Going beyond dominant narratives on the Western Saharan conflict

Screen Shot 2013-06-02 at 2.01.27 PMI’ve had a super busy month or so, but a good super busy, which explains the lack of new posts. I just got back from Beirut after covering the Asfari Institute’s inaugural conference at AUB (was my first time in Lebanon!) Some really great stuff. If you’re interested in catching the highlights of the conference, check out the report here.

Additionally, I’ve been working on an electronic roundtable for Jadaliyya about the Western Saharan conflict that is finally up. We ended up producing a superb roundtable featuring brilliant contributions from across the field.

The whole purpose of the roundtable was to go beyond the dominant narratives that have essentially monopolized literature, knowledge production, and media coverage on the conflict. It also serves as a great primer for those who are otherwise uninformed of the conflict’s history, dynamics, and context. The contributions include:

Do check it out and feel free to send along feedback. I’ve posted an excerpt of the roundtable introduction below:

In the past few decades, both media and academic scholarship have marginalized the Western Saharan conflict, rendering it largely insignificant within regional and global political imaginations. Beginning as a post-colonial dispute between regional powers in the 1970s, the conflict developed and was exacerbated as North Africa became an entangled site of Cold War rivalries. Following the 1975 Madrid Accords, in which Spain conceded on its promises to the Sahrawi people on honoring their right to self-determination through a referendum, Spain instead split the territory between Mauritania and Morocco. By then, the Polisario Front had grown as an armed struggle group, fighting for an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, first against Spanish colonization, then against Mauritanian and Moroccan military forces. By 1979, Mauritanian forces withdrew from the territory, leaving the conflict between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan military, which lasts up until today. After decades of violence, tens of thousands of deaths and even more refugees, the territorial dispute over the Western Sahara remains unresolved. It also remains underreported, despite the serious escalation in violence since 2010, with the Polisario Front more intent than ever to establish an independent state. Given political developments both in the Maghreb and the Sahel, the conflict’s implications for the entire region are significant.

Despite the scant attention that the Western Sahara has received, several authors have recently argued that the Sahrawi’s struggle for self-determination is part and parcel of the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Noam Chomsky went as far as to argue that the “Arab Spring” actually began in the Western Sahara, pointing to the Moroccan army’s violent repression of the October 2010 protests in Gdeim Izik, which lasted until November 2010, a month before Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. While the Western Sahara protests may have influenced the Tunisian uprisings in some way, as many authors and thinkers have shown, the exact causes of the uprising remain elusive. Chomsky’s argument draws much-needed attention to the conflict; however, situating the Gdeim Izik protests as the beginning of the “Arab Spring” disrupts a historical narrative that is centered on a decades-long struggle for self-determination in the Western Sahara.

The recent diplomatic confrontation at the United Nations over the US proposal to include human rights monitoring as a part of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has brought more attention to the neglected region. The Moroccan government responded angrily to the United States’ suggested amendment, cancelling the annual military training exercises between the two militaries in retaliation. Morocco subsequently scrambled its diplomatic missions and arranged for talks with Russia and China in attempts to recruit opposition to the US proposal. Days later, the United States announced it would withdraw its proposal and MINURSO passed without an amendment allowing for human rights monitoring. In response to the failure of the proposal, there were heightened cases of violence in the city of Laayoune. In the immediate aftermath of the annual renewal of MINURSO, Moroccan security forces violently repressed protesting Sahrawis who were demanding their right to self-determination. Reports indicated a record numbers of Sahrawis protesting in Laayoune, dispelling Morocco’s attempts at shaping a façade of stability and greater appeasement. More importantly, the growing number of dissenting Sahrawis poses a threat to Morocco’s constructed idea of “territorial integrity,” which it holds central to its legitimacy and claims on the Western Sahara.

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