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A Frozen Conflict in the Sahara Still Enflames Morocco, Polisario
The Washington Diplomat / June 2014

By Larry Luxner

Mohamed Cherif was an idealistic, long-haired 14-year-old high school student back in the mid 1970s, when in a burst of patriotism he decided to enlist in the Polisario Front, a rebel movement fighting Morocco for the independence of Western Sahara.

“I joined without telling my parents, because they wouldn’t have let me go. They wanted me to continue my studies,” said Cherif. The teenage hippie — born and raised in the desert town of Dakhla — was filled with admiration for Che Guevara, but he was also a fan of Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

Cherif said he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

“The Polisario destroyed all my cassette tapes and threw them all in the garbage. They said it was Western contamination,” Cherif recalled. He said he was immediately sent to boot camp, then to three years of training at a military academy in Libya — whose leader at the time, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, was one of the Polisario’s strongest supporters.

“We had to memorize Qaddafi’s Green Book. When training was finished, they sent me to the front lines,” he told us. “In the beginning, I thought I was joining a revolution and that we were going to liberate the Sahara. But over time I discovered that it’s a communism system adapted for Muslims. They control everything — your work, your family life. Men had to belong to a cell of five people, and women had to belong to cells of 11. If you weren’t married, you were obliged to get married.”

Cherif, now 54, took that advice to heart, tying the knot five times (he has a 21-year-old daughter back in Dakhla, as well as a 14-year-old daughter in the Netherlands). Yet the one-time revolutionary ultimately rebelled against the Polisario itself, and for that he claims he was sentenced to five years in prison, spending most of that time in an underground cell less than six feet long and two-and-a-half feet wide.

After escaping under circumstances that are less than clear, Cherif became a global spokesman for the anti-Polisario movement, regularly testifying in London, Amsterdam and elsewhere before organizations such as Amnesty International. That cause has since become his life’s mission.

His plight has also become a handy cause célèbre for Morocco’s high-powered lobbying machine, which goes into overdrive when it comes to the Western Sahara — a nearly 40-year territorial dispute that’s been forgotten by much of the world but consumes Moroccan foreign policy.

The Moroccan American Center for Policy, a registered agent of the Moroccan government, recently brought Cherif to town and made him available for an interview. The government routinely courts journalists, members of Congress and other officials to make its case against the Polisario, highlighting the stories of ex-rebels and sending Americans on tightly choreographed trips to the region (The Diplomat went on such a trip in 2009; for coverage, see the September 2009 issue).

According to a Feb. 25 Foreign Policy article by Eliza Barclay and Kirsten Chick, “since 2007 the kingdom has spent roughly $20 million lobbying policymakers and soliciting sympathetic coverage from journalists in the United States on all issues, including Western Sahara. In 2009, it lobbied members of Congress, the executive branch and journalists more than any other Arab country — more than twice as much as Egypt.”

The Polisario, a liberation movement backed by Algeria, represents the indigenous Sahrawis, an Arab-Berber nomad group whose lobby might pales in comparison to that of Morocco. Nevertheless, the Polisario maintains a Washington liaison office on the fourth floor of an office building at 12th and Massachusetts — by coincidence (or not) less than a block from the Moroccan American Center.

Its director, Mohamed Beissat, said that even though Morocco is one of the biggest image spenders in the Middle East and North Africa, this money is largely wasted.

“We don’t think they’re effective.” he told us. “PR buys you space in the newspaper, time on TV and appointments with policymakers, but it does not make your cause a just cause. Morocco will not be able to change the reality on the ground.

“All the officials at [the Moroccan American Center] are former U.S. diplomats who served in Morocco, and I find this very strange because America is the only country that allows its former diplomats to be recruited by foreign countries,” he added, referring in part to former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco Edward Gabriel, whose company has made millions to advocate on behalf of the kingdom. “This could not happen in the U.K., France or Germany.”

Beissat, reached on his mobile phone from the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, has represented the Polisario in Washington for one year. Before that, he directed the front’s diplomatic efforts in Latin America, where sympathy for the self-styled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic runs high due to its former status as a colony of Spain.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which claims sovereignty over the Western Sahara, has been recognized by 80 countries from Cuba to Zimbabwe. It maintains its exile headquarters in Tindouf, a dusty Algerian border city that’s now home to roughly 90,000 Sahrawis, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (though Polisario estimates put the figure at around 150,000).

Yet it’s against Moroccan law to refer to the Sahrawi people in Tindouf as refugees, because that contradicts the official Moroccan line that they are prisoners of the Polisario, as Cherif suggests.

Beissat said he met Cherif in the Netherlands in 1996 “while he was running away from Morocco,” but surprisingly declined to “confirm or deny” the accuracy of his numerous allegations.

Both sides regularly trade murky accusations against the other, making the prospects for a breakthrough in the long-running conflict bleak.

The Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony sandwiched among Morocco, Algeria, and the Atlantic Ocean, has been in legal limbo since 1976, when Morocco took over most of the territory.

With nearly 400,000 people inhabiting an area roughly the size of Colorado, the Western Sahara is the biggest of the 16 countries — both in size and population — on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories. The vast expanse of picturesque desert is rich in phosphates and is believed to hold offshore oil deposits.

In October 1975, the International Court of Justice formally rejected both Moroccan and Mauritanian claims on the territory, recognizing the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. The following month, Spain partitioned its former colony between Mauritania and Morocco, with the latter annexing the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara in 1976. Mauritania received the southern third but renounced that claim a few years later. Morocco filled the vacuum by annexing that territory as well, and in the 1980s built a 1,600-mile-long sand wall that still divides Moroccan-controlled territory in the west from a much smaller region in the east controlled by the Polisario.

The local Sahrawis fought Moroccan troops until the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire in 1991, with the promise that a referendum would be held the following year on independence. Yet that referendum never happened because of a dispute over voter eligibility.

A 2001 framework agreement that provided autonomy for Sahrawis under Moroccan sovereignty was rejected by the Polisario and Algeria. A subsequent compromise deal to hold a referendum in five years that would include the option of integration with Morocco, semi-autonomy or independence was rejected by Morocco, fearing it could lead to independence. In the meantime, Morocco has plowed money and people into the territory to shore up its claim.

“The Polisario remains committed to an eventual referendum with self-determination and independence as options, with Morocco pushing for autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty,” said Freedom House, a watchdog group.

Freedom House, in its latest report on the conflict, pulls no punches over what it calls Morocco’s blatant restrictions of human rights. It gives Western Sahara its worst possible score in both civil liberties and political rights.

“Morocco has tried to bolster its claim to Western Sahara over the years by offering financial incentives for Moroccans to move to Western Sahara, and for Sahrawis to move to Morocco. Morocco has also used coercive measures, engaging in forced resettlements of Sahrawis and long-term detention and ‘disappearances’ of pro-independence activists,” the report said.

Human Rights Watch, in a 2008 report, said Morocco has improved its track record. “Morocco has made steady gains in its human rights performance in the past 15 years. It has allowed greater freedom of expression and independent human rights monitoring, and has established a truth commission that investigated and acknowledged past abuses and compensated victims,” it said.

“However, the limits to Morocco’s progress on human rights are apparent in the way authorities suppress opposition to the officially held position that Western Sahara is part of Morocco. The government bans peaceful demonstrations and refuses legal recognition to human rights organizations; the security forces arbitrarily arrest demonstrators and suspected Sahrawi activists, beat them and subject them to torture … and the courts convict and imprison them after unfair trials.”

For his part, Cherif says the only abuse he suffered was at the hands of the Polisario.

“These people put me in jail for five years for nothing,” he angrily told us in Spanish, pointing to a chart depicting the Polisario’s leadership. “It’s just like Cuba. If you don’t agree with Fidel or Raúl [Castro], you’re a traitor. The Polisario isn’t interested in any solution. What they want is to fill their pockets with money donated by the international community. They’re a puppet controlled by Algeria, which always had a leadership rivalry with Morocco over the Maghreb. So the easiest solution for them was to destabilize Morocco.”

Cherif compared the Polisario to Colombia’s battle-hardened FARC rebels and even to Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge, which orchestrated a genocide in the 1970s that left an estimated 2 million people dead.

“These last few years, since the fall of Qaddafi, many weapons have flowed into the area. The Sahel has been transformed into a zone of human trafficking and narcotics. These people are not free. They don’t have passports, they have no refugee status, they can’t form political parties, they can’t do business,” said Cherif, who also claims that Polisario officials are heavily involved in smuggling refugees from Niger and Mali to the Moroccan port of Tangier — often charging $4,000 to $5,000 per immigrant.

Morocco’s various lobbying arms have also sounded the alarm about the growing presence of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, suggesting that Polisario camps had become breeding grounds for jihadists, terrorists, drug runners, and all manner of bad guys.

Porous borders and a large disenchanted youth population mean infiltration is certainly possible, though Morocco has been making such claims for years. The Diplomat heard hints during its 2009 trip that Algeria and the Polisario had links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), though the charges were never substantiated (and Algeria for one has fought a long-running battle against Islamist militants).

Morocco also says refugees in the camps are prevented from leaving, although Human Rights Watch disputed that characterization with a more nuanced view, saying the “Polisario effectively marginalizes those who directly challenge its leadership or general political orientation, but it does not imprison them.”

It’s hard to discern the full truth because the camps are remote and isolated. Likewise, Western journalists are routinely forbidden from reporting from the Western Sahara, except under very closely supervised conditions that highlight Morocco’s version of events. It’s clear, though, that dissent isn’t tolerated in either the Polisario camps or Moroccan-controlled towns in the Sahara.

Néjib Ayachi heads the Washington-based Maghreb Center, a nonprofit group that encourages debate on issues related to North Africa. He calls the Western Sahara dispute “one of the more intractable legacies of European colonization” in Africa. But he declined to favor one position or the other.

“I think there are exaggerations on both sides,” Ayachi told The Diplomat. “It is possible that what he said is happening, but I don’t think the Moroccan government has a well thought-out policy to crack down on the Sahrawi people and infringe on their human rights. Things happen because of the nature of security forces in these countries; they’re not known to respect human rights.”

Ayachi, a Tunisian, said he’s rather pessimistic about the conflict but hopes that the new cabinet in Algeria — named May 5 by longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was re-elected in April to five more years in power — will be more open to talking with its Moroccan counterparts.

“Morocco has stopped negotiating with the Polisario. I think they should resume direct negotiations,” he said. “They say they want to grant the Sahrawi people autonomy, and that’s a good thing, but the Polisario wants a referendum so the people can decide freely whether to become Moroccans or not.”

Ayachi added that the intractable conflict has sadly brought diplomatic and economic cooperation between Morocco and Algeria to a halt, costing the two North African neighbors between 2 percent to 3 percent of their annual GDP.

“Times are very tough for everybody,” he said. “These countries should be cooperating with each other.”

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