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.