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A Bloody Plan

Clashes between Rabat and Sahrawis redefine talks

Moroccan forces dismantle a camp housing thousands of refugees in the Western Sahara, near Laayoune, on 8 November 2010. The security forces were ordered to empty a camp housing some 12,000 people set up four weeks before outside Laayoune, the main town in the Western Sahara, in a protest against the deterioration of living standards.

Morocco’s November assault on the Saharan refugee camp known as Gadaym Izik marked a new phase in the US and EU policies toward Morocco. As the conflict in the Western Sahara moves to the forefront of Morocco’s priorities, international opinion has become more critical of Rabat than ever. As a result, a different set of factors has become the foundation upon which new rules of political and diplomatic engagement are being initiated.

Until clashes at the Saharan refugee camp near Al-Ayoun in November, Morocco’s conflict with residents of the Western Sahara, known as Sahrawis and represented by the Polisario Front, had been a mostly domestic affair. By maintaining an upper hand over the inhabitants of the area, Rabat had generally managed to contain the spread of news from the area that could potentially damage Morocco’s image. Similar to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, the Moroccan government fully controls access to the Sahara— disputed territory since Spain withdrew in 1975—often preventing journalists and representatives of international organizations from entering the area.

The clashes, which had started at the Gadaym Izik refugee camp, proved to be a turning point in the history of the conflict between Morocco and the Sahrawis. What was a peaceful demonstration against the high rate of unemployment and lack of social services escalated into full-scale clashes between Moroccan security forces and camp residents that lasted several days, resulting in the death of 10 Moroccan policemen and two Sahrawis, in addition to the arrest of 163 people.

Although Morocco promised to conduct an investigation into the incident, both the Polisario Front and the EU—in a significant policy shift—recommended an independent investigation. Meanwhile, the Moroccan government assured the international community that it had presumably taken every precaution to minimize casualties during the raid, and that they did not use live rounds. Instead, the authorities blamed Sahrawi paramilitary elements allegedly linked to the Polisario Front and the Algerian government of “hijacking” the demonstration and turning it into a political rally.

Despite the many troubles the Sahrawis face, they do enjoy support among key players in the region, including Spain and Algeria. For years now, Algeria has shown unwavering support for the Polisario Front and the Sahwari right to self-determination. Currently, more than 160 thousand Sahrawis live in the Tindouf refugee camp, located at the Algerian-Saharan border, and considered by many to be the heart of a future Saharan state. As a leading world producer of natural gas and oil, Algeria needs to build a pipeline from the Western Sahara coast directly to Spain in order to sell oil and gas to Europe and the US without Moroccan interference (an Algerian-owned pipeline crossing Morocco into Spain is in use at the moment, but the Algerian government has complained that Morocco is stealing from them).

The Sahrawis, for their part, have had a trying relationship with the US and the EU, particularly since 9/11, because several governments were able to use “the war on terror” as an excuse to win political and financial support from the West at the expense of Western Sahara.

Since its launch, the war on terror has superseded human rights issues in importance. And this, in turn, enabled Morocco to voice concerns over a presumably growing Islamist threat in the Sahara desert. Rabat also presented itself as an essential partner in the war on terror in the region, thus further strengthening Moroccan-US-EU relations. The West, therefore, lent its full support to Morocco’s Autonomy Plan for the Western Sahara, while accepting Rabat’s tight control over the territory.

Prior to the clashes at Gadaym Izik, Morocco’s plan continued to enjoy support among several countries, including permanent members of the UN Security Council such the US and France, as well as other Arab and Latin American countries. However, after November, leading voices in these countries condemned the event and alluded to repercussions in their ties with Rabat at the political and economic levels.

Joining these voices were members of the political and business communities, who, due to Morocco’s poor human rights record, in addition to rampant corruption, are finding it increasingly difficult to engage with the country. In a recent WikiLeaks cable, one businessman commented: “While corrupt practices existed during the reign of King Hassan II… they have become much more institutionalized with King Mohammed VI.”

Soon after the incidents at Gadaym Izik and the street battle at Al-Ayoun, the EU commissioner for Fisheries, Maria Damanaki, demanded proof from the Moroccan Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Aziz Akhannouch that the Sahrawis were benefiting from the EU fishing concessions granted to Morocco—an agreement due to expire in three months. Because Akhannouch has yet to provide such proof, the commissioner is currently exploring other options, such as restricting EU sailing in Moroccan waters and demarcation to give the Sahrawis access.

As for the Sahrawis, though the clashes at Gadaym Izik have boosted global support for their self-determination, they have also cast a shadow over future negotiations with their Moroccan counterparts. The most recent negotiations at the UN in New York, where they were to discuss the autonomy plan, ended without progress. Today, both parties are preparing for what might prove to be a tough round of negotiations in March 2011.

Even though Morocco has so far prevented international investigation into the incident at Gadaym Izik, the kingdom’s prestige, image and credibility are on the line. Morocco needs to make a move and show progress in negotiations, otherwise Rabat might lose more than economic agreements, licenses and concessions.

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