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Morocco vs. Aminatou

December 8, 2009

A hunger strike in Lanzarote is turning into a serious crisis in and between Spain and Morocco. Center stage is occupied by Western Saharan human rights leader and pro-independence activist Aminatou Haidar. This former prisoner-of-conscience, “desaparecido”, and mother of two, has been a major name in Sahrawi politics since May 2005, when a picture of her smashed into a pulp by Moroccan police officers went viral, as the kids say, among Sahrawi activists. The photo of her in her blood-drenched melhfa became, for them, the first iconic image of the Sahrawi independence struggle, waved as both memento of Moroccan cruelty and as a stand-in for the banned flag. To add insult to injury, she was jailed after the abuse, but eventually released after heavy foreign pressure. Displaying a rather remarkable steel in her  spine — whatever you think of her politics, there’s no doubting her courage — she’s been charging in a one-woman full frontal assault ever since, campaigning publicly and frequently meeting foreign politicians and the press, in what seems to be a deliberate gamble to raise her profile and make her untouchable. So far, it’s been working all right. She’s been monitored, harassed, made unemployable and had her family placed under perpetual pressure, but the government hasn’t really had the stomach to touch her personally again since HRW and Amnesty aimed their spotlights at her; remember that Morocco’s overarching strategy is to keep the Saharan front as quiet as possible.

Bruised, not beaten: the photo of Aminatou before her arrest in 2005

Now, however, a harsher note has been sounded in Moroccan policy against the independence movement, with King Mohamed VI’s speech recently, where he declared that you are “either a patriot or a traitor”. Clearly, the velvet gloves, if such there were, are off: seven leading activists are being hauled off to a military court, and a number of other arrests have been made.

In the case of Aminatou Haidar, she was supposed to return from the United States, where she had received the Robert F. Kennedy Award John Train Civil Courage Prize for her human rights work, but was held up at el-Aaiun airport, after having signed “Western Sahara” as her country of residence — not “Morocco”. (She claims to have done this routinely in the past, without problems.)

This is, of course, strictly speaking true: she lives in el-Aaiun, which is internationally recognized as being in Western Sahara, not Morocco proper, and where there’s even a UN mission deployed to determine final sovereignty. The Moroccan government, however, sees things otherwise. She was stripped of her Moroccan passport (which she had held from birth, having been born in a Sahrawi area of southern Morocco rather than Western Sahara), and forcibly put on a plane to Spain. According to the Moroccan authorities, she herself signed a document saying that she is no longer a Moroccan citizen and threw away her passport to effectively make herself stateless; she denies this. The truth is impossible for an outsider to tell, but one might note that the authorities haven’t in fact been able to produce this much-talked-about document. (Also, Spanish papers claim that Morocco had booked her return flight long before she arrived to the airport, which would mean that the expulsion was planned beforehand, and the travel paper formality was simply an excuse.)

A few days after being expelled, Aminatou began a hunger strike in Lanzarote airport, refusing to move; when they threw her out overnight, she huddled up under blankets in the airport parking. She says she will not go to Spain, or any third country, but is determined to return to her home, dead or alive. The latter is of course impossible as long as the Moroccans refuse to let her in, alive, which they now do saying she hasn’t got valid travel documents (…since they took them from her). The Moroccan press, having gone into one of its Sahara-induced fits of spittle-and-foam wingnuttery, is saying a lot of other things as well — most of it some spikily worded variation on the theme of her being an ungrateful daughter of Morocco and/or a hostile Algerian agent, and oh, oh the irony that she’s demanding her Moroccan passport back. (Which is of course true, in a way, but it’s not as if she’s got a choice; not even POLISARIO wants Sahrawis in Western Sahara to burn their passports, since that would only leave them politically crippled.)

Released from prison in 2006

Released from prison, 2006

Spain is terribly discomfited by the whole affair. The Western Sahara solidarity movement (which is uniquely strong in Spain, post-colonial guilt and all) has mobilized like crazy around the issue, and the Socialist government is facing a barrage of fire from right and left on behalf of Aminatou. Should she die in the airport, as medical staff in the solidarity campaign claim she may do very soon, it would not only be hideous stain on the country’s image — and self-image — but also a really nasty domestic scandal. The government has tried to give her refugee status or even Spanish citizenship, having presumably secured a promise from Morocco to let her back on a tourist visa or something similar, but Aminatou remains intransigent: she’s not having any of that, she’s having her identity papers back and thank you very much. For a while, Spain apparently thought they had a deal — or possibly Zapatero tried to chicken-race King Mohamed — but a plane sent out to bring Aminatou back was forced to turn by the Moroccans.Adding to the pressure is the rapidly growing international attention, with continual updates from the major news agencies and criticism of both Spain and Morocco from Amnesty, HRW and similar groups, all driven by a sense of urgency and fear that Aminatou really is determined to go all the way and starve herself to death. There’s no doubting that official Spain shivers at the prospect:

The extraordinary power of Aminatou to shame her hosts, whom she has accused of connivance with Morocco in failing to defend her rights and helping to have her sent home, led a Foreign Ministry representative to tell her in the hall of Lanzarote airport that the Spanish authorities did not actually recognize the 1975 Madrid Accords, which saw her territory carved up without any consultation with the local people.

Of course, Morocco isn’t really interested in her dying there either. Sure, the government would like nothing more for her than to quietly pass away, but not while she’s in the media spotlight. There’s also the problem that the longer the affair drags on, and certainly if she should die, Spanish-Moroccan relations (which are quite crucial to Rabat, perhaps less so to Madrid) may take a serious hit, given how unpopular Zapatero’s conciliatory strategy towards Rabat is already in much of his political base. But a humiliating climbdown would really irk the Rabat government, having loaded the issue with so much prestige. Also, there’s the fear in Morocco that caving to Aminatou’s demands could set a precedent: that Sahrawis, or at least their diehard core of independence activists, can write whatever the hell they like on entry forms; or that, if Morocco allows the UN to help her back, or there is some other special arrangement, this could potentially be construed as a chip off of Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory. Both things of course anathema to the government, and to the oolitical elite and the press — although the latter been known to bark on command, and be shut up as easily, when it comes to the Sahara.

All in all, a tough stalemate to break. Spain is working fervently to find a solution — any solution — but Morocco hasn’t budged, and neither has Aminatou, although there are increasing pleas for her to at least break off her hunger strike. The question, now, in this battle of wills between the government of Morocco and a lady in an airport parking, seems to be who will flinch first.

48 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2009 21:38

    At least Alle has some rational and GROUNDED comments.

  2. Mohamed B. permalink
    December 10, 2009 18:43

    In an interview with the International Satellite Television station, France 24, Moroccan Foreign Minister Mr. Fassi Fihri spoke, among others things, about the case of Aminatou Haidar, who was deported following her relinquishment of the Moroccan nationality.
    “We already know that the job she has been doing does not fall under the positive and noble umbrella of human rights, but it was a part of a political agenda set outside Morocco,” said Mr Fihri. Ms. Haidar has put herself in this situation to draw attention. She has renounced her nationality by handing over her passport.
    “This woman gave up her nationality and must take responsibility for this. She is free to go wherever she wants, and since she is a polisario member, she can join her partners who are besieging people in the Algerian territory where there is neither census, nor access for people” he said. ….. watch video

    Mr. Fihri has also wondered about the timing chosen by Ms. Haidar and her backers for this stunt. “The question asked is why has she chosen this moment, while we have been busy discussing a new round of negotiations within the framework of the United Nations, to turn up with Spanish journalists and announce, for the first time, that she is not Moroccan?”
    Fassi Fihri said that Ms. Haidar took advantage of the Moroccan nationality for decades. She was a civil servant at the Equity and Reconciliation Commission from which she benefited. She has received received a compensation of 48,000 euros from the commission, when she applied as a moroccan Victim
    ” She is responsible for this situation and she went back to the Canary Islands where she came from , that is in accordance with the law and the regulations of transport international organizations”, he added.

    • Ahmed permalink
      December 15, 2009 21:44

      Interesting, what you said is only the opinion of “Moroccan Foreign Minister Mr. Fassi Fihri” how about yours? do you have any? or are you taught only to repeat?

  3. December 13, 2009 22:33

    There is a very simple response to VKaas’ stupidity, I use that advisedly.

    A state actor is generally taken to mean an actor with clear and independent control of territory, with an ability to raise financing off of that control, and generally speaking a fairly wide ranging recognition of said control by important and relevant international actors.

    To take an another example, Somaliland – an aspiring state (although without ‘engaged’ Scandivanians to support it) has effective control of its aspiration state territory, has an organised territorial authority (defence, etc). Yet it is not recognised as a State (although it has substantial sympathy). I personally am highly sympathetic to Somaliland (in particular as the ‘core state’ is a clear failure). At the same time I would not be so stupid as to pretend that they are are State – althought re Polisario / SADR they exercise rather more real and effective state control.

    Polisario /SADR is not a “state actor” by any rational and objective analysis. It aspires to so be, but it is not. That is not a comment on the legitimacy (or not, or even the practicality) of their position. Rather, it is simply an objective analysis. Polisario remains a client entity without even the real effective control exercised by Somaliland over its ACTUALLY controlled territory. Assertions to the contrary are simply partisan whanking.

    Polisario is NOT a state actor relative to any structural analysis. That is equally NOT a comment on Polisario’s aspirations or a legitimacy relative to the established Moroccan state.

    However, it is a comment on the rather weak position of Polisario that such trivialities frankly laughable assertions on the part of activists (rather than recognising that Polisario is not a state actor [hint the recognition game played by both sides is useless post Cold War], but is asserting rights is a actionable route.

    A vous a joueur, mais je vous conseille, soyez plus subtiles et intelligentes que l’etat marocain, ceci n’est par un grand defi quand meme.

    • December 14, 2009 00:00

      Polisario is not a state, that’s right. It is an armed liberation front. RASD is a state. Of course the situation is a bit strange for part of the territory of WS is occupied by Morocco and RASD keeps it headquarters in a refugee camp in Algeria. To add to the confusion some Polisario controlled area is in fact Mauretanian. This is not normal but not exceptional for states at war. Many liberation processes show this kind of territorial anomalies, including Morocco’s own. However RASD is a state. It is true it is not fully functional, not a member of the UN, not recognized by the EU, and deprived of income for the natural resources are stolen by a Moroccan clique. But Polisario has arms and under international law has the right to use them.

      • December 15, 2009 17:50

        Frankly I can’t tell if you’re stupid or just blindly partisan.

        A state actor is an entity that controls a significant territory. PERIOD. RASD is not an actual state. It is Polisario’s aspirational state. Ex-Algerian support, they would be nothing more than bandits. This is not a comment on legitimacy, it is the fact of material control.

        In the same fashion the Southern Sudanese setting up a shadow government against the Northern were not a state actor – they aspired but did not have effective control of territory, thus they in fact acted as a non-state actor.

        Your idiotic blithering on about “territorial anolomies” is simply hand-waving to avoid admission that Polisario / RASD is a non state actor. The same as the entirely analytically empty hand waving about it not having any attributes of a genuine state because a “clique…” (rather pitiful rhetoric that) is “depriving” them of that.

  4. December 15, 2009 23:12

    Van Kaas & The Lounsbury — I don’t know about before the war, but there is no resident population of any serious size at either Tifariti or Bir Lehlou nowadays. They’re military bases/nomad encampments, perhaps with some trade going on from time to time, except for when POLISARIO throws a festival of some sort. They’re about to change that now, with the POLISARIO’s project to establish permanent civilian housing in Tifariti, but until that happens, I’d say it’s first and foremost a military camp.

    As for whether RASD is a state or not, I think in common parlance it is not, since it lacks UN recognition and doesn’t hold any useful chunks of its claimed territory. It is, as The Lounsbury says, an aspiring state, diplomatically akin to Kosovo or Abkhazia or others in that group. Kosovo has about the same number of formal state recognitions, Abkhazia has considerably fewer (last I checked, three); neither fully controls its territory, although both do so more than RASD; and both are to varying extent propped up foreign powers.

    Whether it’s “objectively” a state … well, there is no objective definition of the term. If you ask the United States, Kosovo is a state but RASD is not. If you ask South Africa, RASD is a state but Kosovo is not. Iraqi Kurdistan is for all extents and purposes self-ruling, but it doesn’t even claim to be a state; Taiwan controls its own territory and is treated as an independent state by the whole world, except for diplomatic recognition, but also makes a politically absurd claim to be the government of mainland China, thereby reducing its own status to that of an exile government… So what’s in a word? I don’t see why RASD necessarily should fit a simple dichotomy like “state/not state” at all, when the situation is so muddled and it so clearly depends on what you mean and who you’re asking.

    Personally, I think government in exile is the most useful term, although RASD authorities do in fact exercise state-ish authority in Tindouf and over some areas of WS, so it’s not a perfect fit either.

    • December 16, 2009 01:27


      A reasonable resume. I point to the Sri Lankan Tamil example where one had an “aspiring state” that controlled territory, had some limited support / recognition (from time to time), had the precious arms that idiot boy finds so dear as an armchair warrior activist, and in fact exercised rather more attributes of independent statehood than Polisario (RASD) ever has.

      No neutral observer of any weight called it a state. It was and remained a non-state actor by all practical bases.

      Now as for objective: let’s be fucking serious here. You are objectively a state when the Big Boys say you are a state. If you have an off-hand “recognition” from countries with (i) no direct stake, (ii) no serious power influence in the region [and South Africa is not a serious influence in North Africa], (iii) limited to no serious weight in international fora, you’re not a state. You are an aspirational movement with a middling to decent basis for lobbying and working to become a state. That’s painful reality. When one or more of the Big Boys in OECD seriously plumps for recognition of a RASD or whatever entity, and you have enough weight to start to contract binding international agreements (not worthless hot air UN posturing), then you are a state.

      Hell, Somaliland (ex British Somaliland) has effectively broken away from Somalia and operates almost an a real state, with again far more state attributes than Polisario has ever achieved. It is not, however, as state. It has no serious recognition, can’t go to international fora or private fora to raise debt, contract enforceable deals, etc.

      Idiot boy is playing the photo negative of the idiocy of Moroccan activists. I have nothing but contempt for both sets of drooling morons with their special pleading and emotional ranting.

      • December 16, 2009 15:06

        Yes Morocco has control over 80% of the territory, yes the support of the top dogs is important for either side to consolidate their strategies in the territory, yes the UN is less that the sum of its parts and yes the big 5 do call the shots. But no, non-state actors do matter today, more than at any other time in the past and the UNPRECEDENTED support that Haidar has received has short and long term ramifications on the conflict. Ask the Moroccan diplomats in DC and they’ll tell you about the angry calls and letters they are receiving from senior Congressmen and Senators. They’ll tell you about Clinton’s great reluctance on the topic and the imminence of some major announcement on the subject. As a matter of fact, two days ago, Hillary and Moratinos spoke at Georgetown University. You should have seen her face when she was asked about Haidar (a question she diplomatically avoided). Moratinos on the other said literally that he believed in the righteousness of Haidar’s cause… Also, yesterday, a delegation of Moroccan parliamentarians (among which was El Himma), human rights activists (OMDH) and royal advisers (notably Andre Azoulay) paid a visit to the US capital to lobby Think Tanks, Human rights organizations, and the State Department and the White House respectively… and yes, this is directly attributed to Haidar’s action… the permanent members do call the shots, but they do have constituencies and institutions which they listen to…The sad thing is that this could have been compensated for had Morocco’s strategic value not decreased considerably over the course of the last 5 years (to use Lounsbury’s realism).


        • larrydunbar permalink
          December 16, 2009 20:24

          “The sad thing is that this could have been compensated for had Morocco’s strategic value not decreased considerably over the course of the last 5 years (to use Lounsbury’s realism).


          Well said, but not much “peace” in the forcast if this strategic value continues to decline. As Lounsbury said, “You are objectively a state when the Big Boys say you are a state.”

        • December 17, 2009 10:05

          First, I never said non-state actors do not matter. I have simply criticized the foolish pretention that a non-state actor is a state actor.

          As for Aminatou and support, frankly I don’t see it outside of the partisans on either side. So far I do not see a sign that the people already hot about the topic give a fuck.

          ” Ask the Moroccan diplomats in DC and they’ll tell you about the angry calls and letters they are receiving from senior Congressmen and Senators. They’ll tell you about Clinton’s great reluctance on the topic and the imminence of some major announcement on the subject. As a matter of fact, two days ago, Hillary and Moratinos spoke at Georgetown University. You should have seen her face when she was asked about Haidar (a question she diplomatically avoided).”

          Eh. I don’t see it. Outside of the activist circles.

          Maybe it will snowball, but I heard the same overheated rhetoric in 2005. It’s aspirational posturing in my view.

          • December 17, 2009 15:28


            Almassae reporting on the Clinton-Moratinos encounter. The title is misleading but the content is surprisingly accurate. The funny thing is that the journalist claims to have received this info from a highly informed source when he’s basically reporting literally what Clinton and Moratinos said in the Georgetown conference I attended…

            Anyway, I have been following the conflict for several years in Washington and I can say with some authority that Haidar -as a woman using a nonviolent method to advance a cause that is very defensible from a legal perspective- has received much more attention and support than the 2005 events. Snowball effects for sure…


          • Laroussi permalink
            December 17, 2009 18:09

            “First, I never said non-state actors do not matter.”

            Not in those words you didn’t. However you were slightly more expressive when you spoke of the unimportance of NGO activists and “unprecedented international solidarity with Haidar and the Sahrawi cause”. 😀

            “Mate, “unprecedented solidarity”

            That’s bloody whanking.

            Here, news to the Activists.


            Personally I do not think that the last month’s events will change much in the short run, but in a longer perspective it might well do.

            If nothing else, Haidar’s hunger strike has put the Western Sahara conflict on the international political agenda again pointing a finger at Morocco and the fact that Western Sahara still is under occupation and that the Moroccan rule in the territory is far from peaceful.

            “Something is rotten in the state of Morocco…” 😉

            As I pointed out in my earlier comment, politicians in somewhat more democratic countries than Morocco are very sensitive to public opinion.

            One woman has made Morocco shake. That’s more than you and I and everybody else here have done in our lifetimes.

      • December 17, 2009 19:31

        Ok let’s do one more Lounsbury. Now as for objective: let’s be fucking serious here. You are objectively a state when the Big Boys say you are a state. Now size is relative to environment is it not? In the Maghreb we count as big boyz: Algeria, Libya and Morocco. Small guys are Tunisia, Mauretania and, often overlooked, RASD.
        Most of those guyz have diplomatic relations with each other. Except for funny Morocco of course for they suffer from borderline syndrome.

        • larrydunbar permalink
          December 17, 2009 20:36

          “Now size is relative to environment is it not? ”

          No, I think it is relative to the resources a nation-state or perhaps a non-nation state entity may have. This includes human as well as natural resources.

          Resources determine how much power a body may exert against its neighbor’s area, which is the environment, and not the size of the displacement of the Boys, which is relative to power.

          Resources have an element of time (they have a value, place and time) while area is just a linear measurement of space, and no time (or perhaps it would be better to think of time as endless, still not relevant to the size of country).

        • December 17, 2009 21:50

          van kaas,

          Size doesn’t really matter in this case… by Big Boys it is really meant the 5 permanent members and some of the rising powers such as India and Brazil. Your analysis doesn’t really make any sense…


          • December 18, 2009 20:29

            Well… is it not about big boys or small boys in the first place. But if you insist.. in the environment of the UN you are right. In another environment, the Maghreb for instance, the situation is different. When considering positions in Africa, we also have another game.

            Anyway. Even the big boys can’t get all they want. So even when they ‘admit’ Morocco has legal powers in Western Sahara, as a de-facto administrative power, they are not right as big as they are. Or maybe I should put it friendlier: they are partly wrong. For Morocco does not have administrative power over the whole of Western Sahara. Tifariti .. remember?

  5. December 16, 2009 22:35

    US State Department Rebukes Spain on Western Sahara Separatist Haidar

    In a rebuke to Spain’s attempts to further internationalize the case of the Western Sahara Polisario activist Aminatou Haidar, the United State Secretary of State Hilary Clinton deliberately avoided to address the situation in the Canary Islands during her conference with Spain’s foreign Minister in Washington. Mr. Miguel Angel Moratinos, who is in visit to the United States, was hoping to get the US government involved adding more pressure on the Moroccan government to take back the Sahrawi Separatist on hunger strike in the Canary Island.
    Washington’s position of impartiality boosts Morocco’s stance refusing the return of Haidar. The United States considers the case a matter of internal politics in Morocco. Haidar who renounced her Moroccan citizenship forfeited her rights to return to Morocco under the current circumstances.

    • larrydunbar permalink
      December 17, 2009 18:32

      “…the United State Secretary of State Hilary Clinton deliberately avoided to address the situation in the Canary Islands during her conference with Spain’s foreign Minister in Washington.”

      I can see how you might misinterpret our Secretary of State’s views on the matter of Spain and Morocco. Our political people don’t speak the truth in public, but do behind closed doors. Lounsbury said this situation is reversed in the Middle East.

      It is just easier for us simple people to tell when they are lying, their lips are moving.

    • December 17, 2009 20:19

      Sure. Moratinos and Clinton spoke about Haidar. At the press conference afterwards Moratinos said: So yes, the Secretary of State and I did speak about the issue. We did speak about Mrs. Haidar’s situation concretely, as well as the problem overall in Western Sahara. And obviously, as two allies and two partners with interests in the regions, we must collaborate, we must cooperate, and we need to find a solution to the Haidar case, not through pressure of any kind that we’re applying, but by suggesting to her that her cause, which is a legitimate cause, does not require her to go on a hunger strike.

      And we will continue, as I said, to work with the – also work toward an understanding with the Polisario Front so that the people of Western Sahara can have self-determination.

  6. ElCid permalink
    December 20, 2009 01:37

    Hello all ,

    Marocco was also occupied by France until it’s independance and so will the Western Sahara .. Did any makhzen mouth understand exile?

    Maybe if they look at their own history ,they can finally get the light that will lead out of the W.Sahara …Kind of like the march of light .redeeming themselves from the thievery of the land that in no way is maroccan ..funny to me they never showed any entreprising courage when the spaniard where there and even going to the extent of splitting the territory with Mauritania ..Sshould that alone be clear that they took the W. Sahara for a pie to be divided?
    They are a good example to the colonialist ideals of their mother country France ..At one time Chirac said he is taking MO VI under his wing ..Now Sarkozy give him direct orders ..Do us Amazigh a favor ..lift your pants up and get out of what doesn’t belong to you is Suna ..unless you changed Religion also … Doing the cross sign yet?


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