Alhurra TV, which is in principle owned by the US Agency for Global Media, took Moroccans by surprise on Tuesday, August 20, when it broadcast a recorded interview with the leader of the Polisario, Brahim Ghali.
Washington D.C. – The timing of the interview was a shock for viewers. That the video was aired on the day that Moroccans were celebrating the 66th anniversary of the King and the People’s Revolution, was an affront to Morocco and its people.
August 20, 1953, holds a special importance in the hearts of the Moroccan people. It signaled a major shift in Moroccans’ struggle against the French protectorate, and by extension against the Spanish in northern and southern Morocco, including in Western Sahara.
The current territorial dispute would not have existed had not France and Spain signed a secret accord in October 1904. By virtue of the agreement, Spain was given full possession and sovereignty over a large swath of southern Morocco, including Western Sahara. This historical fact has been systematically overlooked in the traditional narrative about the conflict.
By airing an interview with the leader of a separatist movement- which has been used for four decades as a proxy by Algeria to stymie Morocco’s ambitions to complete its territorial integrity- Alhurra TV has shown clear bias in its reporting about the conflict, and a total disregard for the feelings of millions of Moroccans.
What raises even more questions about the rationale behind such an interview is that it comes during a period of stagnation. There have been no major developments in the conflict in recent months. Since the Security Council adopted Resolution 2468, there has been zero progress in the political process. More still, the chances of seeing significant progress in the foreseeable future are very slim, following the resignation of now former UN envoy to the Western Sahara, Horst Kohler, in May.
The only developments to take place in the region in recent months are the series of arrests that the Polisario has made against its political opponents and the hunger strikes that many political prisoners in the Tindouf camps have been observing over the past three months.
Casting Morocco as the villain
Against this backdrop, the intention and the agenda of the interview was clear-cut. It was a thinly veiled opportunity for Ghali to appear as a respectable leader and the head of genuine liberation movement. Speaking to the journalist, he styled himself as the advocate of a people who have been victimized by a country intent on perpetuating their suffering in the Tindouf camps. It was, then, not surprising to see a one-sided interview where the interlocutor was given free rein to lash out at, and demonize its adversary .
Ghali could not have dreamed of a better opportunity, especially in the regional and international context in which the interview was aired. The Polisario has been losing steam in recent years and has suffered a number of setbacks. Among them, the recent report of the UN Secretary General and subsequent resolution of the Security Council, which ended the myth of “liberated territories,” long propagated by the Polisario. In the same vein, the Security Council is progressively moving towards considering Algeria fully-fledged party to the conflict.
Meanwhile, many countries that previously recognized the self-styled Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), have either suspended or withdrawn their recognition. Malawai, Panama, Haiti, Paraguay, Mauritius, Barbados, El Salvador, Zambia, and Suriname are among a long of list of countries that have withdrawn their recognition of the self-proclaimed SADR.
In addition, the Polisario has been beset by a growing protest movement in the Tindouf camps, with an ever increasing number of Saharawis questioning its leadership. To top it all, there have been a number of reports, such as the recent report in the Wall Street Journal, suggesting that the US opposes the establishment of a new state in southern Morocco. The former Mauritanian President, Mohamed Ouled Abdel Aziz spoke along the same lines earlier this year when he told Palestinian journalist Abdelbari Atwane that neither the US nor the EU are in favor of the creation of a state between Morocco and Mauritania.
It was appalling to see the journalists asking the Polisario leader easy questions to which he responded in the same way as Polisario leaders have always done: that the Saharawis have been the victims of Morocco’s expansionist agenda. He argued that the Saharawis have nothing to do with Morocco and would never accept the option of autonomy, because they are not Moroccans. He gave the predictable answer that Morocco is the main party to blame for the deadlock in the political process because it has persisted in its attempts to prevent the holding of a referendum of self-determination to allow the Saharawis to decide their fate.
Simply put, the Polisario leader was given a golden opportunity to question Morocco’s commitment to the UN political process and to dismiss Morocco as a “regime” that has been lying to its population and the international community “to the point that it starts believing its lies.” Ghali, who took on the mantle of a head of state, went as far as describing Morocco as an “undisciplined” member of the African Union, who seeks to create problems, instead of working towards advancing the AU development, security and prosperity agenda.
Had the Polisario leader been in front of an impartial, professional and truth-seeking journalist who sought to provide the audience with even-handed views about the matter at hand, the journalist would have challenged Ghali. For example, he would have told him that, contrary to his allegations, Morocco plays a leading role in the development agenda in the AU by being one of the leading foreign investors on the continent.
A true, impartial journalist would also have told Ghali that Morocco plays a prominent role in guaranteeing food security in Africa. This role was lauded only last week by Nigerian Muhamady Bouhari who tweeted his praise for Morocco’s role in bringing Nigerian agriculture to a higher level.
Morocco’s goal in ensuring food security across the continent is poised to grow in the future through the many agreements it has signed with African countries, including Nigeria and Ethiopia, where Office Cherifien of Phosphate will build multi-billion-dollar fertilizer plants.
Had the journalist’s main aim, and the interview’s main goal been to enlighten the audience about the multifaceted aspects of the conflict, and Morocco’s growing role as heavyweight in Africa, he would have mentioned the leading role Morocco has played over the past six years in speaking about migration on behalf of Africa in international forums, and calling on the international community to shoulder its responsibility in helping Sub-Saharan Africa cope with the issue of undocumented immigration.
While Algeria has been accused of dumping thousands of African immigrants in the desert, and an Algerian minister even accused the immigrants of causing the transmission of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, Morocco has launched two campaigns to regularize the situation of undocumented immigrants. More than 50,000 Sub-Saharan immigrants benefited from these two campaigns, turning Morocco into the first north African country to take such a measure.
At the regional and global level, Morocco has also been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism. Morocco’s anti-extremism initiatives include the spread of the noble values of Islam through education. For example, over the past four years, Morocco has trained more than 3,000 imams from several African countries.
All these facts refute the allegations that Ghali made against Morocco, but the interviewing journalist was not interested in providing an honest and impartial report to Alhurra’s viewers.
Additionally, at no point did the journalist try to interrupt Ghali or challenge him with hard or embarrassing questions, or even facts that contradict his allegations. No questions were asked about the reasons behind the Polisario and Algeria’s refusal to allow the UNHCR to conduct a census of the population in the Tindouf camps. Neither did the journalist try to challenge Ghali’s claim that the Saharawis are not Moroccans by pointing out that many founding members of the Polisario, such as Bashir Dkhil, Brahim Khalil, Omar Hadrami, defected and returned to Morocco over a decade ago, and have since denounced Algeria’s hijacking of the Polisario.
No questions were posed either about the series of human rights abuses the Polisario has committed in recent months against political opponents, nor its heavy-handed policy to stifle dissent in the Tindouf camps. Human Rights Watch denounced these violations in a report it released last month.
In the report, HRW called on the Polisario to free three detainees, who were arrested and jailed without due process. Polisario detained the three activists for simply denouncing “absence of dialogue” and the “lack of alternatives to repression”. They also also said Polisario’s “corrupt leadership” was “trembling [in reaction] to what is happening to their masters in Algeria” and demanded that the Polisario show more willingness to engage with Morocco to find a solution to the conflict.
Brushing evidence under the carpet
No questions were asked about Ghali’s views on the protests taking place in Algeria, and whether he fears that a democratically elected president would stop providing diplomatic political, financial, and military support to the Polisario movement. Instead the journalist chose to ask a trivial question about whether the political situation in Algeria would have any impact on the latter’s support for the Polisario.
When the journalist asked Ghali about the reports documenting the systematic embezzlement of humanitarian aid devoted to the Tindouf camps, the Polisario leader dismissed them as mere lies “invented and propagated” by Morocco. while Ghali engaged in a tirade against Morocco, the journalist failed to interrupt him or challenge his claims by citing the report conducted by the European Union Anti-Fraud Committee, known as OLAF.
The report was conducted between 2003 and 2005 but was only released in 2015. It documented, with irrefutable evidence, how Polisario and Algerian leaders have been misappropriating the humanitarian aid destined for the camps for the past four decades.
The heavily redacted report gives damning and troubling details on how Algerian and Polisario officials have resorted to all sorts of schemes to enrich themselves to the detriment of the very people they claim to defend and represent. The report documents how the Polisario takes high quality donations, such as milk, to sell on the black market in Mauritania and Mali. The high quality produce, intended for the Tindouf camp’s inhabitants, is then replaced with lower quality goods. The profits of the enterprise go straight into the pockets of the Polisario leadership.
In addition to the embezzlement schemes, the Polisario used Moroccan prisoners to build several administrative facilities and then billed international donors for the construction of the infrastructure, as if the manpower was provided by the Saharawis themselves.
Alhurra’s links with the UAE
Many Moroccans must be wondering why Alhurra TV has all of a sudden decided to shift its editorial line on the Western Sahara and give the Polisario a platform to demonize Morocco and market itself as a genuine liberation movement that has been engaged in a struggle to recover its territory.
The interview is reminiscent of the report aired by the Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV last January, in which there was a clear pro-Polisario narrative. The common denominator of the two reports is the hidden hand of the UAE and its determination to retaliate against Morocco for not siding with the Saudi-led coalition against Qatar.
It has become an open secret in recent months that Alhurra TV has come under the grip of the UAE through an alleged, undisclosed link between the channel’s original owners and the Middle Eastern country. For almost a year, readers and viewers of Alhurra have noticed a marked and substantial shift in the channel’s reporting about the Middle East, with the spotlight being shined on countries that don’t align with the UAE agenda.
The vice-President of Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN), which owns Alhurra, Alhurra Iraq, Radio Sawa, Alhurra.com; RadioSawa.com; Irfaasawtak.com; MaghrebVoices.com; ElSaha.com, is none other than Jordanian Nart Bouran. Bouran previously worked for seven years as the head of the Abu-Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia.
Immediately after his resignation from Sky News over a year ago, he set out to establish his new work team in Alhurra headquarters in Springfield, Virginia, bringing with him many of his former colleagues form Abu-Dhabi.
That Alhurra’s editorial line shifted immediately after it was taken over by Bouran is very telling. Viewers can be left in no doubt about which country is calling the shots at Alhurra, and the agenda it is now pursuing.
With the airing of yesterday’s interview, the new direction of Alhurra and its perspective on the Western Sahara issue were drawn into sharp focus for Morocco. This ultimate provocation to the Moroccan people is evidence that Morocco can no longer rely on the lip service that some Arab countries have paid to the kingdom’s position on Western Sahara.
The Al Arabiya and Alhurra’s episodes demonstrate that countries which, until very recently, were thought to be indefectible Moroccan allies, are ready to strong-arm Morocco and stab it in the back if it does not follow their diktats and aligns with their agendas. The Moroccan government should take note and act accordingly to prevent any party from undermining its strategic interests, its national security, and stability.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis.