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Do international positions ease or complicate the Saharan issue?

May 19, 2022 at 9:39 am

A Sahrawi woman chants during a march in central Madrid in support of Western Sahara on June 19, 2021 in Madrid, Spain [Xaume Olleros/Getty Images]

Officially, there is no sign of an international coalition against the Polisario Front being formed like the alliance established by the Americans to fight Daesh. However, it is very clear that the recent statement by Morocco’s foreign minister linking terrorism with separatist movements — “Those who finance, shelter, support and weaponise separatism, are actually contributing to the expansion of terrorism and undermine regional peace and security” — proves that the idea has taken root, at least in the minds of Moroccan officials.

For Algerians, this is enough to double their concerns. They have expressed their anger, not least because Morocco turned the international conference on fighting Daesh that it hosted last week into an “event dedicated to the issue of Western Sahara” as the foreign ministry said on Thursday. It became what has been described as “a malicious attempt to revive a formula that was dead even when it was presented in 2007.” That formula is, of course, the Moroccan proposal for autonomy in the Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. Are Algerian fears justified or exaggerated?

It is obvious that the proposal, which their neighbours thought to be dead and buried, is gaining more supporters daily, even in countries that were staunch supporters of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the Western Sahara, especially since the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in late 2020 in a trade-off for Morocco’s normalisation of relations with Israel.

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When some African countries opened consulates in the desert areas, it gave the impression that there was a desire to move the issue in a specific direction. It is clear that none of the countries knew how to respond to this move without risking their relationship with either Morocco or Algeria. Even the most skilful diplomats would be unable to please the Moroccans without angering the Algerians, and vice versa.

For example, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that, “Turkey supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of brotherly Morocco.” This upset the Algerians because of the implication about Western Sahara being part of Morocco. However, the foreign ministry in Ankara then said that, “Turkey has been advocating from the beginning to find a political solution to the Sahara issue within the framework of the relevant United Nations resolutions, and through dialogue between the parties.” This didn’t please the Moroccans.

Perhaps the question that every country has to answer is what is the “realistic, practical, enduring and mutually acceptable political solution” according to what the UN Security Council said was needed in its most recent resolution last October on the Western Sahara dilemma. Those directly involved in the matter have not agreed on this solution yet. The Moroccans see no solution other than autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, while the Algerians — who do not openly declare their support for secession or independence — present the option of a referendum. We can imagine what the Moroccan and Algerian ambassadors to the UN would say if they met in a neutral environment to deliberate on the two proposals. The only possibility is that they will simply repeat what they have been saying on all previous occasions, exchange accusations and attack each other.

That is exactly what happened last Thursday in St. Lucia, which hosted a meeting of the UN committee tasked with decolonisation. Media outlets from the two Maghreb neighbours reported the details of the clashes between Morocco’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Omar Hilale, and his Algerian counterpart Nazir Al-Arabawi.

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The official Moroccan news agency said that Hilale had exposed Al-Arabawi’s “schizophrenic approach” to the principle of self-determination by “reminding him that it is a universal principle and is not subject to a partial reading.” The Algerian news agency, meanwhile, said that the Algerian ambassador put his Moroccan counterpart in his place when he described a Saharan woman as being “tasked with a mission” and said that it was the Moroccan authorities who told her what to say on the human rights situation in the Tindouf refugee camps. Al-Arabawi went even further and said that the delegations from “pro-Morocco countries” performed, on cue, “like a ballet troupe in a tasteless show”.

This suggests that Algeria has certain countries in its sights, while others such as South Africa are heading in the opposite direction. “We believe that the time has come to exert maximum diplomatic pressure to ensure that the promised referendum on Western Sahara’s self-determination is finally held,” said the South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Dr Naledi Pandor, in parliament last week.

Where might these differing international positions, whether pro-Morocco or pro-Algeria, lead? Will they ease or complicate the Western Sahara issue? What we cannot afford to happen is that they simply add fuel to the fire of Moroccan-Algerian disputes, and thus keep the Western Saharan dilemma on the shelf for yet more years.

This article first appeared in Arabi in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 17 May 2022 and has been edited for MEMO

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