On North Africa's western flank, long-simmering conflict causes unease

Morocco has strengthened its hold on the contested – and resource-rich – Western Sahara. But efforts to maintain the status quo could renew unrest, adding to the current instability across North Africa.

If this small, dusty town surrounded by sparse desert feels forgotten, that's because it mostly is. For the past two decades, mediation efforts to end the longest-running conflict in Africa have foundered, and the world has largely turned its attention elsewhere.

The UN's special envoy Christopher Ross recently acknowledged the impasse in informal talks between Morocco and independence movement Polisario Front over the future of the disputed Western Sahara, on the northwestern corner of the continent. He announced he was ending the talks, which had gone on for nine fruitless rounds since 2009, and would turn instead to shuttle diplomacy.

The lack of progress has allowed Morocco to strengthen its hold on the resource-rich territory, even as the prospect of a referendum to decide Western Sahara's future – which the UN and the Polisario demand – has dimmed. But further prolonging of the status quo may cause the long-simmering conflict to flare again, possibly adding to instability and unrest across North Africa. Unlike in neighboring countries, the possibility of unrest in Western Sahara is not related to Islamist terrorist groups, but a result of young Saharawis – the indigenous people of Western Sahara – growing increasingly impatient with the stalemate.

"The situation is boiling, and if it goes on like this, the Saharawi people will do something a lot bigger than Gdeim Izik camp in the future," says activist Larbas Obeid, referring to demonstrations in 2010 in which thousands of Saharawis set up tents and camped in the desert to protest unemployment and discrimination by the Moroccan government. Mr. Obeid, one of the organizers of the camp, would not say what type of action he was referring to. As he spoke, a friend bounded up the stairs into his apartment, breathlessly informing Obeid that police had swarmed the neighborhood since journalists arrived. 

The roots of this conflict go back to 1975, when Morocco sent troops and settlers into the former Spanish colony, in defiance of the UN, and then signed an agreement with Spain to annex the territory.

The Polisario Front, an Algeria-backed Saharawi independence movement, fought a guerrilla war with Morocco until a UN-brokered cease-fire in 1991. A heavily mined, 1,500-mile-plus earthen wall separates Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara from the small, mostly desert territory controlled by the Polisario, which claims Western Sahara as the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. More than 100,000 Saharawi refugees live in camps across the border in Algeria.

The UN sent peacekeeping forces into the territory in 1991 with a mandate to hold a referendum on the future of Western Sahara, but that vote never happened. Morocco has rejected plans to hold a referendum, insisting on an autonomy plan for the territory, which would maintain Moroccan sovereignty but allow some local administration.

Independence demands

The Polisario demands a vote with an option for independence, but two decades after the UN peacekeeping forces arrived, that's looking increasingly unlikely, says Anna Theofilopoulou, a former UN official who covered Western Sahara for 14 years and served on the negotiating team of the previous UN envoy, former US Secretary of State James Baker.

"I do not see that there is going to be a real referendum or self determination and Western Sahara will be independent," she says. "Let's face it – it's not in the books. Everybody knows the Moroccan presence is illegal; nobody says so, but they're all pretending there is going to be some way to solve the problem."

Yet without real pressure on Morocco to compromise, the stalemate continues. "You have this frozen situation," she adds.

The US has not pressured Morocco to resolve the situation, partly because Morocco has become an important ally.

Islamic militant networks in North Africa have become a growing concern for the US, something that came into sharp focus with the recent hostage situation in Algeria, as well as the Islamist fighters controlling half of Mali. Morocco has sought to place the discussion of Western Sahara in this context, implying that the area could become part of the Sahel security problem without Morocco's control. There is no evidence of links, however, between the Polisario and Islamic militant organizations like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – indeed, Algeria, the Polisario's main backer, has a history of brutal crackdown on Islamic militants. Yet Western nations are keen to avoid additional unrest in the region.

In an interview with Western journalists, Moroccan government spokesman Mustapha Al Khalfi cast Western Sahara as a model of stability and development.

"We think that having strong economic development will boost stability in the region and will create a model for other parts of the grand Sahara and the Sahel, that we can succeed in having stability and economic development in the face of … instability that is emerging in other parts of the grand Sahara," he said.

Morocco's incentives

Over the decades since annexation, Morocco has offered incentives like tax-free zones and subsidized land that it says are aimed at increasing development and employment, but which brought thousands of Moroccan immigrants to the territory, making Saharawis a minority. Saharawi activists say Morocco discriminates against them in job opportunities, schools, and other ways to marginalize and oppress the indigenous population. And any pro-independence efforts bring swift reprisals.

Saleh ben Lahbib, a real estate agent, shows evidence of the police abuse activists say is commonplace. In November, he was protesting in Laayoune when Moroccan police grabbed him and pulled him into a van. They drove around for 15 minutes, beating and threatening him, he says. They forced him to take off his pants, and then one of the policemen took a knife and carved a crude likeness of the Moroccan flag into Mr. Lahbib's thigh. The scar is clearly visible on his leg – a star within a rectangle.

It's not Mr. Lahbib's first experience with Moroccan authorities – he says he was imprisoned for six months in 1993. And recently the local authorities refused to record in official documents the name he chose for his daughter – Sahara. Authorities often prevent Saharawis from giving Saharawi names to their children, say activists.

In 2010, after authorities dismantled the Gdeim Izik camp, clashes broke out in the camp and in nearby cities. According to Moroccan authorities, 11 security officers and two civilians were killed. A Human Rights Watch report says Moroccan security forces joined with Moroccan civilians in attacks on civilians and homes, blocked wounded Saharawis from seeking medical treatment, and beat detainees in custody. They arrested hundreds of people, including 23 activists who have been held since without trial. 

Mr. Khalfi says there are human rights problems in the territory, but says the Moroccan government has taken steps to address them, like setting up a local human rights council to accept complaints, forming an Equity and Reconciliation Committee to address past abuses, and allowing visits by United Nations human rights officials. 

On a recent visit, journalists were able to meet with activists, though plainclothes security agents followed them to interviews and photographed them going into buildings for interviews. Aminatou Haidar, a prominent Saharawi human rights activist, says the role of activists like herself is growing more difficult because there is increasing pressure from frustrated youths.

"We are in a really bad situation as human rights defenders. We're preaching peaceful resistance, nonviolent resistance, openness, and forgiveness," she says. "We're trying to teach the future generation how to build a country on those principles.... But torturers go unpunished, and are promoted to higher positions in Morocco. It stimulated a lot of anger in the youth.… For the young generation, what's happening now is pushing them to resort to violence as an answer to what's happening." 

Can't rule out violence?

Mohamed Ali Eddhabi, an activist who helped organize the Gdeim Izik camp, says he can't rule out violence.

"It might be very possible that we would witness armed struggle here in the territories if nothing is done [by Morocco]. We have the will and the determination to do so in the future," he says. "We did it in '75 and were able to bring Morocco to its knees.… Right now we're giving a chance to Ross to see what he can do peacefully. If he fails in his mission, it's the next stage – armed struggle." 

It's difficult to tell how many young Saharawis agree with Mr. Eddhabi. On a recent trip to Western Sahara, journalists were constantly followed by plainclothes security agents, and many people were afraid to speak with them, apparently for fear of being harassed by police. Some muttered "Polisario" as they passed journalists in public marketplaces, but did not stop to talk. 

"On both sides of the wall, I think the youth don't accept the status quo any longer," argues activist Fdili Gaoudi. "They don't believe any longer in all these steps. Since 1991 they are waiting for this – a referendum that never happened."

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