Kicking sand in their face

Western Sahara is caught between Moroccan overlords, the Sahara desert and an uncertain future

The Arab Spring has so far not reached the nomadic Muslims of El Aaiun. Or Semara or Bir Gandus. Or in fact any town at all in Western Sahara. And it looks likely that it will be blown off course as it tries to reach down to the desert coastal territory.

When Spain left in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania both rushed in for a land-grab and the local Polisario Front declared Western Sahara to be the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Mauritania has since retreated, leaving only an anomalous section of its national railway in the far south-eastern corner.

Morocco has done more than roll a few engines through the dunes in the last 36 years. The UN-supported republic only has legitimate administration in the thin eastern slice of the country that is not governed by Morocco. The rest, including El Aaiun, the capital, is run by Rabat. For those from Tangier down to Agadir, the Southern Provinces are considered a fundamental part of the kingdom.

The UN disagrees and sees Western Sahara as a part of an ‘incomplete decolonisation’. On 15 April, the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that despite the repeated stalling of talks over the dispute (10 rounds of UN discussions have taken place in the last four years), the international community must make more effort to find a solution to the problem.

A ceasefire has been in place since 1991 and Morocco has floated a proposal to devolve more autonomy to the 500,000 Sahrawis. The Polisario Front have rejected this idea and Mr Ban admitted that:

“While both emphasise their full commitment to the search for a solution, a total lack of trust continues to haunt the negotiating process, and each party harbours deep suspicions of the other.”

Sahrawis, spread out across a large, arid (but rich in phosphates) country, will not be able to remove Morocco in the same way the Tunisians and Egyptians kicked out their presidents. They cannot organise a rendez-vous on Facebook. The nomadic version of Islam that had developed there means they cannot get together on Fridays to plot the latest post-prayer protests.

They will have to rely on the UN coming to a definite agreement with Morocco to hold the long-postponed referendum on self-determination and try to garner firm help from the 50 or so countries which have formalised foreign relations with the republic. South Sudan recently became Africa’s newest independent nation. The dream for Sahrawis is that it does not take them too much longer to capture that title.

The politics of the presidenta

On Sunday 31 October, Dilma Rousseff became the president-elect of Brazil, replacing her mentor and supporter, the outgoing Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. Modernists hailed the election of the first female Brazilian premier, and Rousseff became the ninth Latin American presidenta. But do female politicians in the Latin America have to rely on the support of men to get into power?

Machismo prevails across the Latin world but although men have dominated the political sphere, women have been increasing their presence over the last 40 years, since Argentine Isabel Martinez de Peron rose to prominence as the first elected female head of state in the Western Hemisphere. She was also vice-president during her husband’s third stint in the Casa Rosa. Argentina is no stranger to matrimonial politics and the current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, took over the presidency from her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in 2007.

But on 27 October he died suddenly of a heart-attack, leaving Cristina on her own, both maritally, and politically, for although he had stepped down from the presidency, Mr Kirchner still had a major seat at the top table, running the Partido Justicialista (Justicialist Party) behind the scenes while his wife shook hands with other world leaders.

Such was the force and influence of Kirchner that commentators rushed to point out that ‘Kirchnerismo’ passed with the death of Nestor and that the key aim for Cristina now would be to try to see out the rest of her term in office and reaffirm her political principles, goals and direction, all of which were thrown into disarray by her husband’s death.

Indeed, some critics argue that all the objectives she has outlined so far have been her husband’s policies, and that her challenge now is to show that she is not just a puppet and demonstrate that she can lead her nation without the support of her husband.

In the case of Brazil, a different sort of wedding has been the main reason for the success of Dilma Rousseff. The marriage is purely political but it has been a conjugal arrangement which Rousseff has flouted to the maximum, using her proximity to Lula (and his fanatical popularity) to carry her to victory in last Sunday’s electoral run-off.

Once again, just like Mrs Kirchner 3,000 km to the south, the case arises of a female president facing the challenge of defining herself to the nation and displaying distinct political objectives. Brazilians have been extremely pleased with the direction in which Lula has been taking Brazil and they have chosen a politican built in very much the same vein as the outgoing premier.

Moreover, the fact that the new incumbent of the Palacio da Alvorada is a woman means that she has an extra responsibility to use her new position to show to the world that Brazil can be as successful under uma presidente as it was under Lula. To her credit, Rousseff has already made it clear that social and sexual equality will be a flagship policy of her period in office. She is caught between maintaining the popularity of Lula and not being seen as purely an inexperienced pawn of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party).

She has acknowledged the rise in status of the Green Party, whose presidential candidate in the first round was also a woman – Marina Silva. Indeed, the fact that many first-round votes which Rousseff had expected to go to her in fact went to Silva necessitated a run-off a month later. Rousseff has accepted the need to follow a green agenda in power, a possible policy declaration which shows that she has already recognised the challenges which a popular Green Party, led by another popular female politican, could create for her in office.

But these two Latin giants have not been the only countries where females have flexed their political muscles and over the years Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have all elected female heads of state. From 1999-2004 Panama was led by Mireya Moscoso although her waning popularity towards the end of her term affected her chosen successor, Jose Miguel Aleman, and he failed to follow her into office, showing that the ‘Lula’ affect has not always been the case. In addition, Michelle Bachelet was in power in Chile until earlier this year when she was defeated by Sebastian Pinera. And the current president of Costa Rica is Laura Chinchilla.

The majority of these women have run on centre-left manifestoes and have been leading campaigners of social reform. But often the closeness of ties to men means that there are inevitable restrictions to navigate. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner lost a pillar of political support when her husband died and Dilma Rousseff cannot spend her whole presidency invoking her mentor; she has to continue Lula’s popularity while carving out her own policies to carry out which can define her as a separate success in her own right, not just one who basked in the glow of a former, male president.