By Ben Lutz

The Merzouga Desert. Photo Credit: Ben Lutz

In Northern Africa, there is a sparsely populated area of desert that is the main point of contention between Morocco and Algeria. This area is the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, more commonly known as Western Sahara. In 1975, Morocco annexed the land from Spain’s colonial holdings and continues administrative control of the region, spurring a war between Morocco and Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario), an organization that remains active today for independence. This low-intensity war ended in a United Nations-sanctioned ceasefire in 1991. Luckily, the peace has held in Western Sahara, but there has been no rapprochement between Morocco and Polisario.

Moroccans strongly believe that the territory is rightfully theirs from pre-colonial time due to the linguistic, historical, and cultural influences of the Berber population in Morocco’s national identity – it calls the Western Sahara its southern provinces. Although Algeria and Mauritania have significant populations of Berbers, Morocco has the strongest claim to this land. However, after gaining independence from France, Morocco claimed sovereignty over the lands to its south and east. This enraged Algeria, a French colony, and erased much of the connections between the two lands. The biggest swath of land is the Western Sahara – Morocco has controlled those lands since its annexation, and in response the Polisario has been active to counter this control.

Moroccan Flags in Marrakech. Photo Credit: Ben Lutz
Moroccan Flags in Marrakech. Photo Credit: Ben Lutz

Algeria has continued support the Polisaro throughout this conflict in order to remove Morocco’s control. Algeria has provided financial, military, and diplomatic aid to the Polisario. Furthermore, Polisario headquarters are in Tindouf Province, Algeria as a government in exile. In Tandouf, there are several refugee camps since 1975, with its residents living there for 41 years. The other country that claimed territory is Mauritania, but due to its weak economic status, has remained neutral and supports the United Nations, especially the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). MINURSO was created as a part of the ceasefire in 1991, and works to maintain the peace in Western Sahara. Although there has been little bloodshed since the ceasefire, negotiations have effectively been stalemated. Additionally, the Arab Mghreb Union (UMA), an economic organization between Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, and Tunisia, has not met since 2008 over disagreements between Morocco and Algeria largely revolving around Western Sahara.

The United Nations considers Western Sahara to be a colonized territory – accordingly, Algeria has advocated for a resumption of peace talks through MINURSO. Self-determination is a principle that Algeria champions in discussing Western Sahara is largely seen as an extension of their support of the decolonization of this area. Algerian support in all of its aspects is crucial, but also one-sided and thus Polisario is advocating to the African Union, a council of 54 members, 53 countries and the territory of the Western Sahara. The African continent has 54 countries, and the only country not in the African Union is Morocco, over the dispute of the occupation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s lands. In 1982, the African Union recognized the independence of the Western Sahara, giving them a delegation to the organization. Two years later, Morocco officially left the organization until this summer where they formally announced its wish to rejoin to African Union. The African Union is still committed to holding a self-determination referendum for the people of Western Sahara.

Apart from the land disputes with Algeria, Morocco’s control over the Western Saharan territory is contested due to the phosphate mines. Morocco owns 85% of the world’s phosphate mines, an estimated 50 billion metric tons, and it constitutes much of its export and GDP revenue. The majority of the mines are located in the territory that Morocco controls in the Western Sahara, making the negotiations over this territory more intractable. Morocco will not willingly give up a huge portion of its GDP revenue to an area it deems as its southern provinces.

With the continual failings from the refugee camps, the MINURSO, the UMA, the African Union, and phosphate production, it seems as if the Polisario is stuck fighting for independence with a war of wars. To make matters worse, on May 31, 2016, Mohamed Abdelaziz, their secretary-general, passed from illness. He was one of the main leaders of the fight for the independence of Western Sahara, and his death has reinvigorated the movement’s struggle for freedom. It has led to recent speeches in the African Union and on the United Nations floor to revisit this issue. This new wave of advocacy may be the push to end a 40-year long refugee crisis and create the 55th country in Africa.

By Veronica Baker

Protestors wave the Moroccan flag during the 20 February protests in 2011. Source: Hasna Lahmini

The Arab uprisings of 2011 yielded diverse results: Libya, Syria, and Yemen are in states of violent disarray; the Gulf monarchies crushed dissent and carried on as usual; Egypt saw its revolution crumble with the ascent of Al-Sisi; and Tunisia has risen as a cautious, yet promising, example of democratization done right.

The results of the protests in Morocco and Jordan, on the other hand, are less clear. Their governments reacted quickly, acknowledging the legitimacy of their citizens’ complaints of economic trouble and rights violations. In the past four years, Morocco and Jordan have passed reforms: some real, some symbolic.

Abdullah II of Jordan pledged to promote the role of citizens in political life and the decision-making process. Initiatives included the creation of new elections laws, a constitutional court, and a national integrity commission. However, little change has actually materialized. The monarchy has so far succeeded in preserving power by using instability on the country’s borders to justify maintaining the status quo.

Mohamed VI quickly gave Moroccans the opportunity to elect a new parliament and promised modifications to the constitution, effectively pre-empting the revolution. Constitutional reforms gave parliament the ability to pass laws on most issues, took steps towards protecting the independence of the judiciary, and increased the role of a number of independent commissions. However, these reforms are hollow: while they appear to shift power away from the king, there are plenty of ways still available for him to circumvent the parliament and judiciary to pursue any policy he wants.

On Friday, July 1, Moroccans  voted on a constitutional referendum to approve changes put forth by the King in a speech a week earlier. The banner on the right reminds people to register. The banner on the left yes, "Yes to the Constitution". Source: Christopher Rose
On July 1, 2011, Moroccans voted on a constitutional referendum to approve changes put forth by the King in a speech a week earlier. The banner on the right reminds people to register. The banner on the left reads, “Yes to the Constitution”. Source: Christopher Rose

Models of reform?

Some academics and journalists have expressed support for Morocco and Jordan’s respective strategies of “reform.” Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi made news in 2014 when he declared Morocco and Jordan “successful Arab Spring models.” Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, The Tower, Brookings, and others have echoed the idea that the Moroccan and/or Jordanian responses to the 2011 uprisings could serve as examples for the rest of the Middle East to follow.

Such positions are rooted in idealistic notions of what Morocco’s and Jordan’s kings have done, and not in the reality these countries now face. The reforms in Morocco and Jordan have been overwhelmingly symbolic and have not truly bestowed upon the people the rights they fought for in 2011.

Morocco and Jordan are the unfinished stories of the Arab Spring. The economic and human rights situations in both countries remain troubled. The instability surrounding Jordan will only serve as a successful excuse for police state-type activity for so long; such an approach is simply unsustainable. Morocco, while in a less precarious state, still has plenty of problems left to face, especially concerning everyday violence, the contested state of the Western Sahara, and terrorist organizations within and directly outside its borders.

Legitimizing the so-called reforms made in Jordan and Morocco will only result in further instability in the future. The shifting of political powers, edits to the constitution, and changes to the penal code mean nothing if new laws are not enforced and human rights do not become a priority. To maintain peace in Jordan and Morocco, more legitimate reforms must be made.

Neither government has transferred significant power away from the royal establishment and into the hands of democratic institutions. Economic and social conditions in Morocco and Jordan will not improve without an independent and accountable judiciary; a truly free press and internet; a strong network of NGOs that protects the rights of women, minorities, and other at-risk groups; a massive overhaul of both countries’ inhumane prison and detention center conditions; and the legitimate implementation of laws that enshrine the rights of individuals to express themselves without fear of abduction or arbitrary arrest.

Graffiti in the streets of Casablanca photographed in 2010. Source: Jeremy Salmon
Graffiti in the streets of Casablanca photographed in 2010. Source: Jeremy Salmon

Opportunities for change

At their core, reform movements in the Middle East are calls for human rights. In the West, democracy is often seen as the vehicle for attaining those, but it is not the only option.

Supporters of Moroccan and Jordanian-style reforms have a valid point. If the pathway to rights is more likely forged through a stable political system, then perhaps a revolution is not necessary.

However, both countries have a long way to go. Both are signatories to such conventions as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Despite this, the Jordanian and Moroccan governments are both frequently caught in the headlines for violating human rights, such as by restricting freedom of association, deporting refugees, trying civilians in military courts, and failing to respect freedom of expression.

Citizens in Morocco and Jordan do not have the political leverage to effectively demand their rights be taken seriously. The kings have little reason to shift the status quo themselves. Thus, influence must come from the outside. Morocco and Jordan are two of the greatest allies of the United States in the region. This provides a unique opening for dialogue and positive pressure for human rights.

Just as the United States needs Jordan and Morocco, they also need the U.S. Through the fiscal year 2015, total U.S. aid to Jordan and Morocco has amounted to approximately $15.83 billion and $2.7 billion respectively. The U.S. should exercise influence on the governments to which it supplies aid to support the well-being of that country’s people.

It is in the interest of the United States to support the will of the Jordanian and Moroccan people pressing for peaceful change. In the face of extremism (ISIS in the Levant, as well as AQAM and other militant groups in West Africa), it is necessary that the citizens of Morocco and Jordan continue to feel connected to and empowered by their state. Marginalization of citizens, particularly youth, will only serve to further destabilize the region.

As the U.S. successfully supported Tunisia in its transition, it must now turn to Morocco and Jordan and stand as a supporter of human rights. In doing so, we have the ability to shift the dying legacy of the Arab Spring.

In its current trajectory, the legacy of the “Arab Spring” will be of Tunisia’s singular success story all but overshadowed by the death and destruction in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. It is essential that we, as a prominent economic and political actor in the region, do what we can to turn that around. By holding the Jordanian and Moroccan governments accountable and pressuring them to enact real, not symbolic, reforms, the United States has a chance to serve as a positive and enabling force in the Middle East.


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