Western Sahara

WESTERN SAHARA: Unrest will grow without policy shift

December 9, 2010

EVENT: The Polisario movement on December 7 called on the UN to investigate Morocco's clearing of a Sahrawi protest camp outside Laayoune last month.

SIGNIFICANCE: Riots and violence at the time of the clearing saw at least eleven people killed and constituted the most significant unrest since Morocco took control of the territory. The events and their aftermath could prove to be a game-changer.

ANALYSIS: The Western Sahara conflict is often described as the oldest decolonisation conflict in the world, as well as a relic of the Cold War. Western Sahara was ceded from Spain to Morocco in 1975, but the Polisario movement, backed by Algiers and Moscow, called for independence. The conflict has perdured through guerrilla warfare in the 1980s, a ceasefire in 1991 and several attempts at brokering a solution by referendum from the late 1990s.

From 2004 onwards, Morocco began to refuse a referendum, advocating a special autonomous status for Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty, which it presented to the United Nations in 2007. With backing from Morocco's Western allies (notably the United States, France and Spain), the UN has brokered direct talks between the parties, but multiple rounds have stumbled on Morocco's refusal to consider anything other than its autonomy plan and the Polisario's refusal to abandon the referendum plan.

Rising tension. The latest round of talks on November 8-9 ended without progress, and their atmosphere was strained; they coincided with violence outside Laayoune, Western Sahara's largest city, where Moroccan security forces on November 8 dismantled the largest protest camp in the history of the territory under Moroccan rule. A month later, the situation on the ground remains tense, and Laayoune is on high security alert; dozens of Sahrawis are detained, awaiting trial. Morocco is still dealing with the public relations fallout of the events and is engaged in a fierce media battle with the Polisario.

November protests. Western Sahara has at times been volatile, with local protests in 2005 and 2009 driven by a mixture of conflict-related issues and economic grievances stemming from high unemployment and government favouritism towards certain Sahrawi individuals and clans. The recent crisis shows a similar mixture of grievances, but on a significantly wider scale.

Starting in mid-October, droves of Sahrawis began to congregate in Agdaym Izik, 15 kilometres east of Laayoune, setting up traditional Sahrawi tents. Their aim was to protest against economic conditions, high unemployment and unequal sharing of the profits of the region's resources, most notably phosphate mining and fishing. By the end of the month, their numbers were said to amount to more than 12,000.

Political demands associated with the Polisario were initially conspicuously absent, a factor that may have encouraged Rabat to negotiate with the protesters rather than repress them outright. Representatives from the makeshift camp secured some guarantees from the government, including:

promises to register more Sahrawis to be eligible for welfare;

greater eligibility for government jobs; and

the departure of notoriously corrupt pro-Moroccan Sahrawis from positions of influence over the territory.

By November 4, negotiators had reached a tentative agreement with the authorities and had gone back to the protesters to put the proposal to them. Morocco was keen to resolve the crisis before negotiations started in New York.

Violence. During this time, Morocco refrained from using violence. While it increased security and prevented outsiders from entering the camp, protesters could enter and leave at will. One incident, in which a car forced a checkpoint resulting in the death of a 14-year-old boy and several wounded, was agreed to have been due to the recklessness of a small group whose activities were disavowed by the rest of the camp. For the Moroccans, in the run-up to talks and with the world's eye on the camp (especially in Spain), it was deemed essential not allow the situation to escalate or provoke violence that would make Morocco look like an oppressor.

The failure of the Sahrawi negotiators to convince the protesters that they had secured enough concessions (perhaps due to factionalism in the camp) may have been the lynchpin of the escalation that was to follow:

As talks failed, separatist demands began to re-emerge -- whether as a result of popular frustration, or a takeover by the Polisario, which Morocco alleged.

Moroccan authorities decided to disband the camp and began firing water cannons against the tents.

Troops were instructed to minimise the use of violence and not to use firearms. Some protesters began to leave, but others started throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at troops.

According to Moroccan press reports, some soldiers were surrounded and killed with knives.

Protesters laid waste to Laayoune, burning and pillaging shops owned by Moroccans and attacking symbols of Moroccan sovereignty such as police stations.

Rabat's official account claims 13 fatalities, eleven of which are soldiers; the government denied that any civilian casualties were caused by Morocco, blaming the rioters and Polisario. Sahrawi activists allege at least a dozen civilian deaths (the Polisario claims there were 'dozens'), torture and hundreds of arrests. Morocco has turned down a UN call for an independent investigation.

Outlook. Even with the violence under control, the incident may have a long-term impact on the conflict. For years, activists had warned of an impending explosion, with an older generation saying it could not prevent the radicalisation of younger Sahrawis. Given that when it came, the key grievances aired were as much, if not more, about economic governance and the corrupt elite as they were separatist, it is clear that the number of Sahrawis who are not necessarily sympathetic to the Polisario but are nonetheless losing patience is growing. Moreover, the events deeply embarrassed Morocco on the international scene, putting allies such as Spain under pressure from a generally pro-Polisario public.

Yet the hardening in attitudes since the riots makes the prospect of progress in peace talks slim. Morocco therefore faces a crucial decision:

Policy shift. Thus far, its autonomy proposal, which has held out only a vague idea of limited self-governance for Sahrawis, has offered little concrete to the local population. Already rejected by separatists, it is now facing growing opposition from those who might have accepted it, because of Morocco's method of governing through corrupt elites and the subsequent poor distribution of resources. Moreover, between the Polisario and Rabat-sponsored elites, many Sahrawis are not accurately represented. A first step for Rabat may be to provide a more democratic manner to represent Sahrawi interests so that more representative leaders can provide a better interface with Rabat.

Repression and unilateral action. However, Morocco's response to the protests reflects an inclination to repress unrest rather than address grievances. This tactic could become increasingly difficult under international scrutiny; last year, authorities refused entry to Western Sahara's best-known activist, Aminatou Haidar, prompting her to go on hunger strike for 30 days, but an international outcry and a concerted diplomatic effort forced Morocco to back down. Nonetheless, there is a risk that Morocco will continue in this approach, while simultaneously taking unilateral steps to advance its regional autonomy plan. Yet, given opposition to this plan from both Polisario supporters and increasing numbers of the wider population, further violence and unrest is highly likely.

CONCLUSION: The Agdaym Izik events could prove to be a turning point. The clear widening of dissatisfaction means that Morocco may be forced to reconsider its approach to governing the territory, notably the practice of handpicking corrupt local elites as proxies. However, its response to the riots combined with the enduring impasse in negotiations suggests that it may instead favour a repressive approach and a unilateral advancement of its regional autonomy plan; if it does, radicalisation could accelerate and make future unrest inevitable.


Oxford Analytica
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