold a referendum on independence under conditions highly favorable to Morocco.

With Van Walsum’s cards on the table, Morocco was overjoyed by what it viewed as a vindication of its position. POLISARIO, however, declared no confidence in the envoy, forcing the UN Secretariat to find a replacement. Enter former US ambassador Christopher Ross, who has held four rounds of talks between Morocco and the Sahrawi front with little progress to report. Indeed, a leaked June 2010 letter from Ross, addressed to the heads of state from the Group of Friends, suggested that the peace process sat on a knife’s edge. Particularly troubling to Ross was the Moroccan delegation’s refusal to engage in an exchange of ideas after POLISARIO, for the first time ever, made substantive comments on Morocco’s 2007 autonomy proposal at the February 2010 meeting.

The next meeting of the parties was held nine months later on November 8, roughly 3,500 miles from the streets where Moroccan police and Sahrawi demonstrators were facing off in Laayoune. Morocco later stated that its reasons for attacking the Gdim Izik camp had nothing to do with the peace process. For its part, POLISARIO stated that it would not have met with Morocco had it known what was going on inside Western Sahara. Yet the two parties met again in mid-December, in what must have been an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, perhaps even animosity.

The next round of talks is already scheduled for early 2011. The next round of violence is likely coming soon as well.

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