As the Arab Spring spread across several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, American philosopher Noam Chomsky argued that it did not originate in Tunisia, as is commonly understood. “In fact, the current wave of protests actually began last November in Western Sahara, which is under Moroccan rule, after a brutal invasion and occupation,” Chomsky stated. “The Moroccan forces came in, carried out - destroyed tent cities, a lot of killed and wounded and so on. And then it spread.”
The Gdeim Izik protests started in October 2010 when approximately 5000 Saharawi citizens set up temporary “Camps of Justice” to protest the Moroccan occupation and abuses, and peacefully assert independence. The number soon rose to 15,000 and the United Nations estimated that, at its peak, the camp may have held up to 6,600 tents. The Kingdom of Morocco responded with a violent crackdown on the protesters. Soldiers surrounded the camps in an effort to prohibit food, water and medicine. One month later, the camp was dismantled by Moroccan police and 3000 arrests were made.
One of the lesser-known independence movements in the world, Western Saharaexperienced Spanish colonization in the late 19th century. The territory was partitioned into neighboring Morocco and Mauritania in 1976, after Spain exited. Mauritania withdrew three years later. Since then, there has been an ongoing conflict between Western Sahara’s governing body, the Polisario Front, and Moroccan forces. It has been over twenty years since the UN-sponsored ceasefire of 1991, which promised a referendum on self-determination that is yet to be carried out.
This month, Fatma El-Mehdi, Secretary General of the Sahrawi National Union of Women, came to New York from the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, as a representative of the Pan-African association Women Advancement for Economic Leadership Empowerment (WAELE) to attend the Fifty-sixth Commission on the Status of Women held at the UN. This was an historic occasion for Western Sahara, the first time a Sahrawi representative was scheduled to attend an international conference at the UN.
El-Mehdi was only seven years old in 1975 when the conflict entered her life. She was evacuated as planes dropped bombs on the city of El Aaiún. After days spent walking with a small group of men and women without food or water, the young girl found herself in one the first Sahrawi refugee camps. She has spent her entire life in the camps. El-Mehdi is now a tireless and dedicated activist defending women’s rights and human rights, and forging various cultural and leadership initiatives not just in the Sahrawi refugee camps, but also in the broader African community. I met her briefly in New York to discuss the history and politics of Western Sahara, the struggles that lay ahead, the role of women in pursuing these and the deep emotional toll the conflict has taken on her family.
Bhakti Shringarpure: It is a momentous occasion that you are here in New York to attend the Fifty-sixth Commission on the Status of Women held at the UN. However you were not able to go. What happened?
Fatma El-Mehdi: As you know, our republic is not yet recognized by the United Nations. We are still in the process of getting our independence as a nation-state. When we heard about the UN's conference on women, we wanted to participate because it is a space for women from all over the world. We also thought that it would be a very important occasion to talk about our reality and our experiences as women from the Arab world who are working to build rights. But we’ve encountered a lot of problems. For the first time, we wanted to get support from the African Union commission so we could participate in the meeting they organized for African women. Unfortunately, we lost that opportunity. Eventually, we did get to participate in the activities that the UN organized for the International Women’s Day on the 8th of March. The theme was climate change and empowerment of rural women. It was very interesting because we could hear other voices, especially of rural women whose situation is very similar to ours and whose experiences are very important for us.
B: Why do you think Western Sahara is not on people’s radar?
F: I will start by saying that we have always been victims of information, of the media. All of the local media is controlled by Morocco. I remember in 2001, with the support of Spanish women, we visited three countries: Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. We could meet a lot of groups, women’s groups, but nobody could talk about this visit in the media. I think the media is very important to create visibility. That’s what we need.
B: There seems to be a case for autonomy of Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. I’ve heard that it might be the best the kingdom may offer. What do you make of this idea?
F: I think when we wanted our own country in 1975, it was so that we could have independence and the right to self-determination. I think what we really need is to have an opportunity to talk, to make our voices heard, even if the Sahrawi people are to be part of the Moroccan population. More than anything else, we need to celebrate having a referendum, which is the only way to help people express their needs. We don’t understand why the Moroccan king is frightened of the referendum.
F: I think it’s because of what the result of this referendum might be.
B: What is the likely result?
F: I cannot know the result but all the Sahrawi people will accept the results of the referendum, even if it different from what they expect. Why doesn’t the Moroccan king let us celebrate the referendum?
B: With regards to the question of nationhood, how does one convince the international community about Western Sahara?
F: I think our case is not well known enough yet. I think we have to create our own media, because we cannot count on international media. This way we will be able to travel, make connections, and make ourselves visible. I think that’s what we need.
B: What, according to you, is Morocco’s vested interest in Western Sahara? Do you think it’s an economic interest in phosphate reserves? Do you think it’s ethnic or cultural? What is it specifically that enables this particular relationship?
F: I think it is because of our resources of petroleum, phosphates and fish that they are continuing to hurt our country. Morocco has a very big population, but very poor land resources. They think that Western Sahara has a very small population and a very rich territory, and they believe that we do not deserve this territory. They want to share it and take control of it. And, thanks to international interest in our resources, Morocco today has a very important agreement with European Union and with France. They are now fishing from our waters, from our coasts, illegally.
This is why this agreement could not be renewed this year. Some European countries that are our friends brought attention to these illegalities. But now, since March, it seems that some of the other countries that are victims of the annulment of this agreement are trying to renew the plan.