The Saharawi Uprising: One Year On

por Khatry Beirouk, 20 de junio de 2006

The outbreak of the Saharawi uprising or ‘Intifadha’ has just reached its first year. But any attempt to predict the outcome of the situation that convulse the Occupied Territories of Western Sahara since a year ago entails defining the exact nature of the uprising and its serious implications for the future of the conflict.
Long before the current deadlock, there has been an unchanging Franco-Moroccan assumption derived from a startling incomprehension of history and reality. The assumption was that given enough punishment over the years, Saharawis would ultimately succumb, accept the compromised ‘solution’ offered by Morocco, and call the issue off, excusing Morocco for everything it has done, mainly, the illegal occupation of another country. The memories of French air attacks (1) on Polisario guerrillas - supporting the joint Moroccan-Mauritanian invasion- are still quite vivid. However, and to their discredit, that assumption may have dwindled.
The uprising is, I believe, a cry of protest against the imbalance, and even deficiency, in the United Nations’ Peace Plan for Western Sahara and the intolerable situation prevailing on the ground. Supporters of the Intifadha say that it would have the possitive effect of stirring the population into some sort of energy, thereby compensating for the dismal failure of years of endless and fruitless UN negociations. The uprising comes also as a response to the intransigent and abominable Moroccan policies that continue to violate both international law and even the text and spirit of the agreements signed under the auspices of the UN. As a result of such imbalance in the Peace Plan, coupled with the brutality of occupation, the reputation of the world body was badly bruised and the Saharawi population felt that it should no longer keep silent about it.
Around the time the Intifadha erupted, serious questions were being asked - inside and outside the Occupied Territories - about the credibility of the Peace Plan and the likelihood for it to overcome its current impasse, let alone its success.  The Peace Plan thus far has demonstrated that its real intentions do not coincide with its declared intentions, which include the organization of a referendum for self-determination. Yet throughout the peace process, the UN has shown the most unqualified duplicity and the most unconscionable lassitude in handling its responsibilities with regard to the Saharawi people. Saharawis have long cried “double standards”. They hold that Morocco stands in breach of Security Council resolutions in just the way Iraq did when it invaded Kuwait, and therefore deserves to be treated by the UN with equal severity. They also point out that, over the years, the UN has upheld their right to self-determination, but no enforcement action or any other action to implement UN resolutions and international law has been ordered by the Security Council. All this while Morocco, undisturbed and before MINURSO’s eyes, keeps the population in the Occupied Territories isolated and confined into vast prisons patrolled by its security apparatus.
It seemed, then, that Saharawis are left only to go on with the sole strategy they deem open after the UN’s lack of willingness to enforce international law. Consequently, they establish the goal of ridding themselves of the occupation using imaginative means of struggle. They view the uprising as a nonviolent popular intervention aimed at reclaiming the initiative on the ground as well as an alternative to a peace process deemed moribund. In a way, the uprising was the continuation of the negotiation process by other means, broadening its scope to include people on the ground instead of keeping it confined to the negotiators alone.
When the uprising began last year, it was immediately clear to all Saharawis that the Intifadha belonged to all Saharawis, and hence every one gave it support, with Polisario Front as the nation's symbolic leader.
The Intifadha's aim is a radical shift in the balance of power and the imposition of a new strategy for the liberation of the Occupied Territories. In this sense, it has taken the form of a peaceful movement that faces the occupying forces with demonstrations. A protest being waged by a people that could no longer bear more than a century of occupation and oppression. No signs are looming in the horizon to indicate that Morocco is coming to its senses. By imposing a nearly complete lockdown, the Moroccan regime is determined to subdue the Saharawi nonviolent resistance, and to break the will of both the Intifadha leaders and masses. The constant arrest of human rights activists and the images we receive bear witness to the sheer atrocities.
The long-festering conflict failed to change the priorities of the Moroccan public, arguably having the opposite effect of further feeding the aggressive and chauvinistic doctrine of Allal El-Fassi(2). But even if we assume that Rabat, under extreme pressure, shows some temporary self-restraint, the Saharawis' defiance will continue, because they want full independence and their full, legitimate rights. Thus, the volatility of the situation on the ground renders it extremely vulnerable to escalation, simply because Saharawis cannot see a light at the end of the tunnel. The international community has made increasingly strong statements, but has failed to take the action necessary to ensure respect for human rights standards and international humanitarian law in the Occupied Territories. The status quo could break and the region might again spiral into violence  -- unless the UN comes to understand that what needs to be ended is not only Morocco’s blatant disregard for international law, but occupation as well.
A closer look would reveal that the nonviolent activities of the Intifadha are linked to very pragmatic considerations; a viable alternative to armed struggle and means to change the status quo. But if not applied with a strategic vision, I think, the Saharawi uprising in itself cannot serve as a tool for achieving its long-term goals. In the absence of such strategic approach to nonviolent conflict, the continuation of both the peaceful uprising and the disproportionately massive Moroccan repression will impose one of two solutions. Either the international community dictates terms to Morocco, which is hardly likely; or the POLISARIO Front would intervene by practical means on behalf of its population, a scenario that implies possible resumption of hostilities. This worst case scenario can no longer be altogether neglected. The uprising cannot retain its improvised character indefinitely, but is bound, sooner or later, to lead either to a resumption of efforts to reach a settlement or to an escalation of tensions that could plunge the region into a new round of confrontation.
But, should rational people submit to the latter possibility? Certainly not. If clear alternatives seem to be lacking, they have to be created. Saharawis are learning to apply nonviolent options as an alternative to armed struggle. The formulation and adoption of a strategy for the nonviolent movement should be devised, supported and established upon the experiences of the Intifadha. Saharawi leadership and international civil society organizations should act very strongly on this vision.
 After one year of the Saharawi uprising, the world should not overlook the amazing nonviolent resistance put up by a people by refusing to capitulate or surrender even under the collective punishment meted out by the combined power of the Moroccan regime and its settlers.
Morocco's policy has always been not to accept the reality of the Saharawi people. Occupation is the source of the conflict and occupation is the reason of the uprising. The international community should make a bolder attempt to bring the parties closer to a solution. But we still lack a good definition of a 'solution'. One thing is clear: the occupation is aberrant, intolerable and illegal.  End of occupation must be the just, legitimate and final solution. 
1. SADR Defense Ministry Communiqué, December 17th, 1977.
2. Allal El Fassi, leader of the Istiglal Party, proclaimed on March 27th, 1956: “.. so long as the Spanish deserts of the south, the Sahara form Tindouf and Atar and the Algerian-Moroccan borderlands are not liberated from their trusteeship, [Morocco’s] independence will remain incomplete and our first duty will be to carry on action to liberate the country and to unify it.”
Cited in Bertrand Foucault, “La question du Sahara espagnol (I),” revue Francaise d’Etudes Politiques Africaines, No. 119, p. 78.