Aminatou Haidar is occupying the centre stage in the new chapter on the Western Sahara Conflict. More coverage here and here. Of note is the Algerian complete silence on the issue – which is rather typical.

Western SaharaMorroco’s main strategy is to advance the idea that the conflict is a made up one – and that Algeria is the real adversary. The view is partly correct: Algeria does fund and give political and territorial support for Polisario, and the western Sahara issue is the only issue they spend money on lobbying (soft term for bribing) in Washington.  Aminatou Haidar’s hunger strike, as embarrassing as it is for Morroco and as perturbing as it is for Spain, is a convenient perfect argument for Algeria to counter the strategy of Al Maghzen – they need not say a word and the saga will continue to be a public relations nightmare for both countries and a point for Algeria, as it moves the focus of the conflict from the Morrocan-Algerian Axis to the Moroccan-Polisario axis, or even more conveniently, to the Moroccan-Spanish Axis. The more adversaries in the conflict the better – while they are at it,  bring in human rights organisations if possible.

Algeria’s main strategy towards the conflict was to try and delegate the problem to the Polisario when possible, and to just act behind the scenes. Algeria’s success at prolonging and aggravating the problem is rather remarkable – even more remarkable is its success in helping to shape the terms of the conflict and its image in the world as she wishes – all the while appearing to care much less about the issue than Morocco.  In terms of public relations, both internationally and domestically,  Algeria’s strategy is two-fold depending on the audience.

Internationally, since the days when it had an active role in third world politics and the non alignment movement (When the current president Bouteflika was the secretary of foreign affairs – great video, the guy always had a sharp tongue) Algeria’s main argument overseas is to insist that it is championing the self-determination rights of the Western Saharan people. Having declared independence in 1962 after such a vote, the argument was  strong, and is still rather powerful despite the rise of federalism and the tendency of independence voices in various parts around the world to be quieted down through a form of a republic federalist compromise or by completely refusing to succumb: Iraq’s Kurds, Northern Ireland, the failure of the PLO so far to create a state and Eta in Spain are examples (the Balkan region is an exception to this  because of its rather different history, and Scotland is also in a separate group – I don’t think the efforts of the SNP for independence from the union will be successful after all).

Tindouf

A refugee camp for Sahrawis in Tindouf - The Polisario is housed in Tindouf

Despite its horrific human rights record, especially in the “black decade” of the 90s, Algeria also often uses this conflict to bolster an image of a human rights campaigner for the rights of the Western Saharan people – the Algerian authorities have for long maintained that they support democracy in the region, supposedly being a democracy (at least on paper) as opposed to the monarchy in Morocco.  This image of a democracy championing state was rather conveniently supported by Bush’s New Middle East doctrine: then, the Algerian authorities declared that they are unconcerned by the initiative because, hey, we are a democracy and see, we also want democracy elsewhere. Their tactic here and Bush’s initiative conveniently blend well. Domestically, the Algerian authorities used this argument for all it’s worth.

Turning to its domestic strategy, as is the case for most foreign conflicts, the Western conflict is a convenient rallying point for the authorities (this strategy is shared with Morocco as well). This is a standard procedure with most states – keep the population busy overseas and try to use nationalistic and chauvinistic feelings towards the issue. Algeria has been very successful domestically at rallying the whole nation, be it media, newspapers, parties of the whole spectrum behind the authorities. There is almost totally no dissident voice moving even an iota towards the Morrocan stance. Any hint of such a stance is squarely quashed. A few years ago , “Rida Talyani”  (literally, Rida the italian), a pop singer, wore the Moroccan flag and expressed his support for a Moroccan Western Sahara in a concert in Morocco – his music plunged from top of the charts to absolute obscurity very quickly as he was banned (unofficially)  from participating in concerts and from any TV or Radio programme.

Historical 5 Algerian

The historical 5 Algerian figures detained by France after the hijacking, 1956, allegedly with Moroccan help

The issue is a handy agreement point between the government, the newspapers and the opposition. Almost all the newspapers, persecuted or not,  state run or private, in Arabic or in French rally staunchly behind the government on this issue. Likewise, opposition parties, left or Kabyle region based, as well as Islamist parties such as the MSP follow the government line. The Moroccan monarchy provides very little incentive to rationalise an ulterior opinion. Any potential remorse to Pan-Arabism, Islamic Solidarity or Maghreb El-Kebir politics can usually be squarely addressed by the claim that Monarchy has sold out and that the Moroccan compass has always been turned towards the West since Hassan II, who has a draconian evil reputation attached to him because of his alleged role in the airplane hijacking of the five Algerian revolution figures in 1956,  his supposed collaboration with Israel, allegations by the famous Egyptian journalist Heikel of spying for the West during Arab summit meetings and the list goes on.

Behind the arguments, Algeria’s stance without a doubt is not about the plight of the Saharan people. Algeria’s authorities are still, indeed, very much paranoid about the Moroccan claim to Algerian territories, a claim that Morocco has not withdrawn since it was made in the fifties. The hawks in the army will do their best to weaken the Moroccan side – better have the conflict and Moroccan land claims over there than anywhere on Algerian soil. In her view, Algeria has been bitten twice before, and the Sand War of 1963 is viewed in a bad light as Morocco tried to take Algerian western territories by force directly after the independence, supposedly taking the opportunity of the weakness of the infant Algerian state.

That war, ironically, helped stabilise the country at a time when tensions were very high among army leaders and civil wars were close to being declared over who rules the country. It would seem that the Algerian élite realised the potential of the conflict as way to score political points since then, and they seem to have been successful so far. A potential route to the Atlantic Ocean is an attractive notion as well.Royal Air ForceAlgerian Army

Unfortunately Algerian fears make the conflict very much a military one between Algeria and Morocco. There is an ongoing fierce armament battle between the two countries (or rather, spending battles), with both countries buying military aircraft and equipment to the tune of several billion dollars. Most of the Algerian Military’s arsenal is based in the west of the country facing Morocco: in Sidi Belabes, Tindouf, Oran, Mers el-Kebir, etc.

In the absence of substantial political reform in the region, and especially in both countries, the conflict will continue to be prolonged over what is described by many as a lifeless patch of sand. A final solution has to include both countries as well as the Polisario and Mauritania, and has to leave no questions asked over the sovereignty of each state.

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