Part 1: Notes from the Western Saharan Refugee Camps

The view from the plane flying into Tindouf.

The view from the plane flying into Tindouf.

Thanks to the support of the FiSahara Film Festival and the Arab Studies Institute, I spent about a week in the Dakhla Sahrawi refugee camp, about 170 kilometers outside of Tindouf in southern Algeria. I went in my capacity as a freelance writer, graduate student, and activist. During my time there, I stayed with a Sahrawi refugee family and met a number of Sahrawi refugees, international filmmakers, journalists, and members of the Polisario and Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic government.

Going into this trip, I carried with me a series of baggages that weren’t the kind you could measure on a scale. My privilege was the biggest baggage. As a Moroccan-American, I came from two countries who have being powerful actors in the Western Saharan conflict: Morocco, the country that invaded the Western Saharan territory in 1975, and the United States, the country that largely supplies the military and financial aid that allows Morocco to sustain its (violent) presence in the territory. The other baggage I carried with me was my ignorance. Having largely been informed of the conflict through the Moroccan side, I held severe misconceptions that colored my understanding of the conflict and the Sahrawi population in general. Among these misconceptions were that mobility within the refugee camps was severely restricted, that the area surrounding the camp was a hotbed of insecurity and violence, and that my presence in the camps as a Moroccan would trigger negative responses and reactions among the Sahrawi population. I also went into this trip with the overarching anxiety about what the consequences would be for me during my next visit to Morocco and the issues my family living in Morocco would face. Without even having visited the camps, members of my family and neighbors have already been subjected to unannounced visits from Moroccan intelligence services and their incessant questions about me and my work. While I have plenty to recount about the political atmosphere, the conditions under which Sahrawis live in the refugee camps, the role of the Polisario, the socioeconomic realities Sahrawis face, and questions of women’s rights and gender, among others–which I will discuss in forthcoming articles–this post, along with future posts on this blog are meant to focus on my personal experiences. Continue reading

Morocco reacts to events in Egypt: Manipulated discord?

Here’s an excerpt from my latest on Jadaliyya, providing a general overview of the recent statements released from the Moroccan regime, spanning from the palace to high-ranking PJD officials, and what it reveals about the nature of power in Morocco:

As the situation continues to unfold in Egypt, the war of words among pundits on what to describe the ongoing events has made its way to the palace and parliament halls in Morocco. With countering press releases from the palace and the Party of Justice and Development (PJD)-led coalition government, the differing views toward the events in Egypt may appear to illustrate two equal opposing forces within the Moroccan regime. While the king’s message to interim president, Adly Mansour, was congratulatory in nature, the PJD condemned what it called a “coup d’état against a legitimate democracy” through a press release from Abdellah Baha, the Minister of State. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by PJD minister Saâdeddine El Othmani but whose former head and current royal adviser, Taib Fassi-Fihri, acts as the king’s interlocutor in high stakes diplomatic affairs, was more nuanced in its reaction. The ministry neither condemned nor applauded the events, but rather stressed the need for Egypt to “preserve its national unity.” A surface reading of these opposing press releases would suggest that the relationship between these institutions is flat rather than hierarchical. However, there is an underlying objective to push forth such an understanding, as it sustains the narrative that the monarchy is a “neutral” actor in Moroccan politics, rather than placing emphasis on the unchecked power it wields.

Continue reading here.

Erdogan’s visit in Morocco and the political implications

Put together a brief piece for Jadaliyya on the politics behind Erdogan’s reception in Morocco and how it fits into makhzen’s political landscape.

A widely mediatized and well-timed state visit can double up both as a political opportunity and as a convenient distraction. Such was the case, or as it seems, for Erdogan’s tour in the Maghreb, starting with a first stop in Morocco, followed by Algeria, and ending with Tunisia. Despite attempts at public relations spinning, the violent repression of protests in Turkey has overshadowed international media coverage of Erdogan’s state visits. In Morocco, however, domestic media is more focused on another element of Erdogan’s recent visit: the lack of a royal welcome. While Erdogan’s visit was announced weeks ahead, King Mohammed VI remained in France, where he has been on vacation since May. Instead, a powerless and increasingly isolated “Head of Government” Abdelilah Benkirane was left with the uneasy task of welcoming Erdogan during a time of heightened political intensity in both Morocco and Turkey. It was only a week before Erdogan’s visit that Moroccan police violently dispersed a peaceful protest in Rabat where members of the 20 February Movement demanded the release of political prisoners. Beyond the uncomfortably staged photo-ops and dry press releases, Erdogan’s visit to Morocco reveals the nuanced nature of state visits and their political uses.

It is useful to rewind back to the first week of April 2013. For days, both French and Moroccan media were abuzz with François Hollande’s first official visit to Morocco. Moroccan human rights activists used it as an opportunity to push for Hollande to place public pressure on the Moroccan regime to address ongoing human rights abuses, despite the passing of what was hailed as a “landmark” constitution in 2011. Instead, what unfolded was a gaudy display of the formerly colonized laying down the red carpet for the former colonizer in such a way that only reinforced the imperial hierarchy. Quite literally, red carpets were placed on every major road and roundabout Hollande was intended to visit. With Mohammed VI by his side, and the young heir prince, Hassan, tagging along as state media cameras followed and officials lined up to bow and greet, royal protocol and post-colonial subservience was on full display. While the Moroccan regime milked the visit, Hollande’s first major scandal in office dampened any hope of positive coverage abroad in France. Hollande’s former budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, was engulfed in a tax fraud scandal that took center front stage in French media. And while Hollande’s prime minister was left with the task of addressing the scandal, Hollande was fluffing the feathers of the Moroccan regime in multiple appearances on state media—including a toast during dinner with the royal family and Benkirane, a speech in parliament, and a press conference in Casablanca’s Lycée Lyautey.

Continue reading…