North African winds of change arrive in Morocco


Spanish solidarity movement and new technologies offer hope to Sahrawis

by Paul Rigg

On January 14th 2011, Tunisian president Ben Ali fled the country after more than two decades in power, accused of repeatedly fixing elections and corruption.  Less than two weeks later a popular uprising in Egypt has led President Mubarak to announce that he will step down in September, after thirty years of creeping cronyism under his rule.

With the eyes of the international community upon them, the bases of authoritarian Arab regimes are being shaken across North Africa.  In the last few days discontent in countries like Yemen, for example, has led President Alí Abdulá Salé to confirm that his son will not take over when he steps down.  Jordan, Sudan, Syria and Algeria also seem vulnerable; with the greatest risk perhaps being in Saudi Arabia where regime change would have the capacity to affect the commercial and political environment across the region and beyond.  The leaders of these Arab countries have been profoundly affected by recent events and are seeking ways to reassert their power and authority.

However the sense of instability is not only affecting North-African Arab states, but the West as well.  Western fears include the possibility of the chaos and violence spiralling out of control, and of old regimes being replaced by military rule, perhaps under the command of Muslim fundamentalist leaders.

But in a rapidly changing and uncertain situation it is also important to look to other more positive scenarios.  It is worth noting that in Tunisia and Egypt, for example, Muslim fundamentalists have not been the driving force for change, but rather ordinary citizens calling for increased democratisation and an end to poverty and corruption.  This ‘citizen’s call’ has been backed by web-based organisations like Avaaz, which has collected over half a million email signatures in a few days demanding, for instance, that Mubarak stands down.  And it has now emerged that Morocco – in what appears to be a new intiative not seen in over thirty years – has put forward a proposal which would allow the Saharawi refugees to return to the Western Sahara during a transitionary period that would lead to a referendum.   

“There has undoubtedly been an impact in Morocco, because it has many of the social difficulties, structural problems and corrupt practices present in the other countries,” says Professor Miguel Hernando de Larramendi Martinez, Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Spanish Universidad de Castilla y La Mancha.  “Perhaps they have more room for manoeuvre in Morocco, but the disturbances that previously had a social or economic character have now become politicised.  One of the main differences in Morocco is that in many cases they can prevent social tensions exploding by appealing to the need for national unity,” he says.

Perhaps now however is a time for hope.  The Sahrawi people have lived for over 30 years in a state of limbo, being supported by aid and waiting peacefully but resolutely for the Morocco and the international community to honour a commitment made long ago to their self-determination.  


In 1975 the International Court of Justice ruled that the Westen Sahara, until then a Spanish colony, should have the right to self-determination, but Morocco invaded before the Spanish officially withdrew.  A decade and a half of war ensued, with the Sahrawi movement the Polisario conducting guerrilla campaigns against the occupying forces.  The original UN Peace Plan between Morocco and the Sahrawis was launched in 1991, and produced a ceasefire that has held to this day, but Morocco has stubbornly refused to accept any referendum with independence as an option.  In recent years the Western Sahara has slipped down – or completely off – the international agenda.

Shamefully it is even worse than that; because in May 2008 the European Union finally admitted – under pressure from a handful of MEPs – that boats from European countries such as Spain, Lithuania and Britain continue to profit from the rich fishing grounds off the coast of the Western Sahara by exploiting a resource which they themselves have declared belongs to the Sahrawis.

At the end of April 2009 the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) by another year- but failed to give MINURSO the teeth to safeguard human rights in the occupied territories.  France, a consistent defender of Moroccan interests, vetoed the proposal, arguing that the situation in the occupied territory should be considered as having a “human dimension” rather than being an issue about “human rights”– despite the abuses of human rights regularly documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.  “It is very sad that this country with its motto of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ is not able to offer us its support,” commented Mahfud Ali Beiba, the then Head of the Sahrawi Parliament.

So the broader political stalemate has continued.  Until this week, Morocco has continued to offer only limited autonomy, while the Polisario has sought a referendum, with independence as one of the choices.  All the major parties to the negotiations recognise that Morocco does not want to give up their economic interests in the region and that is why the Sahrawis have even been prepared to permit the continuing exploitation of those resources if they had sovereignty over the land.  “If the referendum gave us autonomy we would guarantee their economic interests and respect the rights of the Moroccan citizens who live there,” says Abdel Kader Taleb Aomar, the Sahrawi Prime Minister.  “We seek a peaceful solution, but if there are no signs of change soon then it is very probable that this will turn into a military conflict.”

Signs of hope

Amid this bleak landscape, however, there are signs of hope – though from the grassroots rather than from governments.  Spaniards and Sahrawis are linked by their colonial history and Spanish is the Sahrawi’s second language (after Hassania, an Arab dialect).  As a result of these cultural ties, around 10,000 Spanish families welcome a Sahrawi child from the long-standing refugee settlements in the desert near Tindouf, Algeria, into their homes for several months every year.  This is thought to be the largest solidarity movement between two peoples anywhere in the world.  Furthermore, anyone walking around the Dakhla refugee camp (like all the camps, named after a city in occupied Western Sahara) could not but be struck by the number of vehicles which have been donated by town and city halls from all over Spain.

In addition, every year since 2004 an international film festival (known as FiSahara) has been held in these camps, which are located in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.  “Over 400 people now travel here from Spain every year and the event is very well established,” explains film-maker and founder Javier Corcuera.  “The event ensures that the Sahrawis do not feel alone because the Spanish people show unconditional support for the Sahrawi cause.  There is no longer any correspondence at all between the Spanish government and Spanish civil society on this issue.”

In 2008 the Festival was given an added boost by the attendance of international film star Javier Bardem, who launched a political movement to collect 500,000 signatures in support of the Polisario being recognised diplomatically by the Spanish government.

In addition, a number of refugees in the camp talk with enthusiasm about the recently proposed University at Tifariti.  There are now ten Spanish universities involved with other universities in England, America, Africa, Algeria and Cuba.  This project seeks to capitalise on the educational transformation that has seen the Sahrawis jump from one of the lowest levels of literacy in Africa to over 90% literacy, as well as thousands of Sahrawis attending schools and universities in Algeria and many hundreds more in Cuba.

“This project is a symbol of hope for the Sahrawis in the refugee camps, because it will form part of the planning for the new infrastructure in liberated territory,” explains Bucharaya Buyen, Polisario’s representative in Spain.  “The Sahrawis as a people have invested heavily in education and consequently we have protected our society from extremism and terrorism.  Westerners can walk through the refugee camps here at anytime without problems; you cannot say that about many other countries.”

According to an article published this week in the specialist magazine ‘Maghreb Confidencial’, and not denied by the parties involved, Morocco has now agreed to resurrect the Baker Plan, ‘with light modifications’.  They seek that the Polisario renounce the term ‘The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’ – which has been recognised by dozens of countries, but not by the United Nations – and in exchange will begin a fixed period of transition under an autonomous government chosen by universal sufferage by the resident population in the ex-Spanish colony, at the end of which a referendum of self-determination of the Sahrawi people would be organised.  The Polisario are yet to respond formally to this proposal, but it seems that, as in Egypt and Tunisia, it is ordinary citizens who have been the driving force for change.

“The international economic situation is extremely challenging but if the United States and the European Union want to forge social peace for these countries in process of transition they will need to implement a very active policy to help those economies and meet the expectations of the people,” concludes Professor Hernando de Larramendi Martinez.

It would be wrong to overestimate the possibilities of a peaceful solution to the conflict in the near future, but it would be equally mistaken to dismiss the determination and resolve of the Sahrawis, Spanish civil society and the international community to assert pressure – and bring about change. However, they now need international state and civil society support in increasing numbers.

Part of this article was originally published in ‘New Internationalist’ magazine.

Contact Paul: riggpaul @