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Sahara at the Crossroad

author Thursday November 25, 2010 01:56author by Ane Irazabal - IMEMC Report post

The violent dismantling of Gdaim Izik protest camp in Western Sahara by the Moroccan police has become the last straw of the Saharawi people’s patience. What began as a protest camp to ask for an improvement in their people’s rights ended in a battle between Saharawi and the Moroccan police.

Gdaim Izik protest camp after been dismantled. Reuters
Gdaim Izik protest camp after been dismantled. Reuters

In November the 8, Moroccan military and police personnel dismantled the Gdaim Izik (Dignity) camp, the biggest protest recorded in Western Sahara since Spain withdrew from the territory 35 years ago, with water cannons, tear gas and batons. It has resulted in, according to the Polisari Front, more than 10 dead Sahrawi, 723 wounded, 159 missing, as well as several reports of torture by the detainees and a new wave of violence in the streets of Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara. Three Moroccan military also died during the dismantling, due to a clash with Saharawi, according to Moroccan official sources.

But what is the reason for this operation? Moroccan official sources say that the camp was a violation and alteration of the Moroccan identity of the area, that is, a place to claim the independence of Western Sahara, which is intolerable for the Moroccan government in Rabat and King Mohamed VI.

However, the fact is that Gdaim Izik was a place where a group of young people camped last month to demand decent jobs, housing and education. In other words, decent living conditions. It was a place to protest against the apartheid that the Saharawi population suffers in their own land.

Since the ninties the Western Sahara, the indigenous home of the Saharawi people, has been inundated with thousands of Moroccan settlers occupying the territory, receiving help from Morocco government. Today, jobs, business, taxi licenses and housing benefits are for the settlers.

Remarkably, what started as a spontaneous protest against the deterioration of living conditions in the area became the most popular dissent since the end of the war between the Polisario Front and Rabat in 1991. During the month more than 20,000 Saharawi joined the camp.

Therefore, the Moroccan police operation to dismantle the camp does not seem to be spontaneous, but well prepared. But why? The violent reaction of the police did not conclude at Gdaim Izik. Under the cover of nightfall, the police entered many Saharawi villages, burning televisions, carpets and even goats.

Later, the violence spread to the streets of Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, where the Moroccan Army imposed a curfew and according to the Ministry of Occupied Territories of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, encouraged the Moroccan settlers to enter the Saharawi districts of the city and provoke residents. Now, a tense calm prevails.

Surely, it is not coincidence that the violence came on the eve of talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front movement, which were taking place in New York, to resume the negotiation process on the sovereignty of Western Sahara. For many people, the attack is a symptom that Morocco wants to torpedo the process. The talks were sponsored by the United Nations, who did not condemn the violent response of the Moroccan police, but called for "restraint."

Meanwhile, what does Spain, the former colonial ruler, say? Spanish government officials discretely keep to the background to avoid any friction with Morocco in an area of particular sensitivity, and urges for the participation of the international community in the region. However, within Spanish society, the discussion of whether Spain would have to show more responsibility in Sahara's conflict is being argued once again.

Spain announced it would withdraw from, what was then known as, Spanish Sahara in 1974, following the creation of the Polisario Front, and committed itself to organize a referendum on self-determination for its decolonization of the area.

However, in 1975 Spain ceded administration of the former colony to Morocco and Mauritania under the illegal Madrid Agreement. Thereafter, Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco with a violent attack that caused the flight of many into exile in the desert. Most of those refugees now live in camps in Tindouf, in Algeria.

As a result, the Polisario Front proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and waged a war of liberation of the territory from Morocco.

In 1991, Morocco and the Polisario Front signed a cease-fire brokered by the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), with the intention to carry out a referendum. However, the territory is still under Morocco's occupation, and the government has never showed interest in promoting a peaceful transition into the independence of Western Sahara.

In recent years Rabat has intended to mislead both public opinion and the international community that the demands of decent live conditions or even the aspiration to self-determination made by Saharawi people are the patrimony of a few hotheaded.

But the Gdaim Izik camp protest exposed the true face of the reality in Western Sahara; an ugly reality that the Moroccan government has tried to hide for a long time. What it is clear is that with the assault on the Gdaim Izik camp and the subsequent attacks, the government of Morocco has started a spiral of violence that is not expected to stop.

category international | miscellaneous | opinion/analysis
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