As Morocco makes notable strides in Western Sahara, Polisario’s insistence on a referendum defies the prevailing UN consensus and may derail the “new momentum.”
Rabat – With the future of the UN-led Western Sahara political process hanging in the balance and doubts mounting after a series of strides in recent months, the Polisario Front has delivered an even more devastating hit to the stuttering “new momentum.”
In a dry, defiant letter to the UN this past Sunday, Polisario urged the global community for “concrete actions,” suggesting it was not satisfied with the recent turn of events in the Western Sahara negotiations.
The document appeared to more singularly take issue with the fact — or suspicion — that some powerful countries’ seemingly problematic relationship with Morocco and its Western Sahara stance is favoring Rabat’s sovereignty claims over Polisario’s statehood dreams.
Derailing the ‘new momentum’
Where the latest UN resolutions and prevailing rhetoric have spoken of hope and a genuine desire to resolve the decades-long conflict, the Front has detected an unbearable pattern of a gradual but sure drift away from its dreams of a referendum on self-determination.
As the disgruntled Polisario leadership sees it, the referendum, however discarded and disqualified in the overwhelming majority of latest UN negotiations, is the only way out of decades of diplomatic paralysis.
The letter does not particularly spell out what the dissatisfied group means by “concrete steps” towards peace and a lasting political resolution. But its unadorned vehemence about Morocco’s “repeated transgressions” and its discernible concern about Morocco winning the ongoing diplomatic contest are enough to get an idea of what has been irking the Polisario Front in the past years and months.
One of the few relatively uncontroversial arguments among UN diplomats and global policy observers is that, besides the inherently contentious topic of “referendum,” MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, has relatively been a success story.
Since the 1991 ceasefire, peace has been kept and there have only been very few worrying episodes of fears that a simmering, mutual distrust could lead to a military confrontation between the Algeria-backed Front and Morocco. Reports after reports of the UN Secretary-General have made the not-so-controversial point that MINURSO has been effective and that its regulatory and deterring presence is needed until a lasting deal is brokered.
But Polisario has other ideas, other standards of effectiveness and “the promotion” of peace. Its letter accuses both the Secretary-General and the Security Council of being passive — and by extension subtly supportive — when it comes to dealing with Moroccan claims. This, the document grandly concludes, “has seriously undermined the credibility and neutrality of the UN and its mission.”
Bringing referendum back to the table
Having diagnosed what it sees as the principal pathology of the ongoing UN-led process, the Front offered two remedies it says will level the playing field and effectively kill the growing impression that the latest peace talks favored Morocco’s talking points.
Polisario’s first remedy is the expansion of the MINURSO mandate by including human rights monitoring among the body’s prerogatives. “It is unacceptable that MINURSO remains an exception at a time when the promotion and protection of human rights is becoming a priority in all UN peace operations.”
This is a point that has been debated — and sidelined — in recent UN discussions, not least because reports and on-the-ground sentiment paint the Morocco-administered Laayoune and Dakhla regions in a much brighter light than the Tindouf Camps when it comes to human rights and popular satisfaction.
Polisario’s second proposal, unsurprisingly, is that only by bringing referendum and self-determination back to the negotiating table can the UN regain the reputation and respect it appears to have lost in some — presumably pro-Polisario — quarters. And by “concrete steps” towards peace, the Front has in mind any moves “that demonstrate a willingness to hold a referendum on self-determination in occupied Western Sahara.”
Polisario’s quest for relevance
There is a familiar, deeply entrenched pattern at play here. Polisario’s almost fiery letter comes mere weeks before the next UN meeting on Western Sahara. The coincidence, if it can be called that, revives the usual, gnawing feeling that the whole pre-meeting exercise –the accusations, the tantrums, and the warnings — is a ploy to influence the narrative and preemptively occupy space to deter any pro-Morocco talking points the coming debates may have to push forward.
In this sense, the Front’s warnings and threats about its willingness to defy the current UN consensus and cling to the increasingly “buried” referendum on self-determination is an integral part of the habitual war of words between Morocco and Polisario prior to an important UN meeting on the Sahara conflict.
Some have even described the customary threats and warnings as mere “hollow war drums,” flashily battered to attract as much attention and global sympathy as possible to each side’s preferred narrative and talking points.
There’s certainly something to this view, as evidenced in the period before 2017-2018, when the UN-led political process was still mostly shambolic. When, in other words, there was no semblance of a plan or roadmap to achieve a political solution. But this has changed in recent months, not least with the newfound consensus around ideals of “compromise,” “pragmatism,” and “realism.”
With the pervasive feeling that these ideals are more reflective of Morocco’s post-2007 stance, what used to be a two-sided war of words has quickly become, in most cases at least, about Polisario’s readiness to persistently throw tantrums every time decisions do not go its way. And that Morocco has made consequential diplomatic gains in recent months has surely hardened and heightened Polisario’s frustrations.
As it endures the agonies of the sweeping (largely pro-Rabat) transformations that have taken place since Resolution 2468, when the UNSC insisted that realism and political feasibility should definitely subsume ideological rigidity, Polisario’s threats and warnings have mostly consisted in deploying the victim card.
Chief in this constant deployment and repurposing of the victimhood tactic is the eternally fashionable ploy of playing the criminally besieged and overwhelmed underdog facing a “colonizer” and “occupier” who relentlessly disregards the “spirit of ceasefire and related military agreements,” as Polisario’s letter to the UN put it.
The result, more often than not, is a bewildering hodgepodge of half-truths and lopsided interpretations of UN documents and resolutions. Last year, for example, in response to evidenced and documented reports of the growing pro-Morocco momentum on the ground and among frontbenchers in the Sahara talks, a number of senior Polisario leaders challenged the narrative, suggesting it was all “lies” and overblown misinterpretations of “44 years of occupations.”
In this defiant quest to continuously make referendum relevant in discussions that have continuously sidelined and dismissed it in recent years, Polisario is now upgrading its “colonization” card.
No longer content with presenting Morocco as a colonial or occupying power, the group has been going for the jugular by challenging the neutrality of the Security Council and describing many “great powers” as enablers of or unwitting participants in Morocco’s “colonial” and “expansionist” ambitions.
“It is now clear that those peace negotiations are getting us nowhere,” Polisario leader Brahim Ghali said last year. “Morocco is unyielding because they know they have the support of great powers.” This is about shifting the conversation and cunningly questioning the UN consensus, thus tattering what — basing negotiations on compromise and political feasibility — has been unanimously recognized as the foundational underpinning of successful trust-building.
In the Western Sahara chessboard, another particularly useful and much cherished pro-Polisario move has been the guileful dismissal of Polisario’s critics as “paid lobbyists” or “apologists” of Morocco’s national sovereignty “myths” and “imagined rights” on the disputed territory.
But a number of recent developments suggest that this lasting talisman, too, is about to run its course.
Last October, former Secretary-General of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) party Amar Saadania delivered a shattering blow to this “Moroccan occupation” mantra, saying, “Western Sahara is Moroccan and nothing else.” He added, more boldly, that Algeria has been “pouring huge sums [of money] for the so-called Polisario for fifty years.”
Most recently, renowned French-Algerian academic and public speaker Idriss Aberkane smashed the mantra even harder, more devastatingly. “I am Algerian, and I’m telling you that it [Western Sahara] is a Moroccan territory,” launched Aberkane.
It would, if anything, take a particularly brazen leap of see-sawing logic to maintain that Saadania and Aberkane, too, are “lobbyists” and “apologists” paid to perpetuate Morocco’s “myths” about Western Sahara.