by George Bajalia

Help support The Magic Carpet:

About the project

The Magic Carpet is a new work produced by Borderline Theatre Company—a mobile, transnational theatre collective of which I am co-founder and artistic director. We develop new works based on classic stories, myths, legends and oral traditions, and center them around contemporary border conflicts. During my research along the Spanish-Moroccan and Moroccan-Algerian borders, it became clear that the story of star-crossed lovers held particular resonance in this region. Our lives are full of borders, from those that exist between Chicago neighborhoods to the military outposts between Morocco and Algeria. Through storytelling, I aim to uncover and share our common struggles, and our common joys, with people across the world.

While in Morocco as a Fulbright grantee, I came across a rug made with Moroccan patterns, but with Algerian colors. The merchant had no idea from where it came, but that it was something of an anomaly. Traditionally, the bottom of the rug is left open, so that stories and messages can be woven into the bottom of the rug, as time goes on. I brought this rug back to Chicago with me and now this rug is the framing device for our production. Using recorded oral histories from residents of the Moroccan border city of Oujda, I am using my research to develop The Magic Carpet, a new version of the world’s most tragic love story set along the Moroccan-Algerian border.

With the support of 3AP, I hope to produce a staged reading of this piece in late May. Following the reading, and the script workshop process that would accompany it, I plan to return to Morocco in June to conduct a free admission workshop reading of the piece in Oujda, the largest Moroccan city on the Algerian border. The funds I am raising will allow me to pay all of the artists involved with the project a modest stipend, rent the spaces needed, purchase props, and hire a videographer to capture both productions.

Chicago Artists Resource feature on grant-writing for artists by George Bajalia

Granted: George Bajalia

Using “free-writing” to clear his head, this theatre artist buys time to revise.
George Bajalia

When we approached DCASE about recommending a candidate for a successful theater-oriented grant recipient, Director of Cultural Grants Allyson Esposito responded with two words: George BajaliaBajalia’s pitch for the Individual Artist Grant in 2013 was for research funding to travel to the frontier of Morocco and Algeria. There, he would gather materials to produce a high-quality play that showcased those cultures to a Chicago audience.Bajalia is interested in raising awareness through accessible storytelling, focusing on the geopolitical realities of people and the arbitrary borders that define or confine them.

Bajalia won $4,000 to research and produce The Magic Carpet. CAR corresponded with him via email to learn a bit more about how he pitched this successful endeavor to the City. His actual grant application documents are attached to the end of this article.

George Bajalia’s Approach:

Grantors want to fund our projects. They work in the non-profit, educational and civil sectors for a reason. They are actively trying to give financial support for artists, and that’s important to remember. Grantors are trying to help.

I start “free-writing” as soon as I find out about the grant. I ask myself why I want to apply for the grant. What project comes to mind? Why would that project be important to the grantor? For the Individual Artist Programgrant, I read through the prompts to get a sense for whom the funder was, and how the grant fit into to its mission. I didn’t worry about matching my responses to the prompts—or even what I wrote—as long as I got my thoughts down.

Grantors are really looking for someone with a clear vision who can articulate that vision to an outside audience.

This early stage is crucial; it’s when I write my most honest argument for why my work is a good fit for the grant. This writing is more candid than later drafts, but it is important. As I revise my writing, I try to distill the grant application into two questions: “Why is my work right for the grant?”and “Why am I the right person to carry it out?” Sometimes, I also answer the question, “Why right now,” though that answer often becomes evident in the editing process.

Affording myself the time to free-write responses is one of the primary advantages of starting early. Later, during the editing process, this work frees up time to hone my responses to address the prompts in an articulate manner.

Previously, when I applied for a Fulbright grant, I received some very good counsel: Fulbright isn’t always looking for good research, they are looking for good researchers. Grantors are really looking for someone with a clear vision who can articulate that vision to an outside audience.

I have to confess that I don’t always start early. The other good thing about the free-write is that I usually generate much more material than I need. A small amount of it is relevant. I never delete the excess; I compile it in a separate document. This material isn’t necessarily bad, it just may not be right for the proposal at hand. For ongoing projects, it can be really helpful to have this material as starting points for additional applications.

Demonstrate the ability to develop a realistic and executable plan.

Occasionally I’ll solicit the opinion of other directors and writers, but oftentimes I seek out the opinions of colleagues who work in other fields of the arts. Their critiques help me build a sense of the common vocabulary I should use for the proposal. Grant readers are individuals who have in-depth, but extremely varied, experiences with the arts. My proposal to fund a play needs to click with people from a diverse array of backgrounds. Getting feedback from fellow artists and arts administrators gives me a sense of what language is intelligible across backgrounds. It also provides extremely useful insight into how my project plan sits with potential audience members and collaborators.

George’s application had an incredibly clear writing style without sounding overly academic or abstract.

The most appealing thing to grantors is that you demonstrate the ability to develop a realistic and executable plan. Get specific about your plans for the grant’s support. Even if your final product ends up a bit different, these plans show that you have a well-defined framework. Any funds raised advance the project. At the end of the day, the grantor wants to fund somebody. We just need to help them believe in our work as much we do.

Allyson Esposito, director of cultural grants, DCASE:

George’s application had an incredibly clear writing style, conveying the potential and importance of his idea in high level concepts without sounding overly academic or abstract. He is focused on the development of a new work that has an exciting international component. Based on the artist’s work sample, the panel had every confidence that the final product will be involving, multicultural and open up dialogue around arbitrary borders. The premise of exploring arbitrary borders through the tangible metaphor of an incomplete rug is rich in both thematic and visual potential. Exceptionally detailed and accurate budget.

George Bajalia is a Chicago-based theatre artist and cultural critic. His research interests lie at the intersection of cultural globalization, identity performance and transnationalism within the Mediterranean region. Previously he was a Fulbright scholar in Morocco, where he adapted and directed a Moroccan Arabic production of West Side Story in addition to continuing research on the role of performance, on stage and off, in public discourse.

Bajalia is co-founder and artistic director of a transnational mobile arts lab called the Borderline Theatre Project, and is working with the Chicagotheatre company Silk Road Rising on a short film entitled Multi Meets Poly; Multiculturalism and Polyculturalism Go on a First Date. He is also working on his new play, The Magic Carpet, which examines the militarization of the border between Morocco and Algeria and the economies of exchange, both formal and informal, between residents on either side of the border.

Bajalia holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication studies and Mediterranean culture and history from Northwestern University. he is a staff writer for online magazine and a contributor to visual anthropology blog Signs of Seeing.

George Bajalia is also featured on the 3Arts website.


George Bajalia

by George Bajalia

This piece was originally published by Signs of Seeing.

Video link:

North Africa and Southern Europe are divided by a sea, a wide sea, yes, but a sea that for many centuries was little more than a river. Families lived on either side, and still do. Now, however, their movements are governed by national and international bodies with whom they have little relation. Along the eastern edge of Morocco, along the border between Morocco and Algeria, the discrepancy between colonially imposed borders and the people who they separate is pronounced. On the Moroccan side, people wait with knapsacks to unload the cut-rate cigarettes and medicines smuggled in from Algeria. Just outside of Saidia, people stop on the side of the road to wave across a ditch. In Saidia proper, poles and rope demarcate the border on the beach, and military keep watch to make sure that no one crosses in international waters.

In this video, I document a journey down to Figuig to Saidia, and back to Tangier. Taking the ferry from Tangier to Algericas, I crossed from Moroccan waters, into international waters, and into Spanish territory all within 45 minutes. I spent the majority of that time looking back towards Tangier, a white city on a hill, a city I had called home for nearly two years. Just a few short days earlier, I had crossed from Nador into Melilla, a Spanish enclave nestled on Morocco’s coast. A few days later, I would be crossing from La Linéa de Concepcion, Spain into Gibraltar, United Kingdom, and flying out from Gibraltar to London. At the outset of this journey, 2 continents, 3 countries, I spent my time on the ferry looking back. As I looked around me, however, I saw that I was one of the few people gazing back. Most people on the boat, whether business regulars or first time travelers to Spain, were looking forwards. They were looking out to the next step, snapping photos and recording videos of what was to come.

During my time in Tangier, I looked out across the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain and tried to understand how my friends who grew up gazing out across this sea possibly felt about my own travels. I was embarrassed about the privilege I held just by nature of my birth. Tangier was, for me, a nodal point; a point from which I was able to see the world, take ferries to planes to trains to buses and arrive again, safely at the intersection of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. During these years, marked by coming and going from a city with porous borders and a strong informal economy, I came to realize that the passport I carry is the most valuable thing I have, and it doesn’t even belong to me. Driving from Figuig, in the southeast corner of Morocco, to Saidia, in its northeast corner, I carried it in my front pocket. I entertained some fantasy that I would be able to cross the border at some point, as long I had those helpful papers. It was a fantasy and nothing more. And I understood a little bit. Still no answers, but I’m closer to asking the right questions.

Algeria: Politics & Regional Power by George Bajalia

This article was originally published on and has been reprinted here with permission.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Photo credit: Reuters)

[Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Photo credit: Reuters)]

George Bajalia, with contributions from Toshiro Baum

Note: this article is the third in a series focusing on nationalism, human rights, and regional politics in Morocco, Algeria, and the Western Sahara. The previous piece in this compilation can be found here. A brief historical timeline about the conflict has also been created.

Protest, Power, and Regional Security

As popular uprisings rocked North Africa in 2011, protesters in Algeria took to the streets calling for government reforms. Unlike the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, demonstrators in Algeria focused almost exclusively on economic issues rather than regime change. The protests were strongly supported by Algeria’s youth, and highlighted popular frustration with prevailing conditions as well as the regime’s weaknesses. The latter included the advanced age of many government leaders and the common perception they neither comprehended nor represented the concerns of the increasingly marginalized youth. Last May during a speech in the city of Setif, seventy-six year old Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika acknowledged this disconnect admitting that “for us [my generation] it is over,” and declaring the need for a new generation of leaders to take power.

While Algeria may finally be preparing for a transition in leadership, new political faces will not necessarily result in reforms to the regime’s underlying authoritarian and rentier frameworks. As Algeria’s aging leaders pass on the reins of political and economic structures—ranked as some of the most opaque and corrupt in the world—they will work to ensure any domestic push for structural reform does not receive international support. To achieve this, the regime will seek to further entrench Algeria as a key regional security partner for western powers, insisting that its political stability is necessary to counteract emerging terrorist and criminal threats in North Africa, the Sahara, and Sahel. In taking such a position, the regime will claim stability, rather than reform, should be the focus of international interest.

The Algerian state’s policies towards the Western Sahara can only be understood within the context of this aging regime and its dominance of the political landscape. For President Bouteflika and his supporters, Algerian politics has historically been subject two “diametrically opposed [ideological] poles:” democratization, which has led to ‘Islamization,’ and stability. The Bouteflika regime, as well as predecessor governments that ruled during Algeria’s civil war, have demonstrated their commitment to stability at the expense of democracy. In order to garner international support and bring stability to Algeria, the state has pursued a policy of supporting proxy groups in the larger Sahara and Sahel regions, particularly in the Western Sahara.

To ensure its position as the prime security partner in the Maghreb, the Algerian regime is likely to continue its support for regional proxy groups as a relatively cheap and effective method for projecting power into the seemingly ungovernable trans-Saharan territories. Algeria’s support for the Frente POLISARIO movement in the Western Sahara forms a key pillar of this strategy. Since 1973, the Frente POLISARIO has claimed to represent the Saharawi people in their fight for independence from Morocco.

The POLISARIO’s explicit focus on regional territorial disputes, rejection of transnational terrorism, and long-term dependence on Algerian support make it an ideal candidate through which Algeria can manage the Western Sahara’s persistent instability. This relationship ensures, in turn, that Algeria maintains its status as a necessary security partner for the international community, and staves off outside support for domestic reforms, which the Algerian regime views as necessary piece to its domestic and international security.

The Risk of a New Leadership Transition

Long-serving political leaders and single-party dominance are the norm in Algerian politics. From independence in 1962 until the late 1980s, the socialist National Liberation Front (FLN) presided over a one-party state. Since 1962, Algeria has only had five presidents. Of these, two were deposed by the military, one died in office, and the other resigned. Algeria’s current leaders—many of whom fought in the struggle for independence in the 1950s—are preparing to hand over power to a younger generation of leaders, more out of necessity than anything else. Old age and ill health means that few leaders from the independence era can continue in the country’s highest offices.

Current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, took office in 1999 and is nearing the end of his third term. During the summer of 2013, he was hospitalized in France following a stroke and once again returned to the country for further treatment in January 2014. Despite his age and fragile health, Bouteflika is widely expected to win a fourth presidential term in elections to be held in April of this year. Many believe he will transfer power to a successor—or pass away—before his fourth term ends.

While a handover to a younger, more dynamic group of leaders would help the regime connect with an increasingly disenfranchised youth population, any political transition carries the potential for destabilization and unrest. Popular discontent in Algeria has so far been limited, but internecine fighting among regime elites has the potential to drive official corruption and abuses of power into the national spotlight. Combined with domestic and international calls for greater transparency and accountability, this attention could turn low-level popular discontent into a potent challenge to the regime’s stability.

Fear of the Return of the Black Decade

For Algeria, this possibility became an ugly reality in the early 1990s in a decade long civil war known as the “Black Decade.” In December 1991, the Front of Islamic Salvation (FIS), a coalition of Algerian Islamist Parties, won a resounding victory in elections for municipal councils and mayorships.

Invoking fears that an Islamist victory would lead to an Islamic theocracy, Algeria’s military leaders forced the government to suspend then-upcoming elections for national parliament. Popular belief held that the general’s chief concern was not an emerging theocracy but potential investigation into their corrupt dealings. Soon enough, protesters had taken to the streets. Security forces heavily repressed these demonstrations. Within a few months, the government declared a state of emergency while radicalized Islamist supporters launched an armed insurgency against the state. The civil conflict that followed would kill hundreds of thousands of Algerians and displace countless more. Tellingly, two of Algeria’s main international partners, the United States and France, did not denounce militar repression in the early years of the civil war, demand military leaders respect the FIS’ electoral victory, or use their permanent seats in the UN Security Council to pursue international sanctions against the Algerian regime.

As a new generation inherits the regime’s authoritarian structures, the potential for internal power struggles, challenges by domestic opposition groups, or even popular discontent at the continuation of “business as usual” will greatly increase. Fearing a return of the Black Decade (a fear which has only been exacerbated by the Arab Awakening) the Algerian regime has leveraged its new international position as a regional security partner to foreign governments and corporations concerned with their own interests to gain international support for its suppression of domestic challenges and threats. By casting its authoritarian structure as necessary to the preservation of both domestic and regional security, the regime has sought to ensure the tacit support of key international partners should it need to emulate the repressive crackdown of the early 90s.

The President and lePouvoir

Bouteflika came to power based on a platform of general amnesty and national reconciliation after the Black Decade. A longtime proponent of market reform and rapprochement with the West, Bouteflika’s ascension to the presidency reflected a desire among some Algerian powerbrokers to end the country’s long isolation after years of domestic conflict and the collapse of its former patron, the USSR. Known popularly as le Pouvoir, or the “power,” this elite group and its political and economic fortunes are inextricably linked to the shadowy regime.

Upon becoming president, Bouteflika worked quickly to improve Algeria’s foreign relations, which included making new inroads into Africa through the African Union and expanding economic investment in West Africa. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and launch of an American-led “war on terror” gave Algeria the unexpected opportunity to recast its Black Decade as a fight against domestic Islamic terrorists and thereby improve its standing with Western powers, such as France, Spain, and the United States. To fortify these relationships, Algeria positioned itself as a regional security partner, and signed a strategic partnership agreement with the United States.

The POLISARIO, the Western Sahara, and Proxy Power

For Algeria, the Western Sahara has always been linked to a greater struggle. The country’s decade-long fight for independence from France, which began in the 1950s, helped to cement a national narrative and orient the personal worldviews of its early leaders toward fierce support for anti-colonial independence struggles. The 1963 Sand War—the military invasion of the newly independent Algeria launched by Moroccan King Hassan II—added to the regime’s fears. While King Hassan II claimed his actions were aimed at recovering historical Moroccan territory illegally given to Algeria by France, his irredentism presented a real threat to the new Algerian nation.

Algeria based its early support for the POLISARIO on two ideological principles: solidarity with the struggle for self-determination by inhabitants of the Western Sahara and a desire to undermine Morocco’s regional expansion-by-annexation policy. With the 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and the POLISARIO, Algeria began a concerted initiative to become the movement’s primary political backer. Throughout the 1990s, Algeria and POLISARIO politicians, matched by their equally obstructionist Moroccan counterparts, maneuvered to bring a UN-proposed referendum on Western Sahara independence to an inconsequential stalemate. By bringing this process to a halt, these parties were able to limit international influence in the region exclusively to indirect actions undertaken by non-governmental human rights organizations.

Over the last ten years, however, Algeria’s support for the POLISARIO has become part of a strategy for projecting its power into the Sahara and competing for regional dominance. Morocco’s efforts and substantial investment in securing the Western Sahara through direct military control helped prompt Algeria to move beyond the POLISARIO and co-opt armed groups in the region. Through this policy, Algeria has obtained effective and cheap, although not always certain,control over the vast and hard-to-secure expanse stretching across its southern borders, from Mauritania to Mali. Algeria’s proxy relationships give the regime crucial intelligence on the licit and illicit activities of groups operating in the Sahara – ranging from trade, terrorist training, and armed insurrection. Armed with this intelligence, the Algerian regime is uniquely placed to influence the behavior of actors within the Sahara and thus impact the complex relations that govern the region’s security.

Regional Security and the Prospects for Regime Change

As authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Libya collapsed in 2011, maintaining security in the Sahara and Sahel became paramount for countries like Morocco and Algeria. The July 2012 coup and ensuing civil war in Mali illustrated the potentially destabilizing effects of the North African uprisings across the Sahara. For the European Union and United States, the rise of a jihadist statelet in Northern Mali confirmed the fear that ungoverned spaces, such as the Western Sahara, could allow radical Islamic terrorists to operate with impunity.

For international policy makers, the civil war in Mali vindicated Algeria’s adherence to supporting proxies in the Sahara. For example, the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an armed group claiming to fight for an independent Tuareg state in North Africa, became one of Algeria’s main partners in working to defuse and resolve the conflict in Mali. In 2012 the MNLA, along with other armed groups, captured the northern third of Mali. The MNLA eventually helped Algeria recover several diplomats taken hostage by a radical Islamist group in the Malian city of Gao. In a seeming about-face, the MNLA even turned on its former radical Islamist allies, assisted French troops in an intervention supported by Algeria, and became the main interlocutor in the ceasefire agreement between the Malian government and rebels endorsed by Algeria.


The Western Sahara issue has always played a key role in the Algerian regime’s foreign policy calculations. While Algerian support for the POLISARIO emerged initially from a sense of ideological solidarity with a post-colonial struggle, the opportunity to contain an aggressive neighbor quickly made the POLISARIO a useful tool of asymmetric foreign policy. Further inflaming and drawing attention to the Western Sahara issue remains a key piece of this strategy.

Bouteflika’s latest salvo, calling for the expansion of the UN Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara’s (known by its French acronym, MINURSO) mandate to include human rights monitoring, tarnishes Morocco’s human rights reputation and casts the kingdom as a threat to regional stability. Recently, the UN has charged MINURSO with enforcing a cease-fire agreement in the Western Sahara, in addition to preparing for a popular referendum on independence.

Bouteflika’s statement, delivered at a pan-African conference organized in the capital of Algeria’s ally Nigeria, carried significant undertones: Algeria, and not Morocco, should be the dominant diplomatic and political player in North and West Africa. The move is hardly accidental. Over the years, Algeria’s goals have evolved from protecting its borders from Moroccan incursions to preserving its position as a regional security partner to the West. In this regard, Morocco is Algeria’s main competitor for American and European Union partnership.

President Bouteflika’s unspoken message to the region and the international community is that Algeria, and Algeria alone, has the power to draw lines in the Sahara’s shifting sands and keep them from being crossed. With looming presidential elections and an inevitable transfer of political power in the country, ensuring the regime’s stability is key to maintaining its international position as well as preserving le Pouvoir. For the time being, the durability of Algeria’s autocracy rests in part on its use of the POLISARIO both to contain and preoccupy Morocco, and present itself as the only guarantor of security in a region where many European and American policymakers view stability as a top foreign policy priority.

*George Bajalia is a staff writer for Muftah and former Fulbright research grantee in Morocco. Follow him on Twitter @ageorgeb or at Toshiro Baum is a former Fulbright research grantee in Morocco. Follow him on Twitter @toshirobaum.

Whose Sahara? Nationalism, Human Rights, and Stability in North Africa by George Bajalia

This article was originally published in and has been reprinted here with permission.

November 13, 2013

Maghreb United? A sculpture in Oujda, Morocco depicting the flags of Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, complete with the post-Gaddafi flag of Libya (Source: photo by author)

Over the past several weeks, the conflict over the Western Sahara between Morocco and Algeria has resurfaced.

November 6 marked the 38th anniversary of the historic “Green March,” when approximately 350,000 Moroccans marched from the southern city of Tarfaya toward the then Spanish-held Saharan provinces.

The march—hailed by Moroccan King Hassan II as liberating Africa’s final colony—resulted in the division of the Spanish (or “Western”) Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania, setting the stage for a long standing conflict between the People’s Front for the Liberation of Saguia Al Hamra and Rio De Oro (known by its Spanish name of Frente POLISARIO)  and the Kingdom of Morocco.

With the Cold War raging hot, the conflict quickly deteriorated into a standoff between NATO-backed Morocco and the POLISARIO, which was supported by Soviet-allied Algeria.

For human rights activists and politicians in the greater Maghreb region, the “Sahara issue” has remained ever-pressing.

But, over the last forty-years, the Western Sahara  has come back into the limelight for much of the rest of the world during moments of violence and friction between Morocco and Algeria.

On October 28, 2013, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika called for “the expansion of MINURSO (United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara)’ mandate to include human rights monitoring” of alleged human rights violations by Moroccan security forces in the Western Sahara. These alleged violations relate specifically to issues of displacement, refugee rights, and labor camps.

Tensions peaked further when, on November 1, Moroccan protestors scaled the fence of the Algerian consulate in Casablanca, removing the Algerian flag. The date of this event coincided with the 59th anniversary of the beginning of the Algerian war for independence from France.

As a result of these developments, the Western Sahara Caucus has again become active in the United States House of Representatives, as discussion of a UN resolution on the issue has re-emerged, and Moroccan King Mohammed VI is scheduled to meet with Barack Obama on November 22.

Because of this confluence of events, talk of political power plays between Morocco, Algeria, and the POLISARIO, and of potential resolution to the long-standing conflict, will likely return to the fore in US and international media coverage.

A look at developments in the conflict over the Western Sahara, which have taken place over the past six months, provides a helpful context for evaluating the important developments of the past two weeks.

We provide this timeline in wary anticipation of the reductive tendencies of the US mainstream media, and as a reference for readers seeking to understand who benefits from the conflict’s international resurgence.

May 1

Hamid Chabat, Secretary-General of Morocco’s oldest political party (the Istiqlal), calls for Morocco to retake the Algerian provinces of Tindouf, Colomb Bechar, Hassi Baida, and El Knadssa—by force if necessary.

Chabat adds that the French protectorate placed these provinces under the administrative jurisdiction of the Moroccan city of Agadir, and that a treaty signed in 1972 demarcating the border is invalid, as it had not been ratified by the Moroccan parliament.

July 16 

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika returns from France, where he had been seeking medical treatment since April for a stroke.

July 29 

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika sends his official congratulations to Moroccan King Mohamed VI on the occasion of Moroccan Throne Day. Bouteflika declares his commitment to cooperating with Morocco, including reopening the borders between the two countries and resolving the issue of Western Sahara’s sovereignty.

July 31 

During his annual Throne Day speech, Moroccan King Mohamed VI accuses Algeria of preventing political resolution and economic development in the Western Sahara.

August 2

US Representatives Joseph Pitts (R- PA 16) and Betty McCollum (D-MN 4) announce they have restarted the Western Sahara Caucus in the US House of Representatives.

September 10

International human rights organization Amnesty International publishes a report detailing human right abuses—including the 1976 summary execution of two children by Moroccan military forces—in the Western Sahara.

The report also condemns Morocco’s Reconciliation and Equity Commission, created in 2003, for not addressing past abuses in the Sahara.

September 30

A delegation of youth members from the Moroccan socialist party USFP visits Tindouf and meets with POLISARIO Front leaders Bachir Mustapha Sayed and Mohamed Khadad.

October 21

Moroccan security forces disperse pro-separatist/independence protests and sit-ins in the Saharan city of Laayoune. The event is largely ignored by both Moroccan and Algerian media.

October 28

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika denounces “human rights violations” in the Western Sahara at the First Conference African Solidarity for the Independence of the Saharawi People in Abuja, Nigeria.

October 30

UN Secretary-General Personal Envoy for the Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, announces he will return to the region and launch a new initiative to end the dispute over the sovereignty of the Western Sahara.

November 1

During a protest in front of the Algerian consulate in Casablanca, Morocco, a demonstrator reaches the building’s roof and removes the Algerian flag. The Algerian press views the act as intentionally provocative, coming as it does on the 59th anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France. [video]

November 1-3

Protests against removal of the Algerian flag from the Algerian consulate spread across Algeria. The Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and politicians condemn the incident and demand an apology from Morocco. Abdallah Belkaziz, Moroccan Ambassador to Algeria, is recalled to Rabat.

November 4

Abdallah Belkaziz, Moroccan Ambassador to Algeria, returns to Algiers and offers Morocco’s official regrets, but no apology, for the flag removal incident.

November 6

On the 38th anniversary of Morocco’s Green March, King Mohammed VI reiterates that “the Sahara issue is every Moroccan’s cause with no exception. It is everyone’s duty.”

November 8

A video begins to make its way across social media reportedly depicting a group of Algerian youth burning the Moroccan flag. [video]

November 8

US Secretary of State John Kerry postpones a scheduled trip to Morocco and Algeria as he makes a stop in Geneva to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.

November 22

Moroccan King Mohammed VI is scheduled to meet with US President Barack Obama in Washington.

It is certainly tempting to read this timeline as simply one of escalations and tension in Algerian-Moroccan relations, interspersed with attempted interventions by international institutions.

We, however, propose a new reading of these events, grounded in domestic factors within both countries. As this reading shows, both countries have used the Western Sahara as a way to distract from turmoil inside their borders.

The lessons of the Arab Spring implanted themselves on the leaders of both nations. While Morocco and Algeria have been relatively untouched by the region’s political instability, both regimes have stoked nationalist fervor over the Western Sahara as a prime method for rallying popular support.

In a perverse turn, Algerian and Moroccan leaders have also made reference to international organizations and the language of human rights in their political salvos on the conflict.

In doing so, they have undermined the struggle for democracy within their countries - suddenly, universal values and human rights are no longer a rallying point for domestic activists seeking reform.

While both nations have been elected to membership in the UN Human Rights Council, the reality, of course, is that both Morocco and Algeria are human rights offenders.

The steady stream of sub-Saharan migrants crossing Morocco and Algeria adds another dimension to the conflict over the Western Sahara.

Moroccan Interior Minister Mohammed Hassad and Immigration Minister Anas Birou recently revealed new plans for comprehensive immigration reform that seeks to “regularize” irregular migrants, many of whom can spend years residing in Morocco or Algeria on their way north.

While this new legislation has been hailed as a positive step, it raises the possibility that a growing migrant community—empowered with new legal status in Morocco—may begin to advocate for equal status in Algeria, or even a path to full citizenship in both countries.

As these examples demonstrate, international posturing over the Sahara is a convenient distraction from the more difficult discussions that need to take place between these governments and their own populations, as well as with the international community at large.

*George Bajalia is a staff writer for Muftah and former Fulbright research grantee in Morocco. Follow him on Twitter @ageorgeb or at Toshiro Baum is a former Fulbright research grantee in Morocco. Follow him on Twitter @toshirobaum.