RABAT, Morocco — Sitting outside Rabat’s contemporary art museum, clad in a New York Giants baseball hat and smoking his sixth cigarette of the hour, Hicham Bensari, an organizer of the internationally covered protests against United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaks on the subject which remains on every Moroccans’ mind, weeks after the shouts of the demonstration have long since silenced.
“He threw a bomb,” Bensari, 38, says, still heated weeks after the United Secretary General’s words sparked Morocco’s largest national demonstration in history. Bensari, along with being a demonstration organizer, is a member of Morocco’s Rassemblement National des Indépendants political party (RNI)–a party closely associated with the palace. “He came back there. At the end of his mandate to push for instability in the region.”
Bensari joined thousands of his countrymen and women to show the world their anger and passion for their nation’s territorial unity.
Morocco and the United Nations have been playing a verbal game of tug-of-war since Ban controversially referred to the Western Sahara as “occupied” during a visit to Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria early last month. The Secretary General’s rhetoric hit a 40 year old nerve in Morocco, resulting in heightened tension and international repercussions.
The roughly 100,000 square miles, located in the south of Morocco, has been under territorial dispute since Spain withdrew in 1975. In 1991, the United Nations facilitated a ceasefire between Morocco, who claimed the land as its own, and the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed movement that pushes for the independence of the territory. The ceasefire was brokered under the condition that a referendum would be held to determine the status of the Western Sahara. That referendum has yet to occur.
Ban’s statements were sparked by apparent frustration in a lack of compromise between Morocco and the Polisario Front, all at the expense of the Sahrawi refugees living in the camps, whose living conditions Ban referred to as “deplorable.”
“The parties to the Western Sahara conflict have not made any real progress in the negotiations towards a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution,” stated Ban. “We should be able to provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara as the Security Council [has been] requesting since 2004.”
Quick to react, the Moroccan government, in a press release responded to the Secretary General’s rhetoric, claiming that this terminology “dangerously undermines the credibility of the UN Secretary General” and “abandoned [The United Nations’] neutrality, objectivity and impartiality” and that “these outrageous words hurt the feelings and dignity of the entire Moroccan people.”
Equally quick in their response, the Moroccan people mobilized on the bright, hot morning of March 13 in the nation’s capital, with hundreds of thousands of Moroccans gathering outside of parliment. Their chants and songs mixed with the whir of the military helicopters scanning the airspace above them, all to send a loud and politically charged message to the United Nations.
“Do not touch the stability of the region.” This and other slogans captured the spirit of the day–one of nationalism and resolve.
Ban responded in a statement released by United Nations spokesperson Stephanie Dujarric calling the demonstration an “attack” that was “disrespectful to him and to the United Nations.”
Further countering Ban’s rhetoric, Morocco has recently pulled all 84 United Nations civilian personnel from the Western Sahara, the first real move with political consequence resulting from the tension between Ban and the Moroccan government.
Resulting in this maneuver, Ban has recently backtracked, claiming that the offense was a “misunderstanding.”
Following this pattern, it is now Morocco’s turn to respond. However, further response, according to Bensari, will hinge on the upcoming report that the Secretary General is due to release in April.
In the meantime, Bensari stands behind the demonstration he helped rally. He is firm: “We want,” he says, “the whole international community to understand that all Moroccans are behind their king and the government about this issue.”