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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. borsa permalink
    December 23, 2010 13:06

    polisario do not represent Saharawi’s and never did. They are simply a relic of the Cold War kept on life support by Algeria.

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