In the rest of my interview with Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri (read Part 1 here), he talked about a conflict that predated the current Middle East conflagrations and his country’s vision for the future of the Maghreb.
Although King Mohammed VI announced recently a sweeping reform plan based on increased local rule, the first experiment in that regard was offered by Morocco to resolve the longstanding conflict in the Western Sahara. A Soviet-era revolutionary outfit, the Polisario Front, has fomented violence in an effort to ostensibly wrench the Western Sahara from Morocco. Refugees from that region are currently warehoused in Algeria in camps run under dismal conditions by the Polisario Front. Recent high-profile incidents have highlighted the Polisario Front’s cynical use of a humanitarian crisis, as well as its growing cooperation with al-Qaeda. The foreign minister explained that while regionalization is a general goal for the country, Morocco’s first autonomy proposal was to resolve the dispute in the Western Sahara.
A plan for local autonomy was praised by the United States and the United Nations but has been blocked by Algeria and the Polisario. Fassi Fihri explained that Morocco has offered “through negotiations on a basis of realistic compromise” to end the dispute and relieve the humanitarian crisis in the Polisario-controlled camps. But, he said, “Algeria and the Polisario prefer to freeze the situation and stop the process.” They insist on a referendum for complete independence, which they lobby for through leftist human rights groups. Fassi Fihri cautioned: “This is very, very dangerous, that they can stop negotiations and create a diversion. At this point the border is closed between Algeria and Morocco.”
The conflict in the Western Sahara remains a distraction, Fassi Fihri told me. “We need integration and we need collective action against al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is looking [there] as a possibility of expanding their power.”
But Morocco’s aim for the Maghreb is broader than simply a defensive alliance against the drug trade, human trafficking and terrorism, although these are all regional concerns. The future for Northern Africa may depend, as the foreign minister put it, “on regional integration and economic regionalization.” He points to the European Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council and NAFTA as examples. Beyond economics, Fassi Fihri told me, “We also want integration in politics.” This means “sharing [Morocco’s] experience” with political reform and fighting common threats.
It is no secret that such a hopeful future would be forestalled by continued violence and instability, especially in Libya. In that regard, Morocco is not entirely in control of its own destiny. While political and economic progress can be pursued by individual nation states, the hope for regional security, trade and growth depends in large part on neighboring countries getting on the same path of reform that Morocco has followed. While there are hopeful signs in Tunisia and Egypt, Moammar Gaddafi’s presence hangs like a cloud over Northern Africa. And conversely, his ejection from Libya would be a boon to reformers throughout the Maghreb.
Fassi Fihri will be meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today. We will see the degree to which Clinton recognizes that what happens in Libya has repercussions throughout the Middle East. And perhaps she can pick up some useful insights on how to promote modernization and democratization in an area badly in need of both.