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Talking Policy: Mehdi Bensaid on Morocco

During a visit to a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used the word “occupation” in reference to Morocco’s annexation of the disputed territory of Western Sahara in 1975. His comments drew hundreds of thousands of Moroccans into the streets to protest in Rabat. Wedged between Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania on North Africa’s Atlantic coast, the Western Sahara is a sparsely inhabited but resource-rich region. The Moroccan government considers the territory—which it often refers to as the Southern Provinces—to be an inseparable part of the Moroccan state. Meanwhile, the Polisario Front, an armed group supporting independence for the territory’s indigenous Sahrawi people, considers the region to be an independent entity, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.  

After 16 years of fighting between Moroccan forces and the Polisario Front, the U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991. The dispute over the political status of the region, however, remains. Neither the Kingdom of Morocco nor the Polisario Front has conceded to the other’s demands, leaving the conflict in a deadlock. Human rights organizations have criticized Morocco’s policies in the region, and tens of thousands of Sahrawis currently live in camps in Algeria. World Policy Journal spoke with Mehdi Bensaid, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Moroccan Parliament, about the Moroccan response to Ban Ki-moon’s comments and Morocco’s relationships with its neighbors in the Maghreb region.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Tell us about the reaction in Morocco to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s comments about Western Sahara, in which he referred to the conditions in the region as an “occupation.”

MEHDI BENSAID: The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, by describing the presence of Morocco in Moroccan Sahara, discredited himself as a “neutral” arbitrator in the conflict. None of his predecessors ever used this dangerous vocabulary to describe the situation in Moroccan Sahara. That’s why such statements outraged the Moroccan people, especially coming from a person occupying such a high function. 

Morocco is a member of the United Nations and respects the U.N. The situation right now is that the U.N. doesn’t respect its role, because the role of the secretary-general needs to be that of a mediator. When the secretary-general gives his personal view—a political view—he neglects his role. So that’s why we have a problem with [Ban Ki-moon’s statements]. The whole body, including the secretary-general, needs to be neutral. He can’t support one country against another country.

Morocco had demonstrated a willingness to resolve the conflict by presenting the autonomy plan to the U.N. Security Council years ago, and clarified that this was a final proposal. Therefore, the secretary-general’s position will change the relationship between the states and the U.N.; by taking a position in a regional conflict, the secretary-general transforms his position from a "world referee" to a politician defending a program and a position. This will change even the election of the secretary-general by making countries' interests central for the vote.

WPJ: Do you think Ban Ki-moon’s comments compromise the U.N.’s role as an arbiter in this conflict?

MB: The role of the secretary-general in the past was to give a chance for peace and for a common view between two peoples. When the secretary-general goes to Algeria and meets members of the Polisario and uses that word, it’s not a diplomatic word—it’s a political word. That’s why we don’t agree with him. He needs to be fair; he needs to be neutral. Morocco is a member of the United Nations and Morocco is staying in the United Nations and working inside the United Nations, but we have to guarantee the neutrality of the U.N. secretary-general first. We want the secretary-general to be secretary-general for all the countries in the world, not just for certain countries.

WPJ: The U.N.’s goal since 1991 has been to facilitate talks between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front regarding the political status of the Western Sahara region. The negotiations have not made significant progress since that time—do you see any path to an agreement between the two parties?

MB: The path is clear and Morocco has drawn it: The Autonomy Plan of the Sahara under Moroccan Sovereignty. This initiative in Moroccan Sahara comes in response to the Moroccan desire to find an acceptable solution to this conflict inherited from the Cold War. It is the product of a long consultation process that included all sectors of Sahrawi Population. 

The plan provides a solution that includes the elections of a local legislature, which then elects a local executive authority, under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Morocco.

The local government would have an exclusive authority in number of issues (local administration, local police, education, local development, tourism, investment, etc.), shared authority with the central government in other issues, and a consultation prerogative in the local specificities for issues involving the central government.

Unfortunately, since this initiative, welcomed by several countries in the world, including the U.S., Algeria and the Polisario Front refuse to move negotiations forward to serve the interests of the Sahrawi population detained in the Algerian territory. Instead, they ask for a self-determination referendum, which, by the admission of many nations, is impracticable given the reality on the ground.

WPJ: What role is Algeria is playing in the conflict in Western Sahara, and what is the nature of Morocco’s relationship with Algeria?

MB: It’s very simple. All the world says the problem is with Morocco and the Sahrawi. In fact, the problem is not between Morocco and the Sahrawi, the problem is between Morocco and Algeria. Algeria is a party to the conflict; they not only house the Sahrawi in their territory, but also fund their jailers and offer them coverage, maintaining the conflict.

In Morocco, the people and the government both hope to normalize relationship between our two countries, as we consider that we are one. In this framework, King Mohammed VI invited the Algerian government, in several discourses, to open the borders and begin a new page in our bilateral relations.

I think that the problem between Algeria and Morocco is a generational conflict. During the Cold War, and Morocco supported the U.S and its allies, and Algeria supported the communists. Now, after the end of the Cold War, Algeria hasn’t changed leadership. It is the same as it was in the 1960s. In Morocco, we have a new king, a new political party—a new generation of politicians.

Moroccan decision-makers are a new generation that has not known the War of Sands between the two countries, while Algerian decision-makers are still from the “first generation” that fought the Liberation War against France.

We make a difference between the people in Algeria; these people have the same problems as our people, the same economic and social problems. It's the same people. But the government of Algeria is different. Why? Because we think in Morocco that Algeria wants to be a leader in the region--the Maghreb region, the North Africa region. We think they don't need to be a leader in the region now. We should have a strong regional union, like what happened in Europe and in other parts of the world. We need to create this union of the Maghreb—work with Algeria, with Tunisia, with Libya, with Mauritania. So if we realize this union, we think we can help the progress in Libya and other developments in the region. A strong region can help with security, etc.

The problem now is some countries in this region think they can be sole leaders of the region. This ideology is strong and it's not the right ideology for our time. We need to build a strong region between us, because the world has changed. Our people in the Maghreb now are dealing with Algerian people, with Mauritanian people. We have a community of Jews, Moroccan Jews, like in Algeria, Libya, and outside of the region. So we need to build together a different region for the future, and forget the past. I'm sure that if you ask the government of Algeria, they want the same thing. They don't think about Sahara, they think about the economy and other matters. That's why we need to learn to forget the past and forget the Cold War. We need to spend most of our time thinking about the future.

WPJ: Do you think that, in order to improve relations and create a union in the region, a younger generation will need to come to power in Algeria? Or will it be possible to improve these ties with the current generation of leaders?

MB: We need to open the borders between Morocco and Algeria. We need to try to grow this union, this coalition with Libya, Mauritania, and Tunisia. Tunisia is developing, but we need to help Mauritania and we need to help Libya with its security—that's our responsibility. But now because the border is closed, because Algeria closed the border, because we don't have this union, because Algeria still uses its weight against Morocco, the loser is our people—the Moroccan people, the Algerian people, and the Libyan people. All of this region loses because of this problem. That's why as Morocco, as the new generation, we try to talk with—if they exist—the new generation in Algeria to say we need to have a new idea for this region.

WPJ: One initiative you are pursuing as head of the Foreign Affairs Committee is improving Morocco’s relationships with Anglophone countries in Africa. Why is this policy so important, and what are you doing to achieve it?

MB: Africa had suffered from colonization, and within the colonization period, was linguistically divided by colonial powers. Following independence, the countries speaking the same languages have maintained very strong relationships. My action is not only directed to English-speaking countries in Africa, but also to all African countries including those who do not speak French, such as countries where Portuguese or Spanish are spoken. This is due to my belief that only a strong Africa can make a difference, and that Africa must trust in Africa, as His Majesty the King Mohammed VI said in his Abidjan discourse. 

WPJ: South Africa and Nigeria are both major players on the African continent, and both recognize the independence of Western Sahara. How does this issue factor into Morocco’s relations with these two countries?

MB:A lot of African countries recognize the self-proclaimed entity, including Nigeria and South Africa. I think that the main reason is that they simply ignore Moroccan arguments, since Morocco left the African Union in 1984, and also because there is the Cold War heritage that remains strong in Africa.

We are sure of the justice of our national cause, as well as of the importance of unifying African efforts to solve all the conflicts and problems all over the continent, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, so Morocco works to build a strong relationship with all the African countries.

WPJ: The issue of the Western Sahara has created tensions in Morocco’s relationships with some African and European countries that recognize the Western Sahara as an independent entity. How does Morocco navigate relationships with these countries when the issue of Western Sahara becomes a point of contention? How does Morocco go about trying to work with these countries on other issues?

MB: The Moroccan arguments are not well known by many foreign countries. Moreover, Morocco is the victim of a “David and Goliath” view. Another challenge is the legacy of the Cold War because some countries supported communism and some countries supported the free world. Of the countries that supported the free world, all these countries recognize the South as Moroccan. And the others recognize the freedom of the SADR. We try to create a channel of communication to explain our position in the region to Nigeria and other countries in Africa. It's difficult, mostly because of the language difference and the cultural difference, but we try to understand and we try to have an exchange. We invite them to visit and when they see that life is normal, we can change their view. We need to pull Africa together and forget our problems.

Right now we have a program of action in my commission, the Committee of Foreign Affairs, Islamic Affairs, National Defense, and Moroccan Diaspora, and we try to understand all viewpoints. We tried to play the role of diplomats and understand the Moroccan view, the South African view, the Mauritanian view, the Rwandan view, and after that some people changed their view of the problem. Like in the conflict in Kashmir between Pakistan and India, it’s a serious problem, but I try to be neutral because it's a complicated problem. So now it's time to ask—and this is the role of my commission—to talk with the deputies from each country in Africa. Of course we have the reality of people who want independence, but the majority of people in the Southern Provinces are Moroccan. That's why we invite people to come here and talk with them, not just read some articles and understand only the Algerian opinion. They need to come and see what is happening in this region.  

*****

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Photo courtesy of Meteorite Recon]

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