A return to war in Western Sahara

November 14, 2020

Nick Brooks

You may or may not have heard that the ceasefire that has held for nearly 30 years in Western Sahara broke down yesterday, and the territory is now at war again. There is nothing on the BBC news website about it at the tike of writing, although it did get a brief mention on the World Service and there is this article from the New York Times.

Both sides in the conflict – Morocco and the Polisario – have their versions of what’s happened, and Morocco is likely to have the loudest voice. So here’s my take.

Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975, when Spain pulled out. The Polisario, formed a few years earlier to fight for independence from Spain, opposed Morocco’s occupation. A war was fought until 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire and installed a peacekeeping force – the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, known by its French acronym, MINURSO. As the name indicates, this force was mandated to organise a referendum on self-determination. This has never happened, and MINURSO remains the only peacekeeping force without a human rights monitoring mandate. Western Sahara remains a non self-governing territory as defined by the UN Committee on Decolonisation. In other words, the decolonisation process has not yet been competed. Western Sahara is often referred to as the Last Colony in Africa.

Throughout the 1975-1991 conflict, Morocco secured territory it had taken behind defensive earthworks or berms. By 1991, these had merged into a single structure – The Berm – which stretches 2700km (about 1700 miles) across the territory, effectively partitioning it into a Moroccan controlled zone to the west and north, and a Polisario controlled zone to the east and south (Figure 1). A detailed analysis of the Berm and its evolution is provided by Garfi (2014).

Figure 1. Western Sahara under the ceasefire, showing partition by the Moroccan Berm, key locations, and deployment of MINURSO peacekeepers. Map from MINURSO/UN Peacekeeping.

Under the terms of the ceasefire, Western Sahara is divided into three areas (Figure 1):

i) a Buffer Strip extending for 5km east and south of the Berm on the Polisario side, which is effectively an exclusion zone or no-man’s land, in which no military personnel or equipment are permitted;

ii) two Restricted Areas, extending for 30km either side of the Berm, in which military activities are prohibited; and

iii) two Areas with Limited Restrictions, which include all the remaining territory of Western Sahara, in which normal military activities can be carried out with the exception of those that represent an escalation of the military situation.

Figure 2. Schematic showing the different areas defined under the ceasefire.

The above information, including maps showing the different zones and the text of the ceasefire (Military Agreement #1) used to be on the MINURSO website but were removed some years ago. When asked, MINURSO and UN Peacekeeping would not explain why, leading many to conclude this was a result of Moroccan lobbying. Morocco’s narrative is that it controls all of Western Sahara except a buffer strip established by the UN for its protection, and that the Polisario has no presence in Western Sahara. The maps and military agreement clearly contradict this.

Since 1991, Morocco has been entrenching its occupation of Western Sahara and developing its natural resources, against international conventions that prohibit occupying powers from exploiting resources in occupied territories for their own gain. These resources include phosphates, fisheries and water resources – Morocco has developed agriculture in occupied Western Sahara, including the production of water-intensive crops such as tomatoes (including the Azera brand).

Some of these resources and the products derived from them transit through Mauritania to the south, for example, fish products from occupied Western Saharan waters that are destined for African markets via the port of Nouadhibouin Mauritania. This route involves traffic passing through the Berm south of the settlement of Guergerat (Figure 3), then traversing the buffer strip for 5km to the border with Mauritania (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Guergerat location in the far southwest of Western Sahara.

In late October 2020, Sahrawi protestors started blockading the road between the Guergerat Berm crossing and the Mauritanian border (Figure 4), within the Buffer Strip. They were protesting against the export of natural resources, including fish destined for the Mauritanian port of Nouadhibou, from occupied Western Sahara by Morocco. They also accused Morocco of facilitating the trafficking of drugs and people via Guergerat.

Figure 4. The road that passes through the Berm (top) south of Guergerat, traversing the 5km Buffer Strip established under the 1991 ceasefire, to the Western Sahara-Mauritania border. See Figure

On 12th/13th November, Morocco sent troops to disperse the protestors and take control of the section of road traversing the Buffer Strip. By merely entering the Buffer Strip, Morocco breached the ceasefire. On 13th November, the Polisario declared that this breach marked the end of the ceasefire and the resumption of hostilities, and that they were now at war with Morocco. Later on the 13th, Morocco reported clashes along the Berm in the north of Western Sahara, and on the 14th it appeared that fighting was taking place in the vicinity of Mahbes and Hauza in the north of Western Sahara, and Aouserd and Guergerat in the south.

This all comes against a background of 45 years of conflict and exile for the Sahrawi. Somewhere around 100,000 Sahrawi live under Moroccan occupation, while perhaps around 200,000 live in five refugee camps in the Algerian desert around the town of Tindouf. These camps are governed by the Polisario, and are effectively a society and state in exile. The Polisario also controls the areas to the east and south of the Berm, known to the Sahrawi as the Free Zone.

For decades, discontent in the camps has been growing, particularly among younger Sahrawis, in response to the stalemate, the failure of the UN to organise the long-promised referendum, and an understandable perception that they have been forgotten and abandoned by the rest of world. Many see a return to war as the only way of having any hope of resolving the conflict, whether through military means or as the result of diplomacy facilitated by what they hope will be a renewed spotlight on the territory if hostilities resume. For many years, the Polisario has managed to keep this discontent contained and has avoided conflict. It seems that the latest provocation by Morocco has been too flagrant for this approach to remain viable.

Nick Brooks has travelled extensively in Western Sahara, as co-director of the Western Sahara Project, a research project focusing on archaeology and past environmental change in the territory. Between 2002 and 2009 he led six seasons of fieldwork in the Polisario-controlled zone of Western Sahara, and travelled to the territory on seven occasions, also spending time in the Sahrawi refugee camps around Tindouf. Fieldwork involved frequent detours into Mauritania to avoid the Moroccan Berm.

@SAHARAWIVOICE on Twitter is a good source of updates on the conflict.

A physical manifestation of Moroccan propaganda

November 20, 2012

This via the Moroccan Propaganda Watch page on Facebook:

A two-hour event will be held at the European Parliament in solidarity with the Sahrawi Moroccan children detained in the Polisario camps in Tindouf.

On the occasion of the World Day of the Child on 21.11.2012 , the International Movement for Completion of Territorial Integrity of Morocco , in collaboration with the European Coordination for autonomy in the Sahara Morocco and L’union associations of Alsace and Lorraine, have called for a demonstration at Place de l’Europe, Strasbourg at the headquarters of the European Parliament from 15h to 17h, in solidarity with the operation ‘White Dove’ in favor of Sahrawi children and their families and parents, held on Algerian soil to denounce crimes and violations of human rights committed by the Polisario with Algerian support, against Saharawi children.

This is a pretty shameless hijacking of a day intended to address the plight of children for the promotion of an aggressive imperialist agenda, and the normalisation of an illegal military occupation.

Morocco is now manifesting its propaganda on Western Sahara through ‘popular’ demonstrations arranged by Moroccan state/monarchy front groups, in the heart of Europe. Morocco has long fabricated claims about the evil Pollisario holding people captive in camps in Algeria.

In reality, these camps house indigenous Sahrawi, and their descendants, who have been expelled from their homeland as a result of Morocco’s invasion and occupation of Western Sahara. Many of these people move in and out of the camps, Algeria and other countries, and to the parts of Western Sahara that the Polisario government controls (hence the “Movement for the Completion of Territorial Integrity” – code for completion of the occupation and annexation of Western Sahara). Human Rights Watch has verified the claims of those of us that have spent time in the camps, that Moroccan claims of slavery and widespread other human rights abuses are unfounded. Morocco wants us to see the Polisario, which is the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people (recognised as such by the UN and Morocco in peace negotiations, and as the rightful government of Western Sahara by the African Union and dozens of nations across the world) as a big bad bogeyman. Morocco can’t win the argument about its “rights” to Western Sahara any other way than to make stuff up and turn the issue into a beauty contest between “good” Morocco and the “bad” Polisario. This is pretty sickening coming from the aggressor in this conflict, but then aggressors always want to cast themselves as the victims.

This nonsense about “Moroccan Sahrawi” suggests that Morocco wants these people “back” in a greater Morocco forged through the invasion and occupation of Western Sahara (and it doesn’t stop if you look at Moroccan maps, or look at discussions about territories over which Morocco claims “historical rights”). In reality Morocco does not want up to 200,000 independence-minded Sahrawi entering territory that it illegally occupies, and that the Sahrawi see as their homeland. In any case, Morocco habitually claims that there are far fewer people in the camps than there actually are, so what about those whose existence it does not recognise? It has also claimed that the people in the camps are not Sahrawi, but are migrants from the Sahel. As usual, it can’t get its made-up stories straight.

The Palace, the King, the Moroccan government, and all Moroccans, should be deeply ashamed of this cynical exploitation of a genuine humanitarian cause. Isn’t it about time the Arab spring got going in earnest in Morocco?

Propaganda watch

August 2, 2012

Here’s a nice example of some pro-Moroccan propaganda about Western Sahara and the Polisario, in the Global Post:

Why are we perpetuating a source of instability in North Africa?

It comes with a health warning in the form of the following:

“Editor’s Note: The author of this article is the executive director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy, which has registered with the US Department of Justice’s Foreign Agent Registration Unit. The group’s activities are funded, supervised and coordinated by the government of Morocco.”

The same publication also ran this piece, in response, with no need for a declaration of vested interests by the author, who is a professor of Politics and chair or Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.

The reality of Western Sahara

They make a nice pair.

Again, it seems that the most vocal foreign supporters of Morocco’s position are those who are paid to support it, by the Moroccan monarchy – paid foreign agents acting (in this case) in the US on behalf of a foreign power, to spread disinformation. And they even confess to it (well, sort of).

[Via the Moroccan Propaganda Watch page on Facebook]

Missing MINURSO ceasefire information archive

February 18, 2012

Thanks to a contact for locating an archived version of the MINURSO information and deployment map describing the terms of the ceasefire in Western Sahara, at webarchive, here: http://web.archive.org/web/20090210055157/http://www.minurso.unlb.org/monitoring.html. This is the old version of the MINURSO website under the umbrella of the UN Logistics Base website (www.unlb.org). You can still find the MINURSO version under the UNLB website, but the MINURSO deployment map and the text on the areas under the ceasefire are missing from the current version.

Hostage taking and propaganda

November 17, 2011

I’ve been hoping to write a post about the kidnapping of 3 foreigners from the reception centre at Rabuni, in the Sahrawi refugee camps, where I’ve spent many happy days on the way to and from the Free Zone for fieldwork.  However, time is short. Thankfully, Malainin Lakhal has written about it here in Pambazuka. This story has been squeezed dry for its propaganda value by Morocco and its apologists, and it’s fair to say that only party to benefit from this sorry affair is Morocco. This in itself raises some questions about who is behind it – it doesn’t take a genius or a conspiracy theorist to conclude that Rabat and its allies may have had a hand in the kidnappings, although the whole affair remains very murky.


Areas defined under the UN ceasefire in Western Sahara

November 11, 2011

Following on from my last 2 posts, here are a couple of images that schematically illustrate the division of Western Sahara into different areas under the UN ceasefire agreement of 1991, as enshrined in Military Agreement #1. I think I downloaded them from the MINURSO website some time ago, although did not note the precise origin – presumably as I had no reason to believe that MINURSO would decide to remove this vital and basic information.

Ceasefire schematic p1

Ceasefire schematic p2

Text of Military Agreement #1

November 8, 2011

In my last post I urged people to contact MINURSO and UN Peacekeeping to ask why vital information on the terms of the ceasefire in Western Sahara has been removed from the MINURSO website, and request that this information be reinstated. Here is the text in question, from Military Agreement (MA) #1, copied from the MINURSO website in October 2008 (from this address, which is now defunct: http://www.minurso.unlb.org/monitoring.html):

“MA#1 divides the disputed territory of Western Sahara into five parts:
• One 5 km wide Buffer Strip (BS) to the South and East side of the Berm;
• Two 30 km wide Restricted Areas (RA) along the Berm. The Buffer Strip is included in the
Restricted Area on the POLISARIO side and the Berm is included in the Restricted Area on
the RMA side;
• Two Areas with Limited Restrictions (ALR), which are the two remaining vast, stretches of
land of Western Sahara on both sides respectively.”

I quoted this text in a Briefing Note I prepared on the partition of Western Sahara, also in October 2008.

For a graphical representation of MA#1 click here. For Map A4-010 showing the ceasefire on the ground, see below, or click here for a jpeg version.

I’ve posted all this before, and will keep reposting it until MINURSO reinstates the relevant ceasefire information on its website, and Morocco’s propagandists stop their attempts to mislead the world into believing that Morocco controls all of Western Sahara, and that the Polisario-controlled areas are in fact an empty “buffer strip” set up by the UN for Morocco’s protection (the buffer zone is just 5km wide on one side of the Berm, and there is parity between the Moroccan and Polisario controlled zones, on either side of the Berm, in MA#1). Morocco is misrepresenting the situation on the ground in order to persuade the world that its “Autonomy Plan” for Western Sahara is viable. It is not, as it does not address the issue of partition, or of the Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. The information presented here, downloaded from earlier versions of the MINURSO website, clearly contradicts Morocco’s representation of the situation. Rabat is desperate to obscure the situation on the ground, and it seems likely that this is why MINURSO removed the information relating to the terms of the ceasefire, as a result of pressure from Morocco and its allies France and the United States, which are pushing for a normalisation of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. If this is not the case, all parties should be happy to see this information reinstated – that would be sufficient rebuttal.

Division of Western Sahara under the terms of the 1991 ceasefire agreement. Map from MINURSO.

Show me the text of MIlitary Agreement #1

November 1, 2011

Put pressure on UN Peackeeping and MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping force in Western Sahara, to reinstate the text of Military Agreeement #1 and Map No: A4-010 on the MINURSO website. This text and map clearly contradict Moroccan claims that it controls all of Western Sahara and that the Polisario independence movement has no presence there (see this earlier post for a discussion, this schematic representation of the ceasefire terms, and below or here for a relevant map). The absence of this information – removed by MINURSO sometime over the past year or so – plays into the hands of Morocco’s propagandists. MINURSO has not responded to repeated requests for clarification on this matter. Maybe they will take it more seriously if more people contact them.

Please write to UN Peacekeeping operations and MINURSO asking why MA #1 and Map No A4-010 have been removed from the MINURSO website, and requesting that they be reinstated.

You can contact UN Peacekeeping operations at http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/about/contact.asp, and you can email MINURSO at minursoinformationofficer@un.org [update: some email has bounced back from this address, so make sure you also contact peacekeeping via the web form in the above link]. Suggested text is below, or write you own.

Suggested text

Dear Sir or Madam

I am trying to find official copies of Military Agreement (MA) #1 and Map No: A4-010, relating to the 1991 ceasefire agreement between the Moroccan Armed Forces and the Frente Polisario in Western Sahara. These were available via the MINURSO local website prior to 2010. However, since the website has been redesigned these materials have not been available on the MINURSO site, and do not appear to be available on any other UN websites.

Could you please point me to a publicly available official UN source of this text.

I would also be very grateful for any information as to why this text has been removed from the MINURSO website, and request that these documents be reinstated.

Yours faithfully


In 1975 Morocco invaded Western Sahara. In 1991 the UN brokered a ceasefire between the Moroccan Armed Forces and the Polisario independence movement. The United Nations MIssion for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established to organise a referendum on self determination for this disputed, non-self governing territory, and to monitory the ceasefire.The terms of the ceasefire were set out in Military Agreement (MA) #1 and Map No A4-010 (see image here), which describe the zones defined under the ceasefire, as follows:One 5 kilometres (3 mi) wide Buffer Strip (BS) to the South and East side of the Berm [the 1500 km wall built by Morocco to secure the areas it has occupied in the north and west of Western Sahara];Two 30 kilometres (19 mi) wide Restricted Areas (RA) along the Berm. The Buffer Strip is included in the Restricted Area on the POLISARIO side and the Berm is included in the Restricted Area on the RMA side;

Two Areas with Limited Restrictions (ALR), which are the two remaining vast, stretches of land of Western Sahara on both sides respectively.

The text of MA #1 is embarrassing to Morocco, which repeatedly claims to control all of Western Sahara. The reality of partition means that Morocco’s plan for limited autonomy for the territory is unworkable. The Autonomy Plan ignores the fact that this “solution” can only apply to the areas of Western Sahara under Moroccan control, and not to the entire territory. It also ignores the plight of some 165,000 Sahrawi refugees displaced by the conflict. Moroccan propagandists claim that the areas to the south and east of the Berm are a “buffer strip” set up by the UN, from which the Polisario is barred. In fact, these are made up of the Restricted Area and the Area of Limited Restrictions, which are equivalent to the areas on the Moroccan controlled side of the Berm.

Sometime in 2010 the text of MA #1 and Map No A4-010 were removed from the MINURSO website, an action that is beneficial to Morocco and prejudicial to the peace process. A peacekeeping force mandated to monitor a ceasefire should be transparent with respect to its mandate and objectives. MINURSO is not, and the removal of this vital information could be interpreted as an action designed to favour Morocco in its propaganda campaign. MINURSO have ignored repeated enquiries regarding this matter.

Better to be talked about…

October 31, 2011

As regular readers of this blog will have noticed, my posts come in fits and bursts. By my own (admittedly quite slack) standards I’ve been pretty active lately, with four articles in just over a month. Usually when I’m this active there is a rapid response in the comments spaces from a small cabal representing the official Moroccan position on the Western Sahara conflict, enthusiastically pushing pro-Rabat and anti-Polisario/anti-Sahrawi propaganda. The cheerleader of this little group is someone who goes by the monicker of Ahmed Salem Amr Khadad (see here for a discussion of his approach and a for number of his comments). Ahmed Salem has been the most prolific commenter on my blog posts, and he can be found in many other corners of the internet, pouring scorn and vitriol on anyone critical of Morocco and its occupation of the disputed, non-self governing territory of Western Sahara, which both Morocco and the Polisario claim.

Lately I’ve been wondering where Ahmed Salem has got to, as this blog has been somewhat lacking in comments in recent months. However, thanks to Will Sommer of the currently (and sadly) dormant “One Hump or Two” Western Sahara blog, the mystery of Ahmed Salem’s silence and apparent lack if interest in attacking my material has now been solved. It turns out that he’s not been ignoring me after all. Far from it. Instead, he’s been putting his not inconsiderable talents (and I’m not being entirely facetious there) to use setting up the following Facebook page, of which he appears to be the administrator:

    Against the propaganda of Nick Brooks for the account of Algeria

So if you want to know what nefarious activities I’ve been up to, sitting in my secret eyrie stroking my diamond collared fluffy white cat while counting my millions in Algerian blood money, you now have a one stop shop where you can learn THE TRUTH of my evil plans. Join it and have some fun.

I’ve asked to join myself, and am waiting with baited breath to see if Ahmed Salem will let me in. I can’t wait to see what he cooks up. If the other Moroccan propaganda sites purporting to reveal THE TRUTH about their enemies are anything to go by, there should be some real peaches in the pipeline (1) .

As Will said. “You know you’ve made it when you have a Facebook page devoted to opposing you. Congrats.” A little generous perhaps, but I have to say I am flattered. All fun aside, I’m guessing the Moroccans wouldn’t bother with this sort of thing unless they were at least worried about this blog having some impact. While I have no hard evidence, I suspect that Ahmed Salem is more than just an enthusiastic Moroccan nationalist doing this in his own time. Morocco takes its propaganda very seriously indeed, and invests a lot of effort in it. So, until I have evidence to the contrary, I’m going to take this as an official state-sponsored propaganda undertaking aimed purely at attacking me as an individual, because of my support for the Sahrawi cause and my opposition to Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara and its supporting propaganda campaign. It gives me quite a nice warm glow to know that I’m having such an impact.

As that great statesman, terrible old colonialist, and sometime genocidal racist Churchill is reported to have said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Or maybe I’ll just go with the less objectionable and almost as amusing Oscar Wilde, with “it is better to be talked about than no.” (All quotes are unverified and may be apocryphal).

[Update: Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad has declined my request to join the group unless I put some pro-Moroccan links on my blog. This sounds a little like attempted blackmail to me – you don’t like what someone is saying, so you set up a forum in which to attack them, and then say you will only give them a right of reply if they promote your views. I think this tells you all you need to know about the Moroccan approach to debate and criticism]

(1) See, for example, Polisario Confidential and Polisario Think Twice for Moroccan propaganda sites attacking the Polisario (who knows, maybe there is some real dirt to be found there, but here it’s lost in a far dirtier mire of fabrication), Sahara Developpement and CORCAS for sites extolling the virtues of the Moroccan occupation here rebranded as “decolonisation”, and Morocco Board and the Moroccan American Center for Policy for the muscular promotion of Moroccan views in general (including propaganda on the Western Sahara conflict).

For other views that don’t push the propaganda line of an aggressive expansionist country illegally occupying and partitioning one of its neighbours, look to any of the Western Sahara blogs and news links to the right.

The colonel is dead. Long live the king.

October 21, 2011

The dark hypocrisy that lurks at the heart of the Libyan revolution

So, Colonel Muammar Qadhdhafi – crafty tyrant, political funster and would-be leader of Africa – is dead, and Libya is entering a new era of hope. Hope that its people will live in a more open society in which they are free to determine their individual and collective fates, to talk about politics, to disagree with each other and with the government, to challenge their leaders, to engage with the rest of the world, and to prosper economically. As someone who has spent some time in Libya (some six months in total, between 2000 and 2006), I share this hope. Wars are always horrific, and civil ones often especially so, but I can’t be the only one who has seen the TV footage of plucky, cheerful rebels espousing broadly secular, democratic values in good English and thought, “these guys are, for want of a better way of putting it, pretty cool.” With Qadhdhafi out of the way, the National Transitional Council (NTC) should be free to propagate freedom and democracy throughout the country, so that Libyans can bask in the blossoming of the Arab Spring. It’s a heady prospect.

However, a dark hypocrisy lurks at the heart of the Libyan revolution, or at least at the heart of the NTC. Those who have been following the conflict closely will be aware of the reprisals against black sub-Saharan Africans wrongly labelled as mercenaries (although by all accounts Qadhdhafi did employ some hired guns from the other side of the Sahara). They may also be aware of the reprisals against ordinary Libyans who for reasons of politics and historical tribal loyalty supported Qadhdhafi, or were seen as Qadhdhafi sympathisers. However, few will be aware of the potential implications of Libya’s revolution for the outcome of another conflict 2000 km to the west, and for the futures of the Sahrawi people living under military occupation and oppression, or in exile as a result of the theft of their land by an aggressive expansionist neighbour. These implications are not what you might think, given all the lip service paid by the NTC and its supporters to freedom, democracy, and the need to overthrow autocratic regimes.

Back in 1975, around the time of publication of Qadhdhafi’s Green Book, Morocco was busy invading and laying claim to Western Sahara, which had been governed by Spain during the colonial period. This was despite despite having had its “historical claim” to the territory rejected by the International Court of Justice, which had examined the issue of sovereignty over Western Sahara at Morocco’s behest. The Polisario independence movement of Western Sahara, having fought Spain for independence, now turned its guns on the invading Moroccans (1). War raged until 1991 when the UN brokered a ceasefire and installed a peacekeeping force (MINURSO) to monitor the ceasefire and organise a referendum on self-determination (which has never happened, and looks increasingly unlikely). Since 1991 Western Sahara has been effectively partitioned by a series of defensive walls, often collectively referred to as the Berm, stretching across the entire territory of Western Sahara for some 1500 km, with Morocco controlling the majority (some three quarters) of the territory to the north and west of the Berm, and the Polisario controlling the remainder.

In the early days of the conflict, Polisario was supported by a number of countries, principally Algeria, which still plays host to five vast refugee camps now housing anything up to 200,000 displaced Sahrawi, as well as the Polisario government-in-exile – the government of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), recognised by dozens of countries and a member of the African Union. However, another big supporter of the Western Saharan independence movement was Libya, which for a time was Polisario’s primary supporter, before Algeria gave its full backing to the independence movement when Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975. In the early days of the conflict Libya supplied Polisario with arms, with support peaking between 1979 and 1982. In 1980 Libya formally recognised the SADR, after some vacillation by Qadhdhafi. However, active Libyan support for Polisario ceased in the 1980s, with Libya signing the Treaty of Oudja with Morocco in 1984, in which Libya agreed not to challenge Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara (2). Although King Hassan of Morocco revoked the Treaty of Oudja in 1986, active Libyan support for Polisario did not resume (2). Nonetheless, until recently Libya remained one of the few countries in which Sahrawi could travel on their SADR passports, and a number of Sahrawi went to Libya for schooling, although Sahrawi colleagues of mine complained in the 2000s that Libya’s support was minimal and increasingly lukewarm.

Even that lukewarm support seems likely to vanish now, in the new democratic Libya. Seeing an opportunity to change Libya’s position on Western Sahara, Morocco was quick to dispatch its foreign minister, Taeib Fassi Fihri, to Benghazi in August to meet with Libya’s NTC. Presumably grateful for this early recognition of its legitimacy, the NTC in turn was quick to cosy up to Morocco, with NTC spokesman in London Guma al-Gamaty reportedly stating on regional television in Laayoune, occupied Western Sahara’s principal town, that “The future of the Sahara can only be conceived under the sovereignty of Morocco.” (3)

Of course politics is all about horse trading, and a rebel organisation battling an entrenched autocratic regime is going to be eager for support, and will take it where it can get it. That’s certainly what Polisario did, in the face of invasion by a powerful neighbour supported and encouraged in its aggression by even more powerful players, namely the United states and France (2). However, it is rather unedifying to see the liberators of Libya supporting Morocco’s unelected monarch and its illegal military occupation of Western Sahara. For the self-styled champions of freedom, democracy, and the right of Libyans to determine their own future free of autocratic interference to support the suppression of these same principles elsewhere in North Africa is deeply hypocritical.

There may also be an element of sour grapes in the NTC’s favouring of Morocco. It has been reported that Algeria – bête noir of the Moroccan regime for its long-standing support for Polisario – has been holding out on the nascent Libyan regime, refusing to recognise the NTC until it forms a government and pledges to combat al Qaeda, based partly on Algerian fears about the role of Islamist militants in the Libyan revolution. Global Security News reported that Algeria voted against the Arab League’s resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011, apparently fearing the break-up of Libya and the exploitation of such a scenario by militants with their own agenda. Algeria has a long history of combating such militancy, and conflict between Islamists and security forces in the 1990s turned into a brutal and dirty civil war that cost many tens of thousands of lives, so Algerian sensitivity – some might say paranoia – is understandable. Of course Algeria is also likely to be wary of any movement that seeks to overthrow unaccountable anciens regimes in North Africa, given its own problems of political legitimacy.

While Algeria’s relations with Qadhdhafi’s Libya were hardly smooth, they were certainly more cordial than its relations with Morocco, which were poisoned by Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara and Algeria’s support for the Polisario.

The NTC has accused Algeria of supporting Qadhdhafi’s forces, accusations which Algeria has denied (see last link). All this suggests that there is an element of playground politics in the NTC’s support for Morocco and its occupation of Western Sahara – supporting Morocco on the basis of that old tribal cliché that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in order to punish Algeria for not giving the Libyan revolution the support it wanted. As usual, the Sahrawi and their reasonable and legitimate demand for self determination have fallen victim to the geopolitics of the region.

Now that Qadhdhafi is out of the way, the NTC is free to move forward with its ostensible project of creating a free and democratic Libya. The new Libyan regime has widespread support, not least from powerful energy-hungry nations desperate to get their hands on Libya’s oil and gas fields. The NTC is not desperate for friends in the face of an existential threat, as the Sahrawi were back in the 1970s (and still are in many respects). It can afford to have some principles. Instead it has betrayed the very principles it claims are its heart, even before it has extended its mandate across the nation it hopes to govern. This is a bad start, and does not bode well for effective, principled, inclusive government in Libya under the new regime.

Deposing a dictator only to offer your support to a foreign king and his colonial aspirations is not good for your revolutionary, or democratic, credentials. Come on Libya – you can do better than this.


(1) And also on Mauritania, whom Morocco had persuaded to join the invasion on its behalf pending a carve-up of Western Sahara. The Polisario successfully countered the Mauritanian incursion in the south of Western Sahara, Mauritania withdrew, and cordial relations were established between Polisario and Mauritania.

(2) Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy, 2010. Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution. Syracuse University Press.

(3) Quote from Morocco World News (Gaddafi’s fall strengthens Morocco over Western Sahara), which appears to be relatively impartial on the issue, at least insofar as it discusses it in terms that are quite far from the usual partisan discourse emanating from the official Moroccan press and organisations sympathetic to Morocco’s position. [Qualifying statement, 23.10.2011. Morocco World News talks about “Western Sahara” and recognises the conflict as one between Morocco and the Polisario, whereas official Moroccan propaganda generally talks about the “Moroccan Sahara” or just “the Sahara”, and casts the conflict as one between Morocco and Algeria in order to marginalise and delegitimise the Polisario as a party to the conflict. However, other Morocco World News articles are quite close to the official Moroccan propaganda line in some respects, for example in their generally positive coverage of Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan”, and their reference to the “population held against their will in the Tindouf camps” – a common theme in Moroccan propaganda (and one that is not borne out by the high degree of movement in and out of the camps or by my experiences in the camps and interacting with Sahrawi exiles). I would tentatively suggest that, while Morocco World News does not appear to be an official organ of the Moroccan state, it appears that much of the official Moroccan orthodoxy on Western Sahara is reflected in Morocco World News articles, although these are not simple representations of the official Moroccan line. The name “Morocco World News” does remind me of the wonderfully culture-centric book title “A Basque History of the World”.]

I’ve gone with Zunes and Mundy’s transliteration of “Qadhdhafi”, as they’ve already thought about how best to render the Arabic into English. There is an extensive menu of possible spellings, and I can be a bit of a purist when it comes to Arabic-English transliteration.