“It comes down to two words: ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy,’” Claude Salhani said at a discussion at the Center for American Progress concerning Morocco’s proposal for Western Sahara. “Sahrawis don’t want to hear about autonomy,” Salhani said; they want only to talk about independence — while Moroccans want to leave the room if that word is uttered.
What’s a negotiator to do? Experts on North Africa convened at CAP on May 11 to discuss how Morocco’s recent initiative for Western Sahara might present a way forward in resolving the 30-year-old Western Sahara dispute, in which the Polisario Front largely represents Sahrawi nationalists and Algeria also plays a role.
The CAP event’s panelists included Salhani, UPI international editor and a senior political analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa; Ian Lesser, Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States; Rob Malley, Middle East and North Africa Program Director of the International Crisis Group; and Jacques Rousselier, Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute. The event was moderated by Mara Rudman, a CAP Senior Fellow and leader of CAP’s new Middle East Progress project.
The Western Sahara dispute has seen renewed media attention in recent weeks following Morocco’s submission of its initiative on Western Sahara to the United Nations Security Council in April, the Polisario Front’s plan on Western Sahara, and the Security Council’s subsequent call for Morocco and the Polisario Front to enter into direct negotiations without preconditions to reach a lasting political solution to the conflict. The CAP event’s panelists also cited growing international concern that an unstable North Africa could provide fertile ground for Al Qaeda activity.
Through its initiative, Morocco has stated that it was ready to accept a political solution that involves broad Sahrawi independence within Moroccan national territory. While acknowledging many positive aspects of the plan, it would translate to “autonomy rather than real independence,” Salhani said.
The panelists stressed the import of focusing on practical means of pressing toward resolution, acknowledging that all involved would have to face difficult truths. Malley laid this out most starkly. He noted that the Polisario needed to accept that self-determination in the form of an independent state was not realistic; that Morocco should not characterize its position as one in favor of the principle of self-determination because it would not in the end want a referendum that would allow a choice for an independent state; and that Algeria should stop professing no interest in the conflict, since it clearly had played the role of the spoiler over an extended period.
All panelists agreed that Europe and the United States can play a part in bringing the dispute to an end. Whether the parties would do better talking directly without strong mediation or facilitation from third-party actors was an open question, as was what third-party actor or actors would play the mediator/facilitator role most effectively.
The best way for the United Nations to aid in resolving the dispute, Malley suggested, is by signaling that it will support three-party talks in which the parties would “talk with one another rather than try to impress a third party” like the United Nations. The United Nations could tell the parties that it will help facilitate the negotiations as much as possible but not impose any conditions, essentially telling the parties, “you negotiate – but we’re not telling you how to do it.”
Lesser stressed that the international powers must sustain the renewed attention that has developed over the past weeks in order to make sure that direct talks among the parties actually take place. “The negotiation process ahead will need effective engagement” from the Western powers, Rousselier said.