Saharan rebels and Morocco’s stabilizing role in the region

Saharan rebels and Morocco’s stabilizing role in the region

Moroccan soldiers patrol the city of Tangiers on August 11, 2020. (File/AFP)
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Few words invoke such a sense of forsaken hopelessness as “Sahara.” The political status of the region known as the Western Sahara, which is at the center of the modern history of Northwest Africa, is the single most important political issue affecting the area.
This month, in contravention of a long-standing cease-fire, a separatist militia blocked a key road connecting Morocco with neighboring Mauritania, and it was swiftly engaged by the Moroccan military. Despite efforts by neighboring Algeria and Mauritania to arm the militia, the Moroccan dedication to the region and its territorial integrity has been relentless.
A Moroccan kingdom of one form or another has existed in the Maghreb since antiquity. Before European cartographers delineated the borders of the African continent, the existing political, economic and ethnic ties brought together swathes of the continent which in modern times find themselves on opposite sides of artificial territorial boundaries.
As the rest of Northwest Africa fell prey to colonial subjugation in the 19th century, Morocco’s Sharifian Empire held on long enough to agree to become a French protectorate in 1912, in lieu of formal colonization. Elsewhere in the region, French overlordship dismantled local societies and replaced them with colonial political constructs, so much so that new states were established.
The price the Moroccan state paid for its dogged resistance was the severe shrinking of its territory as the French created what are now Algeria and Mauritania.
In many respects, the post-colonial raw deal allowed Morocco to be the first country to extract itself from France’s failing imperial African project, despite the fact that land just beyond its eastern and southern borders remained “terra irridenta,” or under the control of an outsider.
Notwithstanding the brief colonial interlude, the long sword of the Moroccan sultan had for centuries extended across the Maghreb region, whether in the oases of Tindouf or among the tribesmen of the Sahara.
Despite having backed the National Liberation Front in its war against France, Algeria’s leaders were disinclined to support the claims of a Greater Morocco. In 1963 the Moroccan Army crossed into Algeria, quickly taking control of two border posts, resulting in a cease-fire that precipitated an era of hostility between the two countries.
Morocco abandoned its claim to its territory in Algeria in 1972, with a view to resetting its relationship with its neighbor. Morocco’s determination to reestablish its historic borders did not end there, however.
In 1975, the Spanish sought to exit the Western Sahara. Faced with the prospect of losing further territory, the king of Morocco, Hassan II, ordered 350,000 civilians to peacefully advance into the territory in a political and logistical masterstroke known as the Green March.

With Libya, Tunisia and Algeria all wracked by post-revolutionary chaos and instability, what the Saharan region needs is the development and stability that has come to embody modern Morocco’s success.

Zaid M. Belbagi

This mass mobilization of civilians stunned the international community and resulted in the Madrid Accords, which ceded the territory to Morocco and Mauritania, on the condition that they respected the local Saharan population.
For Morocco, respecting the local population was never in doubt. The Sahrawi tribes within the territory were historically considered Moroccan and, in the eyes of policymakers, were citizens with equal rights. Moroccan investment flowed into the region and the cost of living there is among the lowest in Morocco, thanks to generous government subsidies awarded to the Sahrawis.
Polisario rebels, however, began to organize themselves as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, demanding self-determination. With heavy backing from Algeria, they persisted with a guerrilla campaign against the Moroccan authorities, resulting in a cease-fire agreement in 1991.
As the Moroccan government sought to invest in the region and raise its standards to match the rest of the country, Sahrawi leaders failed to improve the lot of their people who, by and large, remain in squalid refugee camps along the Algerian border. Reliant on international aid, their woeful existence is almost unimaginable compared with that of the Sahrawis who reintegrated into the Moroccan state. They have benefited from huge developments in infrastructure and tourism, and are awaiting the opening of a world-class port at Dakhla.
The actions of the Moroccan military this week to reopen blocked roads is characteristic of well-documented efforts to develop a part of the country that has been held to ransom by the banditry of the Polisario and the geopolitical calculations of Algeria. It is no secret that a reversal of the Moroccan reoccupation of the territory would give Algeria the access to the Atlantic it has long coveted.
For the generals of Algiers, whose military dictatorship is coming unstuck, Morocco provides a much-needed political distraction from the very serious challenges facing Algeria despite its great wealth.
For Morocco, which has had so much of its historical territory ceded to new neighbors, the 1975 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice could not be more important, recognizing as it does “the clear existence of historical ties of allegiance between the sultan of Morocco and the tribes living in the territory of the Western Sahara.”
For close to a millennium the sultan of Morocco was the main and, in some cases the only, central political authority in the region. A lack of understanding of this fact and the perpetuity of the Moroccan state itself continue to render efforts to undermine this as futile.
With Libya, Tunisia and Algeria all wracked by post-revolutionary chaos and instability, what the Saharan region needs is the development and stability that has come to embody modern Morocco’s success.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid

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