As the Free Syrian Army continues to face heavy bombardment from government soldiers in Aleppo, more than 6,000km to the east, another group of Islamic fighters has announced its own call to arms against the Moroccan Government. On 29 July 2012, a Saharawi man climbed onto the rooftop of a government building, tore down its Moroccan flag and set it ablaze. Toward a small crowd of gathering Sahrawi people, the man replaced the Moroccan emblem with the colours of the Western Sahara, a particularly defiant move given that the Moroccan Government has historically banned the Sahrawi flag from being raised. But the political controversy did not stop there. The man, whose identity remains shrouded in mystery, then called for further escalation in attacks in order to “send a message to occupying Moroccan settlers” that there would be “no peace” until Western Sahara becomes independent. Pictures of the political stunt quickly surfaced throughout social media circles, with many Syrian expatriates voicing their sympathy for the Sahrawi cause, whilst a few others from around the globe showed their solidarity with the fight for Western Sahara’s freedom.
Whilst the Twittersphere remained briefly abuzz with the brazen actions of the unknown Sawahari man, the Spanish Government also quietly moved to repatriate fifteen aid workers from Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria due to “’well-founded indications” of possible attacks by Mali-based militant groups. Attacks by Malian extremists, if any were to occur, are unlikely to be directly related to a possible escalation in violence from Sawahari militants. Nevertheless, such political manoeuvring indicates further unrest in the greater Sahel, a threat which has been leaving Moroccan leaders feeling unnerved, who fear that the spectre of terrorism from the militant wing of Polisario Front is once again rearing its ugly head. But by making questionable business decisions with regards to the Western Sahara, is Rabat effectively shooting itself in the foot?
The Battle for the Western Sahara
The Western Sahara, a territory that spans 103,000 square miles, is an area which human rights organisations and international observers often ignore. In a situation not unlike that of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, since 1982, Rabat has encroached further into territory the Sawahari people consider theirs. Complicating matters, as previously indicated by The Inkerman Group, the Western Sahara also remains ground zero for a proxy political war between Morocco and Algeria. According to Morocco, which currently administers about 80% of the territory, the Western Sahara officially belongs to them. For Algeria, the fate of the Western Sahara belongs to the native people, which it officially recognises as members of the Polisario Front, a guerrilla group based out of Tindouf, Algeria, as well as members of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Although Morocco views the Algerian Government-funded Polisario Front as a terrorist organisation, the UN, for its part, has largely sided with Algeria’s position, and has officially recognised the organisation as the official representative of the territory.
Morocco’s questionable business deals…
Despite murmurs of threats from the Polisario Front, aside from kidnaps, the group’s militant wing has been largely quiet. But all of that may change as the Moroccan Government appears unwilling to meet any demands from the group’s political base. In a further blow to any hint of Sawahari independence, Rabat is planning on building solar plants in the Western Sahara with the help of international partners. In June 2012, the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN) announced that Saudi International Company for Water and Power (ACWA), and its partners, TSK EE and Spanish engineering firm Aries IS, had won rights to build a US$500 million complex as part of Morocco’s lauded plans to transition into becoming a leader in solar energy. Controversially, the project will include five power stations, two of which are projected to be built in the highly contested Western Sahara.
Morocco’s decision to build on Western Sahara territory with the help of international firms is nothing new. In May 2012, the Moroccan company, Nareva Holding, came under fire for its decision to work with Siemens Denmark in a project which would see the two build twenty-two windmills in near El Aaaiun in occupied Western Sahara. The decision placed Siemens in hot water, particularly as the company is a member of the Global Compact, an initiative for businesses which promise to align their operations with human rights principles.
These decisions remain “business as usual” for the Moroccan Kingdom, which sees nothing wrong with building in an area that it perceives as its own. Instead, the Moroccan Government has taken a more combative approach in response to any criticism on its treatment of Sahwaris. Indeed, in May 2012 the Moroccan Government declared it had “no confidence” in Christopher Ross, the UN Envoy for Western Sahara, and claimed that the UN’s reports on the territory are “biased”. Furthermore, Rabat accused Ross of being a victim of lobbying by the Algerian Government especially Ross served as the US Ambassador to Algiers. Morocco took it a step further by trying to veto the appointment of Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber as the new head of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. For its part, the Polisario Front appears to be satisfied with the selection of Weisbrod-Weber, if nothing else, because it appears to anger the Moroccan Government.
Threat of terrorism?
Amid tit-for-tat political battles between Morocco and the UN, as well as Morocco and Algeria, the threat of terrorism from the Polisario Front looms. But the question remains, will this threat translate into action? For now, aside from a few small-scale incidents, this looks unlikely. To begin with many of the Sahrawis are disorganised, having been displaced and living in Algeria. Nevertheless, as Algerian authorities concentrate their efforts along the border with Mali, there may be room for Polisario Front to grow. Additionally, as the detested regime of Bashir al Assad continues his bloody crackdown on rebel forces in Syria, there is a potential for the Polisario Front’s militant wing to become emboldened by sympathisers of a people who are looking to establish home rule.
(Image: Morocco News Board)