The secretary general of the Saharawi Peace Movement speaks about the mistakes of the Polisario Front and the future of the Western Sahara dispute Ignacio Ortiz
Hach Ahmed Baricalla, secretary general of the Saharawi Peace Movement (MSP), gives an analysis of the organisation of which he is a member, which seeks a feasible and peaceful solution to the conflict which has been going on for years in Western Sahara, especially following the important initiative of the United States to support the autonomy formula for the Saharawi region under the sovereignty of Morocco.
After several months since its formation, what is the current situation of the MSP and how do you assess recent months leading the Movement?
The Movement has established itself in broad sectors of the population, especially in the territory, in the refugee camps and in the diaspora. In less than six months, we organised our founding Congress with the participation of a very large number of delegates, and coordinating bodies and groups were set up in many places. The MSP’s discourse, its commitment to compromise, has been well received by the public. It aroused great interest among a silent majority that does not identify with the irreconcilable positions of the opposing parties. It has also been widely disseminated at the international level and in the media. Overall, the outcome has been satisfactory, especially considering the conditions of the pandemic and the universal confinement in which we live.
In recent months there have been many notable episodes in the context of the conflict. What is your assessment of the Polisario’s declaration of war and what is the position of the MSP?
From the outset, we consider it to have been a great mistake. It was an impulsive decision based, moreover, on a clumsy and ill-calculated excuse. The crisis around El Guerguerat has caused the Polisario to lose strategic positions for nothing.
Are we facing a virtual war, where visibility on social networks is more important than the facts?
More noise has been made on social networks than real effects on the ground. If, moreover, the purpose was to alarm and attract the attention of the international community, neither the UN Security Council nor the AU have shown any interest. The fact that MINURSO is still present in its positions is further proof that the war is not a war. Nowadays it is impossible for fighting or even simple skirmishes to take place without corroborating images. In any case, I think the end is near.
Another major media event recently has been the recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara by the United States. What is your opinion of this development?
It is certainly not an insignificant development. There are those who predict that the Biden Administration might backtrack. I do not believe that the issue has had such an impact on American public opinion or generated such a strong controversy as to force the new administration to backtrack. Otherwise, it is in line with the line advocated by Washington since 2007 when Morocco submitted its autonomy proposal to the Security Council. Of course, the world’s leading power’s commitment to the Moroccan proposal as a starting point for the solution of the Western Sahara problem is not a trivial matter. On the contrary, I believe it will mark the evolution of events from now on.
The opening of new consulates in the Sahara is another noteworthy development, the United States could be next. Is time still being wasted in the interests of a peaceful and negotiated solution?
We have been wasting time for a long time. These thirty years since the beginning of the ceasefire have been wasted time. It is time to realise that time is not on our side. Instead of continuing to drag ourselves behind sophistry and impossible projects, it is time to read the historical context with a minimum of common sense and focus on the opportunities that may be within reach. Regarding the opening of Consulates in Western Sahara, I personally do not see them as an obstacle, rather they contribute to opening the territory to diplomats and observers from all over the world and, in case a compromise solution is reached, their presence will mean more international guarantees. I would like to see El Aaiún become like Erbil, where more diplomatic missions are present than in Baghdad.
Do you aspire to play a more prominent role over time in this solution? Is the MSP taking any steps in this direction?
Of course, as an independent and new political force on the Sahrawi scene, we have set a precedent. The emergence of the MSP introduced into Sahrawi society the culture of multi-party politics that has made Polisario so uncomfortable. It is a project that has emerged from the bowels of the old movement as a response to its democratic deficit and its incalculable mistakes. Politically, we represent a more pragmatic tendency, which values tangible opportunities, which prefers “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. Ideologically, we aspire to be exponents of a moderate, inclusive and tolerant nationalism, capable of uniting and encouraging a large majority of the Sahrawi people who, today, advocate the preeminence of the realistic solution over the utopian and failed Polisario project. Moreover, I believe that we cannot continue to be dependent on the agenda and rhythms of the UN, an organisation that barely devotes an annual meeting to us and is now incapable of even appointing a special envoy to bring the parties together. We will have to break out of this vicious circle and opt for more practical, less time-consuming and less cumbersome alternative channels or mediations.
It is up to the Moroccan side to make a move and avoid complacency. It is obvious that the US positions, the opening of new consulates in the territory, the disinterest of the UN and the AU are new factors, but they are not fixed, nor do they replace, from the point of view of international legality and legitimacy, the need for a mutually agreed, fair and lasting settlement that satisfies the majority will of the Saharawis and determines the definitive status of the territory.
The former president Zapatero sponsored his movement during its founding congress. Even Basque nationalism, through Aitor Esteban, has softened its stance. Are we facing a paradigm shift in Spain’s view of the conflict, which has always been politically close to the Polisario’s thesis?
I do not think that the concept of paradigm can be applied to Spain’s position on the Western Sahara issue, at least in terms of political consensus. The humanitarian approach and civil society’s commitment to the Sahrawi refugees is quite another matter. The two main political parties alternating in power, PSOE-PP, have a similar stance. Both consider that Spanish responsibility ceased in 1975, and that relations with Morocco are defined by unalterable state interests and reasons. On the other hand, relations and contacts with the Polisario have always been low-profile.
As for former President Zapatero, this is not the first time he has shown himself an advocate of dialogue and a compromise solution to the Western Sahara dispute. During his term as Prime Minister of Spain, he took steps with the parties involved to open a negotiating channel, an initiative that, as far as I understand, initially met with the approval of former Algerian President Bouteflika. Bouteflika then backed down. Zapatero’s experience, prestige and other credentials as a statesman and mediator make his suggestions and opinions of great value to any self-respecting observer or analyst. Obviously, his commitment to our Movement’s approach and strategy is a great moral and political boost.
Nor am I surprised by the new position of the PNV party and the public recommendations made by its spokesperson in Congress, advising the Polisario to show flexibility and realism. It is an exercise in coherence on the part of Aitor Esteban. His opinion has been limited to common sense that characterises the PNV’s nationalism. He is a great reference for our movement.
2021 is the year of elections in Morocco, when local and regional representatives will be elected in the Sahara. Do you feel a certain healthy envy that some Saharawis will be able to vote, while others are denied the right to do so by the perpetual one-party system that rules in Tindouf?
I personally am more envious to see how other societies grow, develop and progress in normal situations, while our people, our country, have suffered for half a century in the uncertainty of an endless exile, surviving in extreme conditions, in the middle of a tunnel with no way out.
It has just been 45 years since Spain left the territory. Despite the political support that the Polisario maintains here, the attacks on Canary Islands fishing boats and the victims they left behind are still remembered. What is the solution to heal these wounds that are still open?
I fully understand the pain and discomfort that these unfortunate attacks have generated among Canarian society and families. I see no difference between these wounds and those suffered by hundreds of innocent Saharawi victims of repression in Polisario prisons. These wounds are difficult to heal and to forget. At the very least, a mea culpa and an apology should be made. It could be a first gesture.
Regarding possible human rights violations, much is said in Spain about this issue in the Sahara, but the events in the Tindouf camps tend to go unnoticed. Is this issue still pending or silenced by the different actors involved?
As I previously mentioned, the Polisario still has a score to settle, not only with regard to democracy, but also with regard to human rights. In Spain, its support groups turn a blind eye to this. This is typical of the radical left groups and individuals who swarm and control the Spanish solidarity movement. This is typical of the so-called ” progressive ” people. When they collaborate with organisations and countries labelled as revolutionary or anti-imperialist, they tend to ignore and even cover up misdeeds and outrages on the part of their “revolutionary friends”. I even remember that a human rights association, with a long history of cooperation with the Polisario, did not want to get involved in the protection of activists and bloggers kidnapped by the Polisario in the summer of 2019.
In order not to fall into biased or unbiased positions, I have to say that the other party, the Moroccan government, also has unfinished human rights business. Lately, regrettable images have been circulating on networks and some television channels. I think it is reprehensible that authorities in Boujdour have deployed a huge police force to blockade the home of an elderly woman just because one of her daughters is a pro-independence activist, a terrorist or simply a mischievous person. These are ways that only generate tension, comfort radical ideas and visions, and place those who defend the peaceful path and the honourable way out in an uncomfortable position. We are also concerned about the case of the Gdeim Izik prisoners. We urge an amnesty for them. It would be a humanitarian gesture of great magnanimity, which would help the planets to align in favour of a compromise solution and lasting peace.
In line with the human rights issue, your best-known figure, Aminatu Haidar, has become a political actor by creating the ISACOM (Sahrawi Organ against Moroccan Occupation). To what extent has the emergence of your MSP played a role in the creation of this body and what do you think of it?
The emergence of the MSP has shaken up the Sahrawi political landscape. This led the Polisario to lose its nerve and commit the El Guerguerat blunder and the subsequent breakdown of the ceasefire. It also precipitated the split of CODESA and the creation of a “no-nonsense” political entity that seems to me to be difficult to fit into a single-party system like the Polisario. Panic seems to have set in as a new Sahrawi political force emerged that favoured the peaceful path and was ready to compete with the old movement by disputing its representativeness in a democratic manner.
On the other hand, you recently denounced the interference of CEAS Sahara in the internal Saharawi debate due to its criticism of the MSP. Do you plan any communication strategy, mainly with Spanish civil society, and particularly with the Canary Islands, to support the MSP’s approach?
Indeed, interference in the internal Saharawi debate by people on the other side of the fence, who have only a vague and superficial idea of the matter, seems nonsense to us. They are activists who misunderstand solidarity for charity and protection of “primitive communities”, akin to the role of “protectors of Indians” in colonial America. They are individuals who have made their careers through Polisario and humanitarian projects and aid to Sahrawi refugees. Their activities are inherited, Japanese-style, from father to son as a profession or a “hobby”. The Polisario uses them and they, for unmentionable reasons, lend themselves to denigrating their political opponents. They set themselves up as champions of democracy and freedoms, but are incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of their “protégés” when they claim these values for themselves. They should show a little respect for people’ concerns, feelings and misfortunes. The MSP has no objection to engage in dialogue with them. I hope they have the democratic spirit to do so. When the pandemic clears, we have to take the message and explain the vision of the PSM to Spanish society and to Canarian society in particular.
Finally, with movement restrictions increasing in the camps, the pandemic raging, and war tensions on the rise, what words do you have for the Saharawis who are stoically enduring the hardships of everyday life in Tindouf?
We know how hard life is in the Algerian Hamada. We bury our parents, brothers and sisters and friends there. Hopefully, no more deaths will occur in this absurd war. Our message is one of calm and confidence in the future. ” As Antoine de Saint Exupéry said, “as for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it”. The Sahrawi Peace Movement is working on this.