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Sahara developments mean testing times for Moroccan diplomacy

July 25, 2016 at 10:30 am

In a region of rapidly escalating instability, Morocco is trying to concretise the recipe for reform and stability. Nevertheless, government officials complain frequently about recurrent signs of despotism in the country, fuelled by political and media preparations for the October elections. Hence, the unsteady democratisation process is a test for the perseverance of that strategic narrative. Meanwhile, the Sahara issue remains a central factor in relations with the international community. Incessant change and interaction have characterised the affair, from which serious challenges have come forth. Some changes serve Morocco’s interests while others require more active and efficient diplomacy.

The latter include restoring the personnel of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to full functionality. When Ban Ki-moon described its presence in the Sahara as an occupation, Morocco expelled 85 civilian members of the UN peacekeeping mission. Around 25 of the staff thrown out are now reported to be back in Laayoune, in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2285. This extended the MINURSO mandate until April next year and requires the secretary general to brief the council on its progress within 90 days.

Abiding by the resolution sends contradictory signals. It not only shows acceptance of the firm discourse that the Security Council, under US pressure, levels at Morocco, despite strong bilateral relations, but also demonstrates Morocco’s willingness to cooperate with international organisations, as long as its sovereignty is respected, though the current measures put Morocco’s autonomy plan on the margins. There is also expected to be a return to the extension of the MINURSO mandate to monitor human rights abuses in the Sahara. Thus, in addition to pinpointing such abuses in the Tindouf gulags – in which both the Polisario Front and Algeria are involved — Rabat may need a better alternative to the regionalisation plan.

Another challenge is the attempt to relocate the US Africa Command, or AFRICOM, from Germany to the north-west African kingdom. The US pressure puts Moroccan politicians in a tight spot, given the problematic consequences that generally arise from hosting US regional commands. These range from the building of international prisons such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq, creating a hub for drone warfare and intervening in the domestic politics of the host nation, creating a context for instability and security concerns. AFRICOM, notwithstanding where it functions from, has a pivotal role in the current military interventions across the continent, especially with Islamist militant groups active in Algeria, Mali, Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Nigeria and Sinai. Opening national airspace, land routes and watercourses for a war against all of these factions at once is no less than geopolitical suicide.

The most important change recently is Morocco’s request to rejoin the African Union (AU). Economically, Morocco is a key African investor in the continent, second only to South Africa. The projects that Morocco is involved in fall into three categories: joint ventures with foreign investors, especially France; cooperation with African enterprises, such as in the telecoms sector; and its own investments. If, for economic reasons, Morocco is freer outside the AU, it must be noted that Africa is also changing, and south-south cooperation can generate more welfare for the region.

Politically, Morocco has been a considerable loser since it left the African Union. The so-called “free chair policy” has proved that Morocco’s absence at decisive diplomatic programmes has been a sign of weakness. On the other hand, the Polisario Front has made the most of the situation. The AU – then called the Organisation of African Unity — seated a delegation of Polisario guerrillas at its 1984 summit. The movement had leftist aspirations, which has also changed. True, the Sahara affair is a remnant of the Cold War era, but the ability of traditional left-right divides to decide international alliances has shrunk considerably.

In this regard, Morocco’s King Mohamed VI has sent a letter to the 27th AU summit in Rwanda, focusing on common concerns and challenges. Basing arguments on history, legitimacy, commitment and current continental concerns, he further described the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), or the “phantom state” as it was called in 1984, as a hurdle to more Moroccan engagement in Africa. The king also hinted at the prospective diplomatic, economic, environment and security cooperation that the AU stands to gain from inviting Morocco’s return to the organisation.

A day after the king’s letter was received, 28 African leaders sent a motion to the AU chairman for the immediate suspension of SADR. This unprecedented breakthrough keeps pace with Moroccan-African aspirations although, apart from Libya, no North African country signed the motion. Morocco, it seems, needs more political engagement with its immediate neighbours. For all North African countries, joining the AU cannot eclipse the failure to build the Maghreb Union, despite the difference in proximity and geo-cultural realities between the two blocs.

The surprise was that neither Tunisia nor Egypt signed. Morocco welcomed the outcome of the 2011 revolution as well as the first Ennahda Party government in Tunis. Moncef Marzouki, the first post-revolution president in Tunisia, often describes himself as a friend of Morocco, for political and family reasons. The government in Rabat also immediately denounced the assassinations of Tunisian opposition figures Choukri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi in 2013. More importantly, the current leadership in Tunis has good political and economic ties with Morocco. It is possible, therefore, that the fragile security situation in the Chaambi Mountains on the Algerian border lies behind the abstention from the AU motion.

Likewise with Egypt, Morocco was among the first countries to congratulate the first coup government in 2013, but the relationship has fluctuated, due to Algerian influence on Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. It was Algeria which is believed to have pushed the AU into readmitting Egypt after the military coup. Consequently, a media dispute has occurred between the two states, while Al-Sisi has been unable to visit Morocco due to public objections.

The prospects for Morocco’s Sahara situation seem to reside in south-south cooperation, but “south” in this context includes North Africa. These are testing times for Moroccan diplomacy.

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