The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

What's happening in Western Sahara?

One of the most under-reported stories in the Arab world at the moment is the camp protest taking place at Gadaym Izik, near Laayoune, in Western Sahara. Over 8,000 tents have been set up, gathering at least 10,000 people, to protest economic inequality and Morocco's control of the territory's resources (phosphates and fishing for the most part.) Interestingly, though, the protest does not seem to be Polisario-led or to be making direct requests for self-determination or independence. Talking to people familiar with the protest, it seems to be beyond the control of either pro-Moroccan or pro-Polisario Sahrawis and even local activists (who are mostly pro-independence, even if they retain a degree of independence from the Polisario).

Something has been brewing for several years in Western Sahara, reflecting the local population's dissatisfaction with economic governance, and to some extent its expectation that the government should provide jobs and redirect revenues from local resources to the population, partly due to the longstanding Moroccan practice of providing subsidies and various forms of rent to Sahrawis to secure their support. How this relates to the Polisario movement is very ambiguous — on the one hand the Polisario is recognized in international law as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawis (which even Morocco recognizes since it negotiates with it), on the other the Tindouf leadership has become relatively alienated from the Sahrawis in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. But today it seems the major new dynamic is not coming from Tindouf, which makes all of the political actors involved nervous.

Beyond its relationship to the conflict, this protest has some interesting ramifications. If Western Sahara, as Moroccan wants, is to be an autonomous province inside Morocco, should it continue to benefit from such subsidies that are not available to Moroccans elsewhere? Considering that Morocco spends a considerable amount of money on subsidies (never mind the military), what is the balance between how much is extracted from the region and how is spent? Is this question besides the point if the main question should be whether the Sahrawis want to be Moroccan or independent?

You won't find much discussion of all of this, though. This week's Economist has a story on the conflict overall ahead of the resumption of talks in New York next week, and the best coverage of the Gadaym Izik protest has been by Ignacio Cembrero of El Pais (search for "marruecos" for the latest). Most journalists have been blocked from covering the protest, and al-Jazeera was recently banned from Morocco over its coverage. There's a nice Flickr set of the camp here, that accompanied a Rue89 report. But the lack of information, and access to the camp, only serves to suggest that Morocco has something to hide.