LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara – Helmeted Moroccan riot police waded into the small crowds of women in brightly colored shawls who chanted slogans for independence on the streets of Laayoune, the capital of the disputed territories of the Western Sahara. Every time one group of the mostly women and children protesters was dispersed, another would appear farther down the street, attracting phalanxes of police. The confrontations continued long after dark and degenerated into stone-throwing contests.
The harsh police response against the Sahrawis, as the region's native inhabitants are known, contrasted with the conciliatory gestures the Moroccan government have been extending to the restive desert territory that it annexed 38 years ago. Just weeks before the demonstrations, the government announced a potentially groundbreaking, 10-year economic plan to boost the standard of living and increase respect for human rights — but that has done little to defuse tensions.
The stakes are higher than Morocco's internal problems. The Western Sahara neighbors Mauritania and Algeria are both at the center of the West's fight against terrorism in the deserts of north Africa. The presence of up to 100,000 angry refugees from the Western Sahara in camps in neighboring Algeria has attracted the concern of U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who described the refugees as a regional source of instability.
In 1975, Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara and fought a local independence movement called the Polisario. The U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991, pending a referendum over the territory's fate that has never taken place. Now the Moroccan government is presiding over a population with nearly twice the unemployment as the rest of the country, amid growing international unease over the situation.
At dusk in Laayoune's Sahrawi neighborhoods, the tension is palpable, with security trucks on every corner surrounded by riot police in helmets and shields.
El-Ghali Djimi, a former political prisoner and a founder of local human rights groups, said she fears her children growing up in this atmosphere may turn to violence, radicalized by the harsh tactics of security forces. Terrorism has been absent from the Sahrawi conflict since the 1991 ceasefire, but concerns are rife that disgruntled youth in the cities or the refugee camps may turn to violence or even become recruits for al-Qaida.
"My generation, the older ones, we have a tolerance, but the youth don't," she said.
Djimi's rights groups, like others founded by the Sahrawis, are not recognized by the state, which is very sensitive over who monitors human rights in the territories.
Proposals by the U.S. in April to expand the mandate of the U.N. monitoring mission to include human rights provoked strong protest from Morocco. Instead, the government said, the state-founded National Council for Human Rights performs that function.
Sidi Mohammed Salem Saadoun, the executive director of the council's local branch, said that after a demonstration in October, police broke into some 70 homes of people in retaliation. He noted that this didn't happen after the most recent protests Dec. 10, calling it a step in the right direction.
Saadoun admitted, however, that "much still needs to be done." Out of the 442 complaints the group has submitted to the government on behalf of people since 2011, it has only received seven responses.
The new development plan was publicly backed by King Mohammed VI during a speech in November and calls for overhauling how Morocco manages this desert territory of 500,000 people.
"There's just a general consensus that things were not working and I think this plan just laid it out," said Anouar Boukhars, an expert on the region working with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "If the plan is buttressed by judicial and police reforms, which must be done, it has the potential to address the grievances of the local population."
Morocco faces an uphill battle, however, to convince many disaffected Sahrawis of its commitment to human rights and cutting unemployment in half.
Years of harsh treatment by security forces has left a legacy of bitterness among many inhabitants, some of whom maintain that self-determination through a U.N.-supervised referendum is the only way to improve their fate.
"If we get self-determination, all the problems can be solved — with another 10 years they are just playing for time," said Dalil Lehcen, an activist studying how Western Sahara's rich phosphate and fishing resources are used for Morocco's benefit. "They haven't done it in the last 37 years — no one in the Western Sahara trusts Morocco."
The new plan, devised at the request of the king, tacitly acknowledges that things aren't going well. It proposes restoring the trust between authorities and the people by "affirming the primacy of human rights, respecting the authority of the law and guaranteeing access to justice."
Yet the powerful governor of the territory, the man who will be leading the implementation of the plan, denied there was any lack of trust between the people and the authorities. He expressed bafflement at the claims that the proposal implies shortcomings in the justice system.
"Everyone has equal access, I really don't know what they are saying with that — there is no problem," said Khalil Dkhil from his office.
He also presented a very different vision of the periodic protests that wrack the city of Laayoune. "People have sold their souls to the devil Algeria," he said, describing the protesters as a small minority taking money from regional rival Algeria, which host the pro-independence Polisario movement and supports Western Saharan independence. "They pay children to throw rocks and women to go into the street and provoke police. It's just a question of money."
As seen by the harsh reaction to the Dec. 10 demonstration, which left dozens injured, the authorities fear losing control, said one prominent human rights activist.
"They don't really want to open the area to human rights because they know it is like dominos," said Mohammed Salem Lakhal, founder of the CODESA human rights group. "You touch the first piece and all the pieces will fall down."