Free Wafaa Charaf: Jailed champion of Moroccan immigrant workers and the Saharawi struggle
Alex Cole
issue 19
January 2015
wafae charaf

Free Waafa Charaf: this photomontage depicts two views of her in action.

Wafaa Charaf is a high-profile Moroccan political prisoner. The growing campaign to free her — which has broad support beyond Moroccan borders, especially in Europe — is drawing international attention to national and political oppression in Morocco. Wafaa Charaf is a young woman leader who is a committed working class campaigner, union organiser and human rights activist. She supports Democratic Way, which is a Marxist Party, and the 20 February Movement, a youth movement which was inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and spearheaded a series of mass democratic rights protests in 2011.

After attending a trade union demonstration in support of a sacked worker in Tangier on 27 April 2014, Wafaa was abducted by several unknown men, probably police officers. She was beaten, warned to stop her activism, and dumped on the road, 12 miles outside of the city. She made the courageous decision to publicise and condemn the attack as an attempt to silence political dissent. The police responded by arresting and prosecuting her for the false reporting of a crime and for slander. In August she was sentenced to a year in prison and huge fines. When Wafaa appealed against her jail sentence, it was doubled!

Beyond the postcard: oppression in Morocco. Morocco is often forgotten in the English-language news media. But this North African country has 33 million people and is strategically located at the Atlantic entrance to the Mediterranean. Morocco has strong links with Spain and France, which established colonial “protectorates” in the country in the 19th and 20th centuries. After the end of the French protectorate in 1956, the Moroccan ruling class reasserted itself, establishing a parliamentary constitutional monarchy in which the King takes an active role. The King is head of the armed forces, promotes his own policies, and has the power to appoint prime ministers. But unlike other North African countries, multiple parties are able to stand for parliament: there was even an administration led by social democrats from 1998 to 2002.

Below the surface of prime ministers and parliamentary coalitions, however, deeper conflicts are sharpening. Employers continue to tighten up workplace control. When workers attempt to improve pay and conditions through union organising, they are often blocked. There are extensive legal limits on unions. Workers can be prosecuted for sit-ins and active pickets. This is a particular problem in the new Export Processing Zones (EPZ), which are restricted-access areas. Anti-union discrimination, while technically illegal, is widespread as is privatisation: services such as call centres are contracted out to private employers who sack the unionised workforce. The police also routinely beat up militant workers. Part of Wafaa Charaf’s activism was supporting union organising, including sacked workers, in the EPZs.

In Morocco, racism and national oppression is entwined with anti-union laws: union officials are required to be of Moroccan nationality. This is significant because Morocco is a trans-migration zone for sub-Saharan Africans moving to Europe. Many migrants never make it to Europe, but remain in Morocco being exploited in the worst jobs. Other migrants attempt to sneak to the Spanish enclave of Melilla on Morocco’s north coast. Moroccan security forces routinely intercept, round up, beat, rob and summarily expel undocumented migrants. Morocco’s ban on foreign union officials is an attempt to get Moroccan-born workers to identify with “their own” national rulers and employers, rather than struggle in solidarity with migrants. Crucially, Wafaa’s activism gave high priority to building solidarity for migrants.

The West Sahara occupation. Another reason why the Moroccan state encourages national chauvinism is to maintain support for its aggressive attitude to neighbouring nations: in particular, its ongoing occupation of West Sahara. This is a strip of coastline and desert to the south of Morocco. West Sahara is also bordered by Algeria to the northeast and Mauritania to the east. The indigenous Saharawi people have a tribal and nomadic tradition. Their ancestry and culture derives from mixed Berber, Arab and African influences. Some Saharawi tribes also have a history of resistance to rule by neighbouring kingdoms.

Spain colonised West Sahara from 1884 and withdrew in 1975. The United Nations (UN) asserted the right of the Saharawi to self-determination in 1963. But Morocco also claimed sovereignty of West Sahara. The UN’s International Court of Justice ruled in 1975 against Morocco’s claim. Morocco proceeded to invade West Sahara regardless. The invasion was brutal, including aerial napalm attacks on Saharawi civilians. Tens of thousands of troops were deployed, expanding to a peak of 150,000 in 1988. The bulk of West Sahara, including the entire coast, was captured by Morocco. It remains under military occupation, surrounded by a system of walls, tanks and artillery.

Military resistance to Morocco was led by the Polisaro Front, which declared the Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic in 1976, and has managed to maintain control of an inland strip of West Sahara. Polisaro has been supported military and financially by Algeria, which has a long-running enmity with Morocco. Algeria is home to between 75,000 and 165,000 Saharawis in refugee camps. Polisaro has adhered to a ceasefire agreement since 1991, led on by the UN and African Union with the promise of a referendum on self-determination. But almost a quarter of a century later, the referendum has never been held — the mandate to hold it has been extended 39 times!

Morocco heavily subsidises about 260,000 settlers in West Sahara. The U.S., a long-standing ally of Morocco, helps fund these subsidies and supports the integration of West Sahara into Morocco. There is some debate in Morocco as to the economic benefit of the occupation. It contains valuable fisheries and rich phosphate mines, but there are huge costs of maintaining settlements and military forces in a desert with little water or agriculture. One explanation for the continued occupation is that there are prospects for oil and other mineral discoveries in West Sahara.

Another reason is that the occupation is a key ideological component of Moroccan state power; the settlements are a symbol of the state’s seeming permanence and dominance. The occupation is also strongly tied to the reputation of the monarchy. King Hassan II sponsored the 1975 “Green March” into West Sahara by Moroccan civilians (backed by 20,000 troops). On the anniversary of the march this November, his son Mohammed VI reaffirmed his commitment to the occupation, declaring, “Morocco will remain in its Sahara, and the Sahara will remain part of Morocco, until the end of time.”

West Sahara Flag

As part of a 2010 day of action, the City of Freemantle flew the West Saharan flag. Council noted that large quantities of stolen West Saharan phosphate is imported to Western Australia by Wesfarmers and demanded that this illegal trade be stopped.

This situation explains the Moroccan regime’s intolerance of criticism from activists such as Wafaa Charaf. The regime is anxious to present a democratic face to the world but, just like the Green March, it ensures the democratic display is carefully choreographed and does not hesitate to use state violence if participants depart from the script. Like nationalism elsewhere, the Moroccan variant is based on the exploitation and exclusion of oppressed nationalities, both migrants and indigenous peoples.

Stand with the Saharawi. International solidarity is needed to support the Saharawi right to self-determination, and this is only possible with the withdrawal of the Moroccan military occupation. Support for the Saharawi cause is strong in Australia, where parallels are drawn with the long struggle of the East Timorese. East Timor, a small country to the north of Australia, was invaded by Indonesia after the departure of the Portuguese administration in 1975.

Increased support from working people is urgently required: the great number of supportive formal resolutions from the UN and African Union has done little to advance the Saharawi cause. Campaigns led by the Australian West Sahara Association (AWSA) have succeeded in stopping a number of Australian agricultural companies from importing West Saharan phosphate. AWSA has also sparked an Australian Unions for West Sahara group, which has built support in the Australian union movement. The 2012 Australian Council of Trade Unions Congress supported the call for self-determination for West Sahara and backed the campaign to boycott the importation from Morocco of fertiliser produced with stolen West Saharan phosphate. The group is seeking union backing for the campaign to free Waafa Charaf.

Ultimately, the Saharawi cause is tied up with that of Moroccan working people. A well-organised, multi-racial Moroccan working class could overthrow the ruling class, which exploits workers to enrich itself and to fund wars, including the occupation of West Sahara. The cause of the Moroccan working class will be immeasurably strengthened by following the lead of activists like Wafaa Charaf: solidarising with the aspirations of the Saharawi to throw off the yoke of national oppression.

The struggles of the Saharawi for self-determination, of Moroccan workers — both local and immigrant — for dignity and the campaign to free Wafaa Charaf are completely intertwined. Charaf is locked up and abused because she supports these struggles. Her imprisonment is an attack upon the rights of workers and oppressed nationalities in Morocco. The campaign to free her must be an international working class cause.

To help win support the Australian union movement for the campaign to free Wafaa Charaf, unionists can contact Ron Guy (guy@dow.com) or Alison Thorne (alison.thorne@ozemail.com.au)