‘We would prefer settle the situation in Western Sahara by peaceful means,’ Mohamed Abdelaziz, Secretary General of the Polisario Front, told a press conference on Saturday. ‘But if the peace process is not successful, our army is ready.’ He was speaking just a week before the start of the next round of UN- sponsored negotiations, expected to take place in New York on 11-13 February and his sentiments echoed those of the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, who recently warned of the growing risks should the negotiations fail. As well as the danger of a renewal of military hostilities after a hiatus of over two decades, Ross also warned of a possible increase in popular unrest and even the ‘possible recruitment of the unemployed Saharawis into terrorist or criminal groups’. He emphasized that failure of the negotiations would have negative effects not just on the parties themselves but on the whole Maghreb region and entire international community.
Despite lack of progress in the previous eight rounds of talks, Mohamed Abdelaziz expressed cautious optimism about the upcoming negotiations. ‘With the new government we hope that there will be new and positive developments and that the Moroccans come to the negotiations with a new position that is compatible with international law.’ While it is highly unlikely that the Moroccans will have made the slightest shift in their position on the autonomy plan for Western Sahara, the formation of new moderate Islamist coalition government in last November’s elections will inevitably result in changes to the Moroccan negotiating team. The team is likely to be led by new foreign minister Saad-Eddine el-Othmani, a man who has made no secret of his desire for Maghreb Union.
Failure of the negotiations would have negative effects not just on the parties themselves but on the whole Maghreb region and entire international community
Another fresh voice calling for Maghreb Union is Tunisia’s new President Moncef Marzouki, who on 8 February began a six-day trip to Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. Marzouki harbours ambitions to revive the Arab Maghreb Union, a trade agreement signed in 1989. The Arab Maghreb Union, roughly modelled on the European Union, has been ‘in the freezer’ since 1994, largely because of the Western Sahara dispute. While the new Tunisian government has not indicated where it stands on the issue, it may be able to play an intermediary role in the conflict. Even if this is not the case, the arrival of a new democratically elected government keen for a resolution of the conflict could prove a useful catalyst. Indeed, Mohamed Abdelaziz undoubtedly had President Mazouki’s visit to Morocco in mind when he said on Saturday: ‘The governments that have emerged from the Arab Spring should spare no effort to convince Morocco to respect rights of the Saharawi people as a prelude to building Maghreb unity.’
The Arab Spring effect
The Arab Spring is also having an effect on the political topography of the Western Sahara conflict. It is perhaps too early to assess in what ways it will impact, but it has helped to emphasize the importance of allowing people to be heard, as well as exposing the hypocrisies and inconsistencies in Western foreign policy in the region. Morocco has used the Arab Spring to make a case for its importance as a bulwark of stability in the region, and while the Polisario Front has argued strongly that regional tensions would be reduced were they to be allowed to determine their own future, there is a tendency among international policymakers to stick close by partners that they know, rather than attempting to forge new alliances with ones that they don’t.
‘The Saharawi people are still deprived of their most basic rights. There has been an alarming deterioration in the situation and an increase in repression and violence by the Moroccan authorities and police’
Another recent shift came in the European Parliament with its unexpected decision last December to reject an extention of the EU-Morocco fisheries agreement. The agreement had allowed EU vessels to fish waters off Western Sahara’s 1,100-kilometre coastline since 2005 and its rejection was viewed as a significant victory by campaigners. However, on 3 February the EU member states agreed to authorize the European Commissioner of fisheries to negotiate a new fisheries protocol with Morocco on behalf of the EU. How far the passage of a new fisheries agreement goes remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, in Western Sahara itself there has been a sharp increase in the repression. Speaking this Sunday at the 37th annual European Coordination Conference of Support to the Saharawi People (EUCOCO), prominent human rights activist Aminatou Haidar described the last year as like ‘living in hell’. ‘The Saharawi people are still deprived of their most basic rights,’ she said. ‘But since the 36th EUCOCO conference there has been an alarming deterioration in the situation and an increase in repression and violence by the Moroccan authorities and police.’ She traces the worsening situation back to November 2010 and the destruction of the Gdeim Izik protest camp outside Laayoune. ‘Twenty-four human rights defenders arrested after Gdeim Izik are still incarcerated in deplorable conditions in Salé prison awaiting military tribunal,’ she explained.
With the Syrian city of Homs in flames and conflicts smouldering across the Arab world, it is unlikely that international attention will shift much focus to this forgotten conflict on the edge Africa. Nevertheless, efforts are growing and pressures are mounting for the resolution of this, one of the world’s longest conflicts.