Even as international observers applaud Morocco’s “serious” autonomy, the mantra—self-determination, colonization— has remained unchanged in pro-Polisario circles.
Rabat – The Polisario leadership is not happy with the trajectory that things appear to be taking in the Western Sahara question.
Both the article and the video made the point that, as terrorism and other insecurity threats loom on the horizon in North Africa, especially at the Morocco-Algeria and Morocco-Mauritania borders, Washington is not very welcoming of the prospect of a new state in the region.
“But officials involved in the talks said the U.S. has made it clear that Washington won’t support a plan that leads to a new African nation. That tacit agreement might not go over well with the Sahrawi independence activists,” WSJ correspondent Dion Nissenbaum remarked in the article.
While this was the piece’s most shattering blow to Polisario’s statehood ambitions, another central takeaway from other recent reports on the matter is that the overwhelming perception in Washington and a great many other capitals is that the creation of a new state in North Africa will create more harm than good.
As one should have expected, these arguments have stirred disappointment, rage, and outrage in pro-Polisario circles.
Earlier this week, on August 19, Joseph Huddleston from the South Orange Township in New Jersey, and apparently a Polisario sympathizer, and Kamal Fadel, the Polisario representative to Australia and New Zealand, responded to Nissenbaum’s report.
They hit back at what they said is an unbalanced narrative that gives more credit to the Moroccan side of the Western Sahara story rather than tell the whole truth of what is going on in the territory.
Huddleston’s remarks were aimed at both the video and the article. While describing both items as “thorough and evenhanded overall” and congratulating Nissenbaum for “bringing attention to the oft-ignored conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front over the North African territory,” he reproached the story for not being objective enough.
For Huddleston, the report “wrongly asserts that an independent Saharan state would pose a risk to regional stability.” Rather than refusing the Polisario its wishes by obsessing over the potential terrorism haven the territory may turn into once the separatist front is granted its demands, he argued, the international’s community should focus on the apparently satisfactory gains that the Polisario leadership has obtained for its self-styled Saharan Republic.
“Western Sahara’s Sahrawi people have built an entire state apparatus. The Sahrawi Republic is a longtime member of the African Union and is recognized by dozens of countries. It wins lawsuits in international courts.
“The governing Polisario Front polices the area around the camps and has cooperated with international security efforts against trafficking and terrorism. The claim that an independent Western Sahara would likely be unstable and offer a foothold to Islamic State is misguided conjecture.”
Fadel, Polisario’s Australia and New Zealand ambassador, was even more vigorous in his disagreement with Nissenbaum. Calling out Morocco’s “illegal occupation” of Western Sahara, he directed the bulk of his outrage at the fact that the article was promoting the “dangerous” idea that “maintaining the status quo is the best option.”
Sustaining the current status quo is, according to Fadel, an option that “Morocco has tirelessly lobbied for” in Washington and in other places that may influence the UN’s final take on settling the decades-long conflict. “But it [maintaining the status quo] would be dangerous for Western Sahara and the Maghreb region and costly for the UN and the US,” the Polisario official said.
More than an opinionated reaction to the apparent outrage of WSJ’s points about Washington fearing the risks of instability associated with a Polisario-governed territory, or the Trump administration’s desire to honor its strategic friendship with Morocco, the comments from Fadel and Huddleston also speak of a forlorn attempt to silence or dispel what is perceptibly becoming a Morocco-friendly momentum in the UN-led negotiations.
Over the past months and especially since the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2468 in late April, the overriding idea among diplomatic circles with access to the goings-on of the UN process has been that referendum is no longer a practical way forward in ending Western Sahara’s political impasse.
One telling instance was the omission of referendum in Resolution 2468. Instead, the document called for “compromise and realism,” two talking points that have long been an essential part of Morocco’s stance.
It also called on Algeria and Mauritania to shoulder more responsibility in negotiations, to be full-fledged participants in the political process rather than “third parties” or “neighboring states” with negligible weight when it comes to influencing the terms and outcome of the negotiations.
The document has consequently been perceived as advancing Morocco’s agenda. One unmissable illustration of such a widespread perception came late last month when Brahim Ghali, the leader of the separatist front, urged refugees in the Tindouf camps to “prepare for an inevitable war” against Morocco.
By his own admission, Ghali’s impromptu war speech was motivated by concerns over great powers’ support (mainly France and the US) for Morocco.
Fadel summoned that line of reasoning in his rebuttal of the WSJ report. While he did not adopt Ghali’s belligerent tone, the Polisario representative suggested that the “Sahrawi people” were not ready to accept any solution outside of a referendum on self-determination. He spoke of the Sahrawis’ strong desire for statehood and self-determination, claiming that Morocco’s “occupation” has failed to win them over.
He said: “Morocco has failed to win their [Sahrawis’] hearts and minds during its 44 years of occupation. They should be allowed to decide their future in a referendum.”
The mention of a seemingly sizable international support for the separatist agenda is a distorted representation of the realty; it comes on the heels of a series of singularly dispiriting reports for Polisario.
In addition to the reports of the UN process’ momentum drifting away from pro-Polisario talking points, the past two to three months have seen a number of formerly pro-Polisario countries withdrawing their recognition of the Polisario-claimed state. These countries have embraced Morocco’s Autonomy Plan, describing it as the most serious proposal for a lasting political settlement.
But a standard, classical Polisario pro-Polisario move is the downright dismissal of the genuineness of Morocco’s resolution proposal, regardless of the strong consensus it boasts in the UN circles or the increasing number of governments it has convinced in recent years and months.
Even as Morocco has been applauded by international observers for its development projects for Western Sahara, drafted an Autonomy Plan that has been vastly lauded for its compromise and realism spirit, or invested herculean efforts in transforming its southern provinces and almost closing the socio-economic gap with the rest of Morocco, or won the support of locals and elected Sahrawi representatives who have been adamant that Polisario does not speak for them, the mantra has remained the same in pro-Polisario circles over the years.
As far as the Polisario leadership is concerned, not only the WSJ piece, but any other reports of some kind of celebration of Morocco’s efforts towards sustainable settlement, including a strong local support in acknowledgement of the massive development efforts invested in Western Sahara, are a sobering reminder of the “lies” Morocco has been telling itself and the international community.
For the secessionist front and its supporters, the point is to sell referendum as the sole alternative. Anything else—including outrageous reports about the front’ human rights violations, its plans to inflate the numbers of Tindouf refugees, or all the positives about Morocco’s legal and historical claims to the disputed territory—is simply beside the point.
Their hope is that once this victimhood and “dismissing Morocco” narrative is given the weight it deserves, referendum will be back at the negotiation table.