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.

Media Strategy: We’ve Got It Wrong

Much as I would like to comment on the spiral of violence in the Sahara, I have to confess my equal distaste for siding either the Polisario or Makhzenian side. It would have felt like derogating to a credo I fancy: never mix history and media coverage.
Unless someone can claim to be an ubiquitous, omniscient, unbiased and flawless journalist roaming free and loose in the desert taking shots and recording interviews, no one can claim a fair report on the events of violence in Laayoune and other parts of the Sahara (not even the worldwide press agencies). At the present time, trying to make sense out of the Schmilblink is useless, if not the aim of deliberate propaganda, a typical “Them & Us” situation. Better wait and see. The bovine-minded would tease the doubtful for a perceived lack of patriotism, but the sensible way is to observe; the rest is idle chat.

Instead, I would reach upon a much reasonable subject: both sides fielded various sets of media and communication strategy, which would ultimately give the upper hand to either side prior to the expected negotiations on the Sahara issue. On the record, I assume Morocco has a strategy, because from where I see things, it looks bloody amateur to say the least. the Polisario, on the other hand, when they do not put their efficacious propaganda machine into action, benefit almost naturally from sympathetic reports from mainstream media. As far as I am concerned, in media terms, Morocco wiped out the sympathy it got from the Ould Salma case, and finds itself back in the script as the super-villain, close to the low ebb of November 2009, when Aminatou Haidar was expelled.

Clouds and Ashes over Laayoune (Demotix Picture)

Could it get any worse? Very easily so. Could things get better? Difficult, but feasible if our officials get their heads together and start changing their current strategy, or if they had no prior strategy, to come up with one that would rebuild Morocco’s damaged image. Otherwise, that’s incredible leverage to the Polisario in the upcoming UN-backed negotiation talks.

Media strategy in both sides differ wildly in style: in an age of instant information and shrinking margins for cover-ups, the Moroccan response communication strategy is, and one is economical with the terms, weak, and its efficiency highly questionable: deporting journalists and even members of  foreign parliaments does not help. Official web channels, the MAP for instance, have a very weird way in putting Morocco’s case. In facts it is targeting Moroccan audience. Never mind the foreigners, that’s the Moroccans we’ve got to focus on. On the foreign front, the communication strategy the Moroccan officials seem to follow can be reasonably summed up as follows: ideally, it would be enough to convince the 5 permanent members of the Security Council and around 10-11 non permanent members to back -or at least to abstain- a resolution recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty or its autonomy-based proposal, and as the old sayings goes: “جمع و طوي“. A state can claim sovereignty over a defined territory precisely because other sovereign states recognize the fact. Biafra did not make it because it lacked the proper support of sovereign powers, though it was never short of media and NGOs support. That’s the way our officials’ minds could be moving to.  Large sums of money are spent buying off friends in France, Spain, the US, etc… and paying off lobby agencies to market our side of the story to the high spheres of world leaders. Little is spent on media strategy. The idea seems to be that if the governments are ok with it, their mainstream media will follow suit. In short, there is only one media strategy, and that is to devote time and resources to stifle internal dissent. One tries very hard to notice differences in the way the 8 o’clock evening news briefings on the Saharan troubles of the past week differ from those of the early 1980’s. Save for stylistic differences, the message remains the same. For instance, there were casualties among the security forces; This is likely to trigger quite sympathetic comments from Moroccans readers, but to others, they are merely casualties like others. When a 14 years boy was shot around the protest camp, the same readers worldwide would almost instantly feel more upset about him then about the Moroccan policemen and paramilitary. That’s the way it goes down with the media. Experienced government with press officers and media PR professionals find it hard to deal with. Our authorities are definitely not up to scratch with that business.  Communications with the outside world are, at best, defensive and greet foreign observers with deliberate hostility.

On the other hand, the Polisario leads a guerilla-style propaganda. Their media strategy is definitely outward-looking. In short their Press agency does not differ much from ours. But they do not depend on it to rely their side of the story: much of the mainstream media reported their figures instead of the Morocco claims. The protesters at Agdayme Izik were protesting because of their economic difficulties (as the BBC noted) At the moment the media report the fact accurately, but it is at the same time, casting doubts on our officials’ tolerance for dissidence: “[…]But while the demands are social, the scale of the protest — the people in the tent camp represent a sizeable chunk of Western Sahara’s native population — is testing the Moroccan government’s tolerance for dissent, and its nerve.” In any case, the fact the common Moroccan citizen does not care whether the rest of the world believe Morocco is controlling by force a non-autonomous territory (a j’y suis j’y reste sort of state of mind is irrelevant. To readers  and viewers of well-known newspapers, media networks and TV channels, the Western Sahara will look like East Timor and Indonesia. Right now all the niceties about how complex the conflict is, as well as the criticism of the occult intertwined interest in this dispute dragging on for more than 50 years (trace it back to Mauritania’s independence, that is much more accurate) just flew out of the windows for the most vicious, partisan and nationalistic invectives from one side to the other. Algerian and Spanish media -in their majority- back the Polisario because they have special relationship with them. Morocco relies on friendly foreign countries to mop up the mess and stand by them. To the Polisario long-term media strategy of friendly media and reliable channels to echo their speech, our officials adopt short-sighted and short-term tactics that do worse than anything to our claim. Instead, they devote incredible resources to convince the Moroccan people -that are already obedient and compliant to the official line- that indeed, the acts of violence in Laayoune and elsewhere are a trifle. Some marginals and petty criminals that have gone rogue.

In media spin terms, Morocco fights the communications war just as badly as they did during the desert war of 1976-1991. Little training and absolutely no efficient contingent plan to parry enemy influence. On the media front, Morocco is as defensive as isolated as it has been during the 1980’s. And in facts, the way our communications are channelled did not change much before the cold war. These very strategies fail to capture the tremendous impact alternative media have on people’s mind. And whether we like it or not, the countries our officials are counting on to buttress our claim are democractic, and their elected leaders have to be accountable to their electorate. If these become convinced Morocco are the baddies, the friendship between our two countries won’t matter much…

So what? Do we have to stand idle and let them lead us to disaster? Can’t we devise some alternative diplomacy on the subject? Some did. or rather did try, and they were quite sloppy with it, leading to comparative results. The first thing to do, policy-wise, is to be open about it.The chaps at the interior ministry and the royal cabinet should overcome their fear and be open about things. Get an international panel of journalists from international newspapers, representative from foreign countries, NGO activists, UN representatives. Walk them through the scene of violence. At the age of instant information, damage control would be to accept international scrutiny. Second, be credible. It is obvious that standards of living and, to certain extent, civil liberties are better off from our side of the defensive wall. Be bold, media-savyy. It might be all spin, but in people’s mind -outside Morocco, it will look like an honest country trying to be democratic and open-minded, but that’s just the lousy separatists that want to to blow it off. It started to take off with Ould Salma, but now it is gone; I am getting all Malcom Tucker right now, but this spin stuff should not elude us from the core question: institutional reforms. response was weak and disorganised because of the cast-like bureaucratic hierarchy. What we call in Morocco: “التعليمات”. Instructions. The officials, especially at the interior ministry, cannot take a single decision without referring to their superiors. It goes very high all the way up, paralysing thus the local and central administration in case of emergency. And when initiatives are taken, they are sloppy too because no one will turn up and ask questions. For the Moroccan claim to be solid granite, basic democratic mechanisms have to be introduced in the actual spheres of power. If Morocco talks the talk of democracy and civil liberties, it should walk the walk of institutional and constitutional reforms too. I try to voice up the nihilist inside me shouting and screaming in anger, not because I am being glad my country is entangled in a difficult position because of staff incompetence, but because in the long run, some of the choices that were made in marketing our claim might turn out to be wrong, much to our disadvantage.

Finally, Morocco has to be reconciled with its history in this region. As soon as it captures the media initiative, it should dug into core issues, concrete stuff: admit past errors for one. This is all long term work that requires media knowledge and handling our officials direly need.