Stalemate in Western Sahara negotiations

RABAT, Morocco — Rivals in one of Africa’s oldest territorial feuds met for talks in Austria recently but longtime observers of the battle to control Western Sahara say the fight is far from over.

The borders of the Great Britain-sized swath of desert remain in dispute and half its population lives in Algerian refugee camps. Morocco claims the territory as its own; an Algerian-backed guerilla group representing the 125,000 displaced people, the Polisario Front, wants a referendum on independence.

Representatives of both parties met in the Austrian town of Duernstein on Aug. 10 and 11, pledging little more than to keep talking. United Nations organizers called the outcome an improvement over the last round of talks, which broke down in 2008.

"The discussions took place in an atmosphere of serious engagement, frankness and mutual respect," said Christopher Ross, the U.N.'s mediator in the conflict, in a statement after the latest meeting. "The parties reiterated their commitment to continue their negotiations as soon as possible.”

Morocco seized the territory after Spain gave it up in 1975. Morocco’s then-king, Hassan II, orchestrated a mass march in which 350,000 unarmed Moroccans crossed the border in a symbolic move to stake a claim on the phosphate-rich region, with which both Morocco and Mauritania asserted historical ties. Morocco and the Polisario waged a small-scale guerilla war over the land until the U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991. While the ceasefire was supposed to bring with it a referendum on the territory’s future, Morocco has blocked the vote. The government has presented instead a plan for the country to become an autonomous region within Morocco. While the Polisario has held out for a vote on independence for region’s residents, known as Saharawis, Moroccan officials insist the productivity of future talks depends on the group abandoning this goal.

“Compromise and realism excludes independence,” said Morocco’s communication minister Khalid Naciri. “Morocco is already there and Morocco has a historical claim on the land. Creating a sixth state in North Africa opens the door to instability.”

While Naciri called the latest round of negotiations more fruitful than the last, longtime observers of the conflict say they’re skeptical either side has much incentive to give ground.

“Morocco isn’t going to budge on self-determination and Polisario hasn’t shown any interest in power-sharing,” said Jacob Mundy, a specialist on the dispute with Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

The camps have slowly transformed themselves into semi-functioning communities, autonomous and sustained by low-level economic activity and remittances from abroad, he said. Meanwhile, Morocco has become increasingly more entrenched on its side of the border.

More than 100,000 Moroccan troops are now stationed in the territory behind a 1,600 mile-long sandy berm seeded with landmines. According to reports published in Moroccan press in May, supplying these troops, maintaining infrastructure and paying subsidies to attract Moroccans to the region absorbs about 3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Despite the obscurity and apparent intractability of the conflict, regional experts say the United States would do well to pay heed. From a counterterrorism perspective, a left-leaning nationalist group like the Polisario is preferable to one controlled by radical Islamists, said Abdeslam Maghraoui, a political scientist at Duke University. Maghraoui said the Saharawis may day one lose faith in the Polisario — a group that has found allies in countries like Cuba, which has educated many Saharawi refugees in its universities. “That ideology is not going to sustain itself forever if it is not successful,” Maghraoui said. “We have seen in other parts of the Arab world where nationalism failed, it is likely to be replaced with political Islam.”

Impoverished Muslims living in vast, ungoverned spaces have proven dangerous to America before, he pointed out. “Ideological shifts can happen if they stay there long enough to become desperate,” Maghraoui said. “Today they send their kids to Cuba but, maybe next time, they start sending them to Pakistan.”