To the compromise-inspired diplomatic consensus on Western Sahara, the pro-Polisario camp’s response to the Guerguerat crisis is idealism, righteous vehemence, and postcolonial grandstanding.
Algeria and South Africa, Polisario’s most outspoken advocates, are not happy with the current diplomatic mood on the Western Sahara question.
Despite repeated setbacks in their recent attempts to change the visibly pro-Morocco discourse, the two African countries are still adamantly pushing for a pro-Polisario narrative that appears to have fallen out of favor in diplomatic circles.
The UN, whose once-promising political process now looks fragile after Polisario’s repeated defiance of its directives led to escalations in recent weeks, is nonetheless adamant that a compromise-based, pragmatic political solution is the only, best way out of the lingering Sahara conflict.
The African Union, which until recently lent credence to the Algiers-Pretoria bloc’s insistence on an “African solution” to the Sahara question, has in the past two years made it abundantly clear that the UN-led process is the only game in town when it comes to Western Sahara.
So too with the European Union, whose top diplomat recently reaffirmed its commitment to accompanying UN efforts to find a lasting, politically negotiated solution to the Sahara crisis.
While there is nothing trenchantly, overtly pro-Morocco about these stances, most Western Sahara observers agree that the prevailing diplomatic discourse on the conflict is more in line with Morocco’s 2007 Autonomy Proposal.
Compromise and realistic expectations
The idea is that the Moroccan proposal is the closest to the operative guidelines of compromise, realism, and pragmatism that the UN has decisively — even if diplomatically — espoused in all its resolutions and reports in the past decade.
In fact, so unmistakable has the pro-Morocco shift been that the Polisario leadership itself has been compelled to unwittingly acknowledge that its statehood aspirations no longer have the international appeal and sponsoring it once had.
For many observers, the recent escalations in Western Sahara originated from Polisario’s frustration with its failure to contend with Morocco on the diplomatic front. In current discussions on the dispute, references to “status quo,” “compromise,” “pragmatism,” and “political solution” are understood as diplomatic code-speak for: “Let’s seriously explore the Moroccan proposal.”
The political process is, in other words, about the “end of dreams,” as Rober Kagan would have it. But it is mainly about the triumph of the most viable or preferable route to a sustainable solution. “Viable” and “preferable” are the leading sentiments here.
In other words, the point is not that Morocco’s proposal is perfect (nothing in politics or life ever is). As such, it is not for nothing that “compromise” is the most cited word in official statements, meetings, or reports about the Sahara issue. The idea, therefore, is to let go of impractical, unrealistic aspirations and focus on what is really, politically feasible given the social, historical, and economic parameters of the task at hand.
Omar Hilale, Morocco’s UN representative, said something similar in a recent interview with CNN. Within the purview of Morocco’s proposal, “everything is possible,” he said. Outside of it, he insisted, “nothing is possible.” The point is to be clear about the centrality of political possibility and diplomatic pragmatism for any serious talks on the Western Sahara issue—and, by extension, any other conflict resolution endeavor.
Outrage and blame-shifting
To this, however, the pro-Polisario circle’s preferred counterpoints are moral outrage, the blame game, and responsibility shifting. This was most recently at play during what some observers have described as the “Guerguerat crisis.”
On November 13, a group of Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces (FAR) intervened in Guerguerat to lift a Polisario blockade and restore essential commercial and civil traffic between Morocco and Mauritania.
It is widely known that Morocco had waited for more than two weeks before taking action in Guerguerat. More to the point, Rabat informed — even begged — the UN to diplomatically convince the Polisario elements to withdraw from the strategic, UN-restricted area.
Serious, fact-driven Western Sahara analysts and observers agree that Polisario’s continued defiance of the UN and its three-decade-old status quo forced Morocco’s hands. According to reliable reports, Morocco’s Guerguerat operation caused no damage. The FAR are largely reported to have restrained from using unnecessary force, only firing warning shots when fired upon by Polisario elements.
Yet, within hours of the operation, Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with “news” that Morocco’s “savage” and “brutal attack” on “peaceful Sahrawi demonstrators” was the ultimate catalyst of the Guerguerat showdown and any other escalations that might follow.
This was preemptive pretexting at its best, the point being to shift the responsibility for breaching the ceasefire from Polisario to Morocco. By all available indications, the ploy — provoking escalations, feeding outrage, and then blaming the strong and bullish Morocco for attacking the beleaguered, weak, and innocent Polisario — has failed to deliver as expected.
Whose status quo?
But the abysmal failure of this well-trodden David vs Goliath card does not seem to have convinced Pretoria and Algiers to pause or get their facts straight before launching another diplomatic attack on Morocco’s position. Nor, more tellingly, has the perceptibly pro-Morocco diplomatic consensus discouraged Polisario’s most ardent champions from futile, doomed attempts to change the dominant international conversation around Western Sahara.
Jerry Matthews Matjila, South Africa’s representative to the UN, recently failed to convince the UN Security Council to adopt a more assertive, punitive stance on the “El Guerguerat dossier.”
But that the UN body did not even put Matjila’s “El Guerguerat dossier” on its agenda was yet another indication that, for the crushing majority of UN diplomats, the Guerguerat crisis did not achieve what the pro-Polisario camp thought it would.
That, despite the online campaign of outrage and grand, moralizing statements from pro-Polisario quarters, the prevailing diplomatic sentiments have not budged. Even more disconcerting for the South African diplomat, most of the permanent members of the Security Council have indirectly or directly supported Morocco’s action in Guerguerat.
If anything, on the Guerguerat incident of November 13, the prevailing consensus is that Polisario’s sustained defiance of the UN’s warnings compelled Morocco to intervene to restore commercial and civil traffic.
But why does Pretoria appear to be this oblivious of the prevalent diplomatic mood around the Western Sahara dossier? The answer resides in South Africa’s idea of itself as the custodian of revolutionary pan-Africanism.
As a continental powerhouse, South Africa has convinced itself of the irreproachable nobility of its pax-Africana-driven diplomacy. Channeling spiritual force from its ability to rise above its horrific Apartheid experience, Pretoria fancies itself — sometimes for good reasons — as the voice of the world’s oppressed and marginalized.
But one problem with this pax-Africana idealism is that, more often than not, South African policymakers tend to project the country’s uniquely excruciating history onto their “brothers and sisters” from elsewhere. Or, as a 2010 paper put it, “South Africa’s obsession” with its “responsibility to protect” has often been associated with a desire to “export its own post-apartheid settle mechanisms, almost regardless of the circumstances on the ground.”
While South Africa’s “El Guerguerat dossier” hit a brick wall at the UN, Algeria was making similar demands at the continental level. Earlier this week, Algerian foreign affairs minister Sabri Boukadoum pleaded with the AU to “assume its responsibilities” in Western Sahara.
For Boukadoum, the Guerguerat crisis has “posed serious challenges that could endanger peace and security in the whole region.” As he sees it, the perceptible failure of the UN-led political process should at least convince the AU to take matters into its own hands.
In other words, the Algerian minister was asking the AU to go back to finding an “African solution” to the Western Sahara dispute. This — pushing for a “pan-African solution” to the Sahara conflict — is a route that the AU abandoned in July 2018, after realizing that insisting on a “parallel solution” to the Sahara dispute was unproductive and internally divisive.
Making Boukadoum’s plea both impertinent and desperate is the fact that, no longer ago than last week, Algeria’s top AU representative Smail Chergui also unfruitfully tried to change the continental directives on Western Sahara.
Of course, Algiers’ obsession with “Sahrawi nationalism” is mainly geopolitical. As the main financier and advocate of the Polisario Front, Algeria counts on the fact that a Polisario-administered country would purely and simply become a satellite state at the mercy of its regional and continental ambitions.
Read also: Brahim Fassi Fihri on Western Sahara: There’s No South African Monopoly on Pan-Africanism
But there is also an element of performative third-worldism to Algeria’s persistent invocation of the “decolonization struggle” in Western Sahara. Because of its uniquely bloody decolonization struggle against France — to which, it should be noted, Morocco greatly contributed — Algeria was the darling of the global postcolonial movement in the late fifties and sixties.
So much so that, even decades after achieving independence, the North African country remained the apple of the eyes of the world’s leftists and Marxists. It epitomized liberation and revolutionary zeal. Algeria now sees in Western Sahara an opportunity to sustain, prolong its once mythical status among the leftists of the world.
And so, like Pretoria, Algiers likes to project on its “Sahrawi brothers” the horrors of its own liberation war against France. The common denominator of such a distorted, false equivocation-laden national liberation gospel is moralization and postcolonial grandstanding.
In addition to discounting a long tribal history and a compendium of recent facts that do not align with its message, the pro-Polisario camp puts forth a vision that elevates moral outrage over historical facts, self-congratulatory dreams over reality’s constraints, and idealism over political feasibility.
To this, there is no better response than the great Raymond Aron’s idea of the practice of politics. Politics — and by extension diplomacy — Aron contends, is not really about virtuous indignation and moral condemnations of the positions or people one disagrees with.
Rather, it is essentially a sustained quest for the actual over the possible, for the possible over the ideal, for the preferable over the perfect, for compromise over good conscience. In our era of the “tyranny of the present” and the triumph of righteous vehemence and feelings and passion over facts and historical contextualization, this should be a guiding light for diplomats and analysts genuinely interested in making sense of the fog of political history.