Egypt tries to make itself useful in the Western Sahara

Al Jazeera reports that Egypt is now getting involved in the Western Sahara dispute, claiming it can bring the two parties back to the negotiating table.

"Egypt, which has a neutral position on the issue of Western Sahara, will engage in contacts with the two parties," Mubarak's spokesman Majid Abd al-Fattah told reporters on Sunday after the president met with visiting Moroccan Foreign Minister Muhammad Binaisa.


A laudable aim, no doubt, but I find it strange how over the past year at least Egypt has tried to position itself as a negotiator and mediator in virtually every conflict in the region. There's always been Palestine, but now Egypt is taking the risk of becoming directly involved by essentially helping run a post-Israeli pullout Gaza Strip. Then there was Iraq, where Egypt is training police officers and hosting a regional conference later this month. And there's Sudan, on which Egypt will be hosting a conference in a few days.

The Egyptian government would probably say that this is normal due to Egypt's stature in the region and its long-standing role as mediator, which it particularly developed during the Oslo peace process. I don't think this is the whole story, though. In fact, Egypt has been unable to assert itself as a mediator during most of the Bush administration, which preferred to bypass altogether regional leaders like Egypt. That has been the case with Israel/Palestine, where Egypt had to take a risky position in the Gaza Strip to re-enter the picture. In Sudan, a country Egypt considers its "near-abroad," it was completely bypassed in the Machakos process and does not seem to have much relevance to the UN sanctions process right now. In Iraq, Egypt was ignored and then offered police training support, it seems to me, mostly to ingratiate itself to the Bush administration which has desperately been looking for Arab partners in the occupation of Iraq. Police training is so far all they could get, but it is better than nothing.

The bottom line is that Egypt's influence is waning, and that its current activity probably shows two things: it is eager to maintain the appearance of influence for domestic and regional purposes, and it is eager to convince the US it is a useful ally and not, as many US policy-makers (and not only neo-cons) believe, an obstacle to the spread of democracy in the Arab world. I wrote an article (here [pdf] if you have a subscription) about this in the Middle East International a few months ago.

But going back to the Western Sahara conflict, while I don't think that Egypt can make much progress where the UN, EU and US have failed (especially considering Moroccan and Algerian intransigence), it would be a good thing for more attention to be given to it. James Baker, who worked as the US' special envoy, has given up, but hopefully the next president, whoever he is, will send someone new and try to get it going again. The conflict has lasted for too long for no particularly good reason except stubbornness and inertia. This Economist story has a good update, and concludes:

The simple fact is that Sahrawi dreams of independence have not faded. Both in Laayoune and in the far-off refugee camps, there is talk of taking up arms again for what everyone calls The Cause. In September, Morocco received a jolt when South Africa added its moral weight by recognising Sahrawi statehood. And at the UN, even America has declared impatience with supporting a mission whose initial mandate was to arrange a referendum, and which has so far cost $600m.


I must say I think the story is a bit too biased against Morocco. But then again, I'm told my Moroccan roots tend to show when discussing the Western Sahara. My feeling is that while Morocco should at least grant some form of limited sovereignty to the Saharaouis, it is important that the Sahraoui movement does not simply hand over what it reaps to Algeria, which has been pulling the strings all these years. I think that is a key concern for Morocco that has to be solved, and also believe that a semi-federal system that would integrate a large degree of autonomy for the Western Sahara would not only be good for that region, but for Morocco at large. It would help the slow and halting spread of democracy in the country by putting decision-making into the hands of locals rather than in Rabat. It's a tendency I observed traveling around Morocco a few weeks ago, and I hope it continues.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.