At least 90 people have been killed in wildfires that have swept through northern Algeria over the past weeks. The blazes have consumed some 100,000 acres, mostly in the northeastern Kabylia region and its central province of Tizi Ouzou. While remaining silent on the role of climate change, the Algerian government seems to be exploiting the disaster for political purposes. President Abdelmadjid Tebboune on Aug. 18 said most of the fires were "criminal" in origin, and blamed them on regional rival Morocco. The two countries were already in a diplomatic tiff before the new accusations. "The incessant hostile acts carried out by Morocco against Algeria have necessitated the review of relations between the two countries," the presidency said in a statement, adding that there will be an "intensification of security controls on the western borders." Algeria's western border with Morocco has already been sealed and heavily militarized since 1994.
US-led forces are currently carrying out war games in Morocco, the periodic "African Lion" exercises which this year also involve troops from Tunisia and Senegal. The games are taking place near the disputed region of Western Sahara, which Morocco is trumpeting this as a re-affirmation of US recognition of its claim to the territory. Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani said on Twitter ahead of the exercises that the event "marks the consecration of American recognition of the Moroccan Sahara." (The Defense Post, Africa News, June 15)
President Donald Trump announced Dec. 10 that Morocco and Israel have agreed to normalize relations, adding that the US will formally recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the occupied territory of Western Sahara. Trump's official proclamation states that "as of today, the United States recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory." The blatant quid pro quo makes Morocco the third Arab state to join Trump's vaunted "Abraham Accords," which have already seen the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recognize Israel this year. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Morocco's King Mohammed VI for his "historic decision" to sign the deal, and pledged a "very warm peace" between the two countries.
The Polisario Front has declared the 1991 Western Sahara ceasefire defunct after Morocco launched a military operation within the UN-patrolled buffer strip through the disputed territory Nov. 13. At issue is a road linking the territory to Mauritania, which passes through the buffer zone just before the border. Polisario considers the road illegal, claiming it was built in violation of the 1991 truce. What are variously called protesters or Polisario-linked militia have been blocking the road at the locality of Guerguera, within the buffer zone. Morocco's Royal Armed Forces say they are seeking to secure the flow of goods and people along the road; Polisario contends the road is being used to smuggle drugs and contraband. Polisario's armed wing, the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army, claims to have launched attacks on Moroccan forces. It is unclear if the renewed conflict has yet claimed any lives. (Sahara Press Service, WSRW, Maghreb Daily News, MEO, NYT, NYT, UN News, Al Jazeera)
In Episode 16 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg discusses how Berbers, Palestinians, Sahrawi Arabs and other subjugated peoples of the Middle East and North Africa are pitted against each other by the Great Game of nation-states. Berbers in Morocco and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories face identical issues of cultural erasure, yet Moroccan support for the Palestinians and retaliatory Israeli support for the Berbers constitute an obstacle to solidarity. The Sahrawi Arabs are meanwhile fighting for their independence from Morocco in their occupied territory of Western Sahara. But the Arab-nationalist ideology of their leadership is viewed with suspicion by the territory's Berbers—leading to Arab-Berber ethnic tensions in Morocco. Algeria, Morocco's regional rival, is backing the Sahrawi struggle, while denying cultural rights to its own Berber population. But there are also signs of hope. Arabs and Berbers were united in the 2011 Arab Revolution protests in Morocco, and greater Berber cultural rights were a part of the constitutional reform won by those protests. Algeria, facing resurgent Berber protests, adopted a similar constitutional reform in 2016, and has taken other measures to expand recognition of Berber cultural rights. And the new protest wave in Morocco's Rif Mountains over the past year has united Arab and Berber. These developments point to hope for the subaltern peoples of MENA to overcome the divide-and-rule game and build solidarity. Listen on SoundCloud, and support our podcast via Patreon.
The UN Security Council on April 27 extended the mandate of the peacekeeping force for Western Sahara (MINURSO) through the end of October 2018, while calling for Morocco and the Polisario Front to finally negotiate an end to the decades‑old conflict. Western Sahara is claimed by Morocco, while the Polisario Front seeks independence for the territory. The territory has since the 1975-1991 war that followed its independence from Spain been divided by a series of sand berms and a "buffer zone." These separate the territory's Morocco-occupied west and a Polisario-controlled eastern strip. The Security Council called for the Polisario Front to immediately withdrawal from the buffer strip around the area of Guerguerat, to refrain from any destabilizing actions. It also expressed concern over Polisario's planned relocation of administrative functions form Tindouf, across the border in Algeria, to Bir Lahlou within Western Sahara, (ReliefWeb, April 27)
As Morocco is readmitted to the African Union at the continental body's 28th summit in Addis Ababa, it is pushing for the suspension of Western Sahara, placing the AU in a difficult position. The AU has long backed self-determination for the Moroccan-occupied territory, and recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as the representative of its people. Morocco dropped out of the Organization of African Unity (precursor to the AU) in 1984 in protest at the SADR's admission to the body. At Addis Ababa, Rabat won the backing of a simple majority of AU members for its return to the body. Among the dissenting votes was South Africa, whose ruling African National Congress (ANC) issued a statement calling the readmission of Morocco an "important setback for the cause of the Saharawi people." Rabat stopped short of explicitly demanding the AU withdraw its recognition of the SADR, with King Mohammed VI saying in a statement: "On reflection, it has become clear to us that when a body is sick, it is treated more effectively from the inside than from the outside." SADR's Foreign Minister Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, howver, said Morocco's readmission represents "a victory of the Sahrawi people since Morocco had finally accepted to sit alongside its neighbor, Western Sahara." (Africa in Fact, Feb. 1 via AllAfrica; BBC News, Sahara Press Service, SPS, Jan. 31; The East African, Jan. 30 via AllAfrica)
The passing last week of Mohammed Abdelaziz, longtime leader of Western Sahara's Polisario Front, occasioned confusion in media coverage as to the difference between Arabs and Berbers—which is fast becoming a critical issue in the contest over the Moroccan-occupied territory. Most embarrassingly, the New York Times writes: "The Polisario Front was formed in the early 1970s by a group of Sahrawis, indigenous nomadic Berber tribesmen, in opposition to Spain's colonial presence in Western Sahara. When Spain withdrew from the region in 1975, the Sahrawis fought attempts by both Mauritania and Morocco to claim the territory." The Sahrawis are not Berbers. They are Bedouin Arabs who arrived from across the Sahara centuries ago. The Berbers are the actual indigenous people of North Africa, who had been there for many more centuries before that. Ironically, the Times goes on to state: "He was selected as secretary general [of Polisario] in 1976 after the death in combat of the front's military leader, Al Ouali Mustapha Erraqibi. Later that year, he was elected president of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic."