This blog is no longer active, but I continue to post at the group blog MAGHREB POLITICS REVIEW.

Dec 29, 2007

Morocco buys F-16, Algeria says nyet to Russia

Time for another installement in the arms race update:

The Moroccan government finally seems to have made up its mind, after months of wavering between a French offer of Rafale fighters, and US pressure to buy F-16s instead. The White House has announced that Lockheed Martin will be selling Morocco 24 F-16 fighters (and 24 other planes), to better help the country "fight terrorism" -- because we all know what a terrible nuisance al-Qaida's North African airforce is.

The only question is who will pay for them. As previously reported, Saudi Arabia first hinted that it would pick up the bill (presumably, Morocco would pick up some spare preachers as quid-pro-quo), but then changed its mind.* If that means that cash-strapped Morocco will have to pay for its own fighters, it may yet discover that poverty is a more dangerous enemy to the regime than even nasty next-door Algeria.

[picture: fighter jets sold, end of story]
It also remains to be seen whether this will change the political behavior of either of the producer states: it's no wild guess that the rather sudden US turn towards Morocco over Western Sahara was influenced by the prospects of landing this multi-billion, multi-decade arms contract -- and if so, it worked. The even more militant French position in favor of Morocco has, by contrast, been the same for many years, and being snubbed over a fighter deal is unlikely to change it. But on the other hand, Algeria's financial muscle in France is slowly increasing, and intensifying competition with the US in the Maghreb may yet force Paris to redefine its role there; so time will tell.

Meanwhile, Algeria's relations with its own main gun supplier seem to have run into some trouble. Russian arms companies are upset that payments have mysteriously stopped, after Algeria made a monster purchase of some 70 advanced airplanes, nearly 200 top-range tanks and loads of other military goodies. This is hardly because of a cash shortage, but perhaps related to gas cartel intrigues. Interestingly, Algeria's state hydrocarbon giant Sonatrach has ended the cooperation agreement with Russia's Kremlin-connected Gazprom, having apparently decided that competition with Russia's gas companies, and deals directly with the European consumers, will in the end serve the country better than the much talked-about gas cartel.

All of which begs the question of who calls the shots over arms deals and gas deals in Algeria -- same state, but not necessarily the same men. Bouteflika's deteriorating health, coupled with his desperate dash for a third term, the death of Smaïl Lamari, and much else, does nothing to dispel the impression that Algeria is headed for a period of internal power struggle; not necessarily one that will spill over into the streets of Algiers, but it would be likely to complicate decision-making and relations both internal and abroad for some time to come.

-- -- --

*) Perhaps because of the competition for Arab world leadership between these two glorious leaders?

Study on refugee aid policies

Don't miss this short but interesting study by Basque researcher María López Belloso: "Humanitarian aid for the Sahrawi people: The impact and limitations of aid policies for refugees".

It takes a look at the effect of 32 years of foreign-supported camp life on the refugees, and makes some suggestions on what sort of aid strategies should be used. Some of it will be no news to anyone following the issue:

For almost 27 years, international aid campaigns were based on the premise that eventually the Sahrawi population would bear the load themselves. However, they were hesitant towards other more stable projects, as this would assume that the conflict would last. [...]

All of the studies conducted by donors agree on one thing: the worsening of health situation amongst the refugees, resulting from the cuts in food aid and therefore an inadequate diet. They have detected an increase in anaemia among pregnant and lactating women, high levels of malnutrition, as well as a high percentage of children suffering from rickets. [...]
On that last part, see eg. the recent reports by UNHCR and WFP. However, the study also includes some interesting statistics, that show both how contemptibly racist Spanish colonial rule was, and how tough the situation was for Sahrawi nationalists at the outset of their struggle. But also, the rather impressive educational successes achieved since:
It is in the field of education that the Sahrawi organization has achieved one of its biggest successes in the region. According to the census of 1974, the situation was as follows: 4862 schoolchildren (6.5%), 911 high school students (1.2%), 11 people in Further Education (0.01%) and 27 people in Higher Education (0.03%). According to reports, the only qualified people left in the SADR after the Spanish withdrawal were 1 doctor, 1 expert, 4 teachers and 25 university students. [...]

[Today all] Sahrawi children have the right to education. Those who do not have the qualifications to access Higher Education go to vocational training centres, either in the camps themselves or abroad. In 10 years, going from precarious to total schooling of children aged 3 to 16 years is a great achievement, even more so if we take into account the adverse conditions resulting from a situation of war and exile, the lack of native school programs and educational staff, and also the legacy of a colonial past that barely paid any attention to these issues. [...] It must be added that the SADR’s education programs have meant that many young people have been trained abroad and obtained a university degree, which, upon their return to the camps could not be put into practice, which increases the level of frustration in this segment of the population.

Numerous researchers have pointed out that even if Polisario's numbers (of near-total literacy today, and several thousand university graduates) are taken with a grain of salt, the Tindouf refugee population is still one of the best educated in all of Africa today -- excluding Western expat communities and eg. South African Whites. What this has meant for the formation of a national consciousness, not to mention social transformation, would be interesting to see more detailed research on. (In this aspect at least, there are clear parallells to the case of the Palestinian refugees, who similarly received what was at the time superior basic schooling via the UNRWA. For some comparative research on the Sahrawi and Palestinians situations, see the works of Palestinian-Canadian researcher Randa Farah: here and here, for example. Also check out Pablo San Martin's great piece on the creation of a national consciousness here.)

Last but not least, this is interesting and important, and has been commented on before by many. More studies please:
Another phenomenon also occurring inside the camps, is the entry of foreign currency sent home by Saharans working abroad or from host families who adopt Sahrawi boys and girls through the program "Holidays in Peace”. This influx of money, coupled with that coming from small businesses is starting to generate social inequality, which if not managed properly, could lead to social conflict in the short and medium term.

Meet the new Polisario, same as the old Polisario

The newly reelected Secretary-General of Polisario, Mohammad Abdelaziz, has in his role as President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic reinstated Abdelkader Taleb Oumar as Prime Minister of the government-in-exile. Taleb Oumar held the post before the congress, and has been a top member of the Polisario since anno dazumal. He will present a government, to be confirmed by Abdelaziz, in the days ahead.

[picture: abdelkader taleb oumar]
Little change, then. This is unlikely to placate those calling for major change within the movement, such as those criticizing the election of Mrs. Abdelaziz, Khadidja Hamdi, to the National Secretariat. And it appears critics have good reason to complain. An interesting critique by Kamal Algali strikes me as having diagnosed the most problematic feature of the Polisario system: he points out that the movement claims to represent all Sahrawis, but that this is contradicted by the fact that many congress delegates were appointed from within the system, rather than elected from below, and that officials act more like functionaries of a particular political party than a broad national movement. Even if the formal democratic procedures were scrupulously respected, it is difficult to see how such a system can be anything other than self-supporting and insulated from the larger population.

Meanwhile, the Moroccan news agency MAP has taken a break from its main activity (inventing fictitious Sahrawi royalist groups, then quoting their condemnations of all things un-Moroccan on the front page) to cite a communique by Khat al-Shahid, the mercurial Polisario dissident coterie. Strangely, the text can't be found at Khat al-Shahid's own website, so I won't vouch for this being true [UPDATE -- see below]. In any case, the gist of it is that the Polisario leadership is now illegitimate and (as threatened) they call for Ban Ki-moon to substitute themselves for Polisario in the upcoming negotiations with Morocco. Slim chance of that ever happening, but Polisario's main asset is their claim to representativity for the Sahrawi people -- and that is now clearly fraying, as a result of the monopolization of power within the movement.

Abdelaziz himself, however, seems too busy inaugurating stuff and railing against foreign enemies to notice.

-- -- --

UPDATE -- I have now got hold of a copy of the "Khat al-Shahid" communique (thanks!), and this demands some comment. It is genuine in that it appears to be quoted correctly, but not in that it is from the organization Khat al-Shahid. The text is issued with contact info for one Mahjoub Salek. This person, a.k.a. Jafaf, was expelled from Khat al-Shahid some time ago after he had persistently presented himself as its spokesman in contacts with the Moroccan media, saying all sorts of conciliatory things, and ignoring orders to stop. Whatever remains of the original group has nothing to do with this text, and that's why it's not on their website. In short, it should be taken to represent only him -- or whoever pulls his strings.

HRW: abuse of human rights activists

[picture: dahha rahmouni & brahim alansari]
Human Rights Watch has reacted to the arrest and torture of two human rights activists in Western Sahara:

(New York, December 28, 2007) – The Moroccan Ministry of Justice should investigate the police beating and intimidation of two human rights activists in December 2007 in the Western Sahara city of El-Ayoun, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the justice minister. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the action is part of a broader attack on human rights monitoring by the authorities in the Western Sahara region.

Police detained Dahha Rahmouni and Brahim Alansari, members of two nongovernmental human rights organizations in El-Ayoun, on December 14. The police beat them while in custody. The two were released without charge on December 16 with a threat that statements they were compelled to sign unread would be used against them if they continued their activities. “Morocco’s boasts about its human rights record fall flat when it allows the police to beat and intimidate rights activists like Rahmouni and Alansari,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director for the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. In a letter sent to Moroccan Justice Minister Abdelwahed Rahi on December 28, Human Rights Watch urged an investigation into the incident. A Human Rights Watch request for information on the incident sent to the Moroccan embassy in Washington, DC, on December 20 had received no response as of December 28. The Moroccan authorities tightly restrict independent human rights activities in the contested Western Sahara region, of which El-Ayoun is the largest city, on the pretext that several rights organizations there violate Moroccan law by espousing independence for Western Sahara. Authorities frequently keep activists in these organizations under police surveillance and subject them to various forms of harassment.
Purpose: to stop information on the human rights situation from filtering out of Western Sahara.
In the morning, an officer entered the room and interrogated them about their relationships with human rights organizations and human rights defenders. He asked how the men got information from victims, who took the victims' pictures, and to whom the pictures were sent.
For more info, read the press statement, and the full HRW letter to Morocco's minister of justice. You could also check out their own organizations. Dahha Rahmouni is a member of the ASVDH, an illegal Sahrawi human rights group, while Brahim Alansari is in the El Aaiún chapter of AMDH, one of Morocco's major (and legal) rights organizations.

Meanwhile, Santa Claus came with the usual hard and pointy gifts for Sahrawi protestors this year: according to CODESA reports, some 25 civilians were beaten in a December 25 crackdown.

Dec 22, 2007

Polisario congress summary

[picture: the xii congress logo: ten parts dove, two parts rifle]
The XII General Popular Congress of the Polisario Front is now over, after a 48-hour extension, and this is -- very briefly -- what happened:
  • Mohammed Abdelaziz was reelected as Secretary-General of Polisario (and thus RASD president) until the next GPC, in three or four years, as sole candidate with 85% of 1 403 valid votes. That also means that some 300 people (almost 20%) of Congress delegates didn't bother voting for the Secretary-General at all, either for political reasons or because they weren't present, or because with one candidate their votes didn't matter much. So Abdelaziz's score should in fact be a bit lower. Anyway, the democratic crux here isn't the vote at the congress, but the way delegates are appointed and elected-up from below -- base level perceptions do not necessarily correspond to the politicized strata that go to vote in the political assemblies.
  • His motion to establish a one-term limit to the post as Secretary-General was struck down, and may just have been baloney all along.
  • The National Secretariat was elected with a few new member, including the rising star that is Mrs. Abdelaziz, Khadidja Hamdi. None of the old power brokers lost their place, although it remains to see who gets to be in the seven-man Presidium and who doesn't. A full list is here -- and the total number of elected is 25, not 28 as I first claimed. (The additional three on the NS board are ex officio members as heads of the women, youth and workers' associations.) There were a total of 146 candidates (no list available) for these 25 posts, and of the winners, five (Hamma Salama, Emhamed Khaddad, Mahfoud Ali Beiba, Brahim Ghali and El Bachir Mustafa Sayyed) had enough votes to be immediately (re-)elected in a first round.
  • There are also 12 secret NS members from the Occupied Territories, but no word on how or when they are elected; in total, this brings the NS up to a full total of 41 members, including the Secretary-General. This is the case since it was enlarged to include the OTs at the 2003 XI GPC, but who knows how much influence the secret members really have.
  • The decision was taken to "prepare for war" and then to reconvene, presumably not in a full GPC but in some sort of a major conference, in six months to take a final decision on resuming the armed struggle. This is probably mostly hot air, because Polisario seems to be in no shape to fight a war at this point, even at low intensity -- and also because spokesmen explicitly tie the issue to the failure/success of negotiations with Morocco. But between a very tangible sense of anger and exasperation with the UN process in the camps, and the massive rearmament now undertaken by Algeria, that isn't necessarily the case a few years from now -- it could very well be calculated as step one towards a rekindled war, even if the rhetoric for political reasons will paint it as something more dramatic. Note that the Minurso reauthorization resolution is expected in late April, 2008, so Polisario's war meet (in June or July) doesn't correspond to that.
  • A number of documents, videos and other stuff from the congress can be found here, in Arabic, and perhaps Spanish and other versions will be made available later.

Dec 20, 2007

After future, Minurso tries to erase W. Sahara's past

Finally something that both nationalist and pro-Moroccan Sahrawis can be furious about together.

Western Sahara researcher Nick Brooks has some disturbing info, with pictures, about how Minurso personnel in the Polisario-controlled territories have been vandalizing ancient archaeological sites, spray-painting their names across ancient rock carvings from the time when the Sahara was lush djungle (yeah, that old). Not pretty at all, and especially irritating given the organization's less-than-stellar performance in its actual mandated tasks. Since the perpetrators are readily identifiable by their own work, hopefully some straight young lad of commanding rank will read this, drop his square, manly jaw in horror, and promptly get to work disciplining these wayward troopers and have them restore what was destroyed, to the extent it is still possible. If not, the only comfort is that by the time Minurso leaves the territory, these infantile spray-can tags will probably also qualify as ancient archaeological material -- so for future Sahrawi historians it's really no biggie.

[picture: cave man paintings, old and new (click to magnify)]
Also don't miss the Western Sahara Project's great picture archive at Flickr. Several hundred pics of good quality from the Polisario-held territories and Algeria's Tindouf region, mostly but not only of archaeological interest.

Dec 19, 2007

Polisario leadership elections

In the Polisario's XII General Popular Congress in Tifariti, voting has now begun for the National Secretariat.

The NS is the Polisario's highest body between congresses, its "government" so to speak, and rather more important than the Sahrawi Republic's actual exile government -- although they're not always all that easy to tell apart. Polisario and SADR structures are still very much entangled, and many members will hold key posts in both organs.


The race for the post of Secretary-General -- i. e. head of the NS, and by constitutional fiat also SADR president -- is not terribly exciting, since the eternal (?) Mr. Mohammed Abdelaziz will be running unopposed. In a way, that is more credible than at the XI GPC in 2003, when three pretend-competitors were put up for show, and he crushed them all with a mubarakesque 92%, but still it leaves very little to the imagination. Then again, perhaps the Sahrawis just want nothing less than their Algerian and Moroccan neighbors: blatantly unfair head-of-state elections (or none at all) is apparently an attribute of statehood in these quarters.
[picture: now who could he be voting for?]
For the remaining 28 NS posts, however, there are a full 146 candidates. The smart money is on none of the longtime leaders losing his post: think of names like Mohammed Lamine El Bouhali, Emhamed Khaddad, Abdelkader Taleb Oumar, Mahfoud Ali Beiba, and a few others. Most of them hold the real reins of power, in the government-within-the-government, the seven-man Presidium of the NS. This body has survived under different names since the 1970s with remarkably little change in personnel, despite some deaths and defections, and one instance of massive structural reform in the early 1990s, when the worst one-partyisms were dismantled and the internal human rights situation set straighter. Instead, these men of power just keep rotating posts between them, with Abdelaziz at the apex of the pyramid, and a distinctively second-rank layer of ordinary NS members below.
[picture: a meeting of the outgoing national secretariat]
But beside these stalwarts, there remains quite a few posts up for grabs, to the extent that internal democracy works at this level. We'll see what happens. Also, at the last congress it was established a quota for the occupied territories -- or the liberated southern provinces, in Moroccan parlance -- from where an additional twelve secret candidates arrive. How exactly they are appointed remains a mystery, since open elections would be nothing but an invitation to the Black Prison in El Aaiún. While some people indicate they are elected amongst themselves through the underground networks of Polisario at that side of the Wall, I think direct appointments may also be a valid guess.

Total recall - Moroccan diplomacy loses it

Says Morocco's state news agency, MAP:

Rabat, Dec. 19 - Morocco has decided to recall its ambassador in Senegal, Moha Ouali Tagma, for a period of three days to protest the statements made against Morocco by Jacques Baudin, member of the Senegalese socialist party, who was speaking in the name of his party.
And APS, Senegal's news agency, says the same.

This is not just nationalist overreaction, it is plain lunacy. Mr. Baudin's party, the social-democratic Parti socialiste, is in opposition since seven years, and has no influence whatsoever over Senegalese foreign policy. The Dakar government of old Abdoulaye Wade is comfortably pro-Moroccan, and has been careful to do nothing that could conceivably irritate the rulers in Rabat, who he leans on as a regional ally -- and still he gets smacked with an ambassador recall for what his political rival said at a Polisario congress? Unfair!

Someone needs to explain the finer points of government-opposition dynamics to Sidna, preferably before he takes another bold stride in his democratization of Morocco.

Happy Eid!

...to all Muslim readers, whether Sahrawi, Moroccan or Algerian or otherwise. (And a late Happy Hanukka to the Jewish readers, as well as an early Merry Christmas to the Christians, etcetera. Atheists can pick any of the above for a most secular holiday greeting, while Agnostics can't.)

And a correction: I had heard it wouldn't be, but the Polisario Congress has now been prolonged 48 hours, meaning it will go on until December 20, at the latest. Apparently there's much to discuss, and Eid celebrations also took some time.

Then another potentially important thing: "Spain's Supreme Court has recognized a Western Saharawi woman as stateless because the Moroccan nationality cannot be 'imposed' on her, court sources said Wednesday."

Dec 17, 2007

Four more years -- only?

A newsflash out of the blue: Polisario Secretary-General Mohamed Abdelaziz, who has held the post since 1976, has suddenly himself proposed a term limit of a single mandate.

That would mean that if now reelected, he will be forced to resign from the post as Secretary General of Polisario, and from the follow-on post as President of the Sahrawi Republic, in 2010 or 2011, depending on when the next regular General Popular Congress is held. The normal period is three years, but after the ceasefire it has become routine to invoke the provision that allows the leadership to order a single one-year postponement. However, it's not clear from the info available if he could then theoretically return after three/four years again, and let's remember that the proposal hasn't been adopted yet.


Below follows the full SPS newstext:

POLISARIO’s sitting Secretary General proposes alternation on the leadership of the movement

Tifariti (liberated territories), 17/12/20027 (SPS) POLISAIO Front’s sitting Secretary General, Mohamed Abdelaziz, invited the participants to the congress to vote a clause in the internal law that regulate alternation on the leadership of the Saharawi movement of liberation and to increase the quota for women participation in the leadership of the movement, Mr. Mhamed Khadad indicated in a statement to the press.

Intervening in the debate of the Committee of the Constitution and internal law of POLISARIO Front’s 12th congress, Mr. Abdelaziz asked the participants to give "one single mandate" to the organisation’s Secretary General and to open the leadership of the organisation to women, who should have "a known quota in the internal laws of the organisation", declared Mr. Khadad, the spokesperson of the 12th congress.

"This does not mean that I escape my responsibilities. I will remain faithful to the oath of the 10th of May 2007 [misprint, should be 1973 -- WSI] to the last minute", referring to the date of the creation of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Seguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario), the President of the republic declared in his intervention, the same source added.

To become applicable the propositions of Mr. Mohamed Abdelaziz, must be introduced within amendments to the organisation’s internal law, which is discussed in every congress.

POLISARIO Front’s Secretary General is elected by the congress, which meets ever three or four years.

Mr. Mohamed Abdelaziz is the Head of POLISARIO since 1976, after the death of the founder of the Front, El Ouali Mustafa Sayed, in the field of honour the same year. (SPS)

010/TFR/000 172138 DEC 07 SPS

Polisario congress update

[picture: the main meeting hall in tifariti]
The Polisario Front's XII General Popular Congress, which began on December 12, is expected to end tomorrow the 18th, but could also be prolonged. (Don't think so, though.)

So far, this has happened:
  • Morocco has raised heaven and hell, as per the usual routine, over Polisario's presence in Tifariti, which the government claims is located in a no-go buffer strip according to the 1991 ceasefire agreement. In reality this is complete bullshit, and they know that better than anyone. But, as it happens, Reuters' Rabat-based reporter was lazy enough not to fact check, so he swallowed the bait, and what he wrote has already been reprinted in just about every report on the event around the globe. Mission accomplished.*
  • The Congress itself is pretty big: 1750 delegates, elected during the spring in the various camp subdistricts (dawair), military regions, popular organizations (women, youth, students, unions, etc), the various diaspora groups, institutions (schools, hospitals, handicap centers, media outlets, etc), as well as elected officials, diplomats and other major appointees. The model set up by Polisario thus works along what is basically a corporatist model aiming to include all sectors of society in a sort of managed consensus-building process, rather than to submit either personnel or politics to a straight-down popular vote.** Along with these 1,750 guests are a lot of hangers-around, like family members, military units to guard the place, staff to organize and supply the event, journalists, and foreign guests and invitees (some 200, according to Polisario).
  • The National Secretariat's four-year report has been approved, with a huge majority, despite what appears to have been quite a lot of criticism by speakers at the congress. What this signifies I know not, but you can read the whole document here. Most interesting are probably the self-criticism sections, although they're not very explicit -- but presumably Congress delegates knew who to blame for what. (N. B. that there are some discrepancies between the translations into different languages.)
  • Morocco quickly whipped together a meeting of CORCAS, its pro-autonomy Sahrawi puppet group, in the parts of Western Sahara under its control, to coincide with the Polisario Congress. The result turned out to be a statement of loyalty to the monarchy, followed by the standard circle-jerk session in the Moroccan media.
As of now, the following seems likely to happen:
  • Re-election of most or all of the historic leaders, certainly including Abdelaziz as Secretary-General. If there are candidates to oppose him, they are most likely there mostly for show, as was the case at the last congress. (Abdelaziz then got a solid 92%, running against three of his pals in the Polisario establishment.) [UPDATE!]
  • Adoption of the suggestion to "prepare for war" while negotiating. That is, to try to find a workable middle way between the untolerable status quo and the untolerable prospect of an actual war. It must be intended as both a gesture towards the increasingly frustrated and war-prone elements in the army and the younger generations in the camps; and also, of course, as a way of getting some media attention and put pressure on Morocco. According to Defense Minister Mohamed Lamine El Bouhali -- interview in Arabic -- a full 90% of the Congress delegates favor a return to arms sooner rather than later, and have criticised the leadership's support for the ceasefire. Psychological warfare and scare tactics? Yes. But also true? Yeah, maybe.
  • No major internal reforms, as demanded by some opposition activists. [UPDATE!]
Well, we'll see what tomorrow brings. Posts will however be a bit scarce from now on, so probably you won't read about it here until later. Until then, enjoy some links:
  • Ibn Kafka (in French) lists a number of interesting pro-Moroccan sites on the Sahara, some of which are known to readers of this blog, some of which are not. Most seem to be government-run in one way or another, and typically include the old canards about child-trafficking to Cuban sugar plantations and Polisario as an Islamo-Stalinist terror group, with various paperhead "Sahrawi" organizations as sources. But credit where credit is due: the Moroccan web presence on the Sahara is getting more sophisticated fast, just as is the Moroccan propaganda in general. Polisario has some catching-up to do if they want to stay in the race.
-- -- -- --

*) The exact borders of the various buffer zones and restricted areas that were defined by the 1991 ceasefire's main military agreements between Polisario and Morocco can be found via the Minurso webpage. A useful PDF map is here, and you'll find Tifariti in the upper-right chunk of the territory, south of the wall and well away from the buffer strip.

**) How either would work in practice is another matter, as is the degree of interference with local elections from the government, other political bodies, security forces, Algeria & other host countries, tribes, influential families, etc.

Dec 11, 2007

Attacks on UN offices in Algiers

Speak of the devil:

(Reuters) - Two car bombs killed at least 67 people in upscale districts of Algiers on Tuesday, a health ministry source said, in the bloodiest attack since an undeclared civil war in the 1990s.
And of UNDP:
(Reuters) - Four United Nations employees were feared killed and 14 were unaccounted for after car bombs hit U.N. and other buildings in Algiers on Tuesday, the world body said.

A U.N. statement said one of the two blasts destroyed the offices of the U.N. Development Program, or UNDP, and severely damaged the offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, in the Algerian capital.

Dec 10, 2007

Into the Islamist letter soup

Via Brian Ulrich, an interesting Jamestown brief about the merger of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group with al-Qaida. Not a big catch, I'd say: LIFG had its good days in the 1990s, and Libyan security has all but eradicated it as a fighting unit.* That's not to say they don't still retain some useful networks in the country, or abroad, or that it doesn't send a political message. But since LIFG has been cosying up to al-Qaida for many years, a formal decision doesn't really change much on the political level either -- even if it does strengthen al-Qaida's image as a 'global movement', I suppose.

[picture: muammar is not too worried]
The merger with GSPC in Algeria in 2006 was different, since the GSPC is a far bigger group, with relatively large-scale military/terrorist activity in Algeria.** It also brought valuable, strong ties with Jihadist or sympathizing groups in the Sahara/Sahel, Morocco (like GICM), Mauritania and Tunisia -- and perhaps Western Sahara, though I'd still leave a big question mark at those reports.*** Anyway, while the US seems most worried about an al-Qaida spread into the Sahel, it seems reasonable to assume that in al-Qaida's mind, the central reason to court GSPC was its rear bases in Algerian emigrant milieus in Europe since the civil war.
[picture: the GSPC logo, slightly overwrought if you ask me]
However, the very fact that GSPC was a well-established, active and self-sustaining organization at the time of the merger, having survived the Algerian onslaught for years, meant that it already had its own way of doing things, and that there were established interests and alliances that stood to lose from the new orientation. Like LIFG, GSPC commanders had flirted with al-Qaida for a long time, but here the merger and name-change also brought an important change in modus operandi: suicide bombings in major city areas, albeit still directed at military/police targets. This, and the new global mission, does not seem to have gone down well in all quarters, and while the group has raised its international profile considerably, reports of internal splits and leadership battles are now on the increase.

The GSPC-Qaida merger also carried implications for the group's tactical alliances with eg. Touareg tribes, southern smuggling rings (cigarettes, cars, people) and various Mauritanian malcontents. These groups, while often strongly Islamic or Islamist in their outlook, are not necessarily interested in global Jihad. They may have wanted the support from GSPC, since that was all they could get, and they were only too happy to receive hardline religious approval for their rather more worldly battles -- but no, they are not so keen on the international attention that comes from open association with Usama bin Ladin. For LIFG, presumably, all such restraints were swept aside by their weakness inside Libya, on the one hand, and the recent turn of Qadhafi towards the USA/West, on the other. They are already paying the prize, so why not get the full product?

-- -- -- -- --

*) I'm sure you can take an educated guess at what kind of methods were used. Though you wouldn't guess it from contemporary US waterboarding debate, in the short term they work just fine, at least for a dictatorship unconcerned with the moral implications. And long term -- well, that never was Qadhafi's main concern.
[picture: the libyan flag, with a more restrained design]
**) meaning hundreds dead every year, and a number of self-supporting guerrilla units in different areas of Kabylie and the deep South, plus support networks in most northern towns, and pockets of support in neighbouring countries and Europe.

***) Interestingly, the contacts seem less developed with Libya. The Jamestown report speculates that this may perhaps be a reason why the merger announcement didn't explicitly make LIFG a part of what is now named al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (or AQIM to terror nerds) -- i.e. the former GSPC, which is still very much an Algerian operation, the name notwithstanding. Contacts seem to be very much on the personal level, and in the case of GSPC, reports had it that the merger decision had gone through the late and unmissed Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Dec 9, 2007

Shelley on Sahrawis in Mauritania

I've written before on the growing Sahrawi community in Mauritania, and on the Western Sahara question's massive but complex impact on Mauritanian politics. Now Toby Shelley, Western Sahara expert, Financial Times reporter and author of the absolutely invaluable book Endgame in Western Sahara*, has done some excellent on-the-ground reporting, which shouldn't be missed by anyone with the slightest interest in Western Sahara or Mauritania. The following paragraphs beautfully captures the fleeting statelessness that has become the lot of tens of thousands of Western Sahara's refugees, as they drift back and forth from Mauritania, Algeria and indeed both sides of Western Sahara, scratching a living out of odd jobs, small trade, smuggling or Polisario service, and silently waiting for the wall to crumble:

[picture: stranded ship, nouadhibou]

There are probably 20,000-30,000 Sahrawis in Mauritania as a whole. The numbers have increased over the years, not just through births but because people have come from the refugee camps to seek work. They toil in the great iron ore mines deep in the desert, mines linked to the sea terminal at Nouadhibou by the longest train in the world. Two kilometres long, it bursts through a red cloud of sand to the end of its ten-hour journey through the dust and heat, its massive wagons ridden by travellers too poor to ride in the one or two coaches.

Others still herd camels. In Nouadhibou itself, Sahrawis work in the fishing harbour – $4 a day is the going rate – or in petty commerce, from internet cafes to second-hand clothing to spare parts stripped from old cars. In an echo of their days as nomads, many are here for just part of the year, visiting from the camps, meeting up with family from the occupied territories lucky enough to secure passports, easing bronchial conditions with a few weeks or months of sea breeze. All are in transit, even those born and bred here. All are waiting to go home.

Prison thoughts

Abdelsalam holds out for inspection what appear to be two grey school exercise books. Opening them, the paper is rough and brittle. The text, too, reminds one of the careful work of somebody learning to handle a pen. One book is written in Arabic and one in Spanish. Both have delicate illustrations. But they are not exercise books and were not written by a child with an unfamiliar pen. The paper was salvaged from sacks of cement and the backing from plasterboard. The ink was made from crushed charcoal and water and the pen an improvised quill.

In 12 years in Moroccan prisons where detainees died weekly, Abdelsalam had plenty of time to write his thoughts – eight thin volumes, smuggled out page by page.

He was released in 1991 after a ceasefire was implemented between the Sahrawi guerrillas of the Polisario front and the Moroccan army. That was supposed to lead to a referendum on self-determination. The Sahrawis are still waiting.

In another house we drink tea with Bet’a Haymid. She meets her mother here for a few months a year; then they part, Bet’a and her children returning to the camps and her mother going back to Laayoune, the main town in the Western Sahara. The family was divided in 1975, Bet’a fleeing to the camps and marrying a fighter who was killed in the battle of Smara in 1983, her parents remaining.

For 13 years she had no idea if her father and mother had survived ‘the years of lead’. She only discovered they were still alive in 1998 when tribal elders working with the UN were allowed to visit the occupied territories to compile an electoral roll for the referendum that never happened.

Deep kindred

Outwardly, Arab Mauritanian and Sahrawi are indistinguishable. The women wear the same bright cloth strips, worn like saris, and the men revert to the traditional blue or white daraa robe. They speak the same hassaniya dialect of Arabic. Colonial borders divided tribes that ranged across the Western Sahara, Mauritania, southern Algeria, southern Morocco and beyond, so there is a kinship between many northern Mauritanians and many Sahrawis that runs deeper than nationality. That link has made it possible for Sahrawis to live ostensibly normal lives in Mauritania. But it has also left them in a permanently delicate situation.

Every coup, every change of government, every reshuffle is watched to see if the balance of power in Nouakchott has tilted power towards those sympathetic to the Sahrawi cause or those inclined to ally with the menacing Moroccan presence to the north.


Obviously, you must read the rest of this: Sons of the Clouds, by Toby Shelley.

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*) Which you can buy at a 25% discount through ARSO: details here. Also, an interesting debate prompted by Shelley's book in the London Review of Books can be read here -- note links at the bottom of the page. LRB reviewer Jeremy Harding's sensitive personal take on the Sahara question in his book Small Wars, Small Mercies (silly US title: Fate of Africa) should not be missed either.

Dec 8, 2007

UN development ranking: The Maghreb

[picture: sidi moumen, casablanca, could do better]
Rankings, love them. Here is the UNDP's Human Development report for 2007/08. This measures levels of schooling, literacy, employment, wealth, health care and stuff like that, all baked into one neat number. The Maghrebine countries, out of 177 countries ranked, do as follows:
  • 56 - Libya
  • 91 - Tunisia
  • 104 - Algeria
  • 126 - Morocco
  • 137 - Mauritania
Unexpectedly high numbers for Libya, I think. But lots of oil, tiny population -- even Qadhafi can't wholly offset that. Otherwise, as always was the case, Tunisia is doing relatively well given its lack of natural resources; Algeria is wasting its considerable hydrocarbon treasure and barely crawling towards economic reform; Morocco does a decent job from a poor starting position, but is burdened by W. Sahara and such; and Mauritania is just plain poor. And all suffer badly from the lack of regional integration, much thanks to you-know-which conflict.

War, that's what it's good for

Just for the record:

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Western Sahara's independence movement Polisario said on Wednesday it was committed to a peaceful end to Africa's oldest territorial dispute but would consider returning to arms at its congress this month.
Or perhaps just for the recorders: a Reuters dispatch is worth a hundred bullets, after all. Also, the tough talk plays well with the Polisario leadership's nationalist constituency, and someone has to keep the semblance of contested elections up as the congress approaches.
[picture: anytime now]
Back in the real world, a return to the dinner table seems far more likely. A third round of negotiations were recently set for January 7-9 in New York, at the Mansion. Analysts predict that Polisario will threaten to not pass the oyster plate, should relations deteriorate further.