Transitions

MINURSO is making a mess in Morocco

I don't know much about the code of conduct of U.N. Peacekeepers, such as those deployed in the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). But I'm going to assume that it's probably OK for peacekeepers to post photos of people that they meet on their Facebook group even if they are politically sensitive.

But on the other hand, I presume that sitting in a tent with the young Sahrawis (whose conflict with Morocco MINURSO is supposed to be monitoring), across from a giant Sahrawi flag, and stating that "the land is your land and no one will take it away from you," while making references to the Egyptian revolution, and urging them to think of "the creation of MINURSO as being in your favor," is probably a no-no.

Unfortunately this is precisely what one officer did. On video.

 

The Moroccan public opinion has never looked favorably upon what they perceive as the secession of the Western Sahara; many view MINURSO as merely an accessory to such event.

The conflict long predates the mission though. Historically part of Morocco, the Western Sahara was a Spanish colony between 1884 until 1975, when Moroccan pressure led to the Madrid Accords, splitting the territory between Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario front, a Sahrawi independence movement, was less than pleased with that arrangement and waged a guerilla war against both Mauritania and Morocco.  The U.N. settlement plan in 1991 led to an end of hostilities, and the establishment of the MINURSO, with the dual mandate of "verifying the ceasefire and cessation of hostilities" between Morocco and the POLISARIO movement, as well as overseeing the preparation of a popular independence referendum for the people of the Western Sahara. Conflicts over voter eligibility have prevented the referendum from taking place, with no plans to conduct it in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the Mission remains in place to monitor the violence.

Furthermore, over the past two weeks, suggestions within the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) to enlarge the mandate of MINURSO to include human rights monitoring in the Western Sahara, were naturally severely criticized by Moroccan political forces across the board.

It is in this context that this video scandal emerged. As you can probably imagine, the Moroccan blogosphere is not elated.

Apparently first published by Telexpresse (a relatively unimportant news website), the undated video was published under the headline [Ar.] "Danger: Video showing two members of MINURSO incite detainees in Tindouf to revolt." The article misreports the conversation between the officer and his audience, and ends with this:

"This is the surreptitious and dangerous face of the MINURSO forces in the Moroccan desert, and shows the covert role that its members continue to perform against international norms and convention, not to mention the sexual scandals and misconduct carried out by these elements within the country, infiltrating the Islamic rituals and modesty"

Granted, all online coverage wasn't that insane, but not much less so.

The officer in question is an Egyptian major identified by news websites as Hany Mustafa Hamad Ali. In the video he is shown flanked by a second soldier, an Argentine identified as Julio Estibar Eduardo. Ali is already the subject of a Facebook petition, created on Monday, demanding his expulsion.

Admittedly, most of the officer's "advice" in the video is pretty ridiculous -- the ramblings of man enjoying the uninterrupted attention his insignia confers him -- but that in no way excuses his behavior, particularly in a region that, more than a mere disputed territory, is a matter of national pride for every Moroccan. The video also felt like a betrayal: Like most Arab countries and the League of Arab States, Egypt recognizes the territorial integrity of Morocco and its sovereignty over the Sahara. But the Arab League's support on this question has since been modest, as the League prefers to defer the matter to the UNSC. The Western Sahara issue failed to make it to the Arab League's list of regional "Issues and Crises" [Ar.], and in 2012  the League's Secretary General Nabil El-Arabi was quoted [Ar.] in an Algerian newspaper as asserting the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination - the League was prompt to deny that such a statement was issued and that he had been misquoted. But that may not have fully succeeded in convincing Morocco of the Arab League's full support on this issue.

In the meantime, anti-Egyptian slurs are emerging on Moroccan social media, and anti-MINURSO sentiment is extremely high.

On Thursday, the UNSC renewed MINURSO's mandate, after the United States withdrew its proposal to enlarge it. It is doubtful that the video would have repercussions on the presence or mandate of the mission. It could however harm the fragile balance that exists between Morocco and MINURSO, especially if popular pressure intensifies.

As for Egypt and Morocco -- well, relationships between North African states have soured for much less. This could potentially go much further.

Neither MINURSO nor Egypt have, as of yet, issued any statement regarding the matter. They'd better do, and fast. Disciplinary measures, including the removal of said officer from the mission, would be a good beginning. 

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.  

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The French embassy car bomb in Libya

A massive car bomb targeted the French embassy in the Libyan capital of Tripoli this morning. The explosion occurred around 7 AM local time in the residential area of Hay al Andalus. Two French guards were wounded. So was a Libyan girl who lived in a nearby house. She had to be flown to Tunisia for specialized treatment.

The Libyan minister of interior, Ashour Shuwial, said the damage was extensive, but because the explosion occurred early in the morning, the number of causalities was minimal. That however, didn't stop Libyans from worrying about the broader implications of the attack, which doesn't bode well for the country's fragile security situation.

French president Francois Hollande was quick to condemn the bombing, and immediately dispatched his foreign minister (shown above) to Libya -- along with a team of French investigators to work with Libyan authorities to identify those responsible. He also described the attack as targeting not only France, but "all countries in the international community engaged fighting terrorism."

France has intensified security arrangements for its embassies across the North Africa and Sahel regions. Since France sent in troops to help fight an Islamist insurgency in Mali in January, the French diplomatic missions in the region have been on high alert. The Libyan government has also been working to improve security for all diplomatic missions in the country since the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on September 11th, 2012 that killed four people, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

In general, the security situation in the country has been improving steadily since Ali Zeidan assumed office as prime minister in October 2012. Moreover, Libya's Ministries of Defence and Interior have been working on plans to create a specialized diplomatic security unit as part of a larger overhaul of the country's security services. According to the government's plans, the diplomatic security unit will fall under the command of the army chief of staff, Youssef al-Mangoush. Yet the proposal is controversial -- other military officers are increasingly calling for Mangoush's dismissal, accusing him of corruption, incompetence, and failure to establish a strong national army.

Libyans have come to dread receiving news of violence against diplomatic missions or foreigners in their country. Following the morning's attack, Libyans took to Twitter, Facebook, and TV to express condemnation of all acts of terror, with many describing the bombing of the French embassy as an "attack on all Libyans."

Online campaigns started shortly after the news of the bombing in Tripoli unfolded. A Facebook page was created calling for mass demonstrations throughout Libya and in Tripoli in particular to condemn all forms of terrorism, planned for Friday, April 26. In addition, an online petition was started, calling for the government to rebuild and strengthen the security sector and establish control over the country's borders.

Many of the comments on Facebook and Twitter express concern about the country's future economic prosperity. Attacks on foreign targets drive away much-needed foreign investment and deter international companies from returning to Libya to resume previously halted projects. Libyans are also concerned that if such violent incidents continue, foreign intervention will be necessary in order to bring the security situation under control.

Attention is now turning to how Prime Minister Zeidan's government will act. The General National Congress (Libya's interim legislature) has summoned the minister of interior and the intelligence chief to attend parliament for a hearing regarding the circumstances that led to the attack on the French embassy.

The minister of interior is expected to be grilled over the security arrangements for diplomatic missions in Libya. Libyans will judge Zeidan and his government, who have enjoyed huge public support thus far, by their success or failure in identifying those responsible -- and bringing them to justice.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.  

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images