By Nick Brooks
I agree with your assessment of the autonomy plan. I would argue that it is essentially a propaganda exercise designed to give the impression that Morocco is a progressive nation seeking and end to a long-running conflict, up against an intractable foe (i.e. the Polisario). I don’t believe that the plan has any practical utility (beyond its propaganda function), as its implementation would require that the issues of the effective partition of Western Sahara and the fate of the exiled refugees are addressed.
It appears that Morocco has no intention of addressing the partition or refugee issues. The fact of partition is downplayed or even denied, with Morocco claiming that the Polisario-controlled areas do not exist. The propaganda line is that these areas constitute a « buffer zone » set up be Morocco for security purposes. Abdelhamid El Ouali, the author of the recently published pro-autonomy block « Saharan Conflict » told me at the launch of his book that the idea that Polisario had control of these areas was false, and that Polisario had « never liberated » any territory. He was somewhat taken aback when I told him that I worked in these areas with the Polisario in the course of my scientific research, and didn’t really have any response.
As for the refugees in the camps around Tindouf, we hear variously that they are Moroccans held against their will or that there are not very many of them. El Ouali claims in his book that there are a few Sahrawi there held against their will, but that a large proportion of the population of the camps consists of people fleeing drought in the Sahel in the 1990s.
The autonomy plan cannot provide a solution to the conflict unless it addresses the status of the Polisario-controlled zone and the refugees in Algeria. It does not. Even if Morocco were to gain approval for the plan and somehow « normalise » its occupation, it would be left with a rump Sahrawi state in the Polisario areas, and an even more irate refugee population. Polisario is unlikely to give up the fight and hand its « Free Zone » over to Morocco, and the refugees are unlikely to go an live under Moroccan occupation (even if Morocco invited them, and one suspects that the last thing Morocco wants is a large population of pro-independence Sahrawi living in occupied Western Sahara and causing trouble for it). So the only outcomes are either a continuation of the status quo, or an expansion of Moroccan control over all of Western Sahara through military force.
So, the autonomy plan either changes nothing on the ground, or is a prelude to war. It is possible that Morocco is seeking to legitimize its « ownership » of Western Sahara in the eyes of the international community so that it can complete its conquest of Western Sahara and claim it is just dealing with an uprising by « separatists » in territory that everyone recognizes as Moroccan. However, this would risk conflict with Algeria and regional destabilization. But we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that the autonomy plan is a precursor to further aggressive military activity on the part of Rabat.