Waiting for the Arab Spring in Western Sahara

For 36 years, refugees from the Western Sahara have been waiting to return home.

Western Sahara camp
Many Sahrawi refugees live in tent camps in unforgiving stretches of the Sahara Desert [EPA]

This article is the sixth in a series by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani high commissioner to the UK, exploring how a litany of volatile centre/periphery conflicts with deep historical roots were interpreted after 9/11 in the new global paradigm of anti-terrorism – with profound and often violent consequences. Incorporating in-depth case studies from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Ambassador Ahmed will ultimately argue that the inability for Muslim and non-Muslim states alike to either incorporate minority groups into a liberal and tolerant society or resolve the “centre vs periphery” conflict is emblematic of a systemic failure of the modern state – a breakdown which, more often than not, leads to widespread violence and destruction. The violence generated from these conflicts will become the focus, in the remainder of the 21st century, of all those dealing with issues of national integration, law and order, human rights and justice.

Washington, DC – The fate of the Sahrawi nation of Western Sahara hangs in the balance this week. About 165,000 Sahrawi refugees in Algeria are eagerly watching the current UN-sponsored negotiations taking place outside of New York City on the status of their country. For the past 36 years they have been languishing in camps, waiting for the day they may return home, which is currently under Moroccan control. Thus far, they have had little reason to hope.

The three-day negotiations, taking place from March 11-13, involve Morocco, with backing from the United States; regional nations like Algeria and Mauritania; and representatives from Western Sahara. It is the latest meeting in a 20-year process that has been marked by a continual failure to resolve the disputed status of this little-known and forgotten corner of Africa, wedged between Morocco and Mauritania. 

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Morocco is a perennial favourite of Western tourists who rightfully admire its spectacular natural vistas and the hospitality of a friendly people. But its dealing with the Sahrawi people is a little-known, dark and festering sore.

Following the Moroccan invasion of Western Sahara in 1975 and the resulting war, thousands of Sahrawi, the historical inhabitants of Western Sahara, began spilling across the border into Algeria. With the support of the Algerian government, four temporary refugee camps were established near Tindouf.

The camps have, of late, been in the media with rumours of potential links between al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Sahrawi, yet no evidence for these claims has been presented. However, few ask why the refugees are present in Algeria in the first place, the situation of the roughly 150,000 Sahrawi living inside Western Sahara, and the roots of this conflict.

The Sahrawi, meaning “from the desert”, are a traditionally nomadic people who have occupied the region for over a thousand years. Prior to colonisation by the Spanish in 1884, this unforgiving and harsh stretch of the Sahara had never known the authority of any sovereign above the tribal level. The Sahrawi roamed free as the desert wind across the Western Sahara.                       

The Sahrawi tribes, approximately 400,000 in number and spread over several countries, are a mixture of West African Berbers and the Arab tribes who arrived in the 13th century. These communities live by an unwritten code of behaviour and law, known as orf, which stresses honour, hospitality and revenge independent of any structured legal or political institutions. The seven major tribes claim descent from the Prophet of Islam.

In spite of Spanish colonisation in 1884, the tribes were still able to maintain their independence. Spain, establishing its rule among coastal settlements only, was largely un-interested in subjugating the desert interior, leaving them free to practice their traditional culture.

Spanish presence in Western Sahara grew exponentially during the 1960s and 1970s due to the discovery of vast phosphate reserves and the encroaching Moroccan Army of Liberation. The Moroccan army, which sought to re-establish what it called “Greater Morocco” after attaining independence in 1956, was defeated in 1958 by a combined French-Spanish military operation.

In the face of this increased focus on Western Sahara, calls for independence began to emerge from the Sahrawi tribes. After Spanish troops fired on a crowd of Sahrawi demonstrators in June 1970 in a suburb of El-Ayoun, the capital of Western Sahara, the Sahrawi turned to armed resistance against Spain. The Polisario Front was created in 1973 to represent the Sahrawi people. 

Spain, not wanting to become embroiled in its own African war, announced a referendum for the self-determination of the Sahrawi people to be held in 1976 coinciding with its withdrawal. Violating this agreement, Spain signed the 1975 Madrid Accords, transferring the administration of Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania in return for Spanish fishing rights along the coast.

The current struggle between the Sahrawi and Morocco began with the exit of Spain. In October 1975, the International Court of Justice, in a case brought to the court by Morocco and Mauritania, ruled that Morocco’s and Mauritania’s claims on Western Sahara did not justify their sovereignty over the region. The court instead recommended self-determination for the Sahrawi.

‘Victory march’

In direct violation of this ruling, Morocco “invaded” Western Sahara in November 1975 with its Green March, a procession of 350,000 Moroccan civilians consisting of old and young men, a few women, wealthy businessmen, two royal princesses, peasants, unemployed youths and wage earners. King Hassan called the Green March, named after the color of Islam, a massirat fath, or “victory march”. This diverse crowd crossed over the southern border of Morocco into Western Sahara supported by 20,000 Moroccan Royal Army troops for “protection”. A resulting military clash between the Moroccan Army, with military aid from the United States and the Polisario Front, with military support from Algeria, began in mid-November 1975 and continued for 16 years. Mauritania, an early participant in the war, eventually withdrew from Western Sahara in August 1979, signing a peace agreement with the Polisario Front.

Throughout this period, Morocco encouraged Moroccan settlers to move into the Western Saharan region, attracting them with double wages, tax exemptions and subsidised housing. Moroccan investment in the region largely benefited these settlers, who in time came to comprise more than half of the population. Despite this investment, Western Sahara has the worst economy and highest unemployment in Morocco, a remarkable fact in a country plagued by high rates of poverty.

The Sahrawi, both combatant and non-combatant alike, were also subject to extremely harsh treatment by the Moroccan Army, including the poisoning of wells, destruction of food supplies, burning of lands and homes, mutilation, rape, arbitrary arrests and murder. The lords of the desert have been reduced to living in restricted and squalid camps as destitute refugees. The irony is that their oppressors are fellow Muslims.

The fighting and oppressive measures of the Moroccans drove half the Sahrawi population across the border into Western Algeria, one of the most inhospitable regions of the Sahara. The refugee camps were originally cobbled together as temporary settlements without proper infrastructure or access to water and plagued with continual epidemics of respiratory illness, dysentery and malnutrition. Yet these temporary settlements have become the seemingly permanent home for 165,000 Sahrawi refugees.

These camps have also become the headquarters of the Polisario Front and the seat of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the Western Sahara government-in-exile for the Sahrawi people, established in February 1976. The sovereignty of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is currently recognised by 48 countries and is a full member of the African Union. As a result of the African Union seating the SADR in 1984, Morocco resigned from the organisation and is currently the only African nation to not be included as a member.

The ‘berm’

In the 1980s, Morocco, in order to divide the Sahrawi population, constructed an approximately 2,500-kilometre wall called the “Berm”, running north to south along the western border with Algeria and Mauritania. This wall consists of sand and rubble parapets, three to four metres high, with sophisticated detection systems, a manned force of 120,000 Moroccan soldiers and surrounded by the largest continuous minefield in the world, severely limiting movement in the desert.

Working towards a resolution to this conflict, a ceasefire was agreed to by Morocco and the Polisario Front beginning in September 1991. Morocco, however, has continued its harsh tactics against Sahrawi in Western Sahara, including arbitrary detention, torture, firing upon unarmed crowds, beating protesters to the point of death and denying injured protesters medical treatment. Reports of gross abuses by the police emerged as recently as February 2012. 

In October 2010, a group of Sahrawi youths in the spirit of the Arab Spring formed a “tent city” outside Gdeim Izik in northwestern Western Sahara to protest the continued human rights abuses, discrimination and poverty their people faced. It eventually attracted over 7,000 people. In November 2010, Moroccan security forces attacked the camp without warning, killing 36 protesters. With the focus of the media on the momentous events taking place in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, the plight of the Sahrawi drew little attention.

The 1991 ceasefire agreement was implemented with the conditions to hold a referendum for Sahrawi self-determination. To date, no referendum has been held. There have been a series of proposed plans for holding a referendum over the past 20 years, with issues over who may or may not participate. However, Morocco has continually rejected any proposal which allows for the possibility of Western Saharan independence, and the Sahrawi refuse to compromise on this point. In 1994, King Hassan issued a royal amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners in Western Sahara, but an explicit exception was made for “whosoever does not recognise the fact that the Sahara is Morocco”.

King Muhammad VI of Morocco represents the Alaouite dynasty that has ruled for the last four centuries. Claiming descent from the Prophet of Islam, its monarchs skillfully balanced Ulema and Sufi, Europeans and local warlords, urban Arabs and Berber tribes. Sacred lineage and personal charisma have allowed the kings of Morocco to play a pivotal role in their country’s affairs. The ascension of the present king has coincided with the onset of the Arab Spring.

The King’s instincts are in tune with the times. He has already initiated a series of reforms involving democratic participation and extension of human rights. He now needs to draw on the wisdom and compassion of his ancestors and combine it with the compulsions of our modern times to resolve the biggest moral and political challenge facing Morocco: the fate of the Sahrawi of Western Sahara.

Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Harrison Akins is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on Ahmed’s forthcoming study, Journey into Tribal Islam: America and the Conflict between Center and Periphery in the Muslim World, to be published by Brookings Press.