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Heat in the Sahara

Assault on the Sahrawi protest camp is a new Moroccan blunder in handling the crisis

If the Moroccan government intended to put an end to the Sahrawi protests with its assault on the camp at Agdaym Izik near Laâyoune, all that it has achieved has been to publicize and consolidate a new Sahrawi leadership and initiate a spiral of violence of unknown outcome, as was apparent in the serious riots that erupted in the region's main city, with the resulting death toll still uncertain.

The Western Sahara Territory is a vast tract of desert with some mineral wealth on the Atlantic coast south of Morocco, which claims it on historical grounds. It was a Spanish colony for decades, until Madrid withdrew in 1975 and it was occupied by Morocco - but not without a war with an Algerian-backed Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front. The impossibility of reaching a solution after the precipitous Spanish decolonization has led to a grave deterioration of living conditions in Western Sahara, for which the Polisario has also begun to pay a cost.

The assault on the camp is Morocco's latest error, but not the only one since the protests began

The alternative leadership that has emerged from this malaise has put social improvements ahead of independence in its list of demands. Rabat is thus faced by a dilemma: the more it represses the present protests (and those in Laâyoune were of dangerous dimensions) the more it will stimulate the independence movement, which will no longer be linked only to the Polisario's abstract national aspirations, but also to a concrete desire to improve the living conditions of the Sahrawis.

The assault on the camp is Morocco's latest error, but not the only one since the protests began. The death of a Sahrawi youth in the first days of the protest cannot go unanswered by the Rabat government, which is obliged, at the very least, to initiate a serious investigation and find out who was responsible. Instead of doing so, it attacked the press and propagated rumors about the supposed death of a demonstrator in confrontations with the Spanish police in Melilla. With these initiatives the Moroccan government displays something more serious than mere clumsiness: it shows that it has not understood the turn that the protests in the Agdaym Izik camp might impart to the development of the Sahara conflict.

The international community, and also the European Union and the Spanish government, are staying discreetly in the background to avoid any friction with Morocco in this especially sensitive matter. This is not a position that favors stability in the region, because what is at stake here is the international capacity to uphold a single, conventional standard in human rights or, on the contrary, to yield to the temptation of double standards. For the moment, the latter seems to be the option that is gaining ground. Morocco is a country of crucial importance in the Maghreb, and precisely for this reason it must not act in such a way that its friends and allies feel obliged to waive the principles they defend.

The Western Sahara conflict may be entering a new cycle, as a new leadership takes shape, with formerly unexpressed demands. All the actors, from Rabat to the international community and the Polisario, ought to deal plainly in the search for a solution.

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