Sahara: time that Morocco rethought its communication and outreach strategies

Following the recent attempt by the American administration to push for the inclusion of a human rights monitoring mechanism in the Sahara, Moroccans held their breath for almost two weeks awaiting the result of the intensive diplomatic efforts made by Morocco to prevent the broadening of MINURSO’s mandate.

On Tuesday, Moroccans received with a sigh of relief the news regarding the withdrawal of the American proposal and the decision of the Security Council not to alter the core mandate of the MINURSO.

Consequently, and to the Polisario’s and Algeria’s dismay, the Security Council adopted its annual resolution to extend the mandate of the UN mission in the Sahara until April 30, 2014.

After the adoption of the resolution, the representative of the Polisario in the United Nations expressed to the press his disappointment at the United States’ decision to withdraw its proposal to include a human rights monitoring mechanism in the Sahara, adding that he was surprised by the latest step taken by the American administration.

The language adopted by the resolution as eventually adopted is viewed by many as a blow to Algeria and the Polisario, as it thwarted their efforts aimed at tarnishing the image of Morocco and portray it as a country that systematically violates the human rights of the Saharawi population living in the Sahara.

The consensus eventually reached among the UNSC members came to demonstrate the seriousness of the efforts made by Morocco in order to reach a long-lasting political solution acceptable to both parties, since it puts an explicit emphasis on this political process.

The language of the resolution also shows that, despite the efforts made by Algeria and a number of pro-Polisario non-governmental organizations, chief among which is the RFK Kerry organization for Human Rights, the international community still trusts Morocco and the efforts it has made in order to lay the foundations for a political system based on democracy and the respect of human rights. This was highlighted by Mr. Benard Araud, the French ambassador to the United Nations, following the adoption of the resolution on Thursday.

The same remark was made by a British diplomat on Wednesday when he said during an off-the-record briefing with the press that despite the alleged violations of human rights by Morocco, “we cannot discount the efforts it made recently to improve its record on this filed.”

Moreover, the decision of the American administration to withdraw its proposal reflects the prominent role that could be played by the Palace in times of crises and the value of personal relationships that King Mohammed VI maintains with some influential international figures, such as the Clintons who have a significant weight in the Democratic Party and are highly respected in the American political arena and Washington’s complex decision-making machine. This is in addition to its relationships at the highest level with the French president and the princes and kings of the Gulf states, who have undoubtedly played an instrumental role behind the scenes in the defense of Morocco’s interests.

Additionally, one must not forget the importance of the intensive efforts carried out by Morocco in order to win the sympathy of China and Russia, as well as the important role played by Spain, which eventually helped to tip the balance in Morocco’s favor. The position adopted by these countries shows that they ensured not to sacrifice their interests with Morocco in order to defend the interests of Algeria and the Polisario.


Morocco needs to retool what went wrong


Nevertheless, this relative diplomatic victory should not make people think that Morocco will be immune to such twists in the future, nor that we should adopt the same strategies adopted before.

The fact that Morocco was put in this uncomfortable situation means that something went wrong and that people in charge of handling this conflict should redress the situation in order to avoid witnessing the same situation next year when the mandate of MINURSO comes up for renewal.   

There is no doubt that Algeria, South Africa, the Kennedy organization and all supporters of the Polisario will spare no efforts in the coming months to increase their maneuvers aimed at pushing Moroccan law enforcement officials in the Sahara to fall in the same traps as before and use the weapon of human rights against Morocco.

The protest staged on Friday in Layoune by a group of teenagers who stoned the Moroccan police and chanted pro-Polisario slogans gives a foretaste of what will await Morocco in the future and the kind of tricks that will be used by the Polisario in order to provoke the Moroccan police and push them to the limit of a harsh reaction.

Therefore, we have to be ready to deal with these provocations intelligently and proactively. The best way to avoid falling into the same predicament that Morocco almost fell into over the past two weeks is to strengthen the domestic front in the Sahara, avoid falling into the same provocations of the Polisario, refrain from using any kind of force against them, thus prevent them from using any pretext or excuse against Morocco. What Morocco must do is to deal with the greatest degree of intelligence and foresight with the cunning tricks Polisario and Algeria are bent on using against Morocco in the coming months.

Morocco should work towards winning over the hearts of the Saharawi population. The best way to do so is to build bridges of communication with the whole spectrum of the Saharawis, listen to their daily concerns and make them participate fully in building the future of the territory. The policy followed henceforth, which consisted on relying on the heads of some tribes, has shown its limit, and underscores the urgent need to rethink our way of dealing with the local population.

It is high time we examined the role played by the CORCAS since its creation in bridging the gap between Rabat and the local population. The Moroccan leaders should be bold enough to make decisive decisions. If this entity has played any prominent role in the conflict, it should be maintained and further involved in handling the conflict. If it has not discharge its mandate, there is a need to investigate what went wrong and what prevented it from playing its role so that the necessary changes could be made .

Morocco should also improve its diplomatic performance to make it at the level of diplomatic efforts exerted over the past two weeks, which helped to spare it an unprecedented diplomatic defeat. One of the most important steps in this regard, is to improve our public relations strategies and strive to reach out to the international public opinion, which knows little, if any, about this subject, especially in the countries where Morocco suffers a huge deficit of public opinion, especially in Scandinavian countries, the most part of Latin America, Australia and Britain, as well as the United States. It is the diplomacy’s duty to educate people in those countries about the multiple facets of Sahara issue, as well as its historical, political, security and strategic implications.

Any lack of strategy or efforts geared toward improving our handling of the conflict both at the domestic and international levels will be exploited by the Polisario to promote its thesis and garner the widest possible support of the international public opinion to its position.

One of the most important ways to reach out to the public opinion and make Morocco’s voice heard is to have independent, professional and credible news outlets- especially in English and Spanish- capable of providing the international audience with a different, documented perspective over the conflict based on strong historical, political and legal arguments. As long as Morocco does not have a media strategy aimed at reaching out to the global public opinion and educating it about this issue, it will leave the room free for other to exploit in order to promote their position on the issue.

Morocco has won a battle but the media and propaganda war is not over yet. In this regard, as I have said in many of my articles over the past two years, Morocco must reconsider its way of handling the conflict across the board and devise a well-structured strategy in order to reach international public opinion, gain its sympathy and fend off the propaganda carried out by Algeria, South Africa and the Polisario to undermine Morocco’s reputation.

However, the success of any media or diplomatic strategy remains contingent on a factor of paramount importance, namely to avoid making the same mistakes as the ones made before at the domestic level and avoid taking any step likely to be used as a pretext to politicize the question of human rights. Any blunder in this regard is likely to cost Morocco very dearly.


Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Provence in France. His areas of academic interest include, relations between Morocco and Spain and between the Muslim world and the West, as well as the global politics of oil. He has published over a 150 articles in Arabic, French, English and Spanish, and authored Les Relations Politiques, Economiques et Culturelles Entre le Maroc et l’Espagne: 1956-2005, which was published in French in 2008. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis