Western Sahara: After Decades of Failed Diplomacy, It’s Time for Civil Society to Lead the Way

The conflict in the Western Sahara between the Moroccan regime and the Polisario Front, a rebel group founded by indigenous nationalists, has spanned close to half a century despite intervention from the African Union and the United Nations. After decades of failed diplomacy, what can be done to pave a way forward in the Maghreb’s longest running conflict?

The anatomy of a protracted conflict  

The Moroccan regime and the Polisario Front, a rebel group founded by indigenous nationalists in Western Sahara, have been in conflict since 1976 when the Polisario declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the territory formerly colonized by Spain, that sits to the south of Morocco, in a region bordering Algeria and Mauritania. The conflict, that has unfolded in a region that sits on the cusp of West and North Africa, has spanned two generations of royal rule in Morocco, after Hassan II, the father of the current king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, launched “the Green March” to occupy the territory abandoned by Spain in 1975. The conflict that has displaced thousands, continues unabated, despite official support from the United Nations for the self-determination of Western Sahara, with most member states not accepting Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. Recently, the Trump administration offered recognition in exchange for the normalization of ties between Morocco and Israel, but no other major powers followed suit. The Biden administration continued to act in a neutral manner, as a pen holder in the Security Council.

The Polisario, who are estimated to control 20 percent of the disputed territory, and the Moroccan army, who control and estimated 80 percent, were enthralled in a bloody conflict until the signing of a UN brokered ceasefire in September 1991. The two parties agreed to hold a referendum that would decide the political future of the territory. However, the referendum never took place because there was a disagreement about the size of the electoral college and who could participate. For Morocco, any person with any link to the territory has the right to take part in voting. For the Polisario, only the people who were registered in the territory in the 1970 Spanish census and their descendants are eligible to vote.

Meanwhile, thousands of refugees are living in tents at the Algerian border, relying on international aid and hoping to go back to their homes. The cease-fire was more or less respected until November 2020, when Moroccan armed forces secured a town called Guerguerat at the border with Mauritania where Polisario activists were blocking the road, preventing the traffic of trucks from and to Morocco. This led the Polisario to announce they would resume armed struggle. Although there have been clashes periodically, the conflict has remained a relatively low-intensity one.

Western Sahara: Algeria and Morocco’s battleground?

The conflict has been fueled by a long-standing rivalry between regional powers Algeria and Morocco and the Cold War-style politics between them. When Madrid left the territory in 1975, at the end of Francisco Franco’s regime, global geopolitics was divided between western and anti-western camps and so too was the Maghreb, with the Moroccan monarchy, leaning to the West and the Algerian military-led regime, against it. Colonel Houari Boumédiène, the leader of the Algerian regime at the time, was hostile to monarchies, including the Moroccan monarchy who he claimed betrayed the interests of Arab nations in favor of those of Israel and the West. Boumédiène sponsored the Polisario with aid and weapons, hoping also to ferment opposition to the Moroccan monarchy and perhaps a military coup that might usher in a republican régime. However, all the political parties, from the right to the left, with the exception of Ilal Amam, supported the king’s position.

After the death of Houari Boumédiène, his successors, Chadli Bendjedid (1979-1992), Liamine Zeroual (1994-1999), Abdelaziz Bouteflika (1999-2019), and Abdelmadjid Tebboune (2019) continued backing the Polisario. Mohamed Boudiaf who succeeded Chadli Bendjedid, was rather favorable to Morocco where he spent thirty years in exile, however, his assassination, five months after taking office in 1992, may have been connected to his disagreement with the high-ranking officers on the Western Sahara issue, according to the late King Hassan II.

A Cold War in the Maghreb

And what if the dispute over the Western Sahara was only a pretext for the two régimes to accuse each other of betraying the expectations of the unity of the Maghreb and reignite old conflicts? Indeed, while both sides have stressed the identity and the common interests of Algerian and Moroccan peoples, they also fought their own war against one another in 1963, more than a decade before the Western Sahara conflict, and have been engaged in their own Cold War that could heat up into a full-scale confrontation at any moment.

After Algeria officially recognized SADR in 1976, Morocco cut off its diplomatic relations with its neighbor until 1988. Even after opening their respective embassies, the two countries remained hostile to each other. However, two recent events have increased the tension between them. In December 2020, the administration of former President Donald J. Trump, violating past UN resolutions, recognized the Moroccan claim over the Western Sahara in exchange of the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel. Fearing the possibility of an alliance between Morocco and Israel, or the possibility of the Israeli military taking up positions at its border, the Algerian government voiced its concern. The unprecedented move by the Trump administration was followed by aggressive rhetoric from Morocco. In 2021, the representative of Morocco at United Nations dispatched a document in which it was stated that “Kabyle people” of Algeria are oppressed and should regain their independence. Algeria protested vigorously and decided in August 2021 to cut off its diplomatic relations with its neighbor.

The region’s fault line

Clearly there is a chronic and mutual hostility between the two states. The monarchy fabricated the image of the enemy embodied by Algeria in order to unify the Moroccans behind the king, and the Algerian régime has used the same strategy, presenting Morocco as a neighbor obsessed with erecting borders. Some scholars wonder if the two states are not following the tribal cultural dynamics that once shaped the region. Indeed, the tribes in North Africa, although often united against a foreigner, used to be in permanent conflict over resources such as water and land. It seems that neither the Algerians nor the Moroccans distanced themselves from this old habitus that undermines the potential market opportunities of trade between two countries that make up close to 100 million people.

While both countries have managed to avoid a bloody war, they prefer the grinding status quo. The monarchy is hoping that a change of a regime in Algeria will put an end to the conflict, while Algerian leaders are betting on a diplomatic success that would constrain Morocco to recognize the independence of the Western Sahara. However, with the current impasse there is a risk that the conflict could drag on for another 50 years. While the conflict in Western Sahara must come to an end, much more is at stake beyond the disputed territory, namely the best interests of North African people, which are being undermined by two authoritarian regimes that do not allow their respective civil societies to have a different discourse than the official one, instead, imposing their official narratives. But with the political heavyweights behind Western Sahara’s conflict refusing to come to the table, and the UN failing to move the process forward, the best hope is for civil society, in both Morocco and Algeria, to work together to take the initiative to develop a strategy for a Track 2 political dialogue aimed at finding creative ideas that could help resolve the conflict.

Lahouari Addi is an Algerian Emeritus Professor of sociology at Sciences Po, Lyon in France, and the author of Two Anthropologists in North Africa: Ernest Gellner and Clifford Geertz published in Arabic by The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Qatar, 2023.

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