Western Sahara: My Dispassionate Viewpoint

Bernard Lugan, the French historian who appears in the video I posted on my last post is a controversial figure as commenters have been pointing out . I must admit I should have known better and checked the credentials. But regardless of what this guy might have been accused of and his rather disconcerting political discourse, I still would have published the video [Fr] because I think the content is pretty kosher.

I’ve been hearing people jangling around this issue for years. Talk over the violent events that led to a number of deaths and injuries at Gadaym Izik, a protest camp near Laayoune, southern Morocco (or Western Sahara, depending on which side you’re on) has often been supercilious or overly patriotic. At least from the Moroccan side. Not the kind of arguments I’m prepared to take anymore. But I was happy to have some reasonable and truly dispassionate discussions, off and online on some aspects of this question over the past few days.

Let me just set the record straight: I think these people who camped at Gadaym Izik had the right to assemble and protest their poor living conditions. I regret the mismanagement of the issue by the Moroccan authorities who did almost everything one could think of to make the situation worsen, and transform a protest that was economic in nature into a highly volatile political crisis with the subsequent media disaster we’ve been witnessing in the last 72 hours or so.

Both sides of the conflict claim the right to be sovereign over the territory. Sovereignty is a controversial notion. It does however matter in this case. And if anyone is to claim sovereignty over a territory, I guess there must be some consistent historical and cultural basis to back that claim, whatever some of my “internationalist” friends might think.

I’m not pretending to have answers here, and I certainly have more questions than I have answers but I, for one, thought it would be interesting to share some of those.

History matters, and from that point of view, the kind of relations that existed between the Makhzen (the Moroccan state) and its subjects, whether in the north or the south of the country, is an interesting one to look at. It consisted mainly, but not solely, on tax collection and crude force, hence the dreadful reputation the Makhzen has acquired across the ages. This has been at the core of the resentment on the part of dissident tribes throughout Moroccan history. They regularly went into dissidence, refusing the mafia-like (to borrow a commenter’s word) imposition they were subjected to, but they maintained some kind of deference to the central/spiritual authority of the Sultans. I believe the same dynamics prevailed in Western Sahara until Spain and the newly created Algeria started poking their nose into it. The fact Algeria and Mauritania didn’t exist before France created them is, I believe, at the core of the problem. This conflict, along with the endless border disputes, have been deliberately planted by former colonial powers so as to maintain a constant dependency. Divide et impera. Beyond the revolving cycles of dissidence (Siba) versus submission there was a consistent trade and cultural network between Morocco and Western Sahara that underpinned the eventual emergence of a nation sate, centuries before the same processes even started in the West. As far as I know, cessation was not a common practice amongst these tribes. Now, whether that constitutes a solid ground for a claim of sovereignty on the part of Morocco is a matter for debate, but I believe Morocco’s case is quite consistent from that standpoint.

I support a people’s right to self determination and I would subscribe to any option the people in question might choose, whether autonomy, integration or outright independence. But that said, there are some preliminary questions one ought to ask before accepting such a process as legitimate and not as an orchestrated imposture on the part of meddling regional powers.

A call for independence must at least be based on a coherent argument. There is, however, a fundamental flaw in Polisario’s stance. It is something that makes the separatist plea highly suspicious to me. If we’re going to consider the Sahara and its people, why for example should we restrict that exercise to the relatively minuscule western part of the huge Saharan territory? The nomadic Saharawi population is a unique blend of Arabs and indigenous Berber tribes, that spans a territory that includes necessarily the whole of Mauritania and very large chunks of the Algerian, Libyan segments of the Sahara desert. The separatists would have been more convincing had they stopped playing the puppet role for regional powers’ obvious ambitions.

I’ve also been arguing (but was unfortunately misunderstood) that Morocco is not Sudan (and I mean no disrespect for Sudan here), in the sense that Morocco has, over its 12 century-old history, acquired a political and geographical coherence and ethnic cohesion that would make the separation way more lethal than say in Southern Sudan or in Kosovo.

Establishing a liberal, genuine democracy in Morocco is I believe the best way out of this. A decentralized authority, a parliamentary monarchy and a federal state is a matter of urgency, for the sake of the Moroccan people, Saharawis included, and for the survival of the monarchy itself.

The referendum idea, in the context of the conflict over Western Sahara, is I believe passé, because the separation would be a disaster, not only for Morocco, but also for the region. Otherwise we would be contemplating the creation of yet another Frankenstein republic, administered from Algiers, under the guardianship of Spain. So much for self determination.