Education as Resistance: Saharawi Students Organizing in Morocco

Posted on November 18, 2015 by Tadween Editors | 2 comments

Photo credit: Wikimedia

By Joanna Allan

Khawla Khaya and her friend Tag are students at the University of Rabat. Khawla graduates next year, but has little hope of a job back home. “I’ll just go and be with my daughter […] but if war returns I’ll be the first in line to fight,” says Khawla. Tag, on the other hand, plans to carry on studying and eventually obtain a PhD, after which her plans are cloudier. Despite the lack of employment prospects, the two young women study hard. Yet their free time is busy, too. When they aren’t in class or at the library, they are likely to be found with fellow Saharawi students at a protest, sit-in, or “discussion circle” on campus.

Home for Khawla and Tag is occupied Western Sahara. Formerly a Spanish colony, in 1975 the country was invaded by Morocco and Mauritania. The POLISARIO, the guerrilla fighters of the indigenous Saharawi people, managed to overcome Mauritania in 1979 but, with the help of France, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, Morocco was able to build the longest active military wall in the world in the eighties. This kept the POLISARIO at bay. The two parties accepted a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991, which promised a self-determination referendum on independence for the Saharawi people. However, this has been continuously blocked by Morocco. Meanwhile, over one hundred thousand Saharawi refugees live in camps that also form their state-in-exile in the desert of neighboring Algeria, and approximately half this number live under a violent and brutal Moroccan occupation.

Saharawis in the occupied territories have maintained non-violent resistance against their colonizers since the first rumblings of Saharawi nationalism under the Spanish. Their repertoire of resistance strategies and tactics is wide and varied. In Western Sahara itself, the most widely reported peaks of public resistance to Moroccan occupation have been the mass public demonstrations of the 1999 human rights and 2005 independence intifadas, and the 2010 Gdeim Izik protest camp which, it has been argued, was the spark of the Arab Spring. The camp focused on socio-economic grievances and protested against the illegal exploitation of natural resources. Many Saharawis studying in Morocco find education is also a key site of resistance. 

In its forty years of occupation, Morocco has not seen fit to build a single university in Western Sahara. A wave of Saharawi secondary school student demonstrations in 2002 demanding a university for the territory ended in violent repression. The leader of the campaign, Hamza Lakhal, was expelled and barred from sitting for his baccalaureate exam for 12 years. In the view of Saharawi nationalists, Morocco denies them an education for political reasons—it fears how education might fuel the nationalist resistance. Khairo Mayara, a Saharawi student in Rabat, explains further: “If there were universities, more people would come to demonstrations.” Khairo’s friend, Ahmed Baba, a PhD student in International Law, adds: “We are ambassadors here for Saharawis. We represent our people, and we study for our people. And we study to raise awareness for our people, to help them fight for their rights, their human rights.”

 Indeed, those Saharawis that manage to club together the funds necessary to move to Morocco and study often do so with the national struggle in mind. Cheikh Khaya, a student in Rabat, states, “I chose Law and English in order to help my people. Most students study law because it will help the cause.” Similarly, Ahmed explains:

“The majority of Saharawi higher education students choose to focus on law. But there is no background of scholarship in international law amongst our people. We are the first generation to do this. The previous generations were too busy defending their land. The generation of the seventies and eighties was either involved in the war or exiled to the camps. The nineties, after the war stopped, was a time of assassinations and arrests, especially of those studying. That’s why we have a gap in the education of those in the Occupied Territories.”

When they return home, the university students engage with their compatriots, teaching them to use key parts of international law to support the arguments made in lobbying and advocacy work. Students that have also studied languages help activists to create banners and slogans against foreign corporations in the latter’s own language (British-based energy companies San Leon, Cairn Energy, Glencore, and Teredo Oil and American Kosmos Energy, which plunder Western Sahara’s oil, spring to mind). 

But the activism of Saharawi students in Morocco has another long-term, strategic dimension. In their recent book, Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy claim that, in addition to a larger and stronger solidarity movement from international civil society, “[t]he one thing that Sahrawi activists need more than anything else is sympathy from the general Moroccan public.” In the late nineties, Saharawis that had survived several years of forced disappearance in Moroccan prisons began the task of engaging Moroccan civil society. They had some significant successes: from 1998, the trips of Saharawi ex-disappeareds to Rabat bore fruit when they finally managed to forge working partnerships with Moroccan ex-disappeareds. The Moroccan (illegal) Democratic Alternative political party supports Western Sahara’s right to self-determination and journalists, such as Ali Anouzla, have suffered repercussions for challenging the official regime line on Western Sahara. Now, the young Saharawi university students, amongst others, have picked up the baton from older Saharawi generations and work on new strategies to engage what they see as potential Moroccan allies.

While studying in Morocco, many Saharawis spend much of their free time attempting to raise awareness amongst their Moroccan classmates of the Saharawi perspective on the conflict. Indeed, the Saharawi effort to find allies in Moroccans is an important way to challenge one of the Moroccan regime’s more subtle anti-Saharawi nationalist policies. By forcing Saharawi students to move to Morocco to progress their education, the Moroccan state is pursuing its strategy of what Mundy has called "Moroccanization". When they move Saharawis away from the heartlands of Saharawi nationalism and into Morocco proper, the regime hopes that Saharawis will come to accept the Moroccan perspective. However, the effect is proving to be the opposite. As we have seen, the new generation of Saharawis studying across Morocco are attempting to “Saharawize” their Moroccan classmates. Gene Sharp, a renowned scholar of non-violent resistance movements, sees such actions, (he calls them conversion) to change the views of the opponent’s allies and make them understand the resistor’s perspective, as a key mechanism for change.

 One of the tactics that Saharawi students use is to host what they call “discussion circles.” The aims of the circles are firstly to facilitate an open and democratic discussion about the current situation of their people and what to do about it, and secondly to raise awareness of the plight of the Saharawis amongst Moroccan students. Fatan Abaali, a student in Agadir, describes the target audience of the circles in which he participates: 

“They are not for us. They are for Moroccan people. Maybe you can find at university Moroccan people who don’t know anything about the conditions. They think we live in a tent. And when they come here we challenge the information that they have. We try to establish common relations between Moroccans and Saharawis.” 

Another tactic is to demonstrate. Mahdi Mayara, based in Rabat, describes the aims of the protests that he helps to organize:

“When we demonstrate, we have two objectives: one; to show the enemy that we will never give up, that the Sahara is in our hearts and minds, even when we are here in Rabat; and two, to convince our fellow Moroccan students. Many haven’t met Saharawis before. They have only read propaganda about us in the media. They think that the Saharawis are in the camps in Algeria, that we are aliens. But when they walk past the demonstrations, it makes them think. Since Gdeim Izik, the media has put us in the role of killers, so it’s important to convince Moroccans otherwise. Imagine in the halls of residence you are next to a Moroccan from Fes or Marrakesh. They’ve never met a Saharawi person before. They have just read that we are monsters and so on in the media. But when you smile at him every day, make him a tea, they eventually become open to you. They become your friend. Moroccans are our friends. You see, they too are victims of the regime. They share that with us. […] [But] we are not just demonstrating for Moroccans. We are demonstrating for people internationally who care about justice. When young people in the Occupied Territories see someone who is blonde they think that their small demonstration has the power to make a difference.”

Discussion circles and protests are normally held within the university grounds. However, according to students at the University of Agadir, on occasions the university administration “tells the Moroccan forces and police to attack”, resulting in injuries, kidnappings, imprisonments, and in some dark cases, murder of Saharawi students. Indeed, Khawla tells me that she began to take part in pro-independence protests after her elder brother, also a student, was killed during a peaceful sit-in at the University of Agadir. Bachir Ismaili, who I meet in that city, spent two years in prison for taking part in similar protests, while Sultana Khaya lost her eye while being tortured by Moroccan police after taking part in a student march in Marrakech. Similarly, El Wali Qadimi was left partially paralyzed after being thrown from the fourth floor of a Marrakech University building.

Despite the risks that they run in organizing such events, many Saharawi students feel that they have enjoyed some success in changing the viewpoints of their Moroccan classmates. Almost all Saharawi students interviewed say they have many Moroccan friends, some of whom sympathize with Western Sahara’s cause. Fatan says: 

“You know Hassan II was a powerful dictator and a master of propaganda. So the Moroccan people now are really misguided. They have no idea about what is happening in Western Sahara. So you can’t have a discussion with a Moroccan and talk about human rights or natural resources. You just can’t. […] There are some times [when my Moroccan friends and I] talk about politics. Most of them are blind. But there are some supporters of the cause. I know some Moroccan friends who are supportive of the Saharawi people, especially the educated ones.”

But can efforts to engage Moroccan students ever make a significant contribution toward the overall success of Saharawi nationalist non-violent strategies? From a pessimistic point of view, bar a few sympathetic individual activists within the movement, the "20th February" uprising was perhaps disappointing for Saharawi nationalists. Morocco’s own answer to the Arab Spring, which was comprised of waves of protests between 2011 and 2012 in favor of socio-economic and political reforms, did not incorporate any discourse on Western Sahara’s independence.

On the other hand, some high profile Moroccan students are supporting Saharawis in raising awareness about their cause internationally: Filmmaker Nadir Bouhmouch and writer Samia Errazzouki have both put their heads above the parapet to challenge the Moroccan regime’s narrative on Western Sahara and to stand with Saharawis. They are not the only ones. When I meet Tag, Khawla, and Cheikh at the café of Rabat’s train station before the first leg of my journey home, we bump into one of the latter’s Moroccan classmates. He tells me with a smile: “I aim to be president of Morocco one day, and when I am elected to office the first thing I will do is to give Western Sahara its independence.” He laughs as he turns to Cheikh and adds, “just make sure you give me a Saharawi passport!”


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  • Joanna

    Educated Moroccan, thank you for your thoughtful and respectfully-worded response. With regards to your nod to pre-1975 history, I understand the Moroccan view that the Western Sahara was part of the Kingdom of Morocco before the Spanish colonised. However, the International Court of Justice judges carefully considered this in 1975, and decided – unanimously – that this was not the case and that Saharawis had a right to self-determination. I also understand that this Moroccan vision of a Greater Morocco, ignoring the arbitrary borders of the European colonisers, would encompass not just Western Sahara, but also parts of modern day Algeria, Mauritania and Mali. A return to the borders of historical kingdoms with no regard to international law or ethics is a recipe for violence, as we have seen with Morocco’s invasion of Western Sahara and as we have seen with Palestine.

    I agree that the irresolution of the Western Sahara conflict is a serious threat to peace, security and unity in the North Africa region. I think the Saharawis have shown they are more than capable of running a future independent country through their establishment of a state-in-exile with excellent health and education systems in the refugee camps of Algeria.

    I think the Moroccan elites are the ones who most benefit from the current stalement. Whilst the Saharawis, and indeed poorer Moroccans, suffer the excesses of the Moroccan regime, the king and his cronies and foreign partners reap the benefits of the natural resource exploitation in Western Sahara. I am not sure how Algeria benefits at all.

    I appreciate your call for a compromise. But what is a fair compromise? If I were Saharawi, I would imagine spending over 40 years in exile had already been compromise enough. The Saharawis demand no “right of return”. They are willing to compromise the homes and property lost to Moroccan settlers (and settlers will be welcome in an independent Western Sahara, if they wish to stay, says POLISARIO) as long as they can return to an independent country. Also, seeing how the Moroccan occupation treats Saharawis, I cannot see how the option of autonomy would ever be acceptable – it would just be a continuation of the Moroccan state political violence that Saharawis living there unfortunately know too well. Would that be a fair compromise? I do not think so.

  • educated moroccan

    I am an educated moroccan and i understand the nature and the motivations of the people described in this paper.

    I have also read a lot about this issue from both sides and third parties and didn’t limit my reading to only basic propaganda (from both sides by the way).

    But i have to tell them that i can’t stand with them. And that if i can understand their motivations and would even hope to be friend with them, i will never agree with them and i will fight them politically with the strongest opposition and the same determination and motivation.

    There are always more than one side to a story. And i understand that for some people there is meaning in a nationalist independentist engagment, especially if we consider the story of the independantist movement, the specific timing when it has emerged, and the impact of historical foreign support especially soviet sided countries and algeria that has its own agenda in this matter. History can’t be rewritten.

    But i am sorry to tell them that as an educated moroccan, i also know that the history of our region hasn’t started in 1975 and that its geography isn’t reducible to some drawn lines by former colonialist powers in the desert.

    When it comes to human rights, i consider the human rights of the 100 000 000 maghrebis and not only the 250 000 sahrawis that are one regional group among many many others. I especially consider their right to live in security and stabiliity in a region organised to meet its civilizational and geostrategic imperatives for peace in the short and long term.

    I would agree to consider more seriously their opinion the day i will hear them fight for the independance of mozabites, kabyles, touaregs… wich they have never done. I would still disagree with them but i would consider their motivation with much more respect for its coherence.

    Even in the more advanced democracies people disagree, and you can find the most opposite positions in quite every matter. But democracy is the art of compromise and acceptance of majority opinion. And in this matter, there is a compromise on the table and a vast majority of moroccans (and maghrebis) supporting it.

    I am sorry to tell them that no so called legal considerations can come before the most basic political and geostrategical realities of the region and of our country. I know that the opposite has been told to them for 40 years and that many believed it and even sincerely fought for it.

    The reality of “international law” is a much more complex matter than what they have been told. Simply put, it is a too serious matter to be let to jurists alone. A law is legitimate if the people concerned recognize the legitimacy of the authority that has issued it. And there is a lot to be said about it, the most important thing being that “international law” is more a political instrument than a legal one, and has even less to do with justice.

    As a conclusion i would say, that time for compromise has come for them as the moroccan authorities have already done with the autonomy plan. I know this might be hard, but this has been hard for everybody involved (except algeria’s nomenclatura by the way that are the only ones that benefits from it).

    Compromise is the only true solution here. Because otherwise there is nothing left but sacrifice for a lost cause, and that would make us all sad.

    May peace be upon you all.


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