Catalan referendum met with mixed response in Maghreb
Tunis- Calls for independence in Catalonia are finding a sympathetic audience in the Maghreb, which shares important historic and geographic ties with the autonomous Spanish region.
The official response of North African governments, many of which are dealing with territorial disputes within their own borders, has been more cautious, however.
In Morocco, the Sahrawi nationalist Polisario Front has been fighting for independence in Western Sahara for almost four decades. Morocco maintains the region is an integral part of the kingdom.
Mindful of this struggle over Western Sahara, the Moroccan government lent support to Madrid in its efforts to stop Catalonia’s independence bid.
El Houssein Abouchi, a constitutional law professor at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech, said Rabat’s “position stems from the government’s opposition to secessionist movements and the defence of state territorial unity and integrity.”
“There are political groups that oppose Rabat in Western Sahara but the Spanish government backs Morocco over the Sahara issue,” he added.
Algeria is on the defensive against a movement in the Berber-speaking Kabylie region, whose inhabitants have long sought independence from what they term the “Arab-Islamic colonisation” of Algiers.
Government officials remained quiet about the Catalan issue, as voicing support for the referendum would put them at odds with Spain, a key gas importer, and coming out against it would contradict their support for the Polisario Front on the principle of self-determination.
But the Algerian daily Algérie Patriotique, which is widely seen as the unofficial mouthpiece of the Algerian Foreign Ministry, warned against “secessionism.”
“The contagion of secessionism seems to spread and would spare no state if it were to continue unchecked. We knew the threats against state unity in Libya, Iraq and Syria,” the newspaper said.
Iraqi Kurds had a non-binding referendum in September, in which more than 90% voted to break with Iraq. The result did not immediately result in independence but Kurdish leaders said they remain committed to negotiating an independent state.
Breaking Libya into three entities has been proposed by factions fighting for power and wealth since Muammar Qaddafi’s regime was ousted in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising.
The Kabylie independence movement in Algeria came out in strong support of Catalan’s campaign, urging its own population to follow suit.
“It is a very beautiful lesson for many Kabyles who are lost within a stalled Algerian nationalism. You must follow the Catalan example. Wake up and stop dreaming of a democratic and free Algeria,” said a statement signed by movement spokesman Neddaf Mokrane.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in April in Tizi Ouzou, the largest city in Kabylie, to commemorate the “Berber spring” uprising in 1980.
In Morocco, intellectuals took issue with Spanish figures who opposed Catalonia’s independence movement while supporting separatists in Western Sahara.
“I went carefully through the list of these figures and spotted many of them who often voice support for the Polisario,” Moroccan writer Fouad Laroui said in an opinion piece.
“(This) means they are against the independence of Catalonia, a nation of almost 8 million people with its proper language, traditions, history, a rich industrialised nation that will remain prosperous without Spain while they support the independence of a desert region with a population that is the equivalent to a Catalan district,” he added.
Other intellectuals and activists urged the government not to use Madrid’s forceful response to the Catalan crisis as an excuse to crack down on protest movements in Morocco, such as in the northern Rif area.
“It is indeed attractive to compare Catalonia to the Moroccan Rif region because both regions have suffered from repression and collective punishment by the central government in the first during the Francoism and the second from iron-fist rule of King Hassan,” said Moroccan historian Mohamed Boudhane. “But the comparison between what the central Spanish government did in Catalonia on October 1 and what the central government of Morocco has been doing in the Rif since May 26 is not possible.”
“The Catalans breached the rule of law by staging an independence referendum but the population in the Rif took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations since the death of fishmonger Mohsen Fikri to demand freedom, dignity and social justice. Do these demands breach the law and the constitution?” he asked.
The largest protest movement since the “Arab spring” in 2011 broke out last October after Fikri, a 31-year old Moroccan fish-seller, was crushed to death in a rubbish truck in the northern Al-Hoceima region as he tried to retrieve a confiscated swordfish.
Months of protests grew into a wider social movement known as al-Hirak al-Shaabi in May. Moroccan police arrested approximately 300 demonstrators.
“It is true and fair to assert that we do not accept opponents’ calls for support of foreign powers to trample our sovereignty but the international public opinion offered and is still giving a kind of brake towards some regimes who crush their people,” said rights activist Youssef Itabtou.
“It would do no good to use the intervention of the Spanish police to prevent the Catalan independence as cover and excuse to repress those who demand basic dignity.”