The New Yorker’s Nicolas Niarchos published a long report about Western Sahara on Saturday, December 29.
Washington D.C – The article portrays the conflict exactly the way Algerians and Polisario love it: Morocco is “occupying” the territory, it “oppresses” the Sahrawis, there is “no freedom of movement there,” and the “Sahara” never belonged to Morocco.
The author even used a treaty that dates back to 1767 to give the reader the false impression that Morocco never considered Western Sahara as part of its territory. But Niarchos did not say that since the signing of the treaty, Morocco had never accepted its interpretation by the Spanish crown at the time.
Many researchers have pointed out that Spain misused the Spanish language version of the treaty to its advantage and ignored Morocco’s objections that in the Arabic version, Article 18 of the treaty referring to modern-day Western Sahara never acknowledged that the territory was not under Morocco’s sovereignty.
In his attempts to use historical agreement to prove that Morocco’s claims over the territory are not solid, the author omits the treaty signed between Morocco and the UK in March 1895 in which the British recognized that Western Sahara belonged to Morocco.
Pushing the Algerian story and controlling the narrative
Niarchos does not seek to inform the reader about the intricacies of the conflict. His main objective is to push the Algerian narrative and portray Morocco as an “occupier” and the main obstacle to a final solution to the conflict. Hence his selective use of historical facts to back up his narrative.
It is striking that the author gives no voice to any analyst or academic who may challenge the overtone of his article, its omissions, misrepresentations and inaccuracies. What is even more striking is that the article makes no mention of the fact that Algeria has supported Polisario at the political, diplomatic, military, and financial levels since its inception over 40 years ago. The main message of the article is to stress that the conflict is strictly between Morocco and Polisario.
Nor does Niarchos mention the embezzlement by the Polisario leadership and the Algerian government of the humanitarian aid destined to the Tindouf camps for the past four decades, let alone that the inhabitants of the camps have no freedom of movement inside Algeria nor can they obtain refugee cards from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
A report of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in 2009 said that Polisario deters Sahrawis from visiting Mauritania by requiring that applicants leave family members and assets behind. In addition, no Sahrawis can travel to a foreign country without a green light from Polisario and Algeria.
Polisario’s constitution states that no political parties can be established in the Tindouf camps until the “independence” of Western Sahara. In addition, Polisario does not allow any opinions that might challenge its legitimacy within the Tindouf camps or its handling of the UN-led political process.
Mustafa Salma Oueld Sidi Mouloud, former head of the Polisario police, has paid a heavy price since 2010 for expressing a dissenting opinion and stating the Moroccan autonomy plan could pave the way to ending the conflict. He was first imprisoned and then expelled from the camps and prevented from reuniting with his family.
In my several discussions with him, Mustafa Salma confided to me that any Sahrawi who harbors different views from Polisario is accused of treason, harassed, and harshly punished by the Polisario leadership.
A sober reminder of Polisario’s intransigence with dissenting voices in the camps was the statement made by Bachir Mustapha Sayed, the self-styled minister of the interior of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Commenting on the establishment of “Sahrawi Initiative for Change,” Mustapha Sayed said, “Anybody who splinters from the Polisario, or seeks to establish a new organization will deserve no mercy or sympathy from our side, nor appreciation of his idea.”
Instead of providing the reader with a balanced approach, Niarchos steers away from questioning Polisario’s leadership and its manipulation by Algeria. He portrays the Tindouf camps as a quasi-functioning state where “schools operate and dispensaries provide food and medicine and a legal code is in force, and courts try cases.” He claims that economic conditions have “improved” to the point of talking about “quasi capitalism.”
Niarchos paraphrased a Polisario official who said “women in the Sahrawi refugee camps enjoy a level of empowerment unusual in the wider Arab world.”
The resemblance in the language used in the article and that used in David Keene’s articles about the conflict is striking. In an op-ed published in 2010, David Keene claimed that the Polisario’s constitution is “almost unique among Muslim nations in that it guarantees residents the vote and provides equal rights for women.” In another op-ed published in 2004, he asserted that Polisario “built a functioning democracy that guarantees equal rights to men and women.”
Morocco should neutralize Algeria’s PR campaign
The way in which the article is written and how the debate was framed shows that it is conspicuously the result of the PR work being done by David Keene since he was hired by Algeria in November. Through the publication of this article, the Algerians seek to set the debate and control the narrative, and they have succeeded so far.
One would be naive to think that a reporter who has never written about the conflict has, all of a sudden, taken interest in it and wants to educate people about it. This is Washington D. C. lobbying firms’ playbook.
When a lobbying firm wants to raise awareness about any given issue and mobilize support for it, it picks a reporter, pays for a round-trip plane ticket and accommodation, and arranges for the reporter to meet select people. Upon returning from the trip, the reporter writes an article that promotes the narrative that his friends seek to promote in Washington.
There is no shortage of examples that show how foreign countries use lobbying firms to cajole friendly reporters into writing damaging reports about their adversaries.
Since Algeria hired David Keene in early November, I have said repeatedly that it was a warning sign for Morocco, and Moroccan officials should be on alert and mobilized more than ever before.
In light of the well-orchestrated media campaign that Algeria launched in the past two months, one wonders what the Moroccan PR firms that the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs hired in early 2018 have been doing to neutralize the Algerian narrative and push for Morocco’s position in Washington, D.C. For the past year, I have seen neither media activity on their part nor articles in any major US media, less alone any hearings in Congress to push for the Moroccan narrative.
As I have said in my previous article, Moroccan diplomats should take stock of the work its PR firms have done and assess the impact of their work on the public debate in Washington about the conflict. It does not only take a Washington-based firm to win support for one’s political agenda.
For the past two years, Morocco has been dealing with an unconventional and unpredictable administration that does not necessarily abide by the same principles that governed US foreign policy in the past. Moroccan media and observers would do a disservice to their country if they do not take this seriously.
The recent American decision to withdraw troops from Syria should serve as a reminder about the unpredictability of this administration and the need to work tirelessly to avoid any development that might jeopardize Morocco’s vital interests.
Meanwhile, other analysts have tried to downplay the risk that the Bolton effect and Algeria’s PR campaign pose for Morocco and preferred to stick to the same timeworn narrative of Morocco’s relations with the United States. According to this narrative, the US would not turn its back on Morocco because of the strength of bilateral ties between the two countries.
Moroccan media and analysts should show more commitment to call things by their name and give readers and officials the full picture of what is at stake. There is no doubt that Moroccan diplomatic efforts have made substantial gains in recent years. But the gains will be lost if Morocco does not work proactively to prevent Algeria from shaping the debate about the conflict in Washington.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis.