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CORCAS core cracks?

May 13, 2009

In the last couple of weeks, infighting within the palace-friendly elite in Morocco’s majority slice of Western Sahara seems to have reached boiling point. At the heart of it lies the continual squabbling within CORCAS, which, as you know, is short for the Royal Consultative Council for Saharan Affairs, but it seems mainly to serve as cover for a set of political, financial and personal rivalries which run all the way into the Moroccan regime elite, the makhzen.

CORCAS, you may recall, was (re-)established in 2006 to provide a reliably controllable voice for pro-Moroccan Sahrawis in the state’s campaign to promote autonomy as an alternative to a referendum. “Here,” the palace would say, “is the legitimate voice of the Sahrawis — it’s not the separatists.” Pretty good idea, if not always a convincing act, given how transparently obvious it is that the group is run on remote control from Rabat. (POLISARIO, which has its own embarrassing credibility issues with regards to its ties to the Algerian deep state, seems like a jolly band of maverick independents in comparison.)

Most problematic, however, is that they are a quarrelsome bunch, this motley of tribal sheikhs, businessmen, go-betweens, POLISARIO defectors, and makhzen clients. It worked for a while, just paying them a fat salary to toe the line, but in the past year or two, rivalries within CORCAS has rendered the group nearly inoperable, with constant bickering and large parts of the membership sometimes boycotting sessions. Far be it from me to claim any deeper insights into Saharo-makhzenite clan politics, but at the core of it all seems to be the hostile relations between CORCAS chairman Khellihenna ould el-Rachid and his brother Hamdi, on the one hand, and the group gathered around another southern strongman, Hassan Derham, on the other.

Khellihenna ould el-Rachid

Khellihenna ould el-Rachid

Khellihenna is a native to the territory, and a veteran politician. He started out as chairman of the PUNS, a Spanish marionette organization which demanded “privileged ties” with Franco’s Madrid; later moved towards demanding independence when that seemed to be the winning bet; only to end up by discovering the Sahara’s eternal Moroccanity in 1975, as the Kingdom’s troops began pulling up on the border. Ever since, he’s been the most well-known Sahrawi face for Moroccan rule, although his fortunes temporarily dipped with the loss of support from regime pillar Driss Basri, who was cast out of power when Mohammed VI took the throne. He then returned in grand style in 2006, as M6’s anointed chairman of the CORCAS, and has since been back in business. In business, incidentally, is also his brother Hamdi, who aside from politics (multiple stints in parliament) acts as the family cashier, and whose privileged ties to the country’s political and military elite has allegedly made him the richest man in the Sahara.

Hassan Derham

Hassan Derham

The other gentleman involved, Hassan Derham, is also a politician-businessman, and also firmly implanted in Morocco’s Saharan patronage and clientèle system* However, he is not himself Sahrawi, but rather of the Aït Ba Amran, a south-Moroccan Berber tribe (with their own grievances against the state). Unlike the el-Rachid brothers, who are aligned with the Moroccan Istiqlal party, Derham now works with its rival leftist offshoot, the USFP, having previously been involved with pro-palace parties MP and RNI. Given the way their respective party affiliates faced off in the 2007 parliamentary elections, it’s obvious there’s little love between them.

It now seems that Derham’s supporters have withdrawn from some CORCAS sessions of late, joining protests against Khellihenna’s impopular and autocratic style of management and his refusal to inform council members of what’s going on (in reality, it may be that he isn’t himself very well informed, since decisions are taken not in CORCAS meetings, but in Rabat; CORCAS serves to provide media and local Big Man endorsement). I wouldn’t be too surprised if it transpires that Khellihenna’s comments about Moroccan mass killings of Sahrawis in 1975, which were published to his great embarrassment and presumably to no help in relations with the government, were also strategically leaked in this context. But what do I know.

The most recent development is that local USFP politicians have complained to Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa about how some El Aaiún land lots were granted by the municipality to private individuals — in effect, they’re saying that state resources were used for a vote buying scam (which, given the way the Moroccan part of the Sahara is run, appears plausible to the point of goddamn obvious). Hamdi ould el-Rachid is apparently the one targeted, and he promptly shot back through Istiqlal papers with accusations of corruption in the local USFP (meaning Derham’s men). However, it seems the Ministry has decided to start an investigation of the matter. If so, that’s bad news for the el-Rachid brothers, since regime corruption in the Sahara is not something a minor clerk will decide to start digging in on his own — he’d be digging his own grave, more likely. If the courts and the government follow through with this affair, it must presumably mean that Derham has some serious backers for a push to clip the wings of Hamdi and Khellihenna, whose star has for some time been fading again.

At least that’s my guess. To add a note of caution, all of the above is my own interpretation of what I’ve gleaned through the press, not necessarily as accurate and detailed as I’d like, and I’m sure there are all kinds of nuances to add. Obviously, neither CORCAS nor other Saharan politics can or should be reduced to a rivalry between two clear-cut teams, given the vast complexities of tribal and other politics in these areas, and that’s not the impression I want to give either. So, you’re all most welcome to chime in with both comments and corrections.

Mohamed Abdelaziz

Mohamed Abdelaziz

Finally, a couple of closing thoughts:

  • Where is POLISARIO in all this? I’m sure they’re doing their very best to fan the flames of discontent, but it seems unlikely they could even hope to rally the losers in this battle, given the extraordinarily strong ties of both factions to Morocco. So maybe Chairman Abdelaziz will just sit back with a bowl of popcorn to watch how the game plays out, casually giving the rumor mill an occasional spin to keep things going?
  • And do the Saharan elite scuffles have any relation to the election of another influential pro-palace Sahrawi, Sheikh Biadillah, as leader of the PAM, Morocco’s soon-to-be dominant political party, run behind the scenes by royal confidant Fouad Ali el-Himma? It’s sure to affect the center of gravity in Moroccan Sahrawi politics, wherever that actually lies.

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*) Curiously, he was accused a few years back of double-dealing with Sahrawi nationalists, allegedly having links to a Mauritanian businessman involved with something concerning the POLISARIO oil sales campaign. But since nothing ever came of it, I assume it might have been just political slander, although these kinds of ties across the Berm are probably a lot more common than either side would want to acknowledge.

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