Sahara and King’s speech: time has come to chart a new, more efficient strategy

Samir Bennis

New York- King Mohammed VI delivered last Friday, on the occasion of the opening of the two houses of parliament, an unprecedented speech, in which for the first time he blamed Morocco’s officials for their inefficiency in defending the Sahara, as well elected MP’s for lack of action in this regard.

The Moroccan monarch urged the parliament to “elaborate an efficient action plan, using all parliamentary tools, to continue defending our territorial integrity, by putting aside antagonisms between majority and opposition.”

“Members of parliament and local and regional elected members, mainly in our southern provinces, should shoulder their responsibilities as representatives of the region’s inhabitants and counter the country’s enemies,” the king noted.

What surprised me that day is not so much the tone of the King’s speech, for any expert of the Sahara issue would tell you that Moroccan diplomacy has not been doing so well over the past 2 years in defending it, but the reaction of most people in Morocco, including officials and MP’s, as if the latest developments that this territorial dispute witnessed in recent years weren’t enough to wake them up from their profound lethargy. The latest example in this regard, is the US move last April to include a human rights monitoring mechanism in the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO.

This “unexpected” move by the United States, considered a major Moroccan ally, proved once again that our diplomacy lacks vision and fails to work proactively even when everything signals that something negative is in the making against Morocco.

During his speech, King Mohammed VI highlighted the failure of Morocco’s officials to plan ahead of its rivals and their tendency to be always in the defensive.

“Most actors do not mobilize unless there is an imminent menace that threatens the integrity of our territory. It is like they don’t make a move until given the signal to do so. Instead of playing defense we have to force our adversaries to play it by taking charge and insight”, said the king to the bicameral parliament.”

That the King addresses the parliament in this manner is very telling in that Morocco is losing some critical battles in its long-lasting fight to retain its sovereignty over a territory, which before 1884, had always belonged to it.

For the past three years, I have been calling, in my articles, on the Moroccan government to chart a new strategy if it were to win the battle of public opinion and garner more international support to its position on the conflict.

Lack of vision makes Morocco miss an opportunity to make and breakthrough

A quick overview of events related to the Sahara over the past two to three years shows that Morocco missed a great opportunity to weaken its rivals’ position. Not only did Morocco fail to advance its position regarding the Autonomy Plan presented to the Security Council in 2007, but it also showed a great deal of improvisation in dealing with the events related to the Sahara both at the internal and external level.

Excess of optimism and lack of vision on the part of our diplomacy made Moroccan officials believe that it was enough to present an Autonomy Plan and it was enough that it was recognized as a “serious” option that could pave the way towards putting an end to the conflict. Instead of striving towards explaining to the world, including the world most influential powers and international public opinion, the mechanism and modalities through which this autonomy plan would be implemented, Moroccan officials settled for repeating every now and then that the Security Council reiterates its support to the Moroccan autonomy plan. But when one reads carefully the relevant United Nations resolutions, they don’t clearly support the autonomy plan, but just take note of it. And even the United States, which many think is supportive of the Autonomy plan, has never stated in a clear manner that it squarely supports Morocco’s position on the dispute.

Kingdom officials’ excess of optimism pushed them to think that ball was rolling in their favor and the international community was supportive of their position, when the reality, at least over the past two years, is quite the opposite. Morocco would have been better-off today if its diplomacy was clairvoyant enough to be more proactive and reach out to the world, especially to those countries where it has a huge image deficit, such as Scandinavian countries, Australia, and other Latin American countries whose public opinion is more supportive of the Polisario’s stance. Rather than doing so, what Rabat did was multiply press statements delivered by some personalities who support its position and praise the virtues of the Autonomy Plan.

Human rights: Polisario’s favorite battle ground

While Morocco was lured by its complacency and blinded by its lethargy, the Polisario and its allies were redoubling their efforts to undermine its position and show the “unwillingness” of Rabat to allow the Saharawis to enjoy their freedom, even in the event of the implementation of its autonomy plan.

The favorite battle ground chosen by Morocco’s allies is the question of human rights. Here again, we will not only witness the lack of vision of Morocco’s officials, but also their improvisation and lack of preparedness to deal with any scenario that might unfold whether inside the Sahara or at the international level.

Instead of making sure no mishap takes place and the situation of human rights in the Sahara and other places of the country don’t get out of hand, Moroccan authorities made a number of blunders that resulted in weakening its position vis-a-vis the international community, thus allowing the Polisairo and its allies (mainly Algeria and South Africa) to seize any opportunity to denounce what it calls Morocco’s “human rights abuses” in the Sahara.

In addition to disallowing some European MP’s known for their sympathy towards the Polisario, from visiting the Sahara, one of the biggest blows dealt to Morocco in recent years was turning a quasi-unknown person into a world acclaimed personality for her “defense” of human rights. I am referring to Aminato Hiadar, who in a blink on an eye, and because of the lack of clairvoyance of some Moroccan officials, became a renowned person.

If those who disallowed her to enter Morocco that day of November 2009 when she wrote in the custom paper at Layoune airport that she ‘was from Western Sahara’ rather than from Morocco, were cognizant and aware of the importance that the question of human rights is gaining nowadays in the world stage, they would have thought twice before sending her back to Spain. But it seems until today that some Moroccan officials are still luring themselves with the declaration of some American, Spanish or French officials and think that this enough to have the balance tilt in their favor.

The irresponsible and nonsensical way in which some officials deal with the question of the Sahara is the main cause that enabled the Polisario and its backers to corner Morocco on the question of human rights and turn it into their main weapons against it. It is the same lack of preparedness and vision that turned Aminato Haidar into a hero whose statements are now followed and respected all over the world, especially in those that are sympathetic with the Polisario. It is the same lack of vision that pushed some people to even call for her nomination for the Nobel Prize. Had Moroccan officials been clairvoyant enough and aware of the repercussions of expulsing her to Spain, they would not have made such a step.

Arrest of Anouzla: another gift to the Polisario

But what makes things worse is that Moroccan officials don’t learn from their missteps. The latest instance that proves so is the arrest and persecution of Ali Anouzla, editor-in-chief of Lakome news website, on charges of terrorism after posting a video in which Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, calls for the perpetration of terrorists in Morocco. The arrest of Anouzla, known for his acerbic criticism toward the Moroccan state and sympathy towards the Polisario, is another gift made towards the separatist movement and its backers.

What message does Morocco convey to the world when the international public opinion learns that its government imprisons a journalist known for expressing dissenting views on the Sahara and other issues? No matter what excuses Moroccan officials put forth and no matter how much they repeat them, they will have no credibility in the eyes of the world’s public opinion. What the world would retain from this unfortunate decision is that Morocco suppresses freedom of opinion and stifles the voices of those who might be supportive of the Polisario. This, in turn, plays into the hands of the Polisario and its allies, who spare no efforts in using this weapon to weaken Morocco’s position.

Report of the US Department of State: a blow to Morocco

The report issued by the US Department of State last month, in which it details and criticizes harshly what it called human rights abuses in the Sahara, especially against those who advocate independence, was a blow to the Morocco  and shows once again that our officials excel in reactions rather than acting proactively.

The reaction of the government through the Minister of communication and government spokesperson was just pathetic and demonstrates once again that a great number of our officials live in by-gone era with the same old parameters and mentality.

I think it is time they stopped repeating that Morocco is the first county to have recognized the United States and think that this enough to have US support. Yes it is true that Kingdom was the first country to do so, but is this enough? Do Moroccan officials make efforts throughout the year and throughout the United States to educate people about this? Does Morocco have a clear strategy to have a presence in American campuses in order to enlighten young Americans students about this historical fact and educate them about the complexity of the Sahara issue? I doubt it.

 Morocco has to come to terms with the fact that the United States bases its decision on its interests. The day when he Kingdom won’t be a major piece of its puzzle at the international scene, it will, undoubtedly, turn its back to it. Are Moroccans prepared for this scenario? Have any studies been conducted about this possibility and what steps should the country follow in the event this comes about?

The latest report of the US Department of State is a clear signal that the Washington won’t be lenient with Morocco when it comes to human rights, especially with the current American administration. And there is a high likelihood that the Polisario and its backers will redouble their efforts to lobby the United States and convince it to include a human rights monitoring system in the mandate of MINURSO when the it will be due for renewal next April.

In the same vein, the report of the European Parliament's special rapporteur on human rights in the Sahel and Western Sahara is coming next week and Morocco needs to be well prepared in order to perform damage control of the negative criticism that is more than likely to appear against Morocco.

Moroccan officials should stop for one second and ask themselves this obvious question: what did Morocco gain from expulsing Aminato Haidar to the Canary Islands and from imprisoning Ali Anouzla? The answer to this question is simple: not only Morocco did not gain anything nor did it change the mind of the concerned persons, but it created an icon out of the two of them and turned them into the emblem of the fight of human rights in the Sahara and Morocco at large. What Morocco did by making such unfortunate decisions is to provide the Polisario with a golden opportunity to garner more support to its claims through the use of human rights as a weapon.

It is high time Moroccan officials realized that there is a need to reconsider the way in which this fundamental issue in its foreign policy has been handled, and devise a short and medium term strategy that would be more likely to help it strengthen its position and garner more support to its Autonomy Plan.

As the French saying goes: we don’t “change a team that wins.” This question needs to be asked: Were the people (team) handling this issue making any progress in advancing Morocco’s position? Was the strategy designed to achieve this goal successful? If the answer is negative, which is the more likely the scenario, then there is a need to change (the team) the strategy and entrust it to people who are acquainted with the issue and more in a position to put the country back on track towards retaining its sovereignty over the territory.

Time is running for Morocco and the facts call for a swift change before another major crisis comes to put the country on the defensive and undermine its prospects to retain its sovereignty over the Sahara.

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