What happened at Guerguerat? An essay by Hassan Abennay.

Over the last weeks there have been two waves of reporting on Maghrebi regional relations in the Western press. 

The first came in mid-November, as the Moroccan military clashed with Saharawi protestors at the border crossing near Guerguerat, at the far south-west of the disputed Western Sahara territory (i.e., the Saharan-Mauritanian border, just inland from the Atlantic). Those clashes led the major Saharawi political organisation, the Polisario Front, to claim the three-decade-long ceasefire with Morocco as a dead letter: “we have declared a return to the armed struggle”, the Front’s Oubi Bechraya told Reuters on Friday 13th (Moroccan officials were at pains to disagree with the Front’s interpretation, for reasons explained in the article below). 

The second wave came on 10 December, following with the US’ unilateral ‘recogniz[ing of] Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory’, at the same moment that the Moroccan state itself signed a ‘normalisation’ agreement with Israel. 

The following article, written in Arabic by Hassan Abennay [حسن أبناى], a member of the Moroccan ‘Militant Current’, sheds much light on both the economic impetuses of the Guergerat events – the crossing itself sits across one of the key land routes between the Maghreb to sub-Saharan Africa, control over which would constitute a great prize – and the various belligerents’ domestic-political dynamics; dynamics which in the salient case of the Polisario have found practically no mention in either the liberal or left-wing Western reportage on the region since November. 

We have shortened Abennay’s sub-headings; ‘MINURSO’ refers to the UN mission in the Western Sahara, and ‘SADR’ (the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) to the Western Sahara’s government-in-exile.

Guerguerat and the need for Maghrebi unity.

‘The battle has begun. A war, imposed on our people, has broken out, and we have entered a new and decisive stage of our proud people’s struggle, defending their legitimate right to freedom, dignity, and sovereignty’ – so ran a statement from the Polisario government’s official spokesperson.  

Yet according to the Moroccan army’s High Command, ‘the Guerguerat crossing between Morocco and Mauritania has now been fully secured, through the establishment of a security cordon by the Royal Armed Forces’. 

Such was the news on Friday 13 November of the Western Sahara, which had remained quiet since the signing of a ceasefire agreement on 6 September 1991, as reinforced by the 1997 Military Agreement No.1.

The recent events of Guerguerat have been driven by the region’s chauvinist regimes: A zeal for war against an “external enemy”, led by the very people who exploit and repress their people domestically, all under the flag of national consensus. Concomitantly, the banner of solidarity between the peoples of our region – the defense of the interests of the oppressed against their class enemies across the various countries – has been lowered. 

What happened in Guerguerat?

In mid-October, around sixty Polisario members organised an occupation of the road running through the buffer zone between Mauritania and Western Sahara, east of Morocco’s military wall. As a result both commercial transit and passenger transport were suspended from the 21st. [1] 

Whilst the Moroccan state considers the occupation as a violation of the 1991 agreement and an attempt to force a change in the buffer zone itself, the Polisario views it as a legitimate, peaceful protest against Morocco’s own violation of the agreement, namely the construction of a road that did not exist at the time of its signing. 

Each party makes a point. The UN Secretary General’s April 2001 report stated that “on March 15 2001, MINURSO was informed by the Moroccan military authorities of plans to begin construction of an asphalted road at the south-western corner of Western Sahara, near the 5-km buffer strip and into Mauritania near Nouadhibou.” [2] And, the report continued, “the proposed road building raised issues and involved activities that may constitute a violation of the ceasefire agreement”.

At that same time, the Security Council rejected anything that might destabilise or obstruct either commercial activity or civilians’ crossing there, and in 2016, following Polisario members’ protest against the paving of a section of the road, called on them to lift their roadblocks and withdraw. Furthermore, in a 2018 report, the UN Secretary General ‘called for regular civilian and commercial traffic not to be obstructed and for no action to be taken that might constitute a change to the status quo of the buffer strip.’ [3].

The UN knows the extent to which the situation has changed since the signing of the ceasefire agreement 29 years ago, though it has no answers to the problems the agreement 1991 itself produced. Point 3 of the Security Council’s April 28 2017 resolution states that the body “(r)ecognizes that the recent crisis in the buffer strip in Guerguerat raises fundamental questions related to the ceasefire and related agreements and encourages the Secretary-General to explore ways that such questions can be resolved.” [4]

Each side finds what it wants in UN’s declarations, due to the slow but steady adoption of the Moroccan state’s proposals since 2007 (itself reflective of the major shifts in the balance of power in its favour), angering the Polisario and explaining its recent moves, as well as the rising resentment in the camps towards an international solution [المسار الدولي].

Why Guerguerat now? 

In September, the youth of the [Sahraoui] encampments announced their plan to stage an occupation in Guerguerat, which the Polisario blocked. Soon after however, during a visit to the camps, activists from Laâyoune staged a sit-in at the crossing. This was ignored by Polisario, though a mixed group of professionals and merchants from across the Saharan towns themselves dispersed it, anxious that their interests were being harmed.

However, soon after, the Polisario’s sponsorship of the establishment of the ‘Popular Committee of the Guerguerat Occupation’ was announced, and a convoy from the camps to Guerguerat was organised on behalf of civil organisations demanding the closing of the illegal crossing. Why at that moment?

[SADR President] Ibrahim Ghali’s 26 June 2020 letter to the UN Secretary General stated that ‘the Sahraoui people’s patience is beginning to wane, and today they are telling the United Nations and the world, in a loud and clear voice, that enough is enough. As we have warned over and over, the Moroccan occupation forces are playing with fire.’ 

And before that, on 30 October 2019, the Polisario announced it was reconsidering its participation in the UN-sponsored peace process, and sent a memorandum to members of the Security Council detailing the Front’s conditions to restore its confidence in the process [5]. In a statement dated 9 April 2020, the Front detailed what it considered as the failures of both the Security Council and Secretary General to carry out their shared duty of implementing the UN’s core mission, given Morocco’s own forcing the situation. [6]

Much has antagonised the Polisario leadership over the last period: The UN’s failure to appoint a Special Envoy following Horst Köhler’s 2019 resignation; [the Moroccan state’s] the organising of international sports and political events, opening of diplomatic consulates, and launching of various economic projects (including ports, airports, and roads) in the Western Sahara; its signing of trade agreements including the region; and the increase in commercial traffic towards West Africa via the Guerguerat passage, all of which is in addition to: the decline of the protest movements across the Saharan towns; the deep fissures between the ranks of the Front’s supporters; and – most dangerously – the gains the Moroccan regime has made in neutralising the African Union (AU) on the issue following its re-admittance to the union, and subsequent changes to the AU’s lexicon as it gradually adopts the Moroccan state’s language (itself similar to UN and the Security Council’s increasingly sympathetic attitude towards the latter’s position).

Thus, with huge pressure bearing on each of its decisions, the Front began to show signs of dissolution. 

The Polisario Front is suffering a great shift in the regional balance of power that began at the end of the 1980s, and which reached a culmination in 2019 with the Algerian regime’s own profound crisis, having been shaken by both the vast ‘Popular Movement’ and plummeting of oil prices, leaving it weakened against the Moroccan regime’s advances. 

The recent events of Guerguerat are the Front’s cry of pain at what amounts to its political encirclement; an attempt to exit from a near-complete enclosure. Yet changing the balance of force established over three decades via a single tactical manoeuvre is impossible; instead of opening an exit the move is backfiring, only deepening the impasse. 

Outcomes

The Moroccan regime has imposed a fait accompli, having both ensured continued movement through the Guerguerat crossing [after the initial blockade], and indeed constructed a security cordon to prevent its future blockages. The regime will make political gains through displays of restraint and the avoidance of situations that might threaten stability – whilst holding the Polisario responsible for any difficult episodes or actions, in a world exhausted by both the pandemic and economic crises.  

Moreover the blocking of the Guerguerat crossing revealed sub-Saharan African countries’ increasing dependence on it for both import from, and export to, Morocco and Europe, with each damaging closure leaving them anxious: yet another pressure on the Front, compelled as it is to avoid clashes with those AU member-countries that recognise it. 

The Moroccan regime is therefore the beneficiary of the Guerguerat maneuvering, with a financial loss balanced against a major political gain – the ambiguity surrounding the crossing has transformed into surety, being now secure from future threat. As for the Polisario, it will benefit from a raised morale amongst its base, despairing at a situation of neither war nor peace since 1991. But, that base will soon wake to find itself again stationary [تراوح المكان], which will in turn affect the Front’s standing.

The Moroccan regime is not defending its ‘territorial integrity’, as per claims of the continuing domestic mobilisation. The Polisario Front is very far from threatening Moroccan ‘unity’: its margin of action is narrow, both in being tethered to the interests and will of the military regime in Algeria, and due to the Front’s own fear of the imperialist powers’ preference for stability. What is at stake is not any ‘territorial integrity’ but an economic strategy that has been pursued for nearly a decade, one based on transforming Morocco into a launchpad for imperial investments in Africa, in which large Moroccan capital will participate, whilst the regime reaps political benefits. 

The Moroccan regime’s chauvinist mobilisation at home – the other face of the staid official statements directed abroad – conceals those real strategic interests and, moreover, casts a veil over the Moroccan regime and Moroccan capital’s dependence on imperialist centres: the IMF’s personnel are analogues of a Protectorate-era résident général, with a greater supervisory authority over economic and social decisions than parliament itself, as merely the democratic façade of tyranny. 

We must distinguish however between the sincere ‘patriotism’ of the working classes, who believe that they are defending the ‘homeland’ – those who fight everyday against the neo-colonialism which destroys their living conditions (partnership agreements with the European Union, free-trade agreements, and the commands of the IMF and the World Bank) – and the chauvinism of a capitalist minority and its ruling regime, which flings open the same ‘homeland’ to multinational companies’ plunder of its wealth and robbery of its public finances, all as a debt-service to the banks of the colonial countries, both old and new.

Our task therefore is to rid the working class’ own ‘patriotism’ of the poison of the regime’s chauvinist propaganda and to defend the idea that the main enemy is at home [7], as represented by the capitalist minority and those governing on its behalf in Morocco and the various despotic regimes throughout the region, whose respective working classes are allies of Moroccan workers in the struggle for the political, economic and social liberation of the entire Maghreb. 

After Guerguerat?

Abdallah al-Habib, Head of the Defense and Security Committee of the Polisario’s Permanent Bureau, has said: ‘The Moroccan occupation forces’ “building the wall of humiliation and shame” means a return to war, and the burial of the ceasefire’, whilst a SADR spokesperson has said that ‘any entry [into its territory] will constitute an act of aggression and will be met with a firm response, and would mean the end of the ceasefire.’

Yet it is not only for the Polisario to declare war, but is rather a decision for the Algerian regime, itself aware that such a war would quickly turn into a clash between the Moroccan and Algerian militaries. The present situation is entirely different from that of the 1970s and 1980s, in which the Polisario was able to successfully wage a guerilla war: not least, since the Algerian regime has no interest in the waging of war whose dangers are far greater than any potential benefits. Moreover, the Algerian ‘Popular Movement’ will view any foreign war as an attempt to stifle its demands. Both regimes are therefore avoiding direct skirmishes, and maintaining a mutual hostility that fuels a respective internal consensus against the “other enemy”. 

The Polisario leadership is being crushed under the pressure of the angry youth of the camps, themselves exhausted and desperate due to a policy of neither war nor peace – and the Front’s declaring the ‘end of the ceasefire’ and a popular war will rebound on it, when the call comes for it to turn words into action. 

For a Maghrebi Union of peoples

The Polisario faces a true dilemma, one that arises from a qualitative worsening in the balance of global and regional power. Its options are limited: either remain stationary [مراوحة المكان], watching a steady loss of legitimacy – itself a legacy of a historical era that has long passed – that can only lead to the complete collapse of the project; or embark on a military confrontation which, given the reality of the current situation, would only result in resounding defeat. The final option is compromise, which will neither enable the Front to build an independent state, nor transform the Western Sahara into a  Moroccan province amongst others.

The Guerguerat crossing is only a small part of the wider Western Sahara question. Gambling on the international institutions – competing to bribe the imperialist powers – is a fool’s endeavour, one that wastes our peoples’ wealth and subordinates their decisions to the interests of those same powers, which see nothing in us except the possibility of colonial plunder. 

All the ruling regimes of region oppress their people; deny them their right to the self-determination of their political destiny; preserve the systems of corruption and oppression over the people; and open the door for imperialists to exploit our wealth – all whilst our youths die by the thousands at sea, attempting an escape of their miserable homelands. 

The Western Sahara question must find a democratic solution within a true unity of the greater Maghreb, one based on comprehensive democracy, full independence from neo-colonialism, and its wealth being used to build an integrated economy that meets our peoples’ needs and eradicates the long-standing backwardness inherited from the colonial capitalist era. The elimination of all forms of oppression and discrimination against Amazigh culture, Black people, [sub-national] regional discrimination, and national chauvinism will only be achieved through the unification of the Maghreb. 

Revolutionary Marxists defend the unity of the working classes against the regimes of despotism and imperial dependency – a voluntary unity based on free choice rather than coercion, whether repressive or clientelistic. Indeed, any notion of a coercive unity serves only the political interests of tyranny, and sows the seeds of chauvinism and racial division amongst the working classes – seeds already nourished by the regimes of the region, preventing the masses from taking the path of liberation from all forms of economic, political, national, and sexual oppression. 

Workers of the Maghreb region, unite: we would lose nothing except colonialism’s borders and the shackles kept in place by these tyrannical and exploitative regimes – and we would win a broader, unified Magheb, just and democratic. 

Hassan Abennay

––

For further reading on the issues raised above, we recommend both Matthew Porges’ mid-December ‘Western Sahara returns to war’ article (for the LRB Blog), and Eoghan Gilmartin’s late-December Donald Trump Has Just Traded Western Sahara Like a Victorian Colonialist’ essay (for Jacobin).

NB: All footnotes are Al-M’s.

[1] “Our colleagues in the UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) reports that, as of this morning, it observed some 50 people, including men, women and children, present in the buffer strip at Guerguerat.  They were blocking the traffic that passes through the area.” (Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, 22 October 2020). 

[2] UN report S/2001/398 (24 April 2001). See paragraph four in particular. 

[3] UN report S/2018/277 (29 March 2018):

‘On 6 January, I expressed deep concern about recent increased tensions in Guerguerat, calling on the parties to exercise maximum restraint and to avoid escalating tensions. I also called for regular civilian and commercial traffic not to be obstructed and for no action to be taken that might constitute a change to the status quo of the buffer strip. In a letter addressed to the Secretary-General of Frente Polisario and dated 5 January, I requested that the parties refrain from actions that could undermine the efforts of my Personal Envoy to relaunch the political process, while also reiterating my commitment to the peaceful resolution of the conflict.’

[4] See Resolution 2351 (2017), adopted by the Security Council on 28 April 2017 

[5] As included in the letter from South Africa’s UN representative to the Security Council, dated 28 January 2020

[6] Polisario press release, 9 April 2020

[7] A paraphrasing of Karl Liebknecht’s famous ‘the main enemy is at home’; ‘العدوَّ يوجد هنا بالدرجة الأولى’ is, over-literally, ‘the enemy existing here is of the first order’. 

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