Global Policy Forum

Western Sahara Impasse


By Khadija Finan *

Le Monde diplomatique
January 2006

Last year there were demonstrations in Western Sahara in support of its secession from Morocco: these were aggressively suppressed. Despite an attempt at UN mediation, both sides are recalcitrant and unwilling to make any of the necessary compromises.

Aboubakr Jamal, the director-in-chief of the Moroccan weekly Le Journal, published an open letter to King Mohammed VI last August. "The way in which the situation in Western Sahara has developed", he wrote, "has been to Morocco's disadvantage. Public opinion here has a confused sense that support for our case is weakening. There is also a fear that an unfavourable outcome to this conflict could herald a period of instability that could prove disastrous for the future of the country. Failure would threaten the monarchy and cost the country dear."

Since May 2005 there have been a series of demonstrations in two major Western Saharan towns, Laayoune and Smara, calling for secession. The violence with which these were put down, particularly in October (see "A fresh generation of protest"), has made the situation more explosive. In an attempt to resolve the crisis, the United States used its diplomatic influence to help secure the release in August 2005 of the last 404 Moroccan prisoners held by the Polisario Front (PF). In September, following the resignations of James Baker and Alvaro de Soto, the secretary general of the United Nations nominated Peter Van Walsum as his personal envoy for Western Sahara.

These events mark a turning point in the history of the conflict. With both protagonists clinging to irreconcilable positions, the UN realises how difficult it will be to find a settlement to this 30-year-old dispute. The demonstrations in Laayoune and Smara show that there is more at issue here than phosphates, fishing resources and the political ambitions of Morocco and Algeria. If there is to be a settlement, politicians will have to come up with new and original ideas.

Morocco's claim to this former Spanish colony goes back to 1975 and is based upon historical rights. Since 1979, when Mauritania withdrew its claim, Morocco has occupied the territory. The PF, supported by Algeria, seeks independence in the name of national self-determination. During the early stages of the conflict, both Morocco and Algeria exploited the tension to consolidate their new status as sovereign states. But as time went on it became an obstacle to bilateral cooperation and to the construction of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA).

The Moroccan monarchy has used the war to inspire national unity, to defuse criticism from the left, to divert the energies of the army and to restore its own legitimacy after the damaging social and political crises of the 1970s (1). As far as Algeria is concerned, although it has no official claim to Western Sahara, the territory has always been a domestic political issue. At least until the death of President Houari Boumedií¨ne in 1978, the government sought to prevent too close a relationship between Morocco and the West (2), while the Algerian military tried to consolidate its influence by playing the nationalist card.

The referendum that wasn't

Throughout the late 1970s Morocco refused to give up even an inch of what it insisted was an integral part of its territory. But the PF guerrillas' superior knowledge of the local terrain allowed them to inflict a series of serious reverses upon Moroccan armed forces. Although in 1981 King Hassan II agreed in principle to a referendum on self-determination, he continued to build up his forces. The construction of defensive walls protecting inhabited areas from PF incursions allowed the army to end guerrilla activity and transformed the conflict into a more advantageous war of attrition.

The king's hope was that he would eventually secure victory by neutralising the enemy's mastery of the terrain and taking the dispute to international arbitration. Two events in 1988 confirmed this expectation. Algeria re-established diplomatic relations after a 12-year break. And the dominance of the Reguibat over other tribes precipitated a crisis within the Polisario, which resulted in a number of Sahrawis from the Tindouf refugee camps in western Algeria abandoning the front and answering Hassan's appeal to "rejoin the merciful and forgiving fatherland".

Morocco has sought to present the Sahara conflict as an internal, rather than an international issue. Hassan especially hoped that the PF malcontents' support would render the referendum redundant. His mercy reflected the traditional process of securing expansion by persuading tribes to swear allegiance to the crown. Hoping to integrate the people of Western Sahara through a policy of regional development, he refused to negotiate directly with the PF.

Both sides eventually agreed to a UN peace plan and the referendum on self-determination was scheduled for 1992. But the failure to agree on who should be eligible to vote prevented it from taking place. Since then, all the UN's proposals, including special envoy James Baker's plan for a four- or five-year period of autonomy leading to a final, decisive referendum, have been rejected by one side or the other.

While the PF and Algeria always supported the referendum, Morocco preferred to wait for Algerian support for the Sahrawis to waver, hoping that the death of Boumedií¨ne might open the way to an agreement with his successor, Chadli Bendjedid. Later, during the 1990s, Morocco's war against Islamist terrorists was predicated upon Algeria's weakness. Although the Algerian executive has rallied round the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the army and the security services remain powerful and the general consensus on Western Sahara, and more generally on relations with Morocco, makes compromise unlikely.

Trading partner and ally

The US values Algeria as an important trading partner and an ally in the global war on terror. Algeria has re-established its position on the international and African stages. South Africa's recognition in 2004 of the Arab Sahrawi Democratic Republic somewhat marginalised Morocco, which refused to join the African Union because of its recognition of Sahrawi claims. Despite the appointment of Larbi Belkheir as ambassador to Morocco (3), there seems no reason why Algeria should soften its position.

Morocco cannot really afford to be equally stubborn. Its official offer of significant autonomy to Western Sahara is low on detail:not surprising, since the political and institutional implications would require a revision of the constitution. Morocco wants to retain formal national sovereignty at the same time as granting real autonomy to a population that seeks complete independence. Having survived 30 years of separatist war, the Sahrawis will not settle for limited freedom as a region of Morocco.

In an attempt to define the limits of Saharan autonomy, Hassan announced that "apart from stamps and the flag" everything was negotiable. He assumed that if this formula appealed to Sahrawis within the PF, he could count on the others. But during the past six months it is precisely the latter group, the people of Laayoune and Smara, who have clamoured for independence.

Although official positions remain set, regional and internal politics have changed significantly. The Algerian and Moroccan governments may seek to monopolise the question, but associations and political parties are trying to understand the crisis and maybe contribute to a solution. Moroccan political parties seem actively to be looking for a way out that will suit their own agendas.

Istiqlal (4), fearful of losing its traditional position as the defender of territorial integrity, opposes autonomy and has suggested a regional framework encompassing Western Sahara. The moderate Islamist Justice and Development party (PJD), founded in 1998 and now with 42 MPs, has dug its heels in over the issue, which could test its loyalty to the crown. Since it was accused of moral responsibility for the Casablanca bomb attacks of May 2003 the PJD's leaders have tried to emphasise their nationalist credentials.

Other parties, such the young, centrist (not that the term means much in Morocco) Liberty Alliance, view the Western Sahara crisis as an opportunity to democratise the kingdom. The journalist Aboubakr Jamai has suggested that the relaxation of political controls will lead to a resolution to the Sahara question. But with current tensions in danger of destabilising the country, time is important.

Not in control

The violently suppressed secessionist demonstrations in Laayoune and Smara give the impression, locally and abroad, that Morocco is not entirely in control of the situation in Western Sahara. Some observers have pointed out how the situation has evolved since 1999, when Laayoune witnessed a week of police violence against Sahrawi students calling for higher grants and better transport. On that occasion the king managed to re-establish control by sending ministers to listen to and reassure the Sahrawis.

But the exclusively social protests of 1999 have now become essentially political. The demonstrators do not openly support the PF, but they have called for independence on internet sites (5) and in discussion groups, as well as on the streets. The lack of any response serves only to harden Sahrawi attitudes towards the government in Rabat.

So will the changed internal and regional situation reawaken open conflict? Many north Africans are praying that the renewed US interest in the region will help end the crisis. The US wants to extend Nato's sphere of influence and hopes to use the Moroccan army to secure regional stability; but this will be impossible if Morocco becomes involved in local disputes, particularly with Algeria. US companies have invested in the development of Algeria's oil and gas reserves and want tensions reduced. Above all, the US seeks greater control over the Sahel, the semi-arid region south of the Sahara, which it believes has become a refuge for Islamist terrorists, who it fears may be joined by Sahrawis searching for meaning and motivation.

Whatever its aims, the US will find it difficult to act alone and would prefer to secure the support and cooperation of countries such as Spain, France and Mauritania, which have an interest in securing peace in the region. The US must also take account of popular aspirations and come up with imaginative responses: any solution that hands total victory to one side risks sowing the seeds of future conflict. Morocco has staked everything on its territorial integrity, while the Algerians and Sahrawis have made a similar commitment to self-determination. It will be hard to resolve the conflict without appearing to vindicate one side and delegitimise the other.


(1) In 1971 Colonel Mohamed Ababou attempted a coup. The following year King Hassan II escaped from an air attack on his jet.

(2) See Lahouari Addi, "Algiers and Rabat, still miles apart", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, December 1999.

(3) Belkheir, a political insider with close ties to the army generals, and Bouteflika's special adviser until his appointment as ambassador, initiated the attempted reconciliation with Morocco in 1988.

(4) Istiqlal, one of Morocco's oldest political parties, rode to national importance on the issue of independence. It has drawn up a map of a Greater Morocco, which would extend far beyond present frontiers to enclose parts of Mali, Mauritania and Western Sahara.

(5) See (in French and Arabic).

Translated by Donald Hounam

About the Author: Khadija Finan is a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations and teaches at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po), both in Paris.

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Western Sahara

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C íŸ 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.