In his 39th Green March anniversary speech, King Mohammed VI of Morocco stressed that his country's approach to the Sahara issue is characterised by a readiness to strengthen bilateral relations with global powers and cooperate with international bodies, especially the UN. This was said within the context of blaming foreign powers for a lack of clarity in mediation policies in the long-standing dispute. Morocco has cooperated with diverse security, political, economic and military projects and initiatives that relate to the Moroccan Sahara or the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region at large. Yet, the wished-for outcome for Morocco seems elusive and the expected reward of holding Algerian support responsible for vitalising the separatist Polisario Front looks less attainable day after day.
Though Algeria denies involvement, its support for the Polisario Front, strengthened by the fall of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, reveals that border disputes with Morocco are part of Algerian foreign policy. Nevertheless, what the king's speech referred to was the meta-support, whether deliberate or unintentional, that the Polisario movement receives as a result of foreign powers' double-dealing in regional hot spots. The US, for instance, praised Morocco as a democratic model in the Arab Spring turmoil whereby many of its despotic allies were ousted. Meanwhile, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, leads international efforts to extend the capacities of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to include the monitoring of human rights. This is a direct accusation against Morocco of human rights violations, since the UN mission operates in Morocco, while Polisario's Tindouf detention camps remain "off the radar", according to a Human Rights Watch report.
UN resolutions and drafts, especially the proposal to extend MINURSO's brief to cover human rights, indicate America's interest in playing on Moroccan and Algerian ground. Morocco's anxiety stems from the possibility of being declared to be a human rights violator, but the only one. Since Algeria always refuses to allow UN Special Rapporteur's visits to its territory, violations in Tindouf detention camps — on Algerian soil — cannot be monitored. Algeria further eclipses Polisario and its own human rights violations by banning visits by international NGOs. With the unlikelihood of gathering evidence sufficient to accuse Algeria of providing land, money, media and diplomatic support for the Polisario Front's violations, the most Morocco can offer is extended regionalisation and the self-rule project. Expecting further concessions from Morocco is more like wishful thinking, the king suggested.
To the dismay of the Moroccan public, its diplomacy to please foreign powers merely prolongs the status quo. The changes in the regional scenery have enabled Algeria to gain more ground for the Polisario Front in international bodies. As a result, Morocco seems more isolated. In a previous speech in October 2013, King Mohammed called upon parliamentarians, civil society and the media to participate in Moroccan diplomacy in support of the Sahara issue.
The image that the royal speech tried to draw is that Morocco and Algeria are implicated in a never-ending race to see who serves foreign powers best. Yet, the fact that Morocco today requests a clear stance from the US — or foreign powers generally — indicates the size of the gap between the two.
The dispute between Morocco and Algeria happens on two levels that the Moroccan Sahara fires up. The first are internal challenges. Ever since the onset of the French colonisation of Algeria, the two countries have exchanged internal problems. The shared border and history make such an exchange almost natural. However, with political choices, foreign intervention and diverting paths in international relations, the two countries have engaged in a long-term rivalry. Local developments include cross-border spats. The second level focuses on human rights. Both countries trade accusations of rights violations, but since Morocco allows periodic Special Rapporteur and NGO visits, the international community tends to zoom in on Rabat.
Foreign powers also exploit the dispute that the people of Morocco and Algeria have inherited from the Cold War era. Ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the onset of the war on terrorism, both countries have been on George W Bush's "with us" side. Following the Casablanca terrorist attacks on 16 May, 2003, serious security measures have been taken by Morocco in cooperation with foreign powers. So far, the country has hosted three rounds of the African Lion army training sessions with the US and rumours claimed that Morocco hosted detention camps as part of the war on terrorism. In addition, the US has tried to engage Morocco in mediating in the Palestine-Israel negotiations, albeit in vain.
As far as the European Union is concerned, in addition to economic collaboration, Morocco has agreed to play the role of policeman on the borders of its northern neighbours. It is the first Mediterranean country to sign a joint EU declaration for Mobility Partnership, within which Sub-Saharan immigrants today are granted residence allowances. They include citizens from third party states who have been in transit through Morocco, as well as others "who are caught irregularly entering or residing in the EU", the 2013 Mobility Partnership said.
The king's speech revealed Morocco's weak position in international relations today. It is as if he is saying that Morocco has taken all measures to please foreign allies, with an emphasis on mistakes. He mentioned the amounts of money spent on building Sahara infrastructure, and how economic projects swiftly become bridges for corruption and a culture of profiteering.
Yet, Morocco's unbalanced engagement in the US-led war on terrorism; inefficient official diplomacy; inability to drive the Arab Maghreb Union forward; current breach with France and its untimely escalations pushing an active Saad Eddine Elothmani to step down from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2013; and dependence on foreign silence to contain opposition to corruption and despotism after the Arab Spring, exemplify how bowing to foreign pressure results in political miscalculations.
The Moroccan Sahara is among the few issues that the elites agree upon. Political differences often fade away to prioritise support for territorial integrity. Nevertheless, before seeking fairness from foreign powers, Morocco needs to translate its national consensus into educational and media programmes to deepen general understanding of the problem and gather support for the autonomy plan. Without a deeper and more profound knowledge internally, direct talks with Algeria — possibly within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation — and a strong foreign policy plus more egalitarian democracy, Morocco risks wasting previous efforts to base legitimacy upon integrity, the loss of more friends and territorial division.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.