AGADIR, Morocco–In a small, dilapidated apartment in Agadir, in southern Morocco, student activists are meeting in secret. In defiance of the country’s authorities, they are planning protests for the independence of a disputed territory claimed by Morocco that is commonly called the Western Sahara. These students—men and a few women—risk police crackdowns, arrests and beatings by the authorities. And yet, they keep protesting.
“When we protest, we have just 10 minutes, no more, before the Moroccan forces come,” said Mhamed Hali, 28, a Ph.D. candidate in international law, who comes from the city of Laayoune in Western Sahara.
Student activists face “harsh beatings” from Moroccan authorities, according to Jacob Mundy, an assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University and co-author of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution. The conflicts on Moroccan university campuses escalated after what’s sometimes called the Second Sahrawi Intifada, in May 2005. The Sahrawi are the people living in the western part of the Sahara desert, including the disputed area. Tens of thousands of Sahrawis also reside in refugee camps in Algeria, where they migrated after the Moroccan government moved to claim Western Sahara in 1975.
“Ever since [the Second Sahrawi Intifada], it has seemed that there is not only a permanent state of tension on Moroccan campuses, but also that the Sahrawi students will no longer be silent,” added Mundy.
One of the few female protesters is Laila Fakhouri, 20, a student at Ibn Zohr University in Agadir. Fakhouri is from Guelmim, a town in southern Morocco. Although she was born in Morocco, she is of Sahrawi descent and comes from a family of prominent Sahrawi activists who have had run-ins with the authorities, including her cousin, Mbarak Daoudi, who is serving six months in prison for possessing weapons, a charge he denies.
Fakhouri, dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, says discrimination at her university prevents her from wearing her malfa, a traditional Sahrawi dress that drapes over a woman’s head and body. She says that if she lived in a free Western Sahara, she could wear cultural clothing without being stigmatized.
“All students, be they Moroccan or Sahrawi, have a legitimate right to freedom of expression, movement, association and assembly, and the Moroccan government has a duty to respect and protect those rights,” said Fakhouri.
Activists like Fakhouri regularly protest on their university campuses on holidays that commemorate key gains in the movement for Western Saharan independence. The next holiday is Oct. 12, the 40th anniversary of the Day of National Unity, which celebrates the unification of pro-independence forces in Western Sahara.
In April, the United Nations renewed a peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara called by its acronym, MINURSO. The renewal—drafted by the United States and overseen by Britain, France, Spain and Russia—was passed without a provision to monitor human rights in the contested land, despite recommendations by the Polisaro (a political organization that represents the main Western Sahara independence movement), the African Union and human rights groups.
“In the Occupied Territories (land under Moroccan control), the Sahrawi people endure a premeditated campaign of human rights abuses, including murder, torture and disappearance, as well as harassment and intimidation,” Polisario representative Kemal Mohammed Fadel wrote to the United Nations last year.
Moroccan officials insist that they promote human rights in Western Sahara, and are calling on the international community to instead focus on the Polisario’s alleged abuses, including embezzlement of humanitarian aid meant for Sahrawis in refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.
The United Nations, the European Union, and the United States have expressed support for the self-determination of Western Sahara. In 2006, Morocco unveiled an autonomy plan that would allow Western Saharans to govern themselves while remaining under Moroccan sovereignty. The United States hailed the plan as “serious, realistic and credible,” but the Polisario is demanding a referendum for complete independence. Earlier this year there was a glimpse of hope as the Moroccan state authorized a major activist group known by the acronym ASVDH (the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State). Still, many other pro-independence organizations remain unrecognized, as documented in a Human Rights Watch report published in August on the legalization of rights groups in Morocco and Western Sahara.
Students are allowed to protest on university campuses in this North African kingdom, but police can intervene when violence occurs – or is threatened.
“We avoid allowing law enforcement in the university unless it gets really dangerous, but whenever the Sahrawi students protest, they are ready to be violent. They come armed, and in their minds they are ready to fight,” said Rachid Daoudi, general secretary of the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences at Ibn Zohr University.
While the number of Sahrawi students who are willing to take the risks involved in turning out for protests is relatively small, close to 100-150 students regularly attend discussions hosted by student activists on Moroccan university campuses. There is a range of opinion. Even Sahrawis are not “monolithic in their political views,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “Many of them are pro-regime, pro-union with Morocco.”
Regardless of their opinions on Western Sahara, Sahrawi student activists say the Moroccan authorities seek to isolate them in just a few universities.
“We are limited to Marrakesh and Agadir,” said Hali, the student from Laayoune. “The aim of the system is to keep Sahrawi activities in a very limited area because if we are widely spread into all the universities around the country, it would be hard for [the government] to control [our protests].”
University officials reject this accusation, explaining that all Moroccan students are required to study at schools in their regions. With no major public universities in Western Sahara, they say, Sahrawi students naturally study in Marrakesh and Agadir, the two closest cities with universities.
Sahrawi student protests are concentrated on these campuses, where one can find a variety of opinions about the protestors. Some students think Sahrawi students are paid to protest by backers of the Polisario, including Morocco’s neighbor Algeria. Tensions are high between the two countries.
“The known activists are the ones who are taking part in the secret services of Algeria,” said Hicham Medraoui, 33, a master’s degree student in Agadir.
Sahrawi activists in Marrakesh and Agadir deny these accusations, instead emphasizing the dangers they face by protesting. In the 1970s, when the student movements first began, they were brutally repressed by Mohamed Oufkir, then a powerful Moroccan military officer. Many observers believe his crackdown on student activists radicalized the movement.
“I’ll fight for any way to be known, any way to be heard, ” said Fakhouri, the female activist, clutching her hands together for good luck. “If I die, I want to be a good example. I want people to talk about me and say what I did.”
Brennan Weiss and Julia Levine spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media www.RoundEarthMedia.org, which is supporting the next generation of global correspondents. Imane Benichou contributed reporting.