Moroccan diplomatic efforts to convince the international community of the legitimacy of Morocco’s position on the so-called Western Sahara have fallen short of garnering the support of a sizable portion of international public opinion for many years. This shortcoming is more pronounced in some Latin American, African, and European countries, where Morocco has suffered – and still does suffer – from a an unfavorable public opinion.
The vacuum of international support for Morocco’s position has been filled by the adversaries of its territorial integrity, who have found fertile ground in many countries for spreading their myopic view of the Western Sahara and presenting themselves as the victims of Morocco’s “annexation” of the territory. Indeed, as a result of Morocco’s ineffectiveness, the prevalent view in civil society in many countries is that Morocco is “illegally occupying” the territory.
For example, the Polisario and Algeria have been active in Scandinavian countries for years garnering those countries’ support for their position on the conflict. Aware of the weight of civil society in these countries, they have implemented their public relations campaign at the grassroots level.
This bottom-up strategy has enabled them to lay the foundation for a more aggressive strategy at the institutional level. The decision of the parliaments of some these countries, Sweden for example, to call on their government to recognize the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD) was for the most part the result of this public relations campaign and the Polisario’s presence on the ground in these countries.
Recently, however, Moroccan officials and Moroccan civil society have realized that to win the media and political war against Algeria and the Polisario, it is not enough to rely on Morocco’s traditional allies. Rather, it is also necessary to reach out to the public in these countries, especially in the countries where the standing of Morocco still lags behind that of its adversaries.
Is the Moroccan government solely to blame? Can the government win the diplomatic war while Moroccan civil society is not actively engaged in defending its country’s position?
Coordination between public institutions and civil society
Moroccan civil society must engage in parallel diplomacy, take responsibility and work tirelessly towards winning over international public opinion to the legitimacy of Morocco’s position on the Western Sahara dispute. While the government’s duty is to win the political support at the governmental level, it is the duty of civil society to work at the grassroots level and reach out to its peers in the countries where Morocco’s image needs a boost.
To fully play this role, civil society should be provided with the necessary financial and logistical support to enable it to perform its mission effectively. For example, the initiative recently taken by the Moroccan Embassy in Norway and Dar Saniaa (House of Handicrafts) to organize a three-week long cultural event to shed light on the richness and diversity of Moroccan culture and the friendly relations that exist between Morocco and Norway is a step in the right direction.
This event was “an opportunity to highlight the richness of Moroccan culture and expose the great experiences of Moroccan handcrafters, as well as the cultural wealth of Morocco in the fields of fashion, music, and haute cuisine,” Souad El Alaoui, Morocco’s Ambassador to Norway, said.
Initiatives such as this are what Morocco needs to educate the public in Scandinavian countries about its millennial history, the diversity of its languages, its artisanal handicrafts, its cuisine, and most importantly about the current reforms undertaken in recent years to lay the foundations for a democratic system in the country.
Need to establish channels of communication with Scandinavian countries
Winning the sympathy or the support of another country for one’s position on any given subject cannot occur overnight. The first step in the process is to establish channels of communication, and then to build a relationship of trust between civil society on both sides. Once this step is reached, it could be easier to go beyond it and try to win the support of public opinion to one’s cause.
In the case of Morocco, with regards to public opinion in Scandinavian countries, for a long time there has been a total absence of any channels of communication between civil society on both sides, let alone the means to build trust and mutual understanding of the other’s history, culture, etc.
The Polisario has been successful in winning the sympathy of the Scandinavian public, not due to the legitimacy of its cause, but due mostly to the absence of a counterweight from Moroccans engaged in doing exactly the same as Polisario activists. People sympathize more with the Polisario because they are only served its view of the conflict. They could presumably sympathize with the Moroccan position if they better understood the overall context of Morocco’s claim to the territory.
This is exactly what gives the recent event organized in Oslo special importance. It brings Morocco to Norwegians to educate them about the idiosyncrasies of its people, their lifestyle, their culture, and their openness to the world.
Now, it is incumbent on the Moroccan government and Moroccan civil society stakeholders to build on the momentum that will be created by this event and strive to reach out to the wider public in Norway and other Scandinavian countries. The stakes are high, and Morocco should not leave any stone unturned in order to advance its national cause and win the support of the wider international public opinion.
Role of universities and Moroccan community in Scandinavia
It is not enough to say that Sahara is Moroccan without more to convince the others of the just cause of this position that Morocco will outmaneuver its adversaries’ tactics. Civil society in Scandinavian countries is one of the strongest and most dynamic in the world. There is a growing Moroccan community in Scandinavia that should be mobilized and engaged in the efforts made by Morocco to counterbalance the presence of the Polisario.
Winning the hearts and minds of the public in these countries can only be done by means of organizing workshops, university debates, panel discussions, and being permanently present on the ground, especially in university campuses.
Moroccan universities have a very important role to play in laying the groundwork for a better understanding between Moroccan society and its Scandinavian counterpart. One way to reach this goal could be to put in place student exchange programs between Moroccan and Scandinavian universities. Through an exchange program, Scandinavian students would have firsthand knowledge of Moroccan history, culture, and politics, as well as gain an education in the intricacies of the Western Sahara conflict. By doing so, Moroccan civil society could thwart the Polisario’s strategy, which has benefitted from the absence of a counterweight on the ground and from the lack of knowledge of the conflict on the part of Scandinavian people.
That being said, this work should be undertaken in a professional and rigorous manner and should involve Moroccans living there who are versed in the topic and can play an instrumental role in educating the people of these countries on the multifaceted aspects of the Western conflict, its historical and legal aspects, and its geopolitical implications.
It is only through a permanent presence of Moroccan civil society in these countries and systematic coordination between public institutions and NGOs that Morocco can eventually reverse the tide and counterbalance the weight of the Polisario abroad.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him @Samir Bennis