Huffpost Impact
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Elizabeth Blackney Headshot

From the Arab Spring to a Saharan Winter

Posted: Updated:

After the Arab Spring, there has been no summer bounty. No enlightenment. No renaissance in the Arab Islamic world. Ethnic cleansing continues unabated in Sudan. The horrors in Homs, Syria show the terror a despotic regime will perpetrate to keep power.

The fairy tale ending we were promised from Tahrir Square in Cairo where protesters demanded freedom and toppled the Mubarak regime is lost. What once seemed so exciting and full of promise has resulted in more corruption, violence and the destruction of Egypt's tourist industry. What Mubarak knew as did his Minister of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass, was the preservation of Egypt's rich pre-Islamic history and the thousands of years of artifacts and archaeological sites that make up a significant part of human history kept Egypt from sliding into chaos. From Cleopatra, back to King Tutankhamen, and Amenhotep and even biblical tribes that once dotted Egypt's landscape, Mubarak understood that Egypt's financial stability required some level of pragmatism with the Western world and a robust tourist industry was the ticket. Nobody would be so foolish as to suggest life in Egypt was terrific but it was more prosperous and there was a (too) slow path toward a better, more modern future.

The nation now faces life under the Muslim Brotherhood's iron grasp, corruption and a devastated tourism industry that died in a breath after Mubarak and Hawass' departure. Poverty is de rigeur. And freedom never came.

There are lessons to be learned from the unrest. The Kingdom of Morocco and Algeria have a long simmering debate over the former Spanish territory, the Western Sahara. The native Saharwis are spread across the vast desert. Thousands remain imprisoned on Algerian soil in the Tindouf refugee camps. The Algerians will not allow them free passage to the desert, and beyond the berm lays their native land where an Autonomy agreement awaits - with their freedom for self-determination and long lost families separated by time and political turmoil. While some would note that a few carefully chosen Saharwi leave the camps for "vacations" in the Canary Islands or elsewhere, it is never a family who dissents from the Polisario Front's line in the sand. Dissent is not welcome.

There is no perfect solution. The only leadership, aside from the Moroccan government, comes from the Polisario Front which is developing strong ties to al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and is now accused of stealing humanitarian aid from the very people it purports to care about most. Their excursions into Mali and Mauritania, sovereign nations, to conduct illicit and often murderous activities is one of many growing concerns.

One year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced strong support for the Moroccan plan to reporters, "We have stated our belief that Morocco's autonomy plan is serious, realistic and credible, a potential approach to satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity."

U.S. policy remains supportive of the autonomy plan, and it is easy to see why. The Carnegie Endowment recently noted the ties between the Polisario Front and AQIM are troubling. They warn about the profound instability this would create in the region.

"AQIM and its offshoots in the Sahel are already working to expand their partnership with smugglers from massive refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, and to enlist recruits among the disenchanted youth there. If AQIM strengthened its alliance of convenience with the Polisario, the movement that has long fought for Western Sahara's independence, a formidable terrorist organization could emerge."

They also note:

The undergoverned areas abutting the Western Sahara, especially northern Mauritania and the Polisario-administered camps in southwest Algeria, are becoming major hubs for drug trafficking, the smuggling of contraband, and the circulation of weapons. There is growing evidence to suggest dangerous connections between criminal organizations, AQIM, and the Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf. Such links are bound to deepen should the social and political conditions in the camps deteriorate further or if civil unrest plagues the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.

The astonishing thing, in light of so much evidence, is the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights continues to support the Polisario Front's celebrity humanitarian activist, Aminatou Haidar. Haidar is a 2008 Human Rights Award Laureate for the RFK Canter, despite her support for an organization that actively steals from its own people, contributes to their suffering, and is a handmaiden for al Qaeda in the Maghreb as well as the brutal Algerian regime.

Haidar visited the Washington, DC and New York last week, to tout the Polisario's cause. Her star, her rise to prominence is based on a hunger strike and a shared concern for the Saharwi with Javier Bardem, and other prominent Spanish media figures as well as the considerable forces affiliated with the RFK Center and other sympathetic human rights organizations. Let us take the hunger strike first. As a woman who completed a 40-day hunger strike, I understand quite specifically what the physical and mental sacrifice is. The outcry of so many supporters for her, while touching, makes me wish that rather than advocating a political agenda that only benefits her patrons -- she actually backed a solution, any solution, that provided for the end of suffering for all Saharwi people. I am not questioning her motives, it is clear that she believes she is doing good work. However, I am questioning those of the Polisario who encouraged her suffering so they could prolong the torment of dissenters in Tindouf and elsewhere.

My awareness of Haidar originated last summer. Javier Bardem, a champion for war ravaged Congo, also lent his celebrity to the Polisario's cause and also came rather forcefully to Haidar's defense. He supports the Polisario Front's position and views Morocco with suspicion. Throughout my career, the people I have admired most are those with strong convictions based on a full picture however frustrating it may be.

Partisanship must be removed from humanitarian work. There are tremendous things happening with every passing day. Morocco's leadership will eventually lead to autonomy for the Saharwi, despite the Polisario and AQIM's efforts to hold that future hostage. Diplomacy led by the Moroccans, the French, the United States and the United Nations will eventually bear fruit. It would be best for the people most directly affected to have angels among them, to have leaders like Haidar acknowledge freedom equals justice.

As long as hostages and dissenters are held in bondage, the responsibility lies with their jailers: the Polisario Front, Algeria, and al Qaeda in the Maghreb.