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Joe Biden Should Quit Stalling and Reverse Trump’s Colonial Handover of Western Sahara

Ahmed Ettanji
Eoghan Gilmartin

One of Donald Trump's last decisions in office was a squalid diplomatic deal with Morocco, granting US recognition of its occupation of Western Sahara in exchange for Moroccan recognition of Israel. Since the move, the Saharawi population has faced intense military repression — yet the Biden administration refuses to say whether it will reverse Trump's colonial handover of the territory.

A Sahrawi woman holds a Sahara flag during a demonstration in Navarra denouncing the occupation of Western Sahara and the repression suffered by the Sahrawi people. (Elsa A Bravo / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

In Donald Trump’s final months in office he arranged a series of “diplomatic quid pro quos” through which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco established diplomatic relations with Israel. The United States agreed to sell F35 fighter jets and state-of-the-art drone technology worth $23 billion to UAE while Sudan saw itself removed from the list of states sponsoring terrorism.

Most controversially the United States also became the first major power in the world to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the illegally annexed Western Sahara — a move which flies in the face of numerous UN resolutions and a ruling from the International Court of Justice. Yet since taking up his post in January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has refused to be drawn on whether the new administration will reverse Trump’s decision.

Covering an area the size of Britain, Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony — that is, what the United Nations designates as a “non-self-governing territory.” The Saharawi people were denied independence in 1975 after former colonial power Spain reneged on its promise of a referendum on the country’s future status, instead signing the tripartite Pact of Madrid (backed by the United States but with no basis under international law) which carved up the territory between Morocco and Mauritania.

Western Sahara’s strategic importance is primarily related to its mineral wealth, along with other natural resources such as fisheries. As Miguel Urbán, a left-wing member of the European Parliament, notes, Morocco’s occupation regime is “being paid for by the Saharawi’s own resources … with the territory being turned into a Wild West for multinationals — in which anything goes.”

Even before Trump’s incendiary intervention, the conflict was heating up again. A 1991 cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Front (the main Saharawi pro-independence movement) broke down in November after Moroccan troops broke the terms of the agreement by entering the buffer zone along the Mauritanian border to violently remove peaceful protesters blocking a highway. Hostilities have so far largely been contained to artillery exchanges and skirmishes along the seventeen-hundred-mile defensive sand wall (or berm) that divides the territory, but the Polisario Front has carried out a number of successful raids from its base in neighboring Algeria.

Within the occupied Western Sahara, the return to a state of war has brought renewed crackdowns against activists and protests. In the following report for Jacobin, Ahmed Ettanji (cofounder of one of the few media organizations operating out of the occupied territories, Equipe Media) explains how Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty, was seen by the occupying forces as giving “the green light” to ramp up repression against civilians.

—Eoghan Gilmartin

Increased Repression

Before war broke out on November 13, Western Sahara was listed as the seventh least-free territory in the world in Freedom House’s annual ranking — just one point above North Korea. And attacks on civilians have only intensified since then. Dozens of activists have been arrested, house searches and domestic surveillance of activists and journalists has increased, while Saharawi protests for self-determination have been repeatedly broken up with excessive violence.

With the increased police and military presence on the streets, the cities of Western Sahara now resemble a giant military barracks. Meanwhile the stories illustrating the violence of the occupation have multiplied in recent weeks.

Activists Ghali Bouhala and Mohamed Nafaa Boutasoufra were kidnapped by the special forces on February 12 in dramatic and similar circumstances. Detained separately on the streets of the capital, El Aaiún, with no warrant or any explanation given, they were taken to their respective homes where the police broke down the doors and terrorized their families. Bouhala was brought to his home hooded and when the police found a Saharawi flag, they began to suffocate him with it until his mother tried to intervene and was violently restrained. Security forces then beat his mother and sister, before confiscating their cell phones.

The two activists appeared in front of a closed session of the Moroccan High Court in occupied El Aaiún on February 14 on trumped-up drug trafficking charges, which is a common tactic used with Saharawi activists as a means justify their arrests, and have now been transferred to the notorious Cárcel Negra (black prison) in the capital.

Sultana Jaya, is another prominent activist who has already spent more than a hundred days under house arrest. In 2007 she lost an eye after being attacked by Moroccan police, and recently received further head wounds after the police attacked her and her sister with stones when they tried to greet a small group of friends outside their home. The young activist Mohamed Salem Ayyad Ali Al Fahim did not return home on January 15. His family searched for him in the hospitals and police stations but there was no sign of him until his body appeared twenty-two days later at the morgue, in a state of advanced decomposition.

For journalists, the situation is also perilous. Equipe Media, the media collective of which I am cofounder, has had to work largely underground and in difficult conditions, with our journalists having faced arbitrary arrests, mistreatment, and even the threat of torture. But with the international media unable to access the occupied zone, we have become one of the few sources able to break the media blockade on Western Sahara.

Hunger Strikes

At the same time, the jailed Saharawi journalist Mohamed Lamin Haddi has currently spent forty-nine days on an indefinite hunger strike in protest against the inhumane conditions of his detention. Haddi was arrested in the aftermath of the bloody suppression of the Gdeim Izik protest camp in 2010, which saw Moroccan security forces storm the site on the outskirts of El Aaiún where five thousand Saharawis had been encamped for more than a month.

When he was detained, Haddi was assisting a group of Belgium journalists document the hundreds of injuries sustained by protesters in the camp raid. In a mass trial with eighteen other Saharawis, he was sentenced by a military court to twenty-five years imprisonment – to be served in the Moroccan jail Tiflet 2, thirty miles outside Rabat.

He has spent the last three and a half years in solitary confinement and has not been able to receive visitors for more than a year. On January 13, Haddi began an indefinite hunger strike to demand the right to socialize with the other Saharawi prisoners, the right to hot food and to receive visitors. The eighteen other Gdeim Izik prisoners participated in a forty-eight-hour hunger strike in solidarity with him in February.

His family now fears for his life — with his mother making the near-thousand-mile journey from El Aaiún to the Tiflet 2 prison last Monday. She was denied entry and has received no information about the current state of his health.

Reversing Trump’s Policy

Although the attacks on civilians have intensified due to the breakdown of the 1991 cease-fire and a return to hostilities, many Saharawi activists believe Morocco has also been emboldened by Trump’s illegitimate move. His recognition of Moroccan sovereignty, which flies in the face of international law, was taken as a green light by the occupying forces that they could commit crimes against civilians with complete impunity.

More than a hundred Saharawi civil society groups published an open letter to President Biden this week on the Progressive International’s website, in which it reminded him that the question of Western Sahara “is not an ethnic or religious conflict nor a civil war, but rather a basic issue of decolonization not yet resolved — as has been recognized by the United Nations and its different bodies since 1963.”

The 1991 peace settlement plan between the Polisario Front and Morocco was predicated on a commitment to hold a referendum so as to guarantee the Saharawi people’s right to decide their own future. Biden must now revoke Trump’s disastrous decision, so that he can reengage the United States in a search for a permanent resolution to the conflict through such a referendum. He still has the ability to pressure Morocco to guarantee human rights, social justice, and the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination.