On Friday, millions of Moroccans will head to the polls to choose a new parliament. While the Islamist “Parti de la Justice et du Dévelopement” is predicted to win a plurality, it will likely be forced to govern in a coalition with one or more of the 30 parties competing for seats in the 395-seat legislature. That Moroccans will head to the polls, however, isn’t really surprising. After all, Morocco has now held multiple, successful, contested elections resulting in an active legislature with real budgetary oversight and legislative power.
Alas, there is an unfortunate pattern among the US government, its European allies, and human rights organizations to penalize access: Countries which trend democratic and allow diplomats, journalists, and human rights organizations to operate become the subjects of disproportionate criticism. It’s easier to bash the United States than Cuba, condemn Israel than Saudi Arabia, and criticize Morocco than Algeria.
That’s not to say Morocco is above reproach. Once upon a time, there was a lot to criticize but since 1999, reform in Morocco has been both real and its trajectory constant. Nevertheless, European activists constantly attack Morocco over the extension of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a territory which historically had been Moroccan until colonial powers divided Morocco during the nineteenth century. In 1975, Morocco resumed control over the region. The Polisario Front, a Cold War proxy of Algeria and, by extension, the Soviet Union, disputed Morocco’s claims. It proclaimed the self-styled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and launched a bloody military campaign which continued until 1991, when a ceasefire took hold and the United Nations created the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to conduct a referendum about final status of the Western Sahara. Algeria, however, which has long used the Polisario as a diplomatic wedge against Morocco and, frankly, as a cash cow, has always prevented MINURSO from conducting its census.
The State Department has traditionally sided with Morocco but under the Obama administration, National Security Advisor Susan Rice has used the Western Sahara dispute to undermine the US-Moroccan relationship. Simply put, ties between Washington and Rabat have not been this strained in a century, if not more.
With MINURSO’s referendum going nowhere and Sahrawis languishing in refugee camps in Algeria’s remote Tindouf province, Morocco has pushed forward with unilateral reforms. It has implemented a decentralization plan to distribute more power at the local level, effectively granting the Western Sahara autonomy, something Sahrawi residents have embraced and seized upon. Voter participation in the Western Sahara is among Morocco’s highest as local residents do not take their rights for granted like so any in the United States and Europe.
Back to the present. While the White House bashes Morocco and European activists seek to undercut Sahrawi autonomy under Morocco’s flag, perhaps it would be more productive for everyone—Washington, Brussels, various human rights organization, and Sahrawi activists—to recognize that Morocco has done everything that could be reasonably expected. When Sahrawis head to the polls to vote as equal citizens and to exert control over their own fate, Morocco should be applauded. There should be no equivalence — political, moral, or diplomatic — between Morocco and the Polisario Front.
Indeed, if the West and Westerners really care about human rights, democracy, and representation, they should demand instead that Algeria embrace the same regionalism and open elections that Morocco has and that the Sahrawis held under the Polisario’s control be able to travel freely back to the Western Sahara.