Claire Spencer

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A mural at a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria. Photo: Getty Images.

For more than 40 years Morocco and the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, have contested claims to sovereignty over the Western Sahara. But two key UN players currently seeking to resolve the conflict are both seasoned and serious politicians who might just be able to provide a breakthrough.

The UN secretary-general and former Portuguese prime minister António Guterres, previously led the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, for more than 10 years. He has a special concern, as he wrote in an annual status report released by his office on 29 March, for the ‘exasperation’ of thousands of Sahrawi refugees stuck in camps near Tindouf in southern Algeria for over four decades.…  Seguir leyendo »

Demonstrators protest against price hikes in Tunis. Photo: Getty Images.

Civic protests look set to become the theme of this year in a number of Middle Eastern and North African states.

The year began with the Iranian protests in full swing. Then, for the first two weeks of January, thousands of people took part in sporadic protests across a number of Tunisian towns and cities against the apparent indifference of the government towards the impact of austerity. Its citizens have borne the brunt of IMF-backed economic reforms as the country struggles to regain economic balance seven years after the Arab Spring.

The protests continue this week in the southern Tunisian town of Metlaoui over jobs – or rather the lack of them – in the region’s phosphate mines, a main source of work and income.…  Seguir leyendo »

Protestors hold a picture of protest leader Nasser Zefzafi in Al Hoceima. Photo: Getty Images

Street protests in the northern Moroccan city of Al Hoceima had already been ongoing for seven months when the self-styled leader of the protests, Nasser Zefzafi, was arrested for disturbing Friday prayers in a local mosque and insulting the imam and the content of his sermon. His release, and the release of 40 others arrested at the same time, have now been added to the demand for jobs, a fully equipped cancer hospital, a university and the fulfilment of around €600 million-worth of local investments. These were promised in 2015, but have yet to materialize.

At a time when North Africa is beset by concerns over the spread of jihadist extremism and official clamp-downs on popular movements, the Al Hoceima protests are unusual for being just what they appear to be: genuine grassroots demonstrations to hold local and national authorities to account. …  Seguir leyendo »

A Moroccan youth walks past a wall depicting the symbols of the political parties running for the parliamentary elections in Morocco on 7 October 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

Unusually for the Arab world, Moroccan elections have the merit of not being entirely predictable. This is partly because conducting public opinion polls ahead of voting is prohibited, but also because the 'dirty tricks' department of the Ministry of Interior has reined in its horns in recent years. King Mohammed VI of Morocco is understood to want a genuine political arena to develop, in order to balance, if not counterbalance the ultimate political authority the palace still enjoys. The 2011 general election victory of the Islamist-led government of the Party for Justice and Development (PJD) was seen as an experiment in affording greater executive leeway to a popularly elected party.…  Seguir leyendo »

A Sahrawi woman holds a Polisario Front flag during a ceremony to mark 40 years since it proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Photo by Getty Images. - See more at:

The Western Sahara conflict has eluded resolution for so long that the principles underlying United Nations-led efforts to seek an enduring outcome have become muddied almost to the point of cancelling each other out.

Forty-one years since its inception, diplomatic language rather than arms has become the medium for the continuation of the dispute. The annual highlight is the renewal of the UN Security Council’s peacekeeping and monitoring mission to the region at the end of April, which in the words of the US permanent representative to the UN, Samantha Power, was particularly 'challenging and contentious' this year.

For many, this is the forgotten conflict that pitches the defence of the right of self-determination of the Sahrawi people against the de facto restoration of Morocco’s sovereign control over territory formerly subject to a colonial-era Spanish protectorate.…  Seguir leyendo »

A rally on 14 January 2016 in Tunis marks the fifth anniversary of Tunisia's 2011 revolution. Photo by Getty Images.

On 14 January, Tunisia celebrated the fifth anniversary of the popular deposition of erstwhile President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in a sombre mood. Five years on from the uprisings which displaced Ben Ali’s regime the main achievement of the struggle for political reform has been the revision, article by article, of Tunisia’s constitution, which is now the most progressive in the region.

The same cannot be said of the coalition government that emerged from Tunisia’s first post-constitutional elections in 2014. Instead of defining—and finding the means to implement—a clear vision for Tunisia’s future, the North African country’s political classes remain stubbornly focused on their own internal divisions, many of which are rooted in the past.…  Seguir leyendo »

Over the past week there has been much wringing of hands over Syria, and rightly so. At every turn, the Gordian knot has been tightening, with little prospect of it being cut.

Monday's grim news was that the founder of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the erstwhile Syrian army colonel Riad al-Asaad, was seriously wounded in a targeted car bomb just before the Syrian National Coalition assumed Syria's seat in place of the Assad regime at the Arab League meeting in Doha.

In war things rarely run smoothly, but the tragedy of Syria lies as much in the fragility of the coalition supporting the rebels as in the inconclusiveness of the rebels' own political and military battles.…  Seguir leyendo »