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UFC fighters involved in sportswashing Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara

Karim Zidan delves into the Green March Gala football match taking place in the Western Sahara desert and the concerns that it is being used by Morocco to distract from human rights abuses in the Western Sahara. 

UFC fighters Abu and Ottman Azaitar

On Wednesday, November 6, legendary athletes from around the world convened at the Sheikh Mohamed Laghdaf Stadium in Laayoune, Western Sahara for a football gala match celebrating the 44th anniversary of the Green March in Morocco.

Those who participated at the Green March celebration, which commemorates the 1975 movement when 350,000 unarmed Moroccans marched into the Sahara to protest Spanish occupation of the desert, included international football stars such as Luis Figo, Rivaldo, and Rafael Marquez. The event also featured UFC fighters Justin Gaethje, as well as Moroccan natives Abu and Ottman Azaitar.

The football match is a key aspect of the annual celebration, as dozens of retired international footballers are selected and divided into two teams based on their country of origin. One of the teams consists of players from Africa and the Middle East, while the second team features players from the rest of the world.

While the event is viewed as a celebration of Morocco’s successful protest against Spanish imperialism, it is also an opportunity for the kingdom to distract from its ongoing occupation of the Western Sahara and the human rights abuses committed against the local Sahrawi population.

The Green March

On November 6, 1975, 350,000 Moroccans marched into the Sahara to protest Spain’s century-long occupation of the Western Sahara. Armed with little more than Moroccan flags, green banners and Qurans, the protestors marched through the desert under the leadership of King Hassan II and eventually came face-to-face with the Spanish forces.

Faced with a historic mass protest and international pressure, Spain rescinded its claim to the desert, signed the Madrid Accords, and agreed to leave the territory by May 23, 1976.

Since then, the Green March — named after the colour of Islam — has been seen as a pivotal moment in recent Moroccan history. Each year, Moroccans commemorate their victory over Spanish imperialism and celebrate it as a national holiday. However, there are several territorial disputes in the Western Sahara that remain unresolved to this day.

Spain continues to control Ceuta and Melilla, two port cities along Morocco’s northern Mediterranean coast. Spain’s far-right party, Vox, has since revealed their intention to build walls at the Moroccan border with the port cities to limit the migration between the two countries. In response to these claims, a spokesperson for the Moroccan government, Mustapha El Khalfi, stated that the kingdom views the enclaves as occupied territories.

“The position of the kingdom has been known for a long time,” he said during a press conference on September 12, 2019.

Another notable dispute is the ongoing conflict between the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi national liberation movement, and the Moroccan kingdom. Following Spain’s withdrawal from the region in 1976, Morocco and Mauritania annexed the Western Sahara while the Polisario Front established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Determined to fight for independence, the Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, waged a 16-year war against Morocco and Mauritania known as the Western Sahara War.

By 1991, Morocco and Polisario reached a ceasefire agreement on the condition of a referendum on self-determination. During that time, Morocco controlled 80% of the disputed territory, known as the Southern Provinces, while the Sahrawis maintained 20% as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and small pockets of refugee camps along the Algerian border. These borders remain largely unchanged.

While large-scale conflict has been limited since the ceasefire, Sahrawi activists held widespread protests and demonstrations in 1999 which would later become part of the First Sahrawi Intifada. These later morphed into larger demonstrations and riots in 2005, where Sahrawis demanded their independence and an end to the occupation. However, Morocco responded with police crackdowns, forced disappearances of political activists, and increased oppression in the form of arbitrary restrictions of rights.

On August 1, 2019, Sahrawi protestors in Laayoune took to the streets to celebrate Algeria’s victory at the African Cup of Nations football tournament. They waved Sahrawi and Algerian flags and chanted peaceful slogans celebrating the victory. According to Amnesty International, Moroccan security forces used “excessive force” to disperse the peaceful crowds, which sparked clashes between the two groups. They also claimed that a 24-year-old woman was killed after being struck by two Moroccan auxiliary force cars.

“There is clear evidence to suggest that the Moroccan security forces’ initial response to the Sahrawi protests, which began peacefully, was excessive, and provoked violent clashes which could and should have been avoided. The authorities must impartially and effectively investigate the attacks on protesters and bring to justice anyone suspected to be responsible in fair trials,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.

At least 13 people were arrested during the protests, including four teenagers aged 14-17.

A resolution to the ongoing conflict between Polisario and Morocco remains ongoing. On October 30, 2019, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2494, which renewed the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara for one year. It also called on parties involved to work with the UN to find a practical political solution.

Displeased with the UNN resolution, Polisario has since threatened to withdraw from upcoming peace talks because it believes the one-year extension is Morocco “exerting pressure” on the Security Council. Morocco’s UN ambassador Omar Hilale has since responded by saying that the “referendum is over; referendum is dead.”

“They have been lying for forty years that there will be independence,” Hilale said. “There will never be independence. The only solution is autonomy under the sovereignty of Morocco. The resolutions of the Security Council are not talking about independence.”

Sportswashing an Occupation

For several years, Morocco has used football as an integral part of its Green March celebrations.

In 2018, the kingdom hosted retired football players like Ronaldinho, Roberto Ayala, Mido, and El Hadji Diouf. The 2019 edition brought in players such as Rafael Marquez, Hernan Crespo, Javier Saviola, Luis Figo, Rivaldo, Edmilson Moraes, and Diego Forlan, all of whom played in the exhibition match on November 6.

According to Morocco World News, the selected athletes were invited by UFC fighter Abu Azaitar, who also reportedly serves as the president of the Green March organizing association.

“We are so proud to gather and celebrate the glorious Green March,” Abu Azaitar told the press in 2018. “People from Brazil, Colombia and Europe representing different disciplines such as football and kickboxing have come to share our moment and most importantly contribute to the humanitarian act we aim to fulfil.”

The UFC fighter was also present at the 2019 gala, where he posed alongside his brother Ottman, Luis Figo, Samuel Eto’o, and Egyptian actor Mohamed Ramadan as they arrived in Marrakech, and later with UFC fighter Justin Gaethje and trainer Trevor Wittman.

Abu Azaitar is one of the most intriguing and controversial fighters on the UFC roster. Born in Germany to Moroccan parents, Azaitar and his brother grew up in Cologne where they were known in the German press as the “brutal twins” because of their notorious exploits and criminal history. In November 2003, Abu Azaitar and his brother Omar appeared in juvenile court, where the former faced charges of inflicting dangerous bodily harm and the latter for gang theft.

Abu Azaitar, who was 17 years old and recently graduated, was accused of brutally attacking a businessman, threatening his life by dousing him in gasoline, and stealing his Ferrari. He was sentenced in June 2004 to two years and three months in prison. His brother, Omar, however, was given 20 months on probation.

According to reports, Abu Azaitar served his sentence and was released in 2006. However, his trouble with the law did not come to an end. That same year, Abu and Omar Azaitar were accused of participating in a brawl at a martial arts gym, where they violently beat a man until they broke his nose. Abu Azaitar also faced accusation of assaulting his girlfriend at a Christmas market and punching her repeatedly until her ear drum burst.

By 2007, Azaitar had dedicated himself to MMA and, over the course of the next decade, competed for notable promotions in Europe such as Cage Warriors and KSW. He then signed with controversial manager Ali Abdelaziz and debuted on U.S. soil for World Series of Fighting (WSOF). His eventual success as an MMA fighter caught the attention of King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who met with Azaitar and his brothers on April 21, 2018. The brothers even attended Friday prayer service with the King and his family and stayed long enough for Abu Azaitar to complete a portion of his UFC training camp in Morocco.

Abu Azaitar with King Mohamed VI

Abu Azaitar has since posted several pictures of himself alongside the Moroccan king. One of them carried the caption: “Your Majesty, Our dear King Mohamed VI .. I can’t thank him enough for everything he has done for us. He is one exceptional role model for all of us. We incredibly respect and appreciate him as a great personage. Both the realest sportsman himself and a one of the biggest supporter of sports! My beloved King, may Allah take you and your family under his protection and always keep you healthy! What a pleasure and honor to be side by side with our king, who we love so much.”

Given Abu Azaitar’s evident loyalty to the Moroccan monarchy, it comes as little surprise that he is reportedly a presiding figure in the kingdom’s annual distraction from its occupation of the Western Sahara. Even his brother and fellow UFC fighter, Ottman, participated in the propaganda campaign when he posted a picture of himself in the Sahara with a Moroccan flag above the caption: Moroccan Sahara.

Despite the star-studded gala’s convenient overshadowing of the occupation of the Western Sahara, the Sahrawi government responded in a press release that Morocco has no sovereignty over the Western Sahara and that the Sahrawi people will continue the liberation struggle.

“The attempt by the King of Morocco to play on numbers and falsify history and facts, a feature of the Moroccan diplomacy, aiming at concealing that his strategy to bypass the reality of the Sahrawi Republic, has failed in a resounding manner and ultimately forced Morocco to sit next to the Sahrawi Republic in continental and international conferences and forums without conditions. The Moroccan attempts to buy time and its belief that the creation of lobbies and buying loyalty will impose Morocco’s supremacy in the aggressive war against the Sahrawi people is an approach based on false calculations, and on adventurous and reckless illusions and analyzes.”

Morocco’s latest case of sportswashing — a term coined by Amnesty International in 2018 to describe authoritarian regimes using sports to manipulate their international image and wash away their human rights record — is a reminder of the lengths that occupying governments will go to to present themselves as saviors rather than oppressors.

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