Trouble in the Sahara
The Moroccan government is worried over the sudden and unprecedented surge of extreme and rare violence that erupted in the Western Sahara last month in which 11 Moroccan policemen where killed in a riot. Authorities blame the Polisario Front and the government of Algeria who harbours, supports and influences the Sahrawi rebel group seeking independence for the former Spanish colony, now annexed by Morocco.
“The level of violence and the brutality of the riots for which there was no reason, is very frightening,” Ambassador Aziz Mekouar of Morocco told me last week. “This sort of violence is unheard of in the history of Morocco,” the Moroccan diplomat told me during a meeting in his office in Washington.
Indeed, the barbaric behaviour of some of the rioters in the November 8 outburst during which the Moroccan police officers were killed and scores more wounded appeared to be part of a well-orchestrated plan intended to draw a violent reaction from the Moroccan government. A reaction which would have in turn generated more animosity from the people and inevitably would have instigated further violence and creating a dangerous cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals. The end result would have escalated the long-running political dispute over the territory to a new and dangerous level of instability in apart of the world where pro-Al Qaeda Islamists are trying to enlarge their influence after successfully establishing a foothold.
Video footage shot by Moroccan police and taken from five different camera positions, including one from a helicopter, all tell the same story: the violence was unnecessary, it was clearly provoked and directed by a group of young men who appear prepared to stir up trouble. The video footage shows them armed with machetes and Molotov cocktails.
The violence and hatred towards the police force is indeed unprecedented. Some of the dead, or dying, police officers were mutilated, and some were decapitated. In several scenes young men, all wearing the same black head dresses, are seen striking with all their force a group of policemen lying on the ground, presumably dead. Or at least most of them were.
The trouble near Laayoune, the capital of the Western Sahara, began when almost a month earlier, on October10, when a group of residents started a protest by pitching several tents in the Gdim Izik region as a protest for lack of social demands and over preferential treatment granted to some returning refugees. Moroccan authorities allowed the camp to expand until it reached the point where they began to worry, and with cause.
Officials say, “available information showed the camp included smugglers and people with criminal records.” Moroccan sources also report that a number of Polisario militants were seen travelling to and from the campsite. After intense discussions with local and tribal representatives a decision was reached to evacuate the camp.
On November 8, as agreed, buses were provided to transport the residents of the camp to other locations and the migration out of the encampment began peacefully. Men, women and children began leaving the site and were directed towards waiting buses. Police officers armed only with batons then proceeded to dismantle the abandoned tents. It was at this point that groups of young men in clusters of about ten, began throwing rocks and incendiary devices (Molotov cocktails) at the security forces.
The pertinent question at this point is to ask why did this event, which was meant to be peaceful, turn into such a disaster? If indeed the Polisario was behind this then one needs to question why? The rebel group based in next door Algiers, though they did use violence in the beginning of their struggle more than half a century ago have shunned violent means for decades now. If indeed the Polisario has changed tactics that could only mean one thing or perhaps two things.
First, in view of the lack of movement on the political end, it could be that the rebels want to escalate the tension in the area by several notches, believing that it could move things forward. Perhaps they feel that if they can force the Moroccan authorities to react violently it would trigger greater resistance from the local population and awaken international support for the territory.
The international community, however, should be aware that supporting the notion of an independent Sahrawi republic is flirting with disaster, given the current social, economic and political climate in this part of North Africa. And second, in the unlikely event that Morocco was to relinquish its rule over the Sahara, intelligence sources familiar with the area and its problems fear that the area would quickly turn into a haven for Islamist terrorists and Al Qaeda allies.
Already, according to Moroccan intelligence sources, there is a steady flow of narcotics from Latin America, across the south Atlantic to Central Africa, from where the drugs are then taken north to Europe. While this may be a longer route than sailing directly across the North Atlantic, it is considered a much safer itinerary for the narco-traffickers. The absence of a strong security force in this very strategic part of the globe –and an essential geographic area in the fight against international Islamist terrorism – will only augment that threat.
An independent Sahrawi republic is more likely to succeed as a failed state rather than an example of free market enterprise. There are greater chances of seeing the establishment of another “Somalia” in the northwestern corner of Africa rather that a San Marino.
The Moroccans are worried and rightfully so. And they should not be the only ones to worry.
Claude Salhani is a political analyst based in Washington
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