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Algeria-Morocco: Sahrawi activists fear increased repression following severing of ties

Algeria-backed Polisario Front blames 'obstructive behaviour' of Rabat for breakdown in relations between two nations
Celebrations marking the 45th anniversary of the declaration of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, at a refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria, 27 February 2021 (AFP)

Sahrawi activists in Western Sahara say they are in fear of increased repression by Morocco following the severing of ties between the kingdom and Algeria.

The situation in Western Sahara has been bleak since November 2020, when an almost 30-year ceasefire between the pro-Sahrawi independence Polisario Front movement and Morocco collapsed. The US subsequently agreed to recognise the kingdom's sovereignty over the region.

Now, with Algeria breaking off relations with Morocco over Rabat's actions in the territory and a number of other issues, Sahrawis expect the situation to deteriorate further, predicting an increase in the arrests, monitoring and abuse that are already a factor of daily life.

Nazha el-Khalidi, a Sahrawi human rights defender and journalist with Equipe Media, was pessimistic.

"My experience is that the regime in Morocco punishes the Sahrawi people whenever their [Morocco's] relationship with Algeria and with any other country worsens," she told Middle East Eye.

She said that Western Sahara needed "regional and international power" to pressure Morocco to end its control of the region. Currently, she said, Rabat was on the offensive, attempting to win international support for its authority in the territory, as it did in 2020 when Rabat secured the Trump administration's support by normalising relations with Israel.

"As for the impact of this tension on us in the occupied territories, we are waiting for more repression, abuse and revenge against civilians, especially Sahrawi activists," she said.

'As for the impact of this tension on us in the occupied territories, we are waiting for more repression, abuse and revenge against civilians, especially Sahrawi activists'

- Nazha el-Khalidi, Sahrawi activist

The reasons for the new breakdown in relations have not been spelled out explicitly. On Tuesday, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra accused Morocco of engaging in "unfriendly, low and hostile manoeuvres" against his country and said the kingdom bore "responsibility for the successive crises that have drawn us into a tunnel without an exit".

Algeria has long sponsored the Polisario Front, providing weapons and supplies and hosting its leaders, along with thousands of refugees.

Morocco has increasingly militarised the cities of Western Sahara, according to Mahmoud Lemaadel, a campaigner based in the largest city, Laayoune. His home town is littered with checkpoints. He describes pro-Sahrawi activists being surveilled and harassed by police "all the time", while the sound of jet planes overhead is continuous.

"US recognition of the Moroccan sovereignty over my country directly changed the Moroccan approach from worse to worst," he told MEE. "The following day, they started stopping people in the streets for no reason, even citizens who have usually nothing to do with the activism, and started suppressing them."

Lemaadel expects the situation to deteriorate. Sahrawi activists regularly face accusations of loyalty to Algeria, and this is likely to be used as a further pretext for arrests.

"Like always, we as human rights defenders and media activists are going to be easy prey because of our support for libraries, peace, democracy, self-determination for the Sahrawi people and the end of the Moroccan military occupation of the country," he said.

'Completely unjustified'

Morocco condemned Algeria's move to break off relations as "completely unjustified" on Tuesday, but added that it was also unsurprising.

Algeria had accused Morocco of funding separatists in the Tamazight-speaking Kabylia region and encouraging them to ignite wildfires, which have been raging across the country in recent weeks, costing dozens of lives. There is no evidence that Kabylia separatists were responsible. Morocco described the accusations as a "false, even absurd" explanation, as well as the claim that Israel was also behind the fires.

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For its part, the Polisario Front blamed the "obstructive behaviour" of Morocco for the breakdown in relations.

"The severing of the diplomatic ties between Algeria and Morocco is a bilateral issue between the countries, but our struggle and the obstructive behaviour of Morocco constitute one of the reasons behind it," Oubi Bouchraya Bachir, Polisario Front's representative for Europe, told MEE.

He noted that Morocco and Algeria repaired relations in the 1980s with an eye to a resolution of the Western Sahara issue; however, Rabat ultimately refused to allow a referendum to be held on the region's sovereignty.

"We hoped that after the eruption of the war in November last year, this development would finally prove to the United Nations Security Council that business is no longer as usual and that the time has come to resolve the conflict instead of continuing to only manage it," he said.

The Western Sahara ceasefire disintegrated in November when the Moroccan army launched a military operation into the UN-patrolled Guerguerat buffer zone, ostensibly to end a Polisario-backed blockade of trucks travelling between Moroccan-controlled areas of the territory and neighbouring Mauritania.

In response, the organisation said the kingdom had "liquidated the ceasefire" that had been in place since 1991. Morocco and the Polisario have since exchanged regular fire, though the real impact of the violence has been hard to verify.

Lemaadel said Polisario can regularly be heard shelling Moroccan military bases near the 2,700km-long sand wall constructed by Morocco to separate Rabat-held areas of Western Sahara from that controlled by Polisario's Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

According to Lemaadel, Polisario is a "golden card" for Algeria. Though Algiers undoubtedly wants to prevent Morocco taking full control of Western Sahara, he said it also sees the end of Moroccan rule there as less than urgent, and the Sahrawi independence movement can be used as a tool to pressure Rabat.

"Pragmatically, neither Algeria nor Morocco wants the other to be the only power in the region," he said.

'An alien body between Morocco and Algeria'

In a speech on 31 July, commemorating the 22nd anniversary of his ascension to the throne of Morocco, King Mohammed VI said that his country and Algeria were "brothers" and the "security and stability of Algeria and the tranquility of its people are inseparable from the security and stability of Morocco".

The problem, he said, was the existence of an "intruding entity" between the two countries that kept them apart.

For Khalidi, this was an indication that, ultimately, the Sahrawis would end up shouldering the blame for the two countries falling out.

"[It] means that we, as Sahrawis, are an alien body between Morocco and Algeria and we are the enemy that make their relations not good," she said. "What it means is that we are waiting for more and more hostility, as Morocco still only sees us as foreign bodies that need antibodies to eliminate them."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.