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The Reality of Western Sahara

Commentary: A rebuttal on accusations concerning the Polisario and Moroccan occupation.
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The wreckage of a Morrocan tank is pictured near the Western Sahara village of Tifariti. Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony which was annexed in 1975 by Morocco. The Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, wants independence for the territory on the west African coast. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO — Earlier this year, Global Post ran an article by Jordan Paul, executive director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy, a registered foreign agent for the Moroccan government, which funds, supervises, and coordinates the group’s activities. The article contained a series of demonstrably false claims attempting to rationalize for Morocco’s illegal occupation of its southern neighbor, the country of Western Sahara.

In 1975, the kingdom of Morocco conquered Western Sahara on the eve of its anticipated independence from Spain in defiance of a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice upholding the right of the country's inhabitants to self-determination. With threats of a French and American veto at the UN preventing decisive action by the international community to stop the Moroccan invasion, the nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed struggle against the occupiers. The majority of the indigenous population, known as Sahrawis, went into exile, primarily in Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria.

Thanks to U.S. and French military support for the conquering Moroccan forces, Morocco was able to hold on to most of Western Sahara. Yet the Polisario achieved a series of diplomatic victories that generated widespread international support for self-determination and opposition to the Moroccan takeover. In 1991, the Polisario agreed to a ceasefire in return for a Moroccan promise to allow for an internationally supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. Morocco, however, recognizing they would almost certainly lose such a plebiscite, refused to allow the scheduled vote to move forward.

French and American support for the Moroccan government blocked the UN Security Council from providing the necessary diplomatic pressure to force Morocco to allow the promised referendum to take place. The Polisario, meanwhile, recognizing its inability to defeat the Moroccans by military means, decided against resuming the armed struggle. As a result, the struggle for self-determination shifted to within the Moroccan-occupied territory, where the Sahrawi population has launched a nonviolent resistance campaign against the occupation, which – despite widespread Moroccan repression – has sporadically continued.

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In an effort to justify their ongoing defiance of the international community for their illegal occupation, the autocratic Moroccan monarchy has redoubled its efforts to discredit their opponents, such hiring people like Paul to write articles like those that appeared in the Global Post in March.

Among Paul’s more bizarre claims is that the Polisario Front has links to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM.)

In reality, though Sahrawis are virtually all Muslims, they historically practice a decidedly liberal interpretation of the faith. The Polisario has since its founding been a secular organization, based on the belief that religious faith is between the individual and God, not a government or other temporal organization. Women have taken prominent positions in leadership. Meanwhile, radical Islamists in Algeria have condemned them for their secular ideology and even attacked Polisario offices.

Even during the twenty years of armed struggle, the Polisario never engaged in terrorism or any kind of deliberate attacks against civilian targets. And there has been none since.

Furthermore, the autocratic Algerian regime controls security around the refugee camps, which are located in the heavily-militarized region of Tindouf. After surviving a bloody decade-long civil war against Islamist extremists, the idea that the Algerian government would allow any group collaborating the AQIM to operate in such a sensitive area is pure fantasy.

While there are some legitimate concerns regarding some of the practices of the Polisario leadership in the camps, no credible independent analysts have documented Paul’s claims that the Polisario has been involved in “arms and drug trafficking, armed incursions into Mali, fighting as Gaddafi mercenaries in Libya, and kidnappings for AQIM in the Sahel.”

Contrary to Paul’s claim, the Polisario Front is not a “separatist” group. It is the ruling party of the nation of Western Sahara – known officially as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – which has been recognized by over 80 countries and is a full member state of the African Union. Western Sahara is recognized by the United Nations and virtually the entire international community as a non-self-governing country under foreign belligerent occupation.

And, contrary to Paul, the Polisario does not “force” the refugees to live in the camps. As someone who has visited both the camps and Moroccan-occupied parts of Western Sahara, it is clear that they are there to escape Moroccan repression in their occupied homeland, repression that has been well-documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other reputable human rights groups.

As with Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and Iraq’s short-lived occupation of Kuwait, there are those who will try to justify illegitimate foreign occupations by making up such bizarre stories. However, it doesn’t mean they should be taken seriously.

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Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair or Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is author, along with Jacob Mundy, of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010)

MorocOnTheMove More than 1 year ago
As the adage goes, we are each entitled to our own opinion, but not our own facts. Every fact and statement in my article earlier this year is sourced to credible media outlets and studies named within the article. The factual concerns expressed in the article are even more relevant now. Spain’s Foreign Minister has called for the evacuation of its aid-workers in the Polisario-run camps due to “well-founded indications” of possible attacks and more kidnappings by al-Qaeda-linked groups in northern Mali with help from camp insiders. Furthermore, links between individuals from the Polisario-run camps and al-Qaeda-associated groups have been documented numerous times by experts at several independent think tanks, including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Atlantic Council, and the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Of course, if Spain’s aid workers have to leave, why can’t the refugees? The Polisario Front is the “ruling party” in the camps because no other party is allowed to exist there. The camps’ “president,” Mohammed Abdelaziz, has held sole, complete power and control for more than three decades—the very definition of autocracy. Sahrawi refugees in the camps have little real say in choosing their representatives. Finally, despite limited access inside the camps, human rights groups like France Libertés and the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants have documented the lack of freedom of movement for the refugees and denounced gross human rights violations by in the Polisario Front. –Jordan C. Paul, Executive Director, Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP). MACP is a registered agent of the Government of Morocco. Additional information is available at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
Mohamed Fillali More than 1 year ago
This conflict is a vestige of cold war era, when algeria (that is trying now to seduce occidental countries) played the role of third world leader. Forgetting that by occident is a kind of ingratitude. Otherwise, Sahara is a part of Morocco, it's the same for the western algeria (Tindouf was a moroccan town, and our grandfahers were travelling there by camels to do business). A political analyst must have a sufficient knowledge of history. Without that its analysis is a vulgar demagogy.
Um Abdellah Ledoux More than 1 year ago
I have one word - Tindouf, and that is only one of many. If you know about that, then you will know and understand why Morocco went there. The people of the Sahara have always been Moroccan, even with extended families that many of them have returned to. The person who wrote this article is not very knowledgeable about the topic. Obviously a one sided, top soil point of view at best.
Anass Abi More than 1 year ago
Get your facts right before writing your articles. First of all, Polisario dies not represent sahrawi people, its leader was born in a north moroccan city, with few of his friends thinking and convincing few sahrawi people that by forming an autonomous state they will be rich because Morocco is only taking advantage of the ressources in this area. Second, sahrawi people that are originally from this area don't want an autonomous state and they recognize their lands as part of morocco.
Abraham Isoka More than 1 year ago
In Morocco, even those that oppose the king agree on the fact that Western Sahara region is part of Morocco. Algeria and its supporters like you are waisting their time thinking it is a Moroccan Monarch issue. The departure of the regime in Morocco will only bring another one (be it military, socialist or islamist) that is more for Moroccan territorial integrity. It is the only and I stress only issue that all Moroccans agree on. The Western Sahara would have never existed if it weren't to the Algerian regime. It will only end when a real change happens is Algeria... Unfortunately in my thinking it may take another 40 years...
Aadam More than 1 year ago
I would also like to add that whilst Mr Zunes amusingly claims to have a bias in support of international law, he fails to directly mention that recognition of the SADR, by mostly rogue and leftist states, is in defiance of the territory's legal status. Mr Zunes also manipulates the fact that whilst the SADR might have once been recognized "by over 80 countries", that has now dwindled down to less than half the number. "Most African countries no longer recognize Polisario entity, Burkina Faso president says" (9/16/1999) Furthermore, whilst Mr Zunes reminds us that "the Western Sahara territory is recognized by the United Nations and virtually the entire international community as a non-self-governing country under foreign belligerent occupation"; he fails to mention that this has been its status since 1963 and was placed on the list of non-self-governing territories at the request of the Kingdom of Morocco, the sole party laying claim to the territory (until Algeria established the Polisario Front in 1973), whilst it was still occupied by Spain (the colonizer who in 1975--after Morocco's victory in the ICJ--sought to hold a referendum in the occupied zone using its fraudulent census of 1974 as a basis and without presenting an option of re-joining Morocco). Indeed, Morocco is not listed as the "foreign belligerent" as Mr Zunes would have us believe. I could go on unmasking the intellectual disingenuity of Mr Zunes in the above article, but more than anything I would love to see a copy of the article published by Mr Zunes (who would have us believe that he also has a bias in support of human rights) in relation to the kidnapping and torture of Mustapha Salma Ould Sidi Mouloud (former Police Chief of the Polisario Front) in 2010 by the Polisario Front and Algeria. "Nine Days and Counting... Mustapha Salma Ould Sidi Mouloud Still Not Free" And if Mr Zunes, our champion of human rights, was somehow unaware of Mustapha Salma's ordeal, is it too much to ask for an article about Mustapha Salma's continued struggle...?
Aadam More than 1 year ago
Regarding Mr Zunes' claim that Mr Paul's claim "that the Polisario Front has links to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb " is "bizarre". Well, Mr Zunes, you are proving to be more Polisario than even the Polisario leadership themselves, who have acknowledged the risks of extremism in the area; although the risks of it spreading were naturally downplayed by Mr Abdel Aziz--"president" of the Polisario Front for over 36 years--who admitted way back in 2005: "We are not living on an island and everything which affects Africa, the Arab world and the Maghreb also affects us! It may be that the long period of waiting, the disappointments, as well as some ideas having currency in the Maghreb may somewhat influence young people. It may be that you can find among young Sahrawis some who are interested in radical Islamism". Indeed, perhaps in his wisdom Mr Zunes would care to tell us how three foreign aid workers were recently kidnapped from the heart of the Polisario refugee camps, the heavily-militarized administrative centre of the Polisario, by the "AQIM"? Unfortunately, what the AFP article below (which I can no longer find on AFP's site) fails to mention, or rather, only implicitly mentions, is that the two men arrested in Mauritanian in relation to the kidnapping hail from the Polisario-run camps themselves: "Mauritania arrests two suspected of kidnapping Europeans" (AFP) Furthermore, what the AFP article completely failed to mention was that one of the two arrested hijackers, is son of the Polisario's representative in Cantabria, Spain. As for the Algerian GSPC (which would later rename itself the AQIM) and the roots of extremism in the region, let us bring to mind the last reported words of the Malian officer, Colonel Lemana Ould Cheikh (who infiltrated the AQIM as a double agent), shortly before he was assassinated in his home: "At the heart of the AQIM is the DRS" Indeed, if we go back further in time to the so-called Algerian "civil-war", we will discover the atrocities perpetrated by the Algerian Secret Services under the guise of Islamic groups. "Who really bombed Paris?" And I suppose Jeremy Keenan is also on Morocco's pay roll? "Polisario compromise in abduction cases shows the true face of separatists (UK expert)" Indeed, I suppose Anouar Malek was on Morocco's pay roll too when he made the following claims: I would however like to thank Mr Zunes for the admission that Moroccans (sahrawis, according to him) "historically practice a decidedly liberal interpretation of the faith", indeed, the traditional practice of Islam in the region is that of the Maliki school of thought, which the King of Morocco is head of. "The polisario was born in Rabat, not in the Sahara, says ex-member"
Stephen Zunes More than 1 year ago
As the author of the above article, I recognize that, upon reviewing some of the comments, that supporters of autocratic governments and illegal military occupations will stop at nothing to justify repression, lying not only about the Western Sahara conflict itself but lying about me. Hopefully, the editors will shortly remove the three libelous comments falsely accusing me of being a paid agent of foreign governments, but I can assure readers of both of the accuracy of the above article and the fact that I am an independent scholar who does not have an ideological or any other kind of bias for or against any government or nation. I do, however, have a bias in support of human rights and international law. And a bias toward telling the truth, which is why I was asked by the editors to write this reply to the original inaccurate and misleading article by Jordan Paul (who really is a paid agent of a foreign government.) Anyone who has read my books and academic articles know that I have been quite critical of the Algerian regime (which I refer to as "autocratic" in the above article) and that I am hardly an apologist for the Polisario Front (about which I note some legitimate concerns regarding their leadership in the refugee camps in the above article.) It is demonstrative of the weakness of those who support Morocco's illegal and repressive occupation that they have to resort to such lies and name-calling, since they certainly can not win on the facts. Indeed, these are remarkably similar to the lies and name-calling I get for my opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and my earlier opposition to Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. I don't take it personally, though. I'm in good company, along with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and reputable international jurists and human rights advocates worldwide who have opposed such illegitimate territorial conquests and who speak out against the human rights violations inflicted upon those under occupation.
Aadam More than 1 year ago
“In itself, allegiance to the sovereign is of a political and constitutional character, as in certain countries that were subject to a military feudal system. Furthermore, at the time of colonization by Spain, that is to say towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Sultan combined in his person the legislative and executive powers, to which was added the spiritual power. He exercised those powers by means of dahirs, which were issued – a significant fact – under his sole signature. Does this not mean that the Sultan at that time personified the State, all of whose powers he exercised? Therefore allegiance to the Sultan, or sovereign, was equivalent to allegiance to the State. This entails acknowledging that the legal ties between Morocco and Western Sahara recognized by the Court took the form of political ties, indeed ties of sovereignty.” - Former Vice-President of the ICJ, Judge Ammoun Obviously not directing this at you personally Mr Zunes, but in relation to the shoddy, bias and utterly dishonest reporting about this Algerian manufactured conflict in the Western media, we Moroccans are reminded of the claim that "Algerian intelligence agents routinely bribe European police, journalists and MPs" - ‘Yussuf-Joseph’ (a defected secret service agent of Algeria)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It also demonstrative of the absolute weakness of those who support the separatist claims of the tyrannical Algerian junta's puppet and equally oppressive Polisario Front that they have to resort to intellectually dishonest, disingenuous, selective or just outright fraudulent narratives to support their often utterly bogus claims. Indeed, what does Palestine, East Timor and NGOs have to do with our claim upon the Sahara? The only relation I can draw between anyone of them, is that between us and Palestine, another victim of Western Imperialism and colonialism. "The definitive study of Morocco’s borders with its neighbours was produced in 1969 by Frank Trout in his work, Morocco’s Saharan Frontiers. He argues convincingly that Morocco was very much the victim of French administrative intrigue." - George Joffe TINDOUF: AMNESTY SLAMS POLISARIO FOR HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES And with or without human rights abuses, it doesn't at all negate the fact that the Sahara is Moroccan. Enough of your fallacies, you're convincing nobody. If human rights meant anything at all to you, you'd campaign just as hard for the so-called "refugees" held captive in Tindouf to be granted their legal rights; you'd campaign for a census to finally be conducted. Indeed, at least AI and HRW can operate in Morocco. "For more than 30 years, the Polisario Front and Algeria have systematically and categorically turned down requests of the High Commission on Refugees (HCR) to carry out a census of the Sahrawi population in the refugee camps of Tindouf province, in Southwest Algeria. While the unjustifiable refusal of Algeria can be easily understood in the context of its relations with Morocco and its need for political propaganda over the issue of refugees living on its soil, the refusal of the Polisario is primarily motivated by the profit which the separatist Front gains from an overestimation of the number of refugees and, as a result, larger amounts of humanitarian assistance flowing in. This is, among others, reflected in a confidential report of the European Union we were able to browse through. … Many European deputies have tried in vain to demand that it either be made public or that access be given to members of the concerned Commissions and Delegations in the European Parliament. Unfortunately the refusal can be easily understood. Indeed, the highest European authorities are aware of the disastrous consequences which publication of the report would have for relations between Algeria and Europe, whereas Algeria is one of the main suppliers of natural gas and oil to the European Union." Now I beg your pardon if we question your integrity, but your apparent hypocrisy is mind-boggling. And speaking of NGOs and their own inconsistencies (especially the selective and questionable politicization of Human Rights)... let us draw attention to the now infamous Bouteflika-Kissinger declassified transcript of 1975: Bouteflika: "It is absolutely excluded Morocco follows neither the ICJ nor the UNO. The Ivory Coast can't judge right. One of the judges on the ICJ said it was a question of monarchical solidarity. He told me. In The Hague." Kissinger: "One of the few international bodies which you don't dominate"
Aadam More than 1 year ago
Indeed Mr Zunes, it is the likes of you, the supporters of the intrigue and mischief of the colonialists (who brought with them the greatest form of repression and exploitation in modern history) who will stop at nothing to fulfill their forefathers objectives in dividing and conquering our peoples. Who support the inorganic boundaries imposed upon us by the pens and rulers of France and Spain. Shame on you oh champion of "truth". Furthermore, for one who also claims to be free of ideological bias it's a little odd that you would allegedly "criticize" Algeria for being autocratic. Good lord, is that supposed to be a criticism at all? Besides being able to think (and not too hard) of much loftier and pertinent condemnations, I have to point out to you the fact that autocracy isn't synonymous with evil, far from it; indeed, more than anything, your so-called criticism reeks of ideological bias.
vankaas More than 1 year ago
The comments we can read here from the followers of the Moroccan king show how they do not think. They simply repeat what the king has said : the Sahara is Moroccan. But that is nothing but a wish. The Moroccan king can not visit Tifariti and no Moroccan elections have been held there, ever. Mohamed VI can not visit places like Bir Lehlu and Mehaires for he does not get a permit. When the King of Morocco states that the Sahara is Moroccan he is only making a wish and is not stating a fact or telling the truth. That is very confusing indeed and a major cause for all the confusion in and around Morocco.
Aadam More than 1 year ago
The Sahara was, is and we always be Moroccan. “The present work proposes to show that the Western Sahara, like Mauritania and the frontier regions of Algeria has never ceased to be under the political, economic and cultural influence of Morocco and that it would be absurd to create a new pseudo state when a state of indisputably ancient origin and modern structure is ready to welcome a regions that has, in reality, never ceased being integrated in it.” (The Western Sahara and the frontiers of Morocco, Robert Rezette) The link below portrays the map of "Muhammadan Africa, 1899", taken from "A History of the Colonization of Africa by Alien Races"
Abraham Isoka More than 1 year ago
Moroccan I don't care about the king.. but one thing is sure, in Morocco, even those that oppose him agree on the fact that Western Sahara region is part of Morocco. Algeria and its supporters like you are waisting their time thinking it is a Moroccan Monarch issue. The departure of the regime in Morocco will only bring another one (be it military, socialist or islamist) that is more for Moroccan territorial integrity. It is the only and I stress only issue that all Moroccans agree on. Now for Tifariti and the regions you mentioned, if they are under Polisario's control, why couldn't move the refugees and its headquarters there instead of staying inside Algeria? The Western Sahara would have never existed if it weren't to the Algerian regime. It will only end when a real change happens is Algeria... Unfortunately in my thinking it may take another 40 years...
Sahara_Voice More than 1 year ago
Great post on the realities about occupied Western Sahara. Morocco's claims of WS in North Africa reminds the world of Hitler's claims in Europe as there is no difference between the ideology of the "Big Morocco" and Hitlers' "Big German Republic". and I guees the only difference is that Hitler died. The most dangerous theory that will blow up the whole planet is this ideology in the head of some maniacs about the historical rights that Morocco bases all his claims (there is no official document in which WS is part of Morocco). Morocco by its on going occupation of WS is a force of distabilisation in North Africa, and if we don't force it to comply to the international legality, we are automotically accomplice in this continuaion of the suffering of the Saharawis and their right for self-determination. Thx for shedding light on this issue and reminding people that an occupier can run but can't hide. Keep on and free occupied Western Sahara
Aadam More than 1 year ago
What does it mean to be "Sahrawi"? Are Moroccans in Guelmim Sahrawi? Are Mauritanians in Nouakchott Sahrawi? Oh what a wonderful play of semantics; intellectual dishonesty at its finest. “When the NW African [(Moroccan)] populations were grouped according to cultural or linguistic differences, the partition was not associated with genetic differentiation. Thus, it is likely that Arabisation was mainly a cultural process. … No significant genetic differences were found between Arabs and non-Arabs (ie Berbers and Saharawis).”
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