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Is the Polisario stronger than Morocco in international institutions?

Escalations in Moroccan foreign relations today attest to the country’s unprecedented challenges, especially regarding the Sahara affair. Recent developments in the relations with the EU, the UN and the Arab League add salt to the worsening injury at the Algerian front. True, all ranks of political institutions and civil society agree on taking decisive measures to protect territorial unity and openly express Morocco’s exhaustion at having an Achilles’ heel in the south. The escalations may be counterproductive on internal democracy while requiring in-depth strategic alterations to the approach towards the international community.

The Sahara affair has persisted as a regional dispute both over territory and strategic alliances. Morocco, on the one hand, claims legitimate presence in the Sahara on the basis that no Sahrawi separate entity ever existed before or after 1975. For Morocco, many of the residents in Tindouf camps are detainees – not refugees – that the Polisario kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s. Algeria, on the other hand, denies involvement in the affair and functions as an umbilical cord for the separatist project.

The dispute allows Algeria both to weaken Moroccan competition in the leadership race in North Africa, as well as to continuously swerve attention from internal democratisation setbacks. This may be true for Morocco too, but strategically it has kept Morocco – or North Africa generally – under control in terms of foreign relations, especially since the Maghreb Union (MU) has faded away. The local political and economic power the MU was planned to generate has rendered into inability to solve Moroccan-Algerian, Algerian-Tunisian and Tunisian-Libyan trans-border fragilities, with the Polisario and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in between.

Foreign policy mistakes and the encouragement the Polisario receives in international institutions have led Morocco to disagreements at diverse fronts, unprecedented in its modern history. Foremost is the UN.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was denied entry to Morocco in reaction to visiting Tindouf in March. Despite the denial, Ban visited Algiers and Polisario camps. Treating the UN secretary-general in this manner foreshadows the dim report Morocco will have to argue against in the UN meeting in April for renewing the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) mandate.

Three factors push Morocco to believe in an UN bias. First, Ban-Ki Moon refused to delay his visit till after the mandate renewal, so that its outcome does not coincide with the report. Moreover, a Polisario-leaning Spanish journalist was found spying on the Moroccan mission at the UN headquarters. Most importantly, the Sahara file in UN meetings is in the hands of the Committee of 24, which principally accuses Morocco of being a colonising force. The Decolonisation Committee considers the current status quo as “dangerous”, and requests granting independence to Africa’s “last colony”. Holding Morocco for a colonial power is in itself a hindrance to a just and efficient solution beyond the Cold War context and jargon.

The second is the EU. Morocco has had to suspend contact with its northern clients and neighbours. The abrupt decision came out when an EU court cancelled a trade agreement with Morocco, requiring the exclusion of goods, especially fish, from the Sahara region. Despite the harsh repercussions of the decision, on both political and economic facets, the head of the government, Abdelilah Benkirane, insisted that territorial integrity is a red line that economic interests cannot eclipse.

The third front is the Arab League. Morocco, quite unexpectedly too, cancelled hosting the Arab League’s annual summit, scheduled for 29 March in Marrakech. Referring to the summit’s lethargy in front of the current challenges in the MENA region, Morocco indirectly hinted at its dissatisfaction with the Arab organisation’s inability to solve disputes among its members or to stand firm against the division projects that Iraq and Syria undergo today, or to show clear solidarity with Palestine. Instead, Morocco favours allying with the Gulf Cooperation Council, though this has resulted in military intervention in Yemen and maybe elsewhere, which necessitates counting the cost carefully.

Though the current situation may demonstrate Polisario’s ability to overwhelm the corridors of international institutions, Morocco still holds a number of cards. First, the elections of the Polisario leadership prove anything but democratic. Abdelaziz El-Marrakchi, Polisario secretary-general, was elected for the fifteenth mandate successively, making Sahrawi democratisation a tribal oligarchy.

Second, international media frequently highlight the EU Anti-Fraud Office report against the Polisario and Algerian authorities. The main accusation is that EU aid was systematically embezzled before reaching refugee camps. So far, neither official Moroccan lawyers nor civil society have filed lawsuits at international courts on the issue.

Even more compelling is the UN’s and EU’s inability to know the exact number of refugees and detainees in the Tindouf camps. Absence of census information creates a void that Polisario leadership exploits to inflate the numbers and seek more aid.

For Morocco, the regionalisation plan seems a horse without an adequate knight. Despite the awkward regional election results last September, regionalisation at the long term spares the province further divisions that only create tiny, continuously fighting entities.

Part of the weakness in Moroccan diplomatic strategy is that political stakeholders are busier with internal rather than foreign affairs. In this regard, future election preparations have pushed the Minister of foreign Affairs Salaheddine Mezouar to level criticism at the government, while he is part of it and leads a key sector where Morocco is losing ground.

Benkirane frequently asserts that ministers enjoy freedom as far as they abide by state laws and the agreed upon government benchmarks. Possibly, this tendency has silenced internal government tensions. Nevertheless, this also means that ministers are responsible for the outcome of their sectors. Otherwise, the perseverance of the post-Arab Spring experience will preserve the government coalition but risk to divide the country or decline its foreign relations.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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