The struggle of the Saharawis, history and perspectives

The conflict in the Western Sahara is an important question for revolutionaries in the Maghreb not only from the theoretical point of view (taking into consideration the importance Marxism gives to the right of self-determination), but also from the political and practical side of the issue (as it is impossible to carry out the tasks of the socialist revolution in the region without putting forward a clear Marxist and internationalist understanding of the national question).

[Note: this article was first written nearly three years ago as part of a discussion on the question of the struggle of the Saharawi people, and therefore this should be taken into consideration when reading the text.]

The conflict in the Western Sahara is an important question for revolutionaries in the Maghreb not only from the theoretical point of view (taking into consideration the importance Marxism gives to the right of self-determination), but also from the political and practical side of the issue (as it is impossible to carry out the tasks of the socialist revolution in the region without putting forward a clear Marxist and internationalist understanding of the national question).

In order to stress this point we think it is useful to have a more detailed look at the history of the conflict and the relationship between the struggle in the Western Sahara and the struggle in the rest of the Maghreb. This will further underline the idea that the fate of the Saharawi people has also been determined by the interests of imperialism and that even if they were to achieve independence (which is extremely unlikely) that would mean in effect their being chained to one or other imperialist power.

Spanish colonialism

The first European contacts with the Western Sahara came about in the 15th century by both Castile and Portugal. None of these countries made a real effort to establish a permanent colonial presence and limited themselves to establishing trading ports on the coast, mainly as a basis for the slave trade.

Real interest in the Western Sahara was not renewed until the 19th century at the time of the great “scramble for Africa” of the different European imperialist powers. By 1894 the Congress of Berlin started laying down the rules for the division of Africa. In December of the same year, the Spanish government proclaimed a protectorate over the territories of Rio de Oro, Angra de Cintra and Bay of the West, and in 1885 a settlement was founded at Dakhla called Villa Cisneros. The borders of the Spanish Sahara were drawn in a series of Franco-Spanish treaties in the period up to 1912. In all, Spain claimed possession of Rio de Oro, Saguia el-Hamra and the protectorate of Spanish South Morocco, with a total area of about 112,000 sq. miles. However Spain was too weak to occupy the area of desert it had been allotted and until 1916, Villa Cisneros was the only Spanish outpost in the region. In 1916 Spain took control of Tarfaya and later on in 1920 a third settlement was set up in the southern-most tip of the territory called La Guera.

At that time the population of the area was composed of a series of tribes who were regarded by themselves and neighbouring tribes as the ahel es-sahel (the people of the littoral). Their main economic activity was pastoral nomadism, although they also engaged in trade with neighbouring tribes. This was a very primitive society in which the limited economic base did not allow for much social differentiation. They were organised in tribes (qabila) which regulated their affairs on the basis of an assembly (djemaa) of the heads of the most distinguished families, which in turn selected the group’s sheik. At tribal level the assembly or djemaa was known as the Ait Arbit, or council of the 40, which would be called into session in times of war or grave crisis.

In the extremely harsh desert conditions no supra-tribal government or rule could be established. More developed forms of organisation only arose further south in what is today known as Mauritania, where some weak supra-tribal states were established from the 17th century.

As we have seen, until 1934, the Spanish limited themselves to establishing their presence in three outposts on the coast, but made no attempt to move further inland. As a result, the whole region under Spanish domination became a sanctuary for nomadic forces fighting against the French advance in Mauritania, Morocco and Algeria. At that time the struggle was carried out in a united fashion by all the different nomadic tribes. For instance, the Saharawi sheik Ma el-Ainin in 1910 attempted to overthrow the weak Alawite Sultan Moulay Hfid of Morocco who was collaborating with the French colonialists. At this time there was clearly no separate national consciousness of the tribes in the Sahara and their struggle was for the liberation of Morocco from colonialism and its puppets. The forces of el-Ainin were defeated by the French troops.

Finally in 1934 a joint operation of French forces from French Morocco, Algeria and French West Africa and Spanish forces finally put down the resistance. Spain was also pushed by France to occupy some strategic points in the interior in order to prevent the territory from being used as a base for raids against the French occupied areas of the Maghreb.

Still, the Spanish Sahara remained an almost forgotten colony with little economic value for the metropolis. The main reason for maintaining a presence there was to counter-balance the French domination of the region and as a protection for the Canary Islands and the rich fishing waters between these and the Saharan coast. In 1952 there were still only 216 civilian employees, 24 telephone subscribers and 366 children attending school in the whole of Spanish Sahara. The ahel es-sahel continued their nomadic life. The Spanish colonisers ruled them using their own traditional qabila structures of sheiks. As in many other places the Spanish imperialists used the largely democratic tribal structures to implement their domination.

Struggle against colonialism

The period leading up to Morocco’s independence in 1956 was again one of joint struggle in the region against both French and Spanish colonialism. The Jaich at-Tahir (Liberation Army) was fighting in what today is Morocco, parts of Algeria, Western Sahara and Mauritania. The Saharawi tribes were fighting for the liberation of Morocco.

Upon winning independence the French imperialists relied heavily on, and supported, the newly established monarch Mohammed V to maintain control over the country’s natural resources. In order to do that he had to first suppress revolts in the Northern Rif region in 1957 and also to smash the remnants of the Liberation Army which refused to join in the newly formed Royal Armed Forces (FAR), which were based mainly in the Spanish territories in the South of Morocco and the Sahara. The strength of these guerrilla forces was such that during 1957 the Spanish had to retreat to a few strongholds on the coast and even Smara had to be abandoned.

This movement really threatened the process of “controlled” de-colonisation that the French imperialists had envisaged for Morocco, and further added to their troubles in Algeria, which they wanted to keep at all costs. Thus in February 1958 a joint Franco-Spanish operation code-named Ecouvillon involving 14,000 troops and 130 aircraft finally smashed the resistance movement in collaboration with Mohammed V’s Royal Armed Forces. It was actually only after this latest focal point of resistance had been put down that the Spanish agreed to hand over Spanish South Morocco to the Rabat regime in April 1958.

In the early 1960s a profound socio-economic transformation started in the Spanish Sahara, which was to change the nature of the Saharawi movement. Phosphate deposits had already been discovered in the area in 1942, but serious surveys and the beginning of their exploitation did not begin until 1962. The territory’s total deposits of phosphates were estimated at that time at 10 billion tonnes, with particularly rich deposits at Bou-Craa. By 1975, after the Spanish colonialists had made important investments, output had reached 2.6 million tonnes a year.

These economic changes in turn led to a rapid urbanisation of Saharawi society, with the majority of the population giving up the harsh nomadic life and settling into the main towns. Many of them took waged employment while others set up shop as traders. Some changed from nomadic pastoralism to sedentary agriculture. By 1974, 55% of the Saharawis recorded in that year’s census were living in the three main towns (Villa Cisneros, El Ayoun and Smara), out of a total of 73,497 Saharawis recorded. However, the 1974 Spanish census, which later became the basis for the promised self-determination referendum, actually “missed out” a large number of Saharawis, who had settled outside the artificial, colonially imposed borders of the Spanish Sahara. At that time there must have been at least 75,000 such ahel es-sahel in the former Spanish Southern Morocco, northern Mauritania and south-western Algeria.

The birth of the POLISARIO

In any case, the move from a nomadic way of life to the urban areas gave rise to a new nationalist movement based on the newly formed middle class layers, particularly many Saharawi students who had gone to university abroad and had became influenced by the dominant ideas of anti-imperialism and were influenced by Stalinism.

A small clandestine movement was set up at the end of the 1960s called the (Liberation Organisation of Saguia el-Hamra and Oued ed-Dahab). The main leader of the organisation was Mohammed Sidi Ibrahim Bassiri, a member of the Reguibi tribe who had studied in Morocco, Egypt and Syria. The movement was smashed after the Spanish Foreign Legion fired on nationalist demonstrators in El Ayoun in June 1970. Hundreds of people were arrested and the main leader Bassiri was most likely killed by the Spanish forces.

The next attempt to reorganise the anti-colonialist movement came again from students, mainly in Morocco, but also in Mauritania. A nucleus of militant Saharawi students was formed in Rabat in 1971-72. They were clearly influenced by the radical ideas dominant among university students in Morocco at that time. A decade after the de-colonisation process had started in Africa it was clear for many petty bourgeois students that the path chosen by the new African rulers was not solving the real problems of the masses. Despite all their rhetoric about “African socialism” and “Arab socialism”, these countries had became bourgeois bonapartist regimes, extremely repressive of any working class opposition. A new generation was becoming more and more attracted to Stalinism, and particularly its Maoist variant, which was seen as a more radical alternative. The situation was actually even worse in Morocco where the regime was heavily under the control of the Monarchy.

A number of Maoist organisations had emerged in Morocco among the students and had practically won control of the students’ movement, which played a crucial role in the general struggle against the Alawite monarchy. Some of the founders of the POLISARIO had been members of these organisations. Thus, when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saha el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) was finally founded in 1973, this was a classical Stalinist guerrilla organisation which combined the aim of liberating the Sahara from the Spanish colonialists with that of the establishment of an “Arab Democratic Republic”. In fact, at the beginning, for them, the aim of liberating the Sahara was one which was seen as part of the “Arab revolution” which was supposed to be anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist and also against the feudal and reactionary rulers of the Arab countries, and which would lead to the unification of the Arab nation. For this reason the founders of the POLISARIO had close contacts and received support from Libya. They also tried to get support from the different nationalist organisations in Morocco itself with little success. This was the first time that the nationalist movement in the Sahara adopted the aim of creating an independent Sahara, rather than the joint struggle against imperialism in Morocco and to a lesser extent in Algeria and Mauritania. At that particular time the struggle for the integration into the Moroccan monarchist regime was clearly not very appealing. Despite that, the founders of the POLISARIO originally envisaged an independent Sahara as a step towards a united Maghreb and as part of the struggle for revolution in the region. However, if instead of adopting a nationalist outlook for their struggle they had decided to link it with the general struggle against the reactionary Moroccan monarchy being carried out by the Moroccan workers, peasants and students, they could have made an important contribution to the revolutionary movement in Morocco which is the only one that can guarantee respect for their national rights.

Greater Morocco

In the meantime, both Morocco and Mauritania had claims over the Spanish Sahara. Immediately after Morocco won independence from France in 1956, the nationalist party Istiqlal declared that the task of liberating the country had not been finished and would not be finished until the whole of the historic territory of the Alawite Empire was free. This meant a whole region including most of Algerian Sahara, north-western Mali, the whole of Mauritania and even a section of Senegal. The current borders that separate Western Sahara, Mauritania, Algeria and Mali are certainly artificial and imposed by French and Spanish imperialism. In fact if you look at them on a map you can see they are straight lines which do not follow any national or geographic criteria, only the division of areas of influence between different colonial powers. This is actually the case with most of the African borders.

However, the nascent Moroccan bourgeoisie represented by Istiqlal was less interested in the integrity of the national territory than in finding a useful way of uniting the whole country (regardless of class interests) in a common national enterprise which would divert the attention of the masses from their social problems. King Mohammed V, still in the process of consolidating his power, could not afford to be outstripped in nationalist fervour and therefore also adopted the cause of Greater Morocco. Thus Morocco refused to recognise Mauritania when this country won independence in 1960. At that time, the idea of territorial integrity was not accepted by all the wings of the nationalist movement. The more radical and left-leaning wing represented by Ben Barka, which in 1959 split from the Istiqlal to found the National Union of Popular Forces (UNFP), explicitly rejected the idea of a Greater Morocco, defended the independence of Mauritania and opposed the 1963 war against Algeria. The same position was adopted by the main workers organisation at that time, the Union of Moroccan Workers (UMT). The Communist Party, following the criminal two-stage policies of Stalinism had exactly the same policy as the Istiqlal (and the Monarchy by extension) and even criticised the King for recognising Mauritania in 1970. At that time the question of the Western Sahara was simply posed as one of the struggles against Spanish colonialism and for the incorporation of that territory to Morocco.

Another powerful reason for the Moroccan ruling class to maintain the claims over Greater Morocco was the fear that the spirit of the liberation movement in Algeria, which had a more left wing and even “socialist” language, would spread to Morocco and lead to the overthrow of the monarchy. Thus in 1963, barely a year after Algeria had finally won independence, Morocco went to war with its neighbour in the short Sands War.

On the other hand, Mauritania wanted to prevent Western Sahara from falling into Moroccan hands, since that would have given the belligerent Moroccan regime 980 miles of a very difficult to protect common border in the desert. Furthermore most of the border between Mauritania and the Spanish Sahara runs along a strategic iron-ore railway upon which Mauritania was dependent for about 85% of its exports.

Despite the Moroccan claims over the Spanish Sahara, the Alawite monarchy did not make any serious moves for more than a decade and used the conflict mainly as a bargaining chip. A clear example of this was the disbanding of the Morocco-sponsored Sahara Liberation Front (FLS) in 1969, after Morocco had won the small enclave of Ifni back from Spain. As a matter of fact the then King Hassan II enjoyed excellent relations with the Franco dictatorship in Spain.

By 1974, the Spanish regime was in serious difficulties at home. A pre-revolutionary situation was opening up with mass working class action and the threat that the overthrow of the weakened dictatorship would open the way for socialist transformation. The Spanish ruling class was terrified. They feared the effects that a guerrilla war in the Sahara would have on the situation in Spain. The example of the Portuguese revolution that year, triggered partly by the disastrous colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique, was fresh in their minds when they decided to announce a referendum on self-determination which was to take place in 1975.

From the beginning of the 1960s, Spain had pursued two different strategies over Western Sahara. On the one hand a section of Franco’s government represented by Carrero Blanco wanted to maintain an indefinite colonial presence and was convinced of the loyalty towards Spain of the local population as a result of the modernisation it had introduced. Thus, they set up a moderate Saharawi political party, the Saharawi National Unity Party (PUNS). Another section of the regime, stronger amongst the military, wanted a controlled de-colonisation process which would hand over control to some pro-Spanish force through which they could still control the region’s natural resources, mainly the phosphate mines and the rich fishing grounds. Both strategies coincided in the need to create a separate Saharawi identity in order to pre-empt Morocco’s claims or the emergence of a nationalist pro-Morocco movement.

Morocco’s revolutionary crisis

But this was not acceptable to the Moroccan regime. The monarchy had been through a series of important crises, with mass movements and strikes and had even suffered two coup attempts in 1971/72. The wave of popular struggles in Morocco had begun in 1965. The repression of a students’ demonstration on March 22, led to an uprising of the population in Casablanca the following day which rapidly spread to all major cities and towns in the country. The movement was only put down after hundreds of people had been killed by the army, more than 3,000 had been arrested, Parliament dissolved and the State of Emergency declared. Repression did not stop the movement of the masses, in which the university and school students played a key role, but which also involved a growing and very militant strike movement. In 1968, 7,000 miners at the Khouribga mine went out on strike in a bitter and heroic struggle. In the winter of 1970/71 peasant uprisings took place in Gharb, Sous, Haouz and other regions. By 1971, the trade union leadership recognised that they had lost any ability to control or channel the strike wave, which involved again the Khourigba miners, textile workers all over the country, etc. In March 1973 armed rebellions start in Khenifra (Middle Atlas) and Goulmina (High Atlas). Simultaneously, the monarchy faced two attempted military coups in 1971 and 1972.

A whole number of factors combined to produce a very explosive situation. A decade after independence, the country was ruled in an authoritarian manner by the Monarchy and the urgent social demands of the masses had not been satisfied. A severe economic crisis and the economic policies of the regime, which amounted to an enormous transfer of wealth from the workers and peasants to the King, made matters worse. Amongst the youth other factors also had an influence: The defeat of the Palestinians in the 1967 war which led to a harsh criticism of the Arab bourgeois and petty-bourgeois regimes; the splits in the Palestinian national movement with the formation of the PFLP and the DFLP, under the influence of the ideas of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution; the world wide wave of student radicalisation after the French general strike in 1968. All these factors had their impact on the political thinking in Morocco. In 1970 both the UNFP and the PLS (the new name adopted by the Communist Party) suffered massive left wing splits of their youth which moved in the direction of Maoism with the formation of Ila al Amam and the March 23 Movement. The UNFP itself was also under the influence of the radical sounding ideas of Maoism.

Hassan II needed urgently to use the nationalist card to divert the attention of the masses and at the same time to secure Moroccan control over the Western Saharan riches. In fact, all parties and organisations in Morocco, left and right, adopted the official view of the regime regarding the question of “Morocco’s national integrity”. This included the Union of National Popular Forces (UNFP), and the Communist Party which, following the two-stage theory adopted the most grovelling position of following the King’s policy on every single issue, to the point of changing its name twice under pressure from the Palace.

The only organisation that refused to join in the chorus of national chauvinism was the Maoist Ila al Amam (Forward), which defended the right of self-determination for the Saharawis. This is not unimportant since the organisation had a majority in the powerful university students’ organisation (UNEM) and certain points of support in the trade union movement. The other wing of the Maoist movement, the March 23 organisation adopted the opposite position and justified the Moroccan move in the Sahara from the point of view of the national revolution. Abraham Serfarty, a mining engineer who was sacked for supporting striking miners, was one of the main leaders of the Ila al Amam movement. He was arrested in 1974 and tried in 1977 for High Treason. In 1991 he was expelled from the country on the grounds that he was not a Moroccan citizen. Finally, a few years ago, he returned to the country where he was appointed by the King to an official position overseeing the oil exploration activities in the country. The March 23 organisation eventually became a legal party called the Organisation for Democratic and Popular Action (OADP) which is now part of the legal farce, which is the Moroccan parliamentary system. The success of the King’s strategy of rallying the whole nation behind the Monarchy went a long way to smashing the revolutionary organisations at that time.

Western Sahara crisis and the Green March

In order to maximise the pressure on Spain, Hassan II revived the claims over the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, began harassing Spanish fishing boats and even created a pro-Moroccan Saharawi guerrilla group, the Unity and Liberation Front (FLU) which started cross-border attacks in early 1975. Furthermore, Morocco signed a secret treaty with Mauritania, which involved the partition of the Western Sahara between the two countries.

The Spanish regime, extremely weakened by a rising revolutionary wave in Spain, could not withstand the pressure from Morocco and had no clear policy. It became clear that the promised UN referendum was never going to take place, since the Moroccan regime was prepared to invade the country while Spain was not ready to defend with arms the holding of the referendum. Under these conditions, the PUNS collapsed, and with it the Spanish strategy of a controlled solution.

At this time, the Spanish regime toyed with the idea of handing power to the POLISARIO, the main aim being to maintain some sort of influence over the natural resources of Western Sahara after independence. In fact Spain and the POLISARIO exchanged prisoners and started discussions over the transfer of power.

Finally things came to a head in July 1975, the International Court of Justice of the UN declared that Morocco’s claims over Western Sahara had no validity. In response, Hassan II announced that a Green March of 350,000 Muslims would move in to reclaim Morocco’s “territorial integrity”.

As is always the case, the UN decisions had no real power since no one was prepared to defend them with force. The Moroccan challenge could not come at a worse time for the Franco regime. The movement of the masses in Spain was getting ever stronger and then on October 17, general Franco entered into his terminal illness, finally dying on November 20.

The Spanish regime had no more options, the last thing it needed was a war with Morocco, and under strong pressure from France and the US it signed a secret agreement with Hassan II. In exchange for the Western Sahara, Morocco would keep quiet about Ceuta and Melilla, Spain would get assurances for her fishing interests off the Moroccan and Saharan coasts, retain a 35% stake in the exploitation of phosphates and would get compensation for the remaining 65%. The Green March in effect was a limited exercise to which the Spanish regime had already agreed to in order to prevent further conflict.

Spanish withdrawal

Spain withdrew its troops and both Morocco and Mauritania sent theirs in. Morocco’s occupation of its part of the Sahara was as brutal as when the rebellion of the Rif was put down in 1957. Morocco ended up with the lion’s share, including the rich phosphate mines of Bou-Craa, and the two main towns, Smara and El Ayoun. Mauritania received an arid strip of desert, which contained the third town, Villa Cisneros. In the transition period before the arrival of the Moroccan and Mauritanian troops, the POLISARIO took over many of the smaller settlements and was able to hold them for a few months. But finally they were pushed into exile in Algeria, in the refugee camps of Tindouf.

Algeria saw the expansion of Morocco as a threat to its own territory and wholeheartedly supported the POLISARIO forces from the very beginning. This was also part of the Cold War clash between the US and the Soviet Union. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made it clear when he said “The US will not allow another Angola on the east flank of the Atlantic Ocean”. The then US ambassador in Morocco noted in his memoirs that it was the position of the US that the UN do nothing to undo Morocco’s success in Western Sahara, a task, he noted “that I carried forward with no inconsiderable success”.

The Moroccan regime was the most faithful and valuable ally of Western imperialism in the region, while the left-leaning Algerian regime received support from the Soviet Union. However it is worth noting that the foreign policy of the Soviet Union was always determined by the defence of the immediate interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy and not by the interests of world revolution. They did not want any direct conflict with the interests of US imperialism and whenever a Stalinist regime came to power in any country they would only reluctantly give it support when faced with a fait accompli. In fact, neither the Soviet Union, nor any of the Eastern countries, ever recognised the Democratic Arab Saharawi Republic, which the POLISARIO declared in 1976 after the Spanish troops had left.

The exile of the POLISARIO forces, and with them some 50,000 Saharawis, meant the beginning of a long war. The first phase of the war was directed mainly against Mauritania. The country’s small army was completely outstretched having to defend a massive territory of about 400,000 sq. miles. POLISARIO raids went far into Mauritania itself, reaching on a couple of occasions the capital Noukchott, and seriously disrupting the iron mining on which Mauritania was so dependent.

French imperialism came to the help of the Mauritanian regime, and even Morocco sent 9,000 troops to defend it. The war led to a deep economic crisis in the country which was made even worse by the fall of the prices of iron in world markets and the rise of oil prices. Furthermore the war was very unpopular amongst the Mauritanian Moors who were a majority of the population and who regarded it as a fratricidal war. Finally in July 1978 a military coup combined with a mass movement on the streets overthrew the Mauritanian regime. The new Military Committee for National Reconstruction signed a peace agreement with the POLISARIO giving them the Mauritanian side of the Western Sahara. Here is a clear example of how the only significant victory achieved by the POLISARIO in this war was achieved not so much by military means but by a revolutionary process in Mauritania. However, as Mauritania evacuated its side of Western Sahara, the Moroccan troops swiftly moved in.

The war went on for a few more years with no side gaining decisive superiority. In 1980, the Moroccan Army started to build a defensive wall in the desert in order to prevent the POLISARIO from making incursions into the Western Sahara, particularly in the north, where the Bou-Craa phosphate mines are located. Over a period of time this wall was expanded until it reached some 2,700 kilometres protecting most of the border of Western Sahara.

The great powers

For the duration of the war, the United States had supported Morocco, but at the same time always tried to maintain open relations with Algeria. After the first few years of revolutionary fervour in which it was not clear whether the Algerian regime would have gone all the way in abolishing capitalism and became a proletarian bonapartist regime, the country had became safe for capitalism, and there were lucrative business contracts to be made there. This is the reason why most Western countries involved in the conflict tried to juggle on the hand their support and arming of Morocco in the conflict (since after all Morocco was their main ally), with, on the other hand, an open door policy towards Algeria (and trying to make business with it at the same time). But at the end of the day, in all the crucial moments, they came down on the side of Morocco. Thus, while the French Socialist Party recognised the POLISARIO, while in government at the beginning of the 1980s, they continued to supply and arm the Moroccan regime. A similar situation happened in Spain where the ruling right wing party UCD recognised the POLISARIO in 1979 and so did the Socialist Party, but the governments of both parties still considered good relations with the murderous regime of Hassan II to be much more important.

The Moroccan monarchy has always been one of the best allies of US imperialism in the Arab world and Morocco occupies a very important strategic position at the gateway to the Mediterranean. The US had military bases in the country until 1963, and after that maintained communication facilities for the US Navy. In 1982 Morocco signed an agreement giving the US Rapid Deployment Force transit facilities at Moroccan air bases, which were used to their full extent during the 1991 Gulf War for instance. The Alawite Monarchy had also rendered invaluable services to US and French imperialism in Africa in successive interventions in Zaire, pushing the imperialist line of agreements between the Arab countries and Israel in the Arab world, etc. The Soviet Union, despite having close links to the Algerian regime, also signed contracts with Morocco, which amongst other things secured access to Moroccan phosphate supplies. The Cold War clash between the Soviet Union and US imperialism played a role in the conflict, above all in the first years of the war, but this was always superimposed on the Algerian-Moroccan conflict over hegemony in the Maghreb.


The Libyan regime of Muhammar el Qadhafi supported the POLISARIO at the beginning of the war, as part of its efforts to spread the “Arab revolution”. But by 1984, Libya decided that revolution was not necessarily the most effective way of bringing about its peculiar brand of Arab unity, and stopped giving support to the POLISARIO and reached a “unity agreement” with Morocco. This was mainly an anti-Algerian axis. Libya resented the Algerians’ veto of their entry into the Maghreb treaty of ‘peace and concord’, which had been signed in 1983 between Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania. Libya had also territorial claims over a strip of land on the border with Algeria’s Sahara region. With his agreement with Morocco, Qadhafi also managed to prevent King Hassan from sending troops to help the Chad regime in its battle against Libyan backed rebels. From the whole episode of Libya’s abandonment of the POLISARIO and the reasons behind its alliance with Morocco one can draw two main conclusions. Firstly, that the legacy of the artificial borders left behind by colonialism (especially French colonialism) cannot be overcome by any of the Arab regimes in the region, not even the most nationalist ones, despite the fact that all of them claim allegiance to the principle of unity of the Maghreb. This is a democratic task that can only be fulfilled as part of the struggle for socialism. Secondly, that for the different regimes in the Maghreb, the struggle of the Saharawis is just so much small change to be used as a bargaining chip in their relations between each other, and that includes the Algerian regime.

Algerian-Moroccan relations

There was always a strong feeling in Algeria and Morocco that their peoples had been arbitrarily divided by French and Spanish imperialism. One of the first nationalist organisations in Algeria was called North-African Star (Etoile nord-africaine). When France finally was forced to give independence to its Moroccan and Tunisian protectorates in the mid-1950s, the Algerian National Liberation Army (ALN) set up bases in both countries, and many Moroccans and Tunisians gave their lives fighting side by side with their Algerian brothers and sisters. Most of the first generation of nationalist leaders clearly espoused the ideal of a united and independent Maghreb.

After Algeria had won independence, many felt the revolutionary process should not stop until the semi-feudal Moroccan monarchy, which was collaborating with imperialism, was overthrown. Algerian president Houari Boumediene expressed it in the following way: “Our Moroccan brothers think, in essence, that they have helped us get rid of France, now we will help them by getting rid of the feudal monarchy which has sold out to the West”. Thus, the Moroccan monarchy immediately felt threatened by the revolutionary ideas emanating from Algeria (land reform, anti-imperialist language, widespread nationalisation of the economy, Arab socialism, etc). In 1963 the King launched a short war against Algeria. It is important to note that the right wing parties in Morocco, notably the Istiqlal, supported the Palace and revived their notions of a Greater Morocco, while the left wing UNFP opposed the war. UNFP leader Ben Barka, in exile in Algeria, denounced “the aggression against the Algerian revolution on the part of a feudal monarchy”. The leadership of the UNFP was arrested and Ben Barka was kidnapped and killed two years later in Paris by Moroccan agents with the collaboration of the French secret services. The Moroccan monarchy also feared the possibility of the emergence of a left wing nationalist movement within the army, which would follow the model of the Algerian revolution by allying itself with the UNFP. This fear was not misplaced, since the attempted coup of 1971 had the aim of establishing the “Popular Republic of Morocco”.

But over the years, the conflict between Morocco and Algeria became no longer a conflict over two different ideological models. The revolutionary fervour of the Algerian regime progressively died out, first in 1965 with the coup against Ben Bella and particularly after the death of Boumediene, together with the slowing down of its economy. The Algerian revolution no longer presented any serious threat to the Moroccan monarchy. Morocco’s war with the POLISARIO had become very costly and practically unwinnable so long as Algeria supported the Saharawis. King Hassan II was being forced to maintain a massive army of up to 140,000 in the Saharan desert just to keep 10,000 armed POLISARIO forces at bay. The financing of the war effort was becoming an unbearable weight on the Moroccan economy. According to some estimates the cost was $1 million a day.

By the 1980s both regimes were facing massive riots of the poor against the rise in prices of basic foodstuffs, the lack of jobs, etc. These were particularly violent in Morocco in 1981 and again in 1984. All these factors led to a rapprochement between the two countries. The first diplomatic summit between the two countries since the beginning of the war took place in 1983 and then again in 1987. In 1998 they resumed normal diplomatic relations, and in 1989 Algeria and Morocco, together with Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia founded the Union of the Arab Maghreb (UMA). Later on, the start of the civil war in Algeria in 1992, after the fundamentalist FIS won a majority in the council elections, weakened even further the resolve of the Algerian generals to support the POLISARIO.

This obviously put the POLISARIO under a lot of pressure. After 20 years of desert war they realised that although they could put the Moroccan Army under a lot of stress, there was no way they could win the war. And if Algeria were to withdraw support, then their fate would be sealed. The whole strategy of the POLISARIO of relying on support from different regimes in the region (Libya and Algeria) and guerrilla war, had not achieved any of their aims. On top of this, in the period leading up to the collapse of Stalinism, the POLISARIO gradually abandoned any mention of socialism or revolution and became more and more involved in diplomatic efforts to secure a positive outcome of their struggle.

In 1986 proximity talks started under the auspices of the UN and in 1998 both sides agreed to a peace plan. It seemed that there were no obstacles left for a negotiated settlement. Two main factors though have prevented this from taking place. On the one hand all the different countries and powers involved in the conflict want to secure control over the rich phosphate reserves in the Western Sahara and the fishing grounds off its coast. On the other hand the Moroccan monarchy has relied so much on the exploitation of the nationalist feelings of the population over the question of the Sahara that making concessions now would shake the foundations of the whole regime and would probably lead to its overthrow.


In 1991 an agreement was signed which included a partial withdrawal of Moroccan troops, and the confinement of the remainder to their barracks, a gradual return of the Saharawi refugees from the camps in Tindouf, the sending of a UN monitoring force (MINURSO) and finally a referendum on self-determination to be held in 1992. Ten years later the referendum has not taken place, and even the UN are now saying it will not take place. What has happened in the meantime?

The whole strategy of the POLISARIO throughout this process of the referendum was once again to rely on diplomacy. They wanted to split the US away from France and achieve some sort of independence based on giving American imperialism access to their natural resources. In fact the bankruptcy of the POLISARIO leadership reached such levels that they tried to convince the US that the best way for the Moroccan monarchy to remain in power was precisely to give up Western Sahara! They would be prepared to accept the dictatorial domination by the reactionary Moroccan regime over millions of their brothers and sisters in order to get formal independence in which they would be the local agents of US imperialism. This is similar to the position adopted by the PKK in relation to Turkey in the last period. But this is really the result of their whole petit bourgeois nationalist outlook since the POLISARIO was set up in 1973.

Further to their offers to US imperialism, the POLISARIO leaders have also presented a most moderate and compromising face to the Spanish ruling class, hinting at preferential treatment over the granting of mineral resources and fishing rights. Unfortunately for them, in the general scheme of things, Morocco is much more important for imperialism than any concessions they can get from the Sahara.

The main stumbling block on the question of the referendum was the census of people eligible to vote. According to the peace agreement those eligible to vote were those who could prove they were registered in the Spanish census of 1974 or descendants of those who were. Morocco realised that if that was the only criteria used the referendum would certainly give a massive vote in favour of independence and so it started a series of manoeuvres to block the whole process. First of all it said that the 1974 census was not a valid basis since it had left a number of Saharawi tribes out. This is factually true because, as we have mentioned before, as much as 45% of the Saharawis were not registered in the 1974 census because they had settled outside the limits of the Spanish Sahara. The majority of these had integrated into Morocco and were most likely to vote against independence. Obviously Morocco presented this objection not out of any interest for democracy but rather as a manoeuvre to make sure the referendum went its way.

Throughout the whole process of voter identification, the attitude of the United Nations and of the United States was a very clear one of favouring Morocco. In 1995, the US envoy to MINURSO, Jack Rudy resigned in protest at the blatant pro-Moroccan attitude of the whole of the MINURSO operation. Just before his departure from the position as general secretary of the UN, Perez de Cuellar suddenly expanded the criteria for being included in the electoral roll. Now, all members of the 88 sub fractions of the 10 tribes listed in the 1974 Spanish census would be included, even if they had not been directly listed in the census. The next problem was how to identify the eligible voters. The POLISARIO insisted that only original documents issued by the Spanish colonial authorities be allowed and only in exceptional cases, oral testimony from the sheiks leading those 88 sub fractions. Morocco insisted that written documents issued by Morocco also be allowed.

The attitude of both sides was not motivated by democratic principles of any kind but just by trying to get an electoral census favourable to them. The question for instance of the rights of the 100,000 Moroccans who have settled in Western Sahara in the last 25 years cannot be solved just by saying that they have been used as political pawns by Morocco. This is clearly the case, but how democratic would it be if they are denied all democratic rights, similar to that of the newly independent Baltic republics where people of Russian origin are denied their political rights?

Farce and delay

The whole process of voter identification descended into a farce, with both sides producing and contesting sheiks. Finally in 1997 all sides signed the Houston agreements which were meant to speed up the identification process and smooth over the controversial points. James Baker, the former US Secretary of State, was appointed as UN Special Envoy for the Western Sahara. The appointment of such a heavyweight in US diplomacy was a sign that Washington wanted an agreement. The US had interests in Algeria, wanted access one way or another to the Sahara’s natural resources and in general was interested in stability in the region. But this could only come about as long as it would not fundamentally upset its main and most valuable ally, Morocco. The POLISARIO leaders actually believed in the “good will” of the US representative. The organisation’s head, Mohammed Abdel Aziz said in 1997 that “Mr Baker is a very capable and brave man” and that “he had said clearly during his time with Mr Bush that the US will respect international law and defend it”. From guerrilla struggle to “New World” diplomacy in just 23 years!

By 2000, the MINURSO had managed to identify 86, 381 eligible voters out of a total of 147,249 applicants. Out of these, 40,000 were from the POLISARIO refugee camps in Algeria and Mauritania, and the rest Saharawis living in Western Sahara who were likely to vote for independence. The Moroccan regime saw clearly that if the referendum were to take place on the basis of this census it would lose it. Then, they presented appeals for all the 79,000 rejected voters, plus 65,000 members of the contested tribes living in Morocco (only 2,000 of them had been accepted as eligible). This made a total of 130,000 appeals that would take another 3 years to process at best. Clearly the referendum plan was in tatters.

In February 2001, the POLISARIO had had enough of the whole process and announced that if the Paris-Dakar Rally were to cross Western Saharan territory without their permission they would resume hostilities. This announcement reflected the enormous frustration amongst the Saharawis in the refugee camps after ten years of waiting for the promised referendum. But at the last minute, when the fighters were already at their positions ready to resume the war, pressure from Algeria forced the POLISARIO leaders to retreat and call off the offensive. This incident reflects very well the position the POLISARIO leaders find themselves in after more than 20 years of guerrilla war. They are hostages of their host, the Algerian regime, a regime which already has enough internal problems of its own and has no intention of adding to that a new phase of war with its eastern neighbour. To underscore the growing isolation of the POLISARIO, its representative in Nouakchoot had been expelled in February 2000 by the Mauritanian government after he had accused it of losing its neutrality.

It is also important to note that the Algerian regime on which the POLISARIO leaders rely is now quite different from that which emerged immediately after the Algerian revolution. The Boumedienne regime was a bourgeois nationalist regime, which had a certain revolutionary prestige, which used revolutionary phraseology and which introduced certain wide ranging reforms in the economy. Ultimately the Algerian bonapartist regime came up against the limits of capitalism. The economic crisis of the 1980s made the regime extremely unpopular and sparked off widespread riots. The failure of left sounding bourgeois nationalism gave rise to Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990s. Now the appeal of fundamentalism in Algeria has largely exhausted itself as a vehicle for expressing the anger of the population. The uprising in the Kabyla in the Spring and Summer of 2001 marked the beginning of a new wave of mobilisation of workers and youth fighting against the regime of the Algerian generals, which is firmly committed to the policies of the IMF of privatisation and cuts in social spending. The movement suffered massive repression. Throughout all these changes and social struggles in Algeria, the POLISARIO leaders have remained silent, not making any criticism at all of the policies of the Algerian regime. How could it be otherwise? They rely heavily on the support of Algeria for their own existence. In effect they have became loyal allies of a murderous capitalist regime, which is hated by its own people and has to resort to naked repression to remain in power.

The United Nations finally acknowledged what should have been clear to everyone from the very beginning: the referendum will not take place unless Morocco wants it. In a June 2001 report, Kofi Annan recommended to the Security Council a freezing of the whole process in order to study a new proposal: a five year period of limited autonomy and shared power at the end of which a referendum would take place over the final status of the territory. Elections to an Executive would take place immediately on the basis of the 86,000 identified voters and after five years everyone living in the territory would be allowed to vote in the referendum.

The POLISARIO immediately rejected the plan, known as the Third Way, as a farce and demanded the holding of the referendum on the basis already agreed. Within Morocco there were different opinions. Some sections of the regime, including the recently returned former Maoist leader Abraham Serfaty, were in favour of the proposal, thinking that in the last analysis, the proposal could be used in favour of Morocco’s interests. Others opposed it, fearing that any concessions at all on question of the Sahara would have a destabilising effect.

The main problem for the POLISARIO leaders is that they do not see any other alternative: either accept whatever is given to them or return to war, a war for which this time they might not have Algeria’s support. This would be a complete disaster. Not only this, but at the same time that the Third Way was being proposed, the United Nations announced that its refugee agency was running out of money to supply and fund the Saharawi camps in Tindouf. This was a clear message on the part of the UN that unless the proposal was accepted they risked losing all funding for the camps. The POLISARIO press release in June 2001, rejecting the Third Way plan is a clear indication of the powerlessness of the position of its leadership. It is full of bitter complaints and appeals to “international legality”, “the international community”, and to “all those who care about the respect of justice and law”, to “denounce the shameful game played by Morocco and its ally France” and to “help save the international legality and peace”.


The strong refusal of Algeria and the POLISARIO to contemplate the proposed Third Way position led to the latest UN report of February 2002. This is quite an interesting document and written in a very frank and direct manner, something unusual for diplomatic papers of this kind. The document describes in detail the present stalemate of the whole process and concludes that “it is very unlikely that the settlement plan, in its present form, can be put into practice in a way leading to a quick, long lasting and agreed solution to the controversy over Western Sahara”. Quite clearly, the referendum is not going to take place. As a result, the UN general secretary continues, there are four possible options. Option one would be to continue with the settlement plan and go ahead with the referendum. But, “Morocco has already expressed that it is not ready to continue with the settlement plan; the UN would not be able to celebrate a free and fair referendum with results which could be accepted by both sides and in any case there would be no mechanism to apply the results of such a referendum”. The last underlined point is very important and underlines the difference between Western Sahara and East Timor. What the UN is admitting is that Morocco has the military force to prevent the referendum from taking place and the results from being implemented and the UN cannot do anything about it. All talk of “international legality” is here clearly exposed. In other words, as the UN representatives told the POLISARIO leaders, “you cannot compare this situation with East Timor, because here there is no Australia ready to intervene”.

Option two would be a revised Third Way option. The UN is not very optimistic over this perspective but it has the advantage that “it would make it possible to reduce the size of MINURSO”. Actually the whole report is written under pressure from the US that thinks too much money has already been wasted on the UN Mission without it delivering any results and that it is time to end the farce and stop UN bureaucrats from wasting any more resources.

Option three is a new proposal which implies a partition of Western Sahara that would follow more or less the same lines as the 1976 partition between Morocco and Mauritania, only that now the POLISARIO would take control of the Mauritanian side. This is not a bad offer for Morocco that would retain most of the phosphates and two of the three main towns in the territory. The offer would also please Algeria that would gain a friendly neighbour with access to the Atlantic. The POLISARIO might just be forced to accept these crumbs falling from the table of the big power games for fear of not getting anything at all. In fact the same UN report mentions that in the opinion of James Baker (the UN Envoy) “Algeria and the POLISARIO Front would be prepared to discuss or negotiate a division of the territory as a political solution”. Both Algeria and the POLISARIO leaders have said publicly that they reject this option, but these are probably just statements for public consumption or to gain a bit more leverage in the sharing out of the pie. This solution would also benefit the interests of Spain since it would leave in the hands of the POLISARIO the richest part of the Western Saharan fishing grounds. Spain has always been in conflict with Morocco over this issue and the POLISARIO has already hinted that they would be ready to reach an agreement with Spain.

Option four is to recognise the complete failure of the UN, and “accept in this way that, after more than 11 years and after having spent ... nearly 500 million dollars, the UN are not going to solve the problem of the Western Sahara”.

What we can see clearly is the complete failure of the POLISARIO strategy and politics over the last 25 years or more. Their policies during the period of the cease-fire are in fact a logical continuation of their policies during the war, that is a purely nationalist approach which necessarily relies on support from one country or another. Now, no country is prepared to support them in any serious way any longer, despite the attempts of the POLISARIO leadership to sell themselves to US and Spanish interests.

The only policy that makes sense is to go back to the unity in struggle which existed in the 1950s and earlier between the forces which were fighting imperialism and its local agents in the form of the Alawite Monarchy in Morocco. Only by linking the interests of the Saharawis to those of their brothers and sisters in Morocco and Algeria can they achieve respect for their national rights. The situation in both countries is certainly an explosive one. We have already described the popular uprising in Algeria in 2001, and the situation in Morocco contains all the same elements which sparked off that movement in Algeria. The monarchy which is no longer as strong as it used to be after the death of Hassan II, has been forced to put the “socialist” USFP in government. Its economy is riddled with a massive crisis which forces hundreds of thousands of Moroccans to emigrate to Europe.

The only realistic way forward would be a revolutionary struggle based in the Western Sahara itself, and in the Moroccan universities where Saharawi students are based. Such a struggle would have to be based on the fight for jobs, bread and democracy – not purely on national rights – in order to be able to appeal to the mass of workers, peasants and youth in Morocco, who are the only ones who can really overthrow the reactionary Alawite monarchy that oppresses both them and the Saharawis.

Another point that seems clear is that prior to the war there was no real separate national identity of the Saharawi people and no aspiration to independence. Now, however, this has been created by more than 20 years of brutal war and the repression of the Saharawi population in the Western Sahara. This is something we must take into account. But at the same time we must be absolutely clear in explaining that the only way in which the Saharawis can win respect for their national rights and self-rule is through the revolutionary struggle of the masses in Morocco under the leadership of the working class.

A referendum

Some have asked what position should the Marxists take if there were a UN referendum on self-determination for the Saharawis. First of all we have already established the reasons why a referendum is practically ruled out. Secondly if the referendum were ever to take place surely the position of Marxists would not be limited to choosing between independence and integration into Morocco. In such a situation the duty of Marxists would be to clearly explain the reality of the situation. We would say, look at what happened in East Timor, do not trust the United Nations. If the referendum results in a vote for independence, surely Morocco will not allow it and will stop its implementation by force of arms. Who will then defend the Saharawis? The United Nations? That is a joke. We would have to stress the idea once again, that only in an alliance with the Moroccan working class can the Saharawis achieve any of their aims. Even in the unlikely event that an independent Sahara were to be set up it would just be in the hands of one or other imperialist power. That is what Marxists would say to the Saharawis if they were ever faced with such a referendum.

June 2002

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