Morocco’s impressive run of successes in the World Cup has stirred mixed feelings in disputed region of Western Sahara, where two distinct camps of people show their true colours at the end of each match.
The revellers included some Sahrawi people, members of an ethnic group that has sought independence for Western Sahara since Morocco annexed the disputed territory in 1975. Other Sahrawis rooted for Morocco’s defeat on the soccer field or refused to take part in the celebrations.
They accuse Moroccan authorities of increasingly cracking down on independence activists, and of touting the World Cup team’s success in Qatar to distract the population from economic challenges.
And yet there are others. The presence of some Sahrawi fans cheering for Morocco in the streets of Laayoune illustrates the unifying power of the first Arab or African team to advance so far in the world’s biggest sporting event. Morocco’s national team, known as the Atlas Lions, faces defending champion France in Wednesday’s semi final.
Al-Salik Al-Yazid, a young Sahrawi in Laayoune, said “the historic success of the Moroccan national team” has created a collective feeling of “overwhelming joy that included all Arabs and Africans, despite the constant discontent with the Moroccan state.”
He called it a sign of gradually shifting mindsets among younger Sahrawis who grew up under Moroccan rule and under a 1991 cease-fire that ended a 16-year conflict between Moroccan forces and Algeria-backed Polisario Front independence fighters.
“With the growth of generations merging and coexisting in one common environment, it has become natural to find Sahrawi individuals celebrating the victory of the Moroccan national team,” Al-Yazid said. “Many Sahrawis have overcome the problem of identity caused by decades of political struggle” he told AP.
However, a long-promised referendum on the territory’s future never took place. Low-intensity hostilities have reignited, leaving the truce at risk of unraveling in Morocco-controlled Western Sahara, the American news agency claims.
Sahrawi people make up a minority of the estimated population of 350,000 in the territory.
In past tournaments, Sahrawis generally supported the Algerian team. Activists accused Moroccan police of violently suppressing celebrations of Algerian victories. Algeria didn’t qualify for this year’s World Cup.
When Morocco played Spain last week, some Sahrawis welcomed Morocco’s win and others wore T-shirts supporting Spain, the Western Sahara’s former colonial ruler. Some threw stones at people celebrating the Moroccan victory.
Mohamed El-Yousefi, a Moroccan resident of Laayoune, said he understands the resentment, calling it “closely linked to the conflict in the desert.”
Some Sahrawi people, he said, rejoice in good faith, and others “hate everything that comes from Morocco.”
“Happy Moroccans also sometimes fall into the trap of politics and chant phrases such as ‘We won out of spite against the enemy’ in reference to Sahrawis who are dissatisfied with Morocco’s victory,” El-Yousefi said.
Sahrawi independence activists say it’s not possible to separate the Moroccan team from the Kingdom of Morocco itself.
The team represents the Royal Football League and by extension the monarchy, “which for us is the cause of the tragedy of our people through its forceful occupation of Western Sahara,” said Mubarak Mamine, a Laayoune-based Polisario Front activist.
“Football is a tool used by the Moroccan regime to divert the attention of the Moroccan people from their basic issues, especially in light of the deteriorating economic and social conditions in the country,” Marmine said.