I am proud to say that I have left my nihilist filthy habit out of this post. Since some of our would-be young political leaders need to be punched in their unsubstantial guts and for those of you with a healthy thrust for modern history, I shall provide some insights on how Morocco found itself trapped in the Sahara problem; And I will too talk about a glorious feat unfortunately little known to the Moroccans. Broadly speaking, I claim the Makhzen made a mistake in neglecting -at best, if it’s not simply betrayal- the Moroccan Liberation Army. I sincerely believe that, if the Abdellah Ibrahim government had its way, that is, if the MLA commanders got the support they were requesting, this whole shebang wouldn’t happen. But of course, History cannot be re-written, but we should learn from it; The claim is justified, but it the truth should be told, the patriot is so indeed when they are fully aware of the Motherland history (and to be honest, I don’t think the CJDM people know much about it…) Ecouvillon. A bottle-brush. a tool you need to clean-up clogged stuff. Ecouvillon-Ouragan is a little-known episode of the immediate years following Morocco’s independence.
I’ve got a question: How come no one of our fiercely patriotic young people was shocked we’d got half-independence? Morocco recovered a little under 40% of its present area (Sahara included) with bits and chunks still under foreign supervision. We were indeed protected, though actually Moroccan territory was divided up between France and Spain (and we do know who signed the treaty, don’t we?) And, to remind the amnesic generations, the Green March was not the only, nor the first attempt to affirm Morocco’s claim over the Sahara.
Shortly before independence, the MLA started building up its strength. The first units of the Moroccan Liberation Army started guerrilla warfare on French garrisons, October 1955, on the border from their Spanish Morocco bases. After the independence, some of these units start moving southwards, directly into the Rio De Oro Sahara. Colonel Benhamou, deputy commander, moved then most of his troops to Attar early January 1957. Let us also note that right from the start, the Monarchy tried bribing some of its leaders, either by giving them grima, or a civil-service posting, or money (there were even official communication about that to the local commanders shortly after the Saint Cloud treaty was signed). In any case, the monarchy wanted to get hold of the MLA as soon as possible, seemingly to restore ‘law and order’ as this 1957 AFP communiqué suggests:
“Répondant au désir de Sa Majesté Mohammed V relatif au retour au calme et à la stabilité, (…) l’Armée de libération se devait de cesser toute action que les circonstances l’avaient obligée jusqu’ici d’entreprendre pour assurer le maintien de la sécurité publique. Dorénamvant, il appartient au gouvernement de Sa Majesté, qui a pris en main les pouvoirs nécessaires, d’assurer ses responsabilitées et d’accomplir les tâches qui lui incombent” (I.Dalle, p53)
Those who refused to do so continued the struggle, as Morocco was not fully independent, a large chunk of its territories (including the disputed Mauritania until 1960) was still under French and Spanish control.
Early 1957 saw the first actions the MLA started out against small Spanish garrisons. Desert warfare gave significant advantage to the MLA flying columns: as they rely on local tribes‘ guidance, support and protection, they easily make up for their lack of air and heavy support, especially against fixed positions the Spanish forces were desperately trying to hold against the Moroccan raids. It must be pointed out that while some political factions in free Morocco where wholeheartedly supporting the MLA raids, other elements close to the Monarchy were actually afraid of this increasingly popular political and military force. Even the newly-founded FAR (Forces Armées Royales) were no match to the battle-harden –and ideologically committed- members of the MLA. Furthermore, because how unique battlefield the Rio De Oro is, modern weapons did not matter: save for the relatively new light weapons (sub and support light machineguns) the MLA as well as their ennemies fielded WW2-era rifles and mortars. The Spanish couldn’t make good use of their close-support jet fighters, so the technological gap between the MLA and the Spanish garrisons was narrowed down. The French, on the other hand, were increasingly concerned with the Algerian uprising (1954) and couldn’t commit enough troops to protect their territories. They where however in the same position, as they were fielding relatively obsolete weaponry, with the advantage of larger mechanized forces, compared to the Spaniards. The French were more than worried the MLA raids could affect their position north Port-Etienne (Nouakchott)
Early February, Ecouvillon is set up with big resources: the Suez fiasco prompted the French command (and their Spanish allies) to commit as much equipment and manpower to their venture in order to make out a swift and blitzkrieg-like operation. In facts, the field allowed for large-scale attacks, very much like the raids (rezzou) Sahrawi tribes were quite fond of. According to Attilio Gaudio, the French AOF (Afrique Occidentale Française) command committed 630 vehicles of all kind, Jeeps, GMC 6×6 Trucks, M8 Armoured cars and miscellaneous light tanks, in order to supply the 10.000-strong column with motorized support. These highly mechanized crack units, mainly paratroopers from the Légion Etrangère and the colonial troops (7e Régiment de Parachutistes Coloniaux), had also local levies, mainly the Méhariste troops with natives acting as guides. The Spanish fielded their own Legion (la Bandera), as well as their local levy, the Tropas Nomadas.
The strategic goal for the French was to secure a safe corridor near Tindouf, The Spanish, being subject to attrition and on the verge to lose their control over their Sahara, considered that a large-scale operation could indeed allow them to get rid of all hostile activities between Cap-Juby, Villa Cineros and El Aiun. This was a major shift in the ongoing war, as the colonialist forces heavily updated their arsenal and gathered impressive air support for their upcoming attack. The Moroccan Liberation Army, on the other hand, was not as modern as their enemies; the troops were a mixture of Sahrawi tribes and Moroccan irregulars, mainly veterans from the North-Spanish Morocco campaign. The MLA tactics were mainly guerrilla and the troops are mostly Camel-borne. Abdellah Ibrahim recalled that the very existence of the MLA was considered to be most dangerous for the Monarchy’s stability: “One time Colonel M. Benhamou and Fqih Basri met me in order to brief me on the difficulties the MLA is facing, namely the declining supply of food rations, hardware supplies, weapons and ammunitions, They then went on the serious breaches military and high-ranking officials were guilty of, relating to the secrecy of the whole operation (for the benefit of those who might have misunderstood, supporting the MLA was quite unofficial, and it upset lots of people, many of whom were on foreign powers’ payroll) Following his claims, 1958 was also a year of political tensions, as the monarchy increasingly worried the MLA was a serious rival to legitimacy. Abdellah Ibrahim also believed that then-crown prince Hassan was behind this, as well as the right-wing side of the Istiqlal were pushing for political rather than a military solution on the Sahara issue, making them objective allies in the plot against the MLA.
France still had a large chunk of southern Morocco, and since they launched the operation from two directions (as seen on the map) they account for some interesting reports on how helpful the Moroccan border guards were cooperating with them. The Monarchy actually made a deal with the French to help -however passively they were, but help nonetheless- to crush the MLA, and in exchange, they abandon Northern Sahara and could get the Spanish to cede Sidi Ifni. There’s nothing to be ashamed of this (after all, we were ‘protected’ then granted independence through treaties and negotiation) but we shan’t overlook the fact that the crown prince -the one so much praised for his genius on many, many things- voluntarily and consciously sold out true patriot just to make sure no one would appear as a political alternative to him.
Alongside the military operations, the Sahara problem was far beyond Moroccan internal affairs: France needed a safe corridor west of its Algerian territories, and engaged in a ‘chassé-croisé’ strategy with both Spain and Morocco; as A. El Ouali rightfully underlined: “Dès 1957, face à l’opposition franco-espagnole, l’Armée de Libération Marocaine, après avoir contribué à la libération des parties septentrionales du pays, dirige son action vers la libération de tous les territoires sahariens du Maroc. Elle choisit pour ce faire de s’attaquer d’abord au maillon le plus faible du colonialisme franco-espagnol : la présence espagnole au Sahara. Dès le mois de novembre 1957, elle parvient, dans une action éclair, à prendre de revers les forces militaires espagnoles et à s’installer dans l’ensemble du Sahara marocain” which is quite right, the sucessful raids against Al Aiun were rather a surprise for many observers:
“Guerrillas of the old Moroccan Army of Liberation, no longer occupied with fighting the French, moved into the scrublands around the Ifni frontier. No sooner had the King departed for his visit to the U.S. than the irregulars assembled a motley force of some 1,200 townsmen and tribesmen and launched an attack on Ifni. […]Their first thrust the black-turbaned, khaki-uniformed irregulars swept into Sidi Ifni itself, a small (pop. 10,000) fishing town of unpaved streets. They slaughtered a score of sleeping Spanish sentries and made off with some trucks and mules. The Spanish, who last month jailed a few local Moslems for demonstrating in favour of King Mohammed, had quietly reinforced the Ifni garrison with several hundred paratroopers and Foreign Legionnaires. Shouting their battle cry of “Long Live Death,” the Legionnaires led a counterattack into the hills that drove most of the invaders back across the frontier and cost them an estimated 100 dead, 200 wounded. Announced Spanish casualties: 5 dead, 43 wounded. The Moroccans managed to hang on to some of Ifni’s border outposts. Spanish paratroops dropped from the skies to retake one, a heavy cruiser lobbed shells into others.
The Time also accounted for some interesting articles on the ongoing operations the MLA carried out successfully against Spanish, then French outpost on the desert. The MLA was so successful that it carried out long-range raids on Al Aiun: “After two months of fighting, irregulars of the Moroccan Liberation Army, under the leadership of a squat ex-Marrakech street vendor named Benhamou, have driven the Spanish out of most of their Atlantic Coast enclave of Ifni. Ifni is not much but rocky rubble and scrub, but its single city, Sidi Ifni (pop. 10,000), has been used by the Spanish as the seat of the governor of all its desert provinces—Ifni, Rio de Oro, Spanish Sahara, as well as the part of southern Morocco that they have continued to rule on the ground that King Mohammed’s government is unable to establish its authority there. Last week, with Moroccans encircling Sidi Ifni’s tightly held perimeter, Madrid merged all the rest of its West African colonies under one military governor, and set up the new administration at the fortified town of Aiun, 250 miles south of Ifni
But Benhamou’s nationalists and tribesmen were moving fast. Now calling themselves the new Saharan Army of Liberation, they appeared at Edchera, near Aiun, in the midst of a blinding sandstorm, launched a fierce attack on its garrison of Spanish soldiers and Legionnaires. It was the most murderous battle since the 1934 French “pacification” campaign. The Spanish claimed the Moroccans fled, leaving 241 corpses and 20 camels. The communiqué also listed 51 Legionnaires dead, but a knowing Madrid source indicated that total Legion casualties almost equaled the Moroccan dead”.
The fact is, the military option was going well, very well indeed, and so the political negotiations ‘official’ Morocco engaged with the Spanish were of marginal interest. The crown prince’s involvement in Ecouvillon was for internal politics: the desire to get rid of the MLA, in order to assert his own power. The betrayal of true patriots (not matter what has been written and said on people like Basri, or Ait Idder) is nothing but treason. History is so ironic that, in 1963, Hassan II’s pity revenge was to accuse and sentence to death these people for treason. As Churchill once said: ‘What kind of people do they think we are?’ I guess this has been overlooked by our esteemed historians, has it not?
What is then the point in telling the tale? Does it have a link with the current problem? Directly, yes; Instead of giving a free hand to the MLA, and therefore achieve an earlier complete independence (with no Polisario, no RASD, ولا ستي حمس) Hassan II sort of confirmed Spanish control over Western Sahara, and waited to wave the patriotic flag in 1975 –and ever since- in order, again, to deal with left-wing opposition. The very same tactics is set up whenever it’s necessary to suppress dissent. It is, as usual, the ‘enemy from within’ theory.
Why do I need to bring this forgotten history?
First off, to remind the ‘young elite’ that the Makhzen played a Machiavellian part with this Sahara business: first by sacrificing the MLA to the colonialists (in order to assert their power over Morocco) and in a time it was under considerable strain and low popularity, to play the nationalism card.
Second, because of this betrayal, and ever since 1975, the Moroccan people were constantly out of touch; all what was asked –oh, I should say imposed- was silence. 3 decades later, there still are people claiming urbi et orbi the Sahara is Moroccan.
Of course it is, but do we know why we are in such a mess in hands? Do we even admit the Makhzen’s responsibility in this? Of course not, populism and demagogy just point out to the Algerian and shout:’they’re the baddies, we are the goodies’ while young sahrawis in Tindouf are raised in hatred and resentment towards the ‘Colonialist Moroccans’. Meanwhile, dark forces in Morocco, Algeria and the Polisario are taking advantage and loot the people.
Third, because we need a radical shake up of the constitution: speaking for the Moroccan side, my fellow citizens need to be involved in the process. They need to know the negotiators, those in charge of the Sahara issue, should be accountable to the people’s will, and then, our claims will be entirely justified, or at least, with a rigorous and representative voice, that could win the international community’s respect. Perhaps I need to remind that Morocco craves international recognition in order to win their case, It is one of the basic conditions for a state to assert its sovereignty.
Ecouvillon just shows that the Makhzen cannot admit nationalism outside its boundaries. A sad indictment of the MLA Legacy, some consider the FAR’s involvment with ecouvillon as a glorious feat;
In any case, the venerable Ait Idder gives a very interesting account of his experience with the High Command.