Thursday, July 19, 2007

Avoiding civil war in Western Sahara

At the best dinner ever, a videographer whose name escapes me asked a question I think people more involved in the Western Sahara gloss over, namely, "What's going to happen to all the Moroccans in Western Sahara when it becomes independent?"

It's a question that deserves all of our attentions. After all, the ratio of Moroccans to Sahrawis in Western Sahara is something like __ to ___. Even if all the Sahrawis from the diaspora came back and some Moroccans left, Moroccans would still be in the majority. That majority probably wouldn't be happy about separating from its homeland. The fear of ethnic death squads has been mentioned by others, and I think it's a real one.

Presuming the Moroccans are unhappy with independence, that would leave the Western Saharan government with two options: losing its Sahrawi character and perhaps its independence through democracy, or having an apartheid-like system where only Sahrawis are granted full political rights. Neither are desirable options, and to my mind neither are adequate results after 30 years of exile and war.

There'd be no need to choose between the two if some things took place. A worsening opinion of the Moroccan government would make Moroccans more amenable to a change of government. But Polisario and Sahrawis can't control that, so they should work towards two other goals.

First, Moroccan settlers should be included in any referendum a la Baker II. It's not attractive for Sahrawis, and it's only marginally fairer than autonomy, but if Moroccans don't participate in the vote they won't feel they have a stake in the what comes after.

A more difficult task will be persuaded Moroccans in and outside Western Sahara that an independent Western Sahara is in their best interests. I don't know how that can be done, but it'll take more dialogue with Moroccans and less bitterness on both sides. The UN-sponsored negotiations make Polisario seem more palatable to Moroccans, I think, so at least they're good for that.

Of course, I'm putting the referendum before voter registration, as it were. Still, if the Western Sahara is going to be a successful republic, how to integrate Moroccans into a post-independence Western Sahara needs to be considered before and during the referendum process, not after.

What do you think? How can an independent Western Sahara square with its Moroccan citizens?

Photo from Nick Brooks


  1. tangerino12:18 PM

    your desire always disappoint you; for though you meet with something that gives you satisfaction, yet it never thoroughly answers your expectation

  2. In this case, your fortune cookie-style commenting makes sense. A lot of us want independence for Western Sahara, but it won't be as peachy as it seems now.

  3. Anonymous12:59 PM

    tangerino! What kind of "Englishiyya" you're speaking!!!?

    We need an insight here!


  4. tangerino1:38 PM

    that was english with moroccan flavor,now morocco wont give up it land to anybody so if you think differnt then you just making worst for those thousands who've been held against there will in the biggest prison

  5. Well, no one's going to force Morocco to give it up. I hope the situation will come to a point where Morocco sees it's in its best interest to hold a referendum in Western Sahara.

    As for the biggest prison in the world, I'm not seeing the NGO reports to back it up.

  6. Laroussi2:52 PM

    Even if all the Sahrawis from the diaspora came back and some Moroccans left, Moroccans would still be in the majority.

    No, that is not true. Exactly how many people live in Western Sahara and in the camps is unknown. However most people estimate that there are two Moroccans on every Saharawi living in the occupied territory.

    Most of these Moroccans however are families of the Moroccan troups and security services. Entities that would leave the territory once it got its independence.

    But, even if these people and their families were to remain it is not clear that they would be in majority.

    The current population in the territory is about 350.000 people, roughly half of them are Saharawi. In the camps about 160.000 people are living - 100% Saharawi. I would say that if the refugees from the camps returned the Saharawis would be in clear majority in their homeland, and that is not counting the diaspora in Spain and Mauritania.

    Even if there are only one third Saharawis living in the occupied territory, the Saharawis would still be in majority if the refugees were to return.

    Many people think that the Moroccans would love the refugees to return home, to the "motherland" as the Moroccan government put it, but that is I believe a completely false presumption.

    Were they to return today the Moroccans would get their hands full of a Saharawi population in Western Sahara with far better educational level than the current Moroccan one.

    That majority probably wouldn't be happy about separating from its homeland.

    Well, they would most likely be free to stay if they want, and if a peace treaty is reached between Polisario and Morocco they would most likely be able to travel freely between the two countries.

    The fear of ethnic death squads has been mentioned by others, and I think it's a real one.

    I believe that it is a serious mistake jumping to such conclusions. Moroccans and Saharawis are living fairly peacefully with each other or at least side to side as it is, and there is no reason why this would not continue. Given a true and respected peace of course.

    Already today many young Saharawis have Moroccan friends from school where they study in mixed classes.

    Saharawis also always stress that they have nothing against the Moroccan people or the settlers, but that they are fighting against the Moroccan rulers. The same people that oppress the Moroccan population in Western Sahara and Morocco.

    Myself I believe that many Moroccan settlers would return home if the occupation was to end. Most of them haven't been there long and many of them already go on and off between Western Sahara, where they work, and their home land where they have all their family and relatives.

    However, Polisario emphasized in their proposal to the UN that Moroccan settlers were welcome to stay and help build up the country, so maybe they would remain. For sure, most of them would most likely be better of in a free Western Sahara and under the current rule in Morocco.

    You base your assumptions on that even if "Sahrawis from the diaspora came back and some Moroccans left, Moroccans would still be in the majority".

    That, I believe, is not a well founded theory. If the current settlement policy and exploitation of natural recourses is allowed to continue it might well be so in the future, but as it is, it is not the case - as far as I can tell.

  7. Laroussi2:57 PM

    Regarding "the biggest prison", I which the Moroccans would give up this propaganda lie.

    It is far easier for a Saharawi to leave the camps and travel to Algeria or Mauritania than for a Moroccan to make the same journeys (not taking into account the financial situation of the refugees).

    Saharawis do not need visa or passports to go to Algeria or Mauritania. Moroccans do.

    If the Saharawis want to travel to Algeria they need a travell permission from the Algerian authorities, yes, but that is more an issue of red-tape than a physical barrier. If they leave for Mauritania they only need their SADR id-cards.

    Saharawis can elect another leader instead of Abdelaziz if they like (and have the balls and desire). Moroccans are forbidden according to their own constitution even to criticize the existing monarch, let alone to elect a president or a party that favors a republic.

    As a Moroccan friend of mine uses to say: "It's not the Saharawis that are sequestrated, it's us the Moroccans. We are hostages in our own country".

  8. Anonymous3:54 PM

    Well said Laaroussi!
    I'm a Saharawi and I'm with you 100% on every word said.


  9. Laroussi4:27 PM

    "In Rabat early one Monday morning, the sun is shining and there is as usual a long line of people in front of the Spanish embassy, wanting to ask for visa to the 'promised land'.

    The gates to the building have just opened and people are in for some long hours of tedious, monotonous waiting, when suddenly a long shining dark limousine pulls up to the side walk. Out steps a small, fat man and goes to stand at the end of the queue.

    People in front of him turn their heads. It isn't everyday that someone comes driving to the visa-queue, especially not in a limousine, and the man looks very familiar.

    'Aren't you...', one of the men in the queue asks the newcomer.

    'Yes, that is true', says the fat man with a big, bus somewhat uneasy smile. He is not used to be alone with common people, but nevertheless glad to be recognized in the streets of his home town.

    'But what in Allah's name are you doing here?'

    'Oh. I am fed up with the situation in the country just like you. There is only problems here with unemployment, corruption, and all the Sahara-business', says the man - of who's presence everybody in the crowd now has been told of.

    'So, I thought I'd try my luck elsewhere', he said to the man in the queue.

    The other man startled makes a leap in the air, as out of joy, and starts to whistle with force to the crowd in order to get their attention. He then cries out:

    'Guys, guys! Listen! The king is leaving! We can stay!"

    Freely re-told and translated from Arabic.

  10. I like MVI jokes as much as I like Driss Basri jokes, which is a lot. Careful, though--keep it up and the Kuwaitis will get you in trouble like they did Nichane.

  11. First, Moroccan settlers should be included in any referendum a la Baker II.

    No, they shouldn't. If the referendum is to serve as a form of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara, then the people participating should be that of Western Sahara. A referendum with a non-Sahrawi majority would be a sham.

    I also agree with Laroussi that were Western Sahara to become independent, most Moroccan settlers would personally be more than willing to leave, even if they would be upset by the decision -- in the case of most, as soon as their or their families' government/army jobs are transferred back to Rabat or Marrakech. Many others would leave because there would no longer exist any financial incentives to stay (no subsidized goods, no settler tax breaks, no special treatment for northerners -- then why live in a scorching hot desert warzone, if you've been a city boy all your life?). The overwhelming majority still has families in Morocco proper, and would hardly become refugees in their own country. Also, I'm perfectly sure the international community would be happy to help financially with resettlement -- even France would be wise to the fact, that if there is going to be a Sahrawi state, it should at least get a good start so as to avoid instability. Petty revenge has no place in rational power politics.

    Of those that would want to stay, or would find themselves forced to remain (because lacking the means to move or a place to go), I suspect the vast majority would be Moroccan Sahrawis. They would, quite naturally, have an easier time fitting in than most non-Sahrawi Moroccans, and quite a few would welcome the new state, having supported Polisario for decades. And in either case, dual citizenships would serve both peoples very well, by retaining trade and family links and in healing relations, post-conflict.

    All that said, I too would like to see Polisario get a lot more specific about what guarantees and plans it has for the settler community. But it makes political sense that they leave these things intentionally ambiguous, so that their Manhasset proposal has some room for negotiations -- that is one of the precious few areas where they can still make concessions without conceding loss.

    As for ethnic death squads, the danger is probably there, but not mainly from the Sahrawi side. Check out what happened in Timor Leste when the people voted for independence -- paramilitaries from the settler population were set loose by Indonesia. (Well, having seen what happened in T. L, Morocco's ruling class would hopefully realize this would simply harm its own interests. Also, the UN transitional forces would be better prepared for that eventuality, if only by demand of neighbouring Europe.)

  12. Damn you for killing me in Urbandead. I hope I'll get you back! :)

  13. Nemesis, I hope my PKing ways haven't turned you against the Western Sahara n cause. See you around Malton.

    Good points, Alle. I hadn't considered the incentives Morocco provides the settlers, or that so many of their jobs are provided by the government. Still, if you don't let Moroccan settlers vote in the referendum there'll be an explosive amount of discontent. I think it's a reasonable compromise.

  14. Anonymous6:47 AM

    let me give you a small advice if i may i think you should see your doctor (pronto) ,you may have what we call a moroccan syndrome luckily morocco does have a cure for such illness and the moroccans we'll be happy to help you (pronto)silly me i repeat the word pronto twice ,anyway this is what you need for your cure,you need to get your hands on couple of ounces of moroccan honey i think you know what i mean& you shouuuuld smoke couple of joint every night before your bedtime for 3 months and that my friend will do the trick , feel free to give my solution to your bodies,once you finish the cure you'll become in love with the moroccans
    yous Moroccan formula

  15. Anonymous11:17 AM

    Many points many reasonable, All the invaders should leave Sahara, then at least the Saharawee population would have employment again. Why should they be allowed to vote on independence when they were forced to a country they didn't really want to come to in the first place. Plus from what I understand there are no inter racial marriages betwen the invaders and the TRUE Saharawe population. When Polisario do come home yes I think there will be problems but hopefuly these can be worked out peaceably. PS what do the UN really do in Western Sahara all I've ever seen them do is go to the beach in Laayoune and party in the HOTEL there?

  16. Regarding the last comment, although I've met some decent UN staff in the Free Zone (in the upper echelons of MINURSO), a favourite pastime of some MINURSO staff near Tifariti appears to be despoiling the once impressive rock art at the nearby site of Rekeiz. The prehistoric paintings here are now covered in crude graffiti with the names and nationalities of a host of MINURSO personnel, and the years of their visits. Not a very good legacy (to add to the other legacy of prolonging the stalemate while Morocco entrenches its occupation, and of being rather soft on the Moroccan government over the whole conflict). I've also heard rumours that UN staff are involved in the theft of antiquities from the Free Zone, although this remains unsubstantiated (it does appear that some engraved panels at certain key archaeological sites have been removed, although by who remains a mystery, at least to me).

  17. Anonymous1:58 PM

    Hi Will

    to Nick Brooks:

    you have very interested blog

    concerning the antiquities in WS. I remember that in the middle of 90-s when the Saharawis specially Polisario leaders are giving the UN staff a lot of “respect” thinking that they can “give” them independent. They treated in the region as “ holy people”
    In this period one of the people in the Free zone told me that He saw MINURSO personnel “taking” WS antiquates via helicopters
    They are interested to collect also many kind of WS stones probably meteorites which are popular in this region!!!
    I think UN should make investigation. If this will help I am not sure


  18. They graffiti over cave paintings? That's unbelievable. Nowhere near other UN peacekeeper atrocities like sexual abuse and diamond smuggling, but pretty terrible.

  19. I'll try and put an entry up on the blog with some photos. Watch this space.