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Published: May. 11, 2007 at 12:02 PM
Politics & Policies: No Sahara solution
By CLAUDE SALHANIUPI International EditorWASHINGTON, May. 11 (UPI) -- Morocco and the Polisario Front recently launched new initiatives to try and solve the long-standing dispute in Western Sahara. Both attempts have once again failed.
The trouble with the Moroccan-Sahrawi dispute is that it faces a brick wall from the outset over the use of two words that are a source of great irritation to the principal stakeholders: "independence" and "autonomy."
The Sahrawis don't want to discuss autonomy; they want their independence. And the Moroccans will walk away from the negotiating table the minute they hear the word independence uttered by the Sahrawis.
This is not a new crisis; it has been percolating for more than 30 years. In fact, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro, a group better known as the Polisario Front, is one of the longest-running liberation movements and remains active some three decades after the departure of the Spanish colonizer from Western Sahara.
The recent terrorist activity credited to Islamist groups in North Africa has brought the crisis in the Western Sahara to the forefront once more. And given the bloody events that unfolded in neighboring Algeria in the 1990s, the authorities in Rabat have good reason to worry.
Morocco and some Western countries worry pro-al-Qaida groups could establish bases of operation in the contested territory. Islamist groups seeking to destabilize Morocco could profit from a climate of continued uncertainty.
Some intelligence analysts believe al-Qaida has made some inroads in the region, and continued unsettlement may only be to their advantage. But in all fairness to the Sahrawis and the Polisario, there has not yet been any proof of an alignment with Islamist groups. Most of the accusations are unsubstantiated.
Morocco virtually annexed the northern two-thirds of the territory formerly known as the Spanish Sahara in 1976. Since then, attempts to solve the crisis have met with failure. Following the withdrawal of Mauritania, Morocco annexed the rest of the territory in 1979. A guerrilla war with the Polisario Front ended in 1991 when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire agreement. Yet a proposed referendum on the territory's final status has been repeatedly postponed.
Following the recent terror bombings in Casablanca attributed to al-Qaida affiliates, Morocco launched a new diplomatic offensive to try once again to resolve the issue. A new proposal by Rabat was put forward. At first it appears to be a good offer -- until you get to paragraph 6 of page 1.
Morocco said it was ready to accept a political solution that would involve broad Sahrawi independence, (yes, they did use that word) but here are the key words that will send the proposal back to the drawing board: "independence within the Moroccan national territory."
In other words, autonomy, rather than proper independence, a proposition the Polisario was bound to reject.
Independence fever first began to sweep across Africa in 1957, with Ghana claiming its independence from Great Britain; it was not long before the rest of the African colonies followed suit. Western Sahara is the one exception; it went from Spanish domination to Moroccan occupation.
Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1975 but is a fully fledged member of the African Union, under the name of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Morocco considers the Sahara part of its territory. Morocco's ambassador to Washington, Aziz Mekouar, told United Press International that the Western Sahara has historically been part of Moroccan territory.
While some 80 states, mostly African and Latin American, have recognized the SADR, no Western country has opted to recognize the Sahrawi republic. Although all these countries treat the SADR government as the legal representative of the Sahrawi people and do not recognize Morocco's claim to Western Sahara, they have shied away from official recognition of SADR, fearing economic and diplomatic consequences.
In responding to calls by the international community, Morocco put forward a new autonomy proposal for the Sahara. The initiative guarantees the Sahrawis "will themselves run their affairs democratically, through legislative, executive and judicial bodies enjoying exclusive powers."
But here is the deal-breaker. "The State will keep its powers in the royal domains, especially with respect to defense, external relations and the constitutional and religious prerogatives of His Majesty the King."
That is what takes everything back to square one. Maybe somebody will come up with a new concept besides autonomy and/or independence.