One of the world's longest running conflicts--the three-way struggle between Morocco, the separatist Polisario Front and its protector, Algeria--is finally posed to come to a peaceful end.
Morocco put forward an enhanced autonomy plan more than 10 years ago.The plan would allow the Polisario fighters to lay down their arms and move home without fear of arrest or persecution in exchange for running a semi-independent government inside of Morocco. It would enjoy sovereignty similar that of a state in the U.S.
The plan was quickly dismissed by the Polisario, a rebel group holed up in Saharan wastes outside of Tindouf, Algeria, as well as by the Algerians themselves, who use the rebels as a tool in their regional rivalry with Morocco. The three-way conflict might have made sense during the Cold War, when Morocco was America's ally and Algeria often travelled in a Soviet orbit, but those days are long gone.
Now Algeria and Morocco face a common foe: religious extremists. Increasingly, it appears that some members of Polisario Front have been assisting terrorists and drug dealers cross the desert and find guns or foot soldiers. "Le Quotidien d'Oran", an Algerian weekly that is generally pro-government, warned that terrorism's threat should make the Algeria rethink its support for the Polisario. This June 2005 article has proved to be prescient.
Now, business and political leaders are starting to say the same things.Even a former prime minister of Algeria is now says what was once unthinkable: it is time to put aside support for the Polisario in exchange for regional unity against terrorism.
Finally, in the Polisario camps outside of Tindouf, through radio broadcasts and smart phones, young adults are starting to see the conflict in a new way. They know that they are among the very poorest people in the world and are entirely dependent of aid from European and United Nations agencies. They know that war has kept them poor. They long for change.
A royal welcome for King Mohammed VI on his visit to the Moroccan Saharan province of Laayoune, February 4, 2016.
They also know that the diplomatic deadlock between Morocco and Algeria is but an illusion. ISIS' new North African allies and the al Qaeda's armed bands are changing the priorities of European and American diplomats. The Paris attacks and the migrant crisis in Europe has accelerated NATO's desire to maintain North Africa's stability. They know the consequences of failure. One French official put it this way: If the North African governments fall, it is like pulling the cork out of an upside-down bottle--millions of refugees will flow into Europe.
Algeria itself is changing. It is weary from decades of fighting Islamic radicals in its southern desert and in its cities. As oil prices sink and debt climbs, Algeria is tottering on the edge of financial crisis.
Polisario leaders would be wise to make a deal before Algeria, pushed by economics and self-interest, forecloses the option and abandons them. For all of these reasons, the youth of the Polisario camps seeks a peace deal.
Time may be running out for a deal. Internet-enabled phones from allow Polisario camp dwellers to see what life is really like in the disputed territories of southern Morocco. It is akin to East Berliners watching West German soap operas and being captivated by the prosperity that should be theirs. In the end, the wall fell because the Easterners knew what was on the other side. Are the Polisario youth any different?
There is no doubt that, within the disputed territory in southern Morocco, the people, the land and the economy have been transformed in the past 40 years. In the 1960s, in the so-called Western Sahara, people lived largely as they did in the 600s. Today most inhabitants live in high-rise apartment buildings, not nomad tents. Billion-dollar investments have brought water, power and prosperity. Indeed, the southern provinces now enjoy an economic development on par with that of Morocco's northern provinces.
When the Moroccan king travels to the south, it is never as a war leader--it is a providers of investment. The Moroccan Government has invested billions of dollars in the past 15 years as have many Europeans and Americans. During those visits, the last in 2015, and then again this week, the king's plane brings entrepreneurs, executives, and project developers. New Western hotel towers surround new marinas which are joined by new highways to schools, hospitals and airports. From the sky, it looks more like California than Africa.
Morocco is poised to make history soon -- when the first phase of one of the world's largest concentrated solar power plants starts generating electricity. When fully operational, it will produce enough energy for more than one million Moroccans, with possibly extra power to export to Europe.
Located on the edge of the Sahara desert, the Noor-Ouarzazate power complex is putting Morocco on the map as a solar superpower.
Moroccan King Mohammed VI dedicates the Noor1 and Noor2 solarpower ventures in Ouarzazate, south-central Morocco.
The first phase, titled Noor 1, will be operational this week after King's visit to Sahara.
"Morocco stands at the forefront of climate-friendly policies in the region," Inger Andersen, World Bank Regional Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa, says in a CNN report.
These projects will change lives of Sahrawi. And the people of the Polisario camps yearn for the life offered in Southern Morocco--they want their leaders to make peace so that they can enjoy prosperity and freedom too.
While all of these forces are aligned for an historic shift toward peace in North Africa, what is still needed is a catalyst. If not, and this opportunity passes, war and poverty will continue to drive refugees into Europe. Europe is only 9 miles from the African coast. By now, Europoe must know that it is better to end a war than house its victims. And America must know that failing to solve regional conflicts, even in the seemingly far away North Africa, invites repercussions at home.