The Moorish Wanderer

War and Politics in Western Sahara: the 1956-1958 Campaign

And I finally got it! the absolute reference on ALM operations in Spanish Western Sahara. Mohamed Bensaid Ait Idder published “Epic pages of the Liberation Army in the Moroccan South” in July 2001 -and I was so far unable to find it in a library or bookstore (yes, it is a borrowed one…) the great thing about the account M. Ait Idder gives of these operations is that it does not stop at the unfortunate ending of Moroccan operations on Spanish and French-held Sahara, but rather describes in documented details the political intrigue surrounding these operations, the delicate political balances it influenced, during times of a race for power in a freshly independent Morocco.

As early as July 1956, High-ranking French officials expressed worries as to the growing activities of the Moroccan Liberation Army South of Draa valley, indeed, French Colonies Minister, Gaston Defferre wrote to his colleague Maurice Bourges-Maunoury on July 18th, 1956:

Gathered intelligence suggests likely imminent attacks against North Mauritania launched by Moroccans from the Liberation Army units stationed in Draa valley, Algerian, Moroccan or Spanish-born moors, more or less supported by warring tribes from the said region.” (Translated from Michel-Ivan Louilt, 2009)

These tumultuous times spared no country involved in the area: France has gone past the fail-safe point in Algeria when the Guy Mollet government called in the reserves; in Morocco, the monarchy was ambivalent in its dealings with the MLA- on the one hand, it was only fair game the King Mohamed V and his son the Crown Prince Hassan were keen to gain control over the MLA, but on the other hand, the regular armed forces were no match, and “assimilation” was not a frank success, as former MLA fighters rather preferred migrating South to liberate territories still under French and Spanish control. To some of the MLA leadership, their activities were a legitimate endeavour to shape the “Great Morocco” project, Allal El Fassi‘s brainchild, but also, as the continuing struggle with Algerian and Mauritanian brethren to achieve Maghreb independence. The Great Morocco map went deep South, all the way down to the Senegal river, while it claimed large chunks as its Eastern borders territories from Algerian and Mali Sahara.

Though Spain did not involve itself directly during World War II, it was still a junior European power even by post-1945 standards; Consequently, its colonial representatives -in 1957, General Rojo was the commanding officer Of Ifni, Seguiet El Hamra and Rio de Oro troops, and later on, General Zamalloa- had tremendous difficulties in reigning in MLA activities on territories theoretically under its control. Instead, Spanish authorities in Western Sahara adopted a more conciliatory attitude, and even allowed MLA units to settle in, with its main Headquarters located in Guelmim, “The Doors to the Desert”.

Spanish soldiers garrisoning outposts near El-Aiun (probably 1957-58) - Picture El Pais

In the MLA leadership’s minds, the main -if not the sole- enemy was the French Army, including those officers heading the Bureaux des Affaires Indigenes. Spain on the other hand, was considered a little less short of an ally, and initially firm orders were issued to MLA fighters not to organize operations against Spanish garrisons in Sidi Ifni and Ait Baamrane (that was also due to the fact that most of Francisco Franco’s inner circle was, up to mid-1956, made up of fiercely anti-French Phalangist old guard). As early as July 1956, violent engagements between MLA and French units happened in Foum Alachir (July 6th 1956) Mergala (August 8th 1956), and M’hamid Ghizlane (December 6th 1956) to name a few. However, the initial Spanish neutrality turned sour, and numerous arrests and crackdowns on resistant networks soon prompted MLA high command into directing its units against a once benevolent colonial occupier. Indeed:

“The Ifni War, sometimes called the Forgotten War (La Guerra Olvidada) in Spain, began in earnest on November 23rd, fifty years ago today. The Moroccan Liberation Army was now no longer tied down in conflicts with the French, and could thus commit a significant portion of its resources and manpower to the capture of Spanish possessions. The Spanish Legion repulsed the Moroccan drive easily, but two Spanish outposts were abandoned in the face of enemy attacks. Many others remained under heavy siege.

In the space of two weeks, the Moroccans and their tribal allies had asserted control over most of Ifni, isolating inland Spanish units from their South-Moroccan capital. Simultaneous attacks had been launched throughout Spanish Sahara, overrunning garrisons and ambushing convoys and patrols. (Source)”

From a purely technical point of view, figures were not on the MLA’s side: its 13 regional commands could field at most 3908 troops (including some 200 in training) equipped with heterogeneous arsenal. After Spain had dispatched two units of its Legion, total Spanish forces in their part of Western Sahara amounted to 9000, not to mention the considerable advantage they hold in terms of air-power and mechanized hardware. Still, in view of the versatile and experimented MLA troops in desert-warfare, as well as the political and material support local Sahrawi tribes provided to these units, initiative and audacity allowed MLA commandos to obtain significant victories: attacks on isolated outposts, or even a full-scale siege on Sidi Ifni and El-Aiun made Spanish presence in these parts of the Sahara very uncertain.

MLA troops near Sidi Ifni, 1957.

The French army, on the other hand, experienced brief exchanges of fire with MLA, first in the TInduf and Colomb-Bechar sector (MLA Central Command considered those to be rightfully Moroccan territories still occupied by the French) and then South of Rio De Oro, when France decided to include Mauritania in its brand new “Union Française” in 1956. Again, MLA leadership, in accordance with El Fassi’s “Great Morocco” design, considered Mauritania to be equally part of our national boundaries. The ease and the amount of destruction inflicted by Benhamou’s troops North of Fort-Trinquet prompted the French into seeking schemes to eliminate once and for all an increasingly annoying MLA activity and a roadblock to its support for Mauritania as a future nation: indeed, many officials from Mauritanian tribes (like Prince Val Uld Umeir) rallied behind MLA and King Mohammed V, as these notabilities represented large and diverse groups of Mauritanian tribes.

November 23rd 1957 saw the first wave of large-scale attacks on Spanish outposts protecting Sidi Fini: Tighna, Thlath Issoubya, Taberkukt, Ithneen Ait Atissimur and Taliwyn. These outposts were outrun after two weeks of fierce battles. To that effect, MLA headquarters in Guelmim committed about 600 troops, among which 140 locals from Ait Baamrane earmarked for the capture of Sidi Ifni itself.

Originally, the attack was supposed to be stealthy and secretive, so as to seize not only all of the outposts ringing Sidi Ifni, but the city itself with minimal or no combat at all. The surprise attack scheme turn out to be a failure partly because of poor, inadequate preparation to the task at hand, and also because of the damaging effects leaked intelligence to the Spaniards had on the attack’s effectiveness. These pieces of intelligence were leaked, it seems, from obscure interests in Rabat and Agadir.

If Sidi Ifni was a semi-failure, other ventures were more successful: El Aiun, Smara, Aoucerd, Cap Bojdor and Bir N’Zaran were seized, or at least captured for hours and days until the Spanish garrisons broke the siege, but only temporarily. In desert warfare, number and equipment do not make a difference. It is worth pointing out that MLA operations were a logistical nightmare: following accounts of the total arsenal at their disposal from 1956 to 1960, weapons from Spain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Germany and Czechoslovakia meant at least 30 different types of ammunition, as weapons varied from pre-WW1 French rifles Chassepots to modern Submachinegun MAT-49, but most MLA troopers were issued with Italian rifles Mannlicher-Carcano (1012) and Spanish Oviedo M93 (837)

The following lists the significant items in MLA weaponry, as of February 1958:

– German MP40 Submachinegun………………………………………30

– German MP38 Submachinegun………………………………………13

– German Kar98 Bolt-action rifle……………………………………….25

– German MG42 Heavy Machinegun………………………………….82

– French MAS36 Bolt-action rifle……………………………………….87

– French Lebel Bolt-action rifle………………………………………..224

– Spanish Oviedo M93 Bolt-action rifle………………………………837

– Spanish Argo Heavy Machinegun………………………………….277

– French Hotchkiss Heavy Machinegun…………………………………1

– American Thompson Submachinegun……………………………….15

– American M1A1 Automatic carbine………………………………….16

– American M20 Bazooka AT gun…………………………………………1

– Italian Mannlicher-Carcano Bolt-action rifle……………………1012

– Italian Breda Machinegun………………………………………………10

– British Lee-Enfield SMLE………………………………………………..45

– Czech 33/40 Bolt-action rifle…………………………………………122

all in all, between 30 and 40 different calibres are required for this diverse arsenal and other items like hunting rifles and various side-arms. In addition, The striking feature of MLA arsenal is its lightness. Other than 60mm and 82mm mortars (about 8 of them) the heaviest weapon remains one M20 “Bazooka” recoilless anti-tank gun. Quartermasters at Guelmim and Agadir, as well as representatives sent abroad to buy weapons and ship them to Morocco needed to be extremely careful in their purchases and choices. France and Spain however, relied solely on less than a dozen of calibres when issuing weapons to their troops, and could field artillery (mortars, guns and howitzers) as well as APCs and light tanks, when MLA troopers were only camel-borne. Nonetheless, victories were achieved against Spaniards all the way down to Laguerra thanks to MLA high spirit, skills and dedication to the liberation of Western Sahara.

Dead legionnaires near Sidi Ifni after a MLA attack, 1957 (source: Arxxiduc)

the 9000-strong Spanish forces were not, at first, made of front-line troops: most of those soldiers staffing outposts scattered across the desert belonged to disciplinary companies, ill-equipped, ill-commanded and with no will to die to defend a waterhole, a wells or oasis. They fled their positions when the fight was too fierce. Even the Legionnaires and paratroopers the Spanish high command sent as reinforcement to Sidi Ifni, EL Aiun and Villa Cisneros (Dakhla) garrisons did not deter MLA fighters from storming the enemy with all their might. But the conjugated effect of French air power and the denied access to Spanish territory lead to the dissolution or destruction of MLA presence south of Sidi Ifni.

As mentioned before, French High Command in West Africa and Algeria was very keen on the destruction of any armed resistance, whether from Algeria or Morocco: the Suez failure and the Algerian war convinced the French that something needed to be done about Algerian FLN activities in general as well as MLA raids near Tinduf and Colomb-Bechar in particular. To that effect, the commanding officer, General Bourgund (former commander of French troops in Morocco) needed the precise location of Moroccan “mobs”, their strength, fire power and supporting tribes. Intelligence work and activity was therefore assigned to the POMI –Bureau Politico-Militaire– officers, so as to dissociate MLA fighters from Sahrawi tribes, and denounce them as Soviet-backed agitators. M.I. Louit reports Spanish propaganda was to portray the MLA as:

“an instrument of the USSR […] and that Allal El Fassi and his (sic) Army of Liberation are bad Muslims serving Russia, enemies of God and traitors to the Sultan”

The plan Generals Borgund (France) and Zamalloa (Spain) agreed on early 1958 was to be carried out in three phases:

Preliminary phase: Spanish forces to occupy Draa causeways North of parallel 27º40 and deny access from both directions (i.e. to prevent flights and reinforcements)

Phase 2: Spaniards would move South from El Aiun to meet the French as their troops attack North of Fort Trinquet, so as to block MLA regional HQ (Commander Benbrahim) to that effect, the French commit their Foreign Legion (1er REI) and various CSMs (Compagnie Saharienne Motorisee) as well as the 7th RPC (Paratroopers)

Phase 3: Spanish and French troops from Smara jointly attack, the former North-East and the latter South. Spain carries out further attacks from Villa Cisneros.

By late Feburary 1958, all significant MLA activities South of parallel 27º40 would have been disrupted and its units dispersed or destroyed. (click to get a more detailed view)

France divided its forces in 4 main task forces, with Fort Trinquet and Fort Gouraud as their starting bases:
– Taskforce “Grall”, to attack Tifariti from Ft. Trinquet
– Taskforce “Vidal”, to attack Guelta Zemmour from Ft. Trinquet as well.
– Taskforce “Tinduf” to attack Tifariti from the North and liaise with Groupement Grall.
– Taskforce “Sud” to attack Bir N’Zaran with the Spaniards and clear the way in the Rio De Oro. Taskforce “Sud” was reinforced with smaller units near Zug and Atar to provide support.

Operation Ecouvillon: 8th to 23rd of February

Spanish troops were, on the other hand, reinforced garrisons from coastal cities prepared to attack.

Overall, French and Spanish troops would have committed about 14,000 troops, 130 war-planes (mostly for transport, observation and ground-attacks) and no less than 700 vehicles varying from GMC 6×6 trucks to light tanks M5 “Stuart” and M24 “Chaffee” and light recon vehicles like the M8 “Greyhound” and EBRs. Artillery, ranging from 60mm light mortar to heavy 105mm howitzer was often brought to bomb MLA strongholds away from Guelbs and Canyons they were holding to. As for planes, France relied on medium bomber Glenn-Martin B26 and ground attack plane T6 to disperse and destroy Camel herds suspected to belong to MLA groups or loyal tribes. Similarly, Spanish troops used Nord-Atlas 2501 and Dakota C-47 to carry paratroopers and cut MLA from supply and escape routes.

Against overwhelming odds, MLA fighters did the best they could, but ultimately failed and were bitterly defeated and chased away from Western Sahara, for good. General Bourgund paid a martial tribute to his enemy by writing:

“The enemy doesn’t fight in daylight. However, he is much more aggressive at night; he is endowed with an amazing ability to use the ground to his advantage, his marksmanship and his strength to carry out long and exhausting marches make him a worthy adversary. If surprise favours him, he withdraws at night and the next day, camps some 50 to 70 kilometres away from the ambush, or chooses to join safe haven beyond the border”. (Louit, p.107)

Engin Blindés de Reconnaissance (EBR) unit awaiting orders. French army used many of these to crush MLA activities (Picture ECPAD)

Accounts conflict on the kind of provided intelligence that tipped the balance and gave away MLA units: A first version claims Spanish observers reported minute details to the French, and these corroborate them with accounts from local intelligence (Ait Idder refers to them euphemistically as “French agents”) i.e. from sources inside and in high places in Morocco. French sources however, while disparaging Spanish contribution to Ecouvillon-Teide, seem to favour the “inside theory”, namely that French intelligence in Morocco, with the assistance of Moroccan officials, has managed to compile considerable information on MLA positions and activities. These sources (and Abdellah Ibrahim seem to agree with these accounts) specify these “High ranking officials” as officials close to Mohamed Laghzioui -former head of security and a familiar of crown prince Hassan II- and various officers in the Moroccan Army (FAR) many of whom served with the French Army during WW2 and Indochina campaigns, and kept close ties with French officers still in place after 1956.

It is also fair to say that the Crown Prince was regularly briefed by MLA leadership on ongoing operations, he, at the same time, was on a constant liaison with French officers, as well as American intelligence (in the person of Commodore Leo Blair). It is a known and documented fact (comprehensively reported in Ignace Dalle’s latest book) France regarded the Crown Prince as a trustworthy ally, who in return expressed a desire in weeding out opposition and remaining a strong partner to France.

MLA field commanders meeting with Spanish Colonel to negotiate passage across the border. From left to right: Benhamou, Col. Chass (Spain) Manouzi, Benacher and Bouida.

The MLA, in that respect, was therefore standing against two enemies: France, as the colonial ruler of Algeria and Mauritania, had interest in eliminating any armed resistance, even on Spanish territory. the Crown Prince considered these valiant resistants as potential rivals and a threat to his own ambition and thrust for power.

The Imperial Sultanate of Morocco & The Western Sahara

I have been racking my brain on the subject for quite a while: why is it always the monarchy that has the initiative to announce things, to decide for all of us, and most of all, negotiate on our behalf the crucial issue of the Sahara dispute without the slightest consultation with the people of Morocco, whose money and lives, and resources are generously spent and used with no involvement on their part.

Oh, but I have forgotten: we have this undying covenant between the King and his People, following which His Majesty has an unlimited mandate to do as He pleases, while the loyal subjects await His good pleasure. And in matters like the Sahara dispute, elegantly dubbed ‘matters of territorial integrity’ there is a crypto-fascistic tendency to demand absolute unity. Let us then lecture the regime and his supporters on their arrogant nationalism: How come true patriots have been betrayed when, in 1957-1958 their passionate involvement was on the verge to take back a still occupied territory?

How come that very same monarchy preferred to focus on consolidating its hegemonic grip on independent Morocco, rather than try to realize its independence in its unity? Why is that the same regime quickly abdicated its claim on Mauritania, yet falls in incredible harshness on those who call for a dissident view on the Sahara dispute? And finally, why are we celebrating the Green March, a cynical and nationalistic move engineered by an unpopular and isolated monarch?

To be sure, the monarchy has long since lost any claim for moral leadership on the matter, and subsequently it can no longer be the sole originator of proposals to the Polisario. It is high time The Radical and Liberal side outflanked them on the ‘original’ autonomy proposals.

Above anything else, I am a staunch proponent of the federalist option. As it is, I would go even further when it comes to the Sahara region. As the Late King Hassan II himself once said: ‘aside the Flag and Stamps, everything is negotiable’. Well, let’s negotiate everything then: The proposal calls for the establishment of a joint sovereignty, stylized as the ‘Kingdom of Morocco and the Western Sahara’, or to remain faithful to our heritage, ‘The Imperial Sultanate of Morocco and the Western Sahara’.

Sucessive Defense Walls, 1982-1985

Funny, isn’t it? No, I didn’t smoke pot, nor did I indulge in some heavy drinking. I mean, if we can stand idly by and look on the blatant contradictions between an Islam-based absolutist monarchy, and the more-than-symbolic Western features of the present system, then we might as well just bow and follow the herd of politically correct behaviour: clap when the King announces a shallow reform, frown whenever our ‘sacred unity’ is threatened and shut up and look the other way when the police apparatus beats up or tortures the dissidence.

Let us remain true to our past history and retain its distinguished symbols: we had no king in Morocco. The very concept of Kingdom is disgustingly Western. Why not keep the monarchical system, but instead stylize the Monarch as the “Imperial Majesty, the Sultan Of Morocco”? If we are to retain the monarchical regime (against which I cast no definite hostility, nor do I engage in sheer alacrity) then we might as well take back the old styles. That’s what a genuine Parliamentary Monarchy is about: the Monarch retains the honours, the titles, the Protocol, but relinquishes all powers to the People’s representatives. Why, we might even look back and feel as proud about symbols like the Evening Retreat, or some ceremony performed by Scarlet-clad Royal Guardsmen as we would when referred to the Moroccan monarch as “His (or Her) Imperial Majesty”.

Now, I referred to an alternative autonomy plan that would devolve virtually all powers (save for the regular sovereign ones, i.e. the Armed Forces, the Foreign Representation and Legal Tender Monopoly). The style “Of Morocco and Western Sahara” means that, within the same entity, the Imperial Sultanate, a Moroccan Kingdom and a Sahrawi Republic vow to seal an unbreakable pact to remain together as one country. The Flag and the Stamp, as well as the essential features of sovereignty remain indeed untouched.

This, of course, is but what the proposal aims to achieve. Details would of course entail a great deal of debate, but beforehand, let us take a look at the official proposal for Autonomy; To be fair, the proposals are very advanced, but there remains the roadblock for genuine democracy, the royal fetters that hold back the will of the people; Indeed:

[…]
[4]. Through this initiative, the Kingdom of Morocco guarantees to all Sahrawis, inside as well as outside the territory, that they will hold a privileged position and play a leading role in the bodies and institutions of the region, without discrimination or exclusion.
[5]. Thus, the Sahara populations will themselves run their affairs democratically, through legislative, executive and judicial bodies enjoying exclusive powers.  They will have the financial resources needed for the region’s development in all fields, and will take an active part in the nation’s economic, social and cultural life.
[…]
[6]. The State will keep its powers in the royal domains, especially with respect to defense (sic), external relations and the constitutional and religious prerogatives of His Majesty the King.
[7]. The Moroccan initiative, which is made in an open spirit, aims to set the stage for dialogue and a negotiation process that would lead to a mutually acceptable political solution.
[…]
[12]. In keeping with democratic principles and procedures, and acting through legislative, executive and judicial bodies, the populations of the Sahara autonomous Region shall exercise powers, within the Region’s territorial boundaries, mainly over the following:
· Region’s local administration, local police force and jurisdictions;
· in the economic sector: economic development, regional planning, promotion of investment, trade, industry, tourism and agriculture;
· Region’s budget and taxation;
· infrastruture (sic): water, hydraulic facilities, electricity, public works and transportation;
· in the social sector: housing, education, health, employment, sports, social welfare and social security;
· cultural affairs, including promotion of the Saharan Hassani cultural heritage;
· environment.
[…]
[14]. The State shall keep exclusive jurisdiction over the following in particular:
· the attributes of sovereignty, especially the flag, the national anthem and the currency;
· the attributes stemming from the constitutional and religious prerogatives of the King, as Commander of the Faithful and Guarantor of freedom of worship and of individual and collective freedoms;
· national security, external defense (sic) and defense (sic) of territorial integrity;
· external relations;
· the Kingdom’s juridical order.

[…]

The proposal itself is a good workable platform, and, provided some other prerogatives are expanded, and the symbolic recognition of the autonomous Sahrawi region as a Republic, the proposal might even induce more Polisario people into either joining the Moroccan cause, or even pressure their leadership into accepting the deal.

There is, however, one catch: the proposals, for all their generosity, cannot be credible if the Makhzen still stifles dissent, concentrates power and uses corruption to maintain itself in power. There is no need to point our that, in the camps, Polisario is even worse when it comes to dealing with dissent. And yet, we need to take the moral high grounds by being purer than pure. The Moroccan democracy, to convince the Tindouf people, needs to be of impeachable integrity. A radical institutional overhaul is more than needed, an essential, but not necessarily sufficient condition.

The proposal retains a few aspects of Sovereignty, but does not go beyond general principles; To be sure, currency will be one. And yet, I can foresee at least one problem, the most important of them all: How will the Central Bank define its currency board? We know, from various sources, that the bank defines Dirham counterpart as 60 to 80% Euro. And yet, the one thing Sahara can supply the world with , Phosphate, is Dollar-labelled. Morocco exports goods mainly to the Euro-zone (and thus, conditions its monetary policy with that of the Euro’s) it also exports Phosphate and gets paid in Dollar. This might be construed as a fickle, but believe you me, even within the official proposed scheme, sooner or later (and rather sooner than later, I would say) troubles about currency value and board will inevitably arise. How can we solve this?

Obviously, if joint sovereignty is to be exercised, so will need to be currency valuation; The Central Bank board needs to reflect a balance in its members, a balance that would be reflected on the Dirham’s value. In this particular issue, there can be expected very little dissent: it will be a mutual incentive to keep the Dirham’s value stable and reach consensus whenever possible, and as far as the currency board is concerned, a change in the Bank’s policy regarding transparency can solve the issue; Instead of decreeing it confidential, the Central Bank needs to be open about it, a further deterrent on the board of representatives not to engage in chaotic argument.

The Union Jack designing process can be useful as as a benchmark to design a new Moroccan flag

Same goes for Police (national security), or even Army; Police staff and establishment can be local (just as in the northern regions) but the Army’s issue is trickier. It’s a bit of a quandary, especially when one considers the Army as a unifying symbol. However, the establishment of an autonomous militia, a National Guard of sorts, can provide a good compromise. As for the Federal Armed Forces, a token invitation to defend the common border completes the picture and forestalls any potential problems on the matter.

So there it is: a complete independence in managing local finances (including bond issue backed by Phosphate receipts) and politics, the only infringement on such autonomy is the payment of a Federal solidarity tax, as well as recipient of Federal funds for infrastructure and the like. And because the union needs to feed on common institutions aside from the Monarch’s, the Republic’s representatives seat in the Federal Supreme Court, the Federal Armed Forces Imperial Staff and the Board of the Central Bank.

Furthermore, the Super-Constitutional powers the King enjoys need to be curtailed, either by transferring them to the Federal Prime Minister (a Chancellor of sorts) or by simply abolishing them altogether. The Faithfuls’ Commandership, and its potentially troublesome extra-constitutional interference with earthly matters, needs to be dealt with in the new constitution. Finally, the Judiciary can be expanded to allow for a separate set of rules in the Sahara. However, and because the Supreme Federal Court would be common to both entities, mechanisms can enforce the widest possible set of similarities in laws and legislative standards.

Why would we therefore need to change the King’s styles and get involved in all minute details? Well, mainly because once such proposal is adopted, there will be a great deal of symbolism to be changed: the National Coat of Arms, which will need to be bifurcated from the Royal one. If it wasn’t for the ambiguous Hassan II‘s statement, I would very much like to see a change in our national flag just like with the Union Jack: some sort of combination that would seal further the union between both entities.

And since we are introducing changes in the symbols of the State, we might as well correct a 50-years old anachronism in the Monarch’s style; We have no King. We can retain the monarchical form if we want it, but the title must change and revert back to the old, multi-millennium style of Imperial Highness, the Sultan.

This is an idle dream. A waste of time. If Polisario bosses keep on being fed by Algerian occult lobbies (and the soon-ousted Colonel Ghaddafi), as long as Moroccan lobbies still benefit from the status-quo, in short, as long as this unholy alliance between reactionary forces everywhere keeps on drawing benefits to the participants, then people from both sides of the wall will still suffer and live in mutual hostility. Time to stand up.

The Side Show of A Side Show

Posted in Moroccan ‘Current’ News, Morocco, Read & Heard, The Wanderer, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on October 8, 2010

Three main courses for current Moroccan news: Ould Salma, reportedly released from his Polisario jail, Nichane newspaper that went under and finally Fodail Aberkane, an individual killed in a Police station. Mainstream and Blogoma are all over it, so I thought I could add my voice to the herd too. No harm done.

First, Mustapha Salma Ould Sidi Mouloud. It is great to get all misty eyes and all fired up over his misfortunes, and in a way, it would be fair game because last year at the same time, Morocco was down the international gutter because of its behaviour towards pro-independence Sahrawi activist Aminatou Haidar. The tide has since then changed slightly to Morocco’s favour, but overall it does not further our claims, nor does it bring about a final settlement to the present unfortunate situation. I don’t know about my fellow bloggers, but when I watch Moroccan television, or read some of the MAP news agency about the “القضية الوطنية”, the National Issue n°1 as it were, I have the uncomfortable feeling the propaganda is targeted towards the domestic audience.

And what bombastic propaganda that was! Following our forensic experts like M. Nini, we are about to go to war with Algeria (or even Spain) and within a week our soldiers would be sipping tea at Tindouf. All of that while the truth is carefully toned down (there was little publicity about the negotiation rounds that took February 2010), Moroccan officials are in direct negotiations with the Polisario, and matters that occasionally arise are used by each side to put pressure on the other and get the maximum concession out of it.

There is nothing in it for the interest of the common Moroccan or the Sahrawi in Tindouf. As for Ould Salma, he gambled on international support, whether he lost or won is still a matter of debate. Bottom line is, let’s not get too excited and heated up for this.

Ould Salma, former Polisario top raking Police officer, jailed after expressing favourable views on Morocco's autonomy plan

This is merely international politics, a sideshow to cover up for politics that matters. Another sideshow is Nichane newspaper that (finally) shuts down (and up in the process). It is always sad to witness another newspaper shutting down in Morocco; This particular case however is not the result of direct oppression, and one can certainly assert that freedom of speech does not shrink further because of that.

A business has been closed down, but the journalists can still write articles. Nichane, just like its French-speaking sister newspaper TelQuel, and the late Le Journal are not what one can describe as all-out opposition newspapers.

Their founders (Ahmed Réda Benchemsi and Aboubakr Jamaï for Le Journal) are not firebrand dissidents. Both come from quite wealthy backgrounds (Ulad Jamaï are a wealthy family that long served at Imperial court and Benchemsi is related to a former Governor), and if their newspapers close down, they are not going to starve or go on the dole.

In fact, the terms of debate are wrongly defined: the central issue here is not the gagging of freedom of press, it is merely the closing down of a business.

Both Le Journal and Nichane were compelled to close down because of the direct cause of financial difficulties: the first had unpaid social securities contributions, and the second for the lack of advertisement support. Both closed down because they were short of money.

Ahmed Réda Benchemsi Aka “ARB” is known for his fired-up editorials against Islamists

One can cast doubts on whether both newspapers were ill-managed but the fact remains that both newspapers were first and foremost businesses that were profitable at a time, but eventually reached an unbearable level of losses and had to withdraw. As journalists, their founders could always open up a collective blog, or set up another newspaper, their freedom of speech is not endangered.

Their freedom was endangered when they published dissident articles, but not this time with Nichane, nor with Le Journal in February 2010.One can reasonably argue that this seems to be the new strategy censors are pursuing to gag dissidents, and they deserve solidarity but only up to a point.

Journalists in Morocco put themselves in a bit of a spot: right from the start -say the early 90’s- independent journalists hammered a dangerous message on their readers; politicians are all alike, corrupt, opportunists and weak. The message was so well conveyed -and confirmed by unfortunate examples– that in a way, journalists became politicians themselves. No one can deny that Rachid Nini, Ahmed Reda Benchemsi or Jamaï senior and many others do not have their own respective agenda, whether as a reactionary, an anti-islamist or a constitutional reformer

Rachid Nini: Die Nachtrichten Führer

. Independent journalists are the new politicians in Morocco. They do however, fit admirably the cruel yet strikingly in Baldwin’s apophthegm: “Power without responsibility, the prerogative of Harlots through out the ages”.

Power because they do have considerable amount of influence (Nini as a Populist, ARB and Jamai as intellengtsia favourite writers ) but they are answerable to nobody. The other behemoth player is the Makhzen, who occasionally play them off each others, or crush them whenever it is necessary to remind them, and the public that they set up the rules and there are things not to be trifled with.

It is all good to worry about freedom of speech, but one has to keep in mind the wider picture speaks better. It is, quite simply, a storm in a weak tea-cup. Now, do we need to worry about Nichane or independent newspapers in Morocco? Frankly, who cares? the days of militant and impoverished -yet high-standards- journalism in Morocco are over (Mohamed Belhassan El ouazzani was not expecting journalism in Morocco to stoop so low in the business race); we are talking business, and in such matters, there are no good guys and bad guys, only big bucks.

I was amazed to the strength of international media coverage (old farts stick together, don’t they?) as though corporatist solidarity allows journalists to pose as victims (and they certainly are, to an extent) but not in a manner such as the ordinary citizens of  Ben Smim for instance.

37 years old Fodail Aberkane. An anonymous victim of Police brutality

The last piece was left so on purpose, because it is much more important; The first one does not affect us directly as citizens, but merely concerns an unnecessary nationalistic pride we can do without.

The second one is just a matter of money and would-be journalists. The last is about how random and hazardous it is to walk in a police station and walk out of it unharmed and more importantly, alive. I needn’t bore you with details because others have spoken quite eloquently about it. It is as though a brutal reminder was sent to all would-be dissidents that the old institutions are still there, and that at any time, one can meet his maker (and Orangina bottle down their bottom in the process) in a nasty dark little room, downstairs one’s very local police station. Suffice it to remember than, in a Morocco so full of new things and so resolute in its democratic process and open-mindedness, the murder of Fodail Aberkane remains a blot that has never been addressed.

One would certainly say: well, it just happened once, and if it was not for a life, it is no big deal. A reasoning ab absurdo would prove it to be otherwise: assuming what happened in Salé police station was merely a security cock-up, why didn’t the interior ministry suspend the policemen and launch an inquiry on the matter? Don’t they realise that what happened is a disgrace to the uniform of Moroccan police; (the satirical Young Retarded Moroccan Society published a very moving piece about it)

On that melodramatic tone, I wish you all a good week end.