In October 2020, a group of Sahrawi protesters parked their cars and installed tents on the only commercial road linking Morocco with the rest of Africa. It is a fundamental route for trucks transporting vegetables (going south) and fish caught in Mauritania and Senegal (going north). The protesters claimed the road was illegal, as it was located along the demilitarized zone in Western Sahara. The move drew the attention of the international community on the longstanding conflict over Western Sahara, in view of renewing the UN peacekeeping mission. It also forced the breaking of a ceasefire that had lasted since 1991.
Western Sahara: A Thorny Issue of Resolutions and Referenda
The issue of Western Sahara is one of the thorniest on the African continent. It all started in the aftermath of the Spanish decolonization, with Madrid leaving this region claimed by the Moroccan government in 1974. The subsequent conflict between Rabat and the Polisario Front –which emerged as the main force demanding the independence of Western Sahara and autonomy of the native Sahrawis – has not been resolved yet.
The issue of Western Sahara is one of the thorniest on the African continent.
The United States, under the Trump administration, officially recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara at the end of 2020. The governments of France and Spain also, at least at the formal level, support Morocco’s sovereignty claims over the territory. But, the United Nations, not to mention popular opinion in the West, are pressing for an official recognition of Sahrawi autonomy. Strong tensions erupted in August 2016, when Morocco invaded the independent area of Western Sahara, violating a UN ceasefire. Currently, this territory is divided into different zones, some autonomous and others occupied by Moroccan troops.
Still, UN resolution 690 states that Western Sahara is a non-autonomous territory. It demands a referendum on self-determination, which was first scheduled to take place in 1992. However, it has long been postponed because the two sides – the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government – have never agreed on whom should have the right to vote (or whether the displaced Sahrawis in refugee camps are effectively entitled to vote). Until such a solution is found, whether through referendum or another mechanism, UN peacekeepers of the United Nations Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) have monitored the area to prevent an outbreak of violence between the two sides, along a 2,600 km-long wall that Morocco has erected in the area under its control (about 80 percent of the region).
Members of the Polisario Front live in the refugee camps of Tindouf, in southwestern Algeria, along with some 170,000 Sahrawis. The overpopulated camps, located in inhospitable desert territory, have become almost entirely dependent on foreign aid – especially from the EU. But, more frequently, it is Algeria rather than Morocco that has attracted criticisms over conditions in the camps. Aid supplies are often hijacked. Last year, the EU parliament, along with various NGO’s, accused dignitaries of the Polisario of having blocked the transfer of aid along the El Guergarat border, where Polisario militias engage in provocative actions ranging from acts of terrorism to drug and human trafficking.
The overpopulated camps, located in inhospitable desert territory, have become almost entirely dependent on foreign aid.
The truce that began in 1991 lasted until last November 13, 2020, when Moroccan and Polisario soldiers exchanged gunfire—following the Sahrawi protest in October, blaming each other for having violated the longstanding ceasefire. In 2016, the European Union declared Western Sahara independent of Morocco, yet Rabat continues to control the vast majority of the territory; Polisario controls the rest.
Furthering the tensions, on November 21, 2020, several Sahrawi activists blocked a commercial route in Guerguerat, an area that links Mauritania with the territories of the Western Sahara.
“Palestinians of Africa”
The Sahrawis are sometimes described as the “Palestinians of Africa.” Certainly, the Polisario Front, activists, and sympathizers of the movement have evoked the Palestinian struggle as a parallel to encourage support for the Polisario Front’s secessionist ends. Algeria, which became independent after a bloody anti-colonial struggle, has spread this comparison in its aims against Morocco. And it should be noted that the Polisario Front would not survive without the considerable support it receives from the Algerian government (as an example, consider Algeria’s marked concerns regarding Rabat’s diplomatic gains over Western Sahara).
The comparison with the Palestinian cause is one of convenience and does not stand up to scrutiny.
But the comparison with the Palestinian cause is one of convenience and does not stand up to scrutiny. The Algerian and Libyan governments— then under Houari Boumedienne and Muammar Gaddafi respectively—originally backed the idea of an independent Sahrawi state in the context of Pan-Arab nationalism – an ideology that Arab monarchies rejected.
El Ouali Mustafa Sayed, a Moroccan student and a member of the Moroccan Communist Party before becoming one of the founders of the Polisario Front, in a 1970 article described Western Sahara as the target of Western imperialism, which wanted to establish a presence in the Maghreb to act as a base from which to control revolutionary movements as Israel did to thwart revolutionary movements in the Middle East.
Moreover, the fact that Polisario’s flag looks like the Palestinian one may not be coincidental. Sympathetic media and activists have built a narrative of similarities between Polisario and the Palestinian struggle, including the use of such terminology as “the wall of shame” and “occupied territories.” In the case of the former, Morocco has replaced Spain as the imperialist power, as Israel replaced the United Kingdom. Critics of this approach would be correct to point out that the comparison to the Palestinians is exploited because the Polisario’s cause is marginal. Thus, it needs to latch on to the more widely known and supported Palestinian cause. The Palestinian representatives, for their part, have stated that they do not support the Polisario.
Apart from criticisms directed against Rabat or Madrid for the conditions of the Sahrawi refugees living inside Algerian territory, one of the media’s main blunders in fostering equivalency between the Palestinian and Polisario struggles is the right of return. Israel has always rejected United Nations General Assembly resolution 194 (passed in December 1948) which establishes the “right of return” for Palestinians. For its part, Morocco considers all Sahrawis as Moroccans and full citizens.
Morocco has encouraged not only the right of return, but also the actual return of any Sahrawi, whether a Polisario official or a refugee from Tinduf, without reprisal.
Morocco has encouraged not only the right of return, but also the actual return of any Sahrawi, whether a Polisario official or a refugee from Tinduf, without reprisal. That is a fundamental difference between Morocco and Israel. Consider the case of Omar Hadrami. He was one of the Polisario founders and a native of Saguia El Hamra – one of the territories that make up Western Sahara. In 1989 he “defected” to Morocco, serving Rabat in various high-level administrative roles in various provinces of the Sahrawi regions. Hadrami’s story is not unique. Many others have taken similar paths. Surely, the Palestinian struggle has broken into divergent paths. But few of its leaders, whether from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), or Hamas over the decades have taken up, much less been offered, prestigious posts in the Israeli government.
Another fundamental difference between the Palestinian and Sahrawi struggles is that the latter have the option of autonomy as part of a peace resolution. And it is a peace without the need to make impossible compromises of identity and faith such as in the case of Palestinians being forced to give up East Jerusalem, leaving the fate of the Temple Mount in question, and having to endure an embarrassingly low extent of real sovereignty, as proposed by the so-called Deal of the Century. Rather, Morocco considers a just solution to the Sahrawi issue as part of its ongoing effort to build a modern and democratic society based on the rule of law. On January 15, Morocco held a conference to propose a solution to the Sahrawi dispute.
Reiterating a plan first proposed in 2007, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita recently addressed representatives from 40 countries and stated that Rabat would grant considerable autonomy to the Sahrawis, preserving their tribal composition, and allowing them to manage their own affairs through independent legislative, executive, and judicial bodies—even if the territory would remain under Moroccan sovereignty. Dakhla, a major fishing center on the Atlantic coast and the town where the United States and other countries have planned to set up consulates, serves as a model for this project.
An autonomous Western Sahara region would enjoy Rabat’s financial support to develop in all areas, even while remaining fully integrated in Morocco’s economic, social, and cultural life. Under the plan, Morocco would make Western Sahara into a trading center, linking Morocco to the rest of Africa. The Polisario Front, for its part, continues to push for independence, believing that it will inspire a referendum for the self-determination of the territory and its half a million people. The momentum, however, could be moving toward the Moroccan solution.