The Moorish Wanderer

A Journey in the Desert

Note: This novel is a fiction. Some elements are made up and added to historical and accurate bits in order to get a drama effect.

Noon is still far away, but the heat was already unbearable. Sweat was running down like tear-drops.  He felt he was sinking in his broad cloak. His hand was sweating even more, for the semi-automatic rifle he was holding was slowly turning into a hot stick. It grew painful, but right now, he had other things to worry about. It is the beginning of the year, his fellow troopers are about to cross the desert, and his task as a recon leader is crucial, for he needs to find causeways and avoid to draw attention. Speed, stealth and secrecy are the key.

Today is a hot day, and the five men-strong party he was leading had to cross an open field by midday. open field is a bit of an understatement: over there, everything within dozens of miles is an open field, occasionally bounded by some deep ridge or some misty wadi. He briefly looked back at the high mountains he left behind, were he came from, where he left his family for the unknown.

His immediate plans were more down to earth: To his left, an old rift was wide and deep enough to provide a cover for the column following him. He reckoned it would take him half a day to get there, so he pressed hard on his camel to quicken the pace. The ground was a bit rocky, it abated his impatience a bit to get to his aim. He unloaded his gear, dropped his burnuous and carefully fold it in his haversack, adjusted his turban then verified his rifle. The walk was going to be tough.

Ayour was not at his first major expedition. A couple of years ago, he fought in the Rif against the French and the Spanish garrisons there. It was not the first time he had to lead a reconnaissance party, nor was it the first time to fire off live rounds at people. In facts, the poor peasant from the anti-atlas he was before 1952, has little in common with the tall soldier he is now. Even though he retained the same old wretched djellaba, his stature was leaner albeit more muscular. As a member of the Moroccan Liberation army, he learnt self-reliance, days-long fasting and considerable endurance.

His fellow soldiers were, too, mountaineers that enrolled in the MLA. The illiterate Ayour joined with a somewhat simplistic opinion of the political map: he had to fight for those he felt were supporting justice against the local Caid.  He knew little but what his commander tells him of the broad issues. He was not very bright, but had a deep sense of duty that allowed him to move fast among the rank and file; The poor shepherd was now in charge of a recon squad, and as such, he was the vital eye the MLA staff needed for their moves. The early days of January 1957 were quite different from the previous years. The joyful and leafy rif mountains were no longer, and the more the MLA moved south, the higher the temperature was and the drier the surroundings were.

The desert, with its tortured rocky ground and its snake-shaped paths was laying before him when he got his party on the top of the ridge. He could see the whole valley and beyond. His fellows were equal to him in his mixed sense of relief and confusion: relief because the column causeway was secured, and confused, because he felt it was going to be a different kind of war. A war of mobility far beyond human physical strength. A war not for villages or cities, but for oasis, tribes and ridges. A war that is going to be fought too in the cosy palaces between well educated and well behaved people.

The sunset was near. To the untrained eye, the void it presume the desert is slowly reveals itself to be full of life. Some desert rats awkwardly showed their tiny heads out of their invisible lairs for some food or water. The birds that remained silent and absent during the day started to cruise the skies, and the little swallows, sensing the heat was abating, start getting out of their nests, describing gracious geometrical shapes on the beautifully clear purple-and-blue sky

Ayour reported back by radioing to his boss. The quiet night gradually was disturbed by the discordant of a thousand camels, loaded with ammunitions, supplies, food and rations for the thousand MLA soldiers. From a stage shaped like an altar, Ayour saw a stormy column of dust by the North-East. This lot, his lot, was out to inflict havoc and damage to the weak Spanish garrisons disseminated along the coast. His boss confirmed that commando-style operations were enough to disrupted already crippled Spanish communications, and hopefully, put them in a situation such that hey would agree to a truce, or even an agreement on partial or total withdrawl. The whole of the Rio De Oro would therefore comes back to the fatherland. Perhaps even the faraway shores of Senegal rivers would come back to Morocco. The distant news that were broadcasted on the national radio confirmed his feelings: the colonialists were pulling back, in Egypt, in Vietnam, France had lots to do in Algeria, and the Spaniards are willing to let off a bit of steam on their Saharan outposts.

– “Radio command, tell them the way is clear all West of us. There is no rush, no enemy recon flight spotted” Ayour asked. The radio, a youthful worker from Casablanca that joined the MLA in order to escape the Istiqlal political police.

– “8ya li mat3aed ya Chef. Were do you think they would takes next? ” replied gleefully the radio

– “I don’t know a weldi. Only l’Fqih knows what to do. In any case, we will have to bring the M’hamid l’Ghizlan somehow to follow us. For the time being, we have bigger fishes to fry, ok ?”

Ecouvillon 1958

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.

Spanish Legion at Al-Aiun. These and the Tropas Nomadas fought against the MLA.

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.

Inspection Line, French Meharists. They Provided Reconnaissance support for Ecouvillon

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?

Operation Ecouvillon-Ouragan. The Northern part of Sahara still under France's supervision (Map 1958-1959) France committed Colonial paratrooper and desert troops to crack down on MLA activities.

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.