You’ve already heard: The Moroccan delegation and its military contingent (for a parade) withdrew in protest when they discovered that the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD), was present at Qadhafi’s 40-year-bash. Moroccan-Libyan relations look sure to take a hit from this provocation, and official Morocco is presently up in arms demanding an apology.
But … what was the provocation, exactly? The African Union was invited, RASD is part of the African Union, Libya is chairman of the African Union, and, besides, POLISARIO officials often visit Libya for all sorts of reasons. There’s no secret about that. There was in fact every reason to expect the RASD to go to the celebrations, since they maintain longstanding ties with Libya (albeit more discreet now than in the 70s), and even receive some modest support from the Brother Leader (scholarships and such).
What’s more, Chairman Abdelaziz’s attendance was publicly announced by POLISARIO’s news agency, the SPS, already on the 30th, so the Moroccan government knew about the RASD delegation at least two days in advance. Probably even earlier, given that it is not thought to rely solely on the SPS for information on Maghrebi affairs.
And yet to Tripoli they go, Taieb Fassi Fihri & PM Abbas el-Fassi heading a major delegation. Once there, they claim to be shocked, shocked, to see Abdelaziz at the table, so they get up and exit in a hurry, order their army parade unit to pack up and leave, all the while spewing furious press statements as they go.
What really happened here?
There are two possible explanations. Either, the Moroccan government is (a) faking surprise and outrage to embarrass Libya or (b) they for some reason thought that the RASD delegation was lying about its planned attendance. (For the sake of completeness, there’s also an option (c) which supposes that Moroccan authorities do not read POLISARIO’s open-domain public relations material, but I’m going to disregard that in good faith.)
Now, (a) would seem like a really strange way of conducting foreign policy, but then again, Morocco’s diplomatic temper has been very unstable lately, so I don’t think we can rule it out. The reason could be, for example, Qadhafi’s alleged support for a referendum in Western Sahara during the preceding AU summit (in line with this, for whatever it’s worth), and his blatant public chumming with the Abdelazizes. [updated/fixed]
However, option (b) is also weakly supported: if POLISARIO was going to cancel, should there not have been some indication of that between their first announcement of attendance (Aug. 30) and the actual celebrations (Sep. 1)? There was not: the SPS kept confirming right up to the moment the Moroccans walked out.
Morocco claims to have had “assurances” that the RASD would not show, and evidently these assurances must have been so strong that they believed them over the SPS’s repeated claims to the contrary. It was in fact, writes Le Matin, “the necessary assurances on the highest level of state” which were then “not respected”. What exactly that means remains a mystery, but it’s certainly not unimaginable that Qadhafi or one of his sons could have passed along a promise, only to break it later. Libya is not known for being highly predictable.
If the Libyans broke an explicit promise, that could certainly cause a reaction like this. But how could the Moroccans not see it coming, given the traffic coming out of SPS, and the movements of Abdelaziz? He and a number of other high-level POLISARIO officials arrived in Tripoli days before them, and they must have expected him to be there, when they got on the plane to Tripoli.
I don’t pretend to have an answer here, but I’d be happy to hear yours.