Now that Libya is trying its hand at democracy, and Tunisia has hosted its first successful election since the dawn of the so-called “Arab Spring”, another potential challenge looms across the horizon: the status of the Western Sahara. As if the Maghreb did not have enough on its plate security-wise, the Western Sahara represents an often-ignored political dilemma. Although on paper the territory appears to be nothing more than a parched tract of land-only 0.02% of it is hospitable for crop cultivation-this desolate territory may just add more fuel to the fire in a region already besieged by democratic revolution and civil war.
The Western Sahara, a territory that spans 103,000 square miles in area, has remained a source of conflict between Morocco and Algeria for decades. Both countries have been vying for influence within the territory since 1975, when Spain handed over administrative control of the territory to a joint administration by Morocco and Mauritania. When Mauritania withdrew in 1979, Algeria and Morocco fought for control of the territory, whilst subsequent attempts by the United Nations (UN), the US, the African Union (AU), and the Arab League to resolve the dispute led nowhere. Though all parties have tried to resolve the fate of the Western Sahara, none has been successful in their efforts to counter Morocco’s nationalistic ambitions with Algeria’s arguably lofty political aspirations.
Algeria vs. Morocco: Who has the right to control the Western Sahara?
Since 1975, tensions have often flared between the two countries, with the latest round of violence occurring in July 2011, which resulted in a clash between Moroccan border guards and armed men from Algeria that left one soldier dead. More recently, the status of the Western Sahara came to the spotlight on 17 November 2011, when Moroccan officials announced their desire to “normalise” their relations with neighbouring Algeria, despite the ongoing dispute. “Whatever the differences, it’s abnormal to not have a normal relationship with a neighbouring country”, Moroccan Foreign Minister Taeib Fassi Fihri said during an Arab League meeting in Rabat. However, such platitudes do nothing to solve the underlying issue. The reality is that neither Algeria nor Morocco appears ready to budge on their positions. According to Morocco, which currently administers about 80% of the territory, the Western Sahara, a critical source of phosphates and iron ore, officially belongs to them.
For Algeria, the fate of the Western Sahara belongs to the native people, which it officially recognises as members of the Polisario Front, a guerrilla group based out of Tindouf, Algeria, which seeks the independence of Western Sahara, as well as members of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Although Morocco essentially views the Algerian Government-funded Polisario Front as a terrorist organisation, the UN, for its part, has largely sided with Algeria’s position, and has officially recognised the organisation as the official representative of the territory. Morocco, however, has outlawed the Polisario Front from its section of the Western Sahara and has banned its flag from being raised.
Road to peace?
After a 1991 UN-sponsored ceasefire agreement, the Western Sahara remained largely under the control of Morocco, whilst the final 20% of the territory remained administered by the Algerian-backed SADR. However, it was clear that the dispute between Morocco and Algeria was far from being settled. By April 2007, the US’ latest Baker Plan, which offered temporary sovereignty to the Western Sahara, followed by a referendum that would allow the people of the territory to decide their own fate, had failed. The plan, although appearing reasonable, angered the Polisario Front which did not like the provisions of the plan that called for the entire population of the Western Sahara to participate in the vote, including those who had settled from Morocco after 1975. Additionally, the plan upset Morocco, which did not want the Polisario Front to have any say on the Western Sahara’s fate. Additionally, by August 2007, direct talks led by the UN Security Council between Morocco and the Polisario Front had gone nowhere.
So why the dead end? The main problem is that neither Morocco nor the Polisario look ready to budge on their positions. Although Morocco’s leaders have recently stated that they propose some autonomy for the Western Sahara, including the establishment of a local government and parliament, a huge political shift for the country, Morocco still says it does not wish to see complete sovereignty for the territory. The international community also looks hesitant to take sides. Although for years the US supported Morocco’s claims, as it viewed Morocco as a critical ally during the Cold War, the US looks increasingly more interested in Algeria, a source of oil and ally in its fight against terrorism. Spain, for its part, has also switched positions. Once a long-time supporter of the Polisario Front, it now supports the UN’s decision to have both parties engage in direct talks, despite this tactic having failed time and time again. Spain has at the same time said it supports the “self determination” of the people of Western Sahara, a political move which does not appease Algeria, the Polisario Front, or Morocco.
Looking ahead: What next for the Western Sahara?
Ultimately, the fate of the Western Sahara may lie with Algeria, and not the UN or the US, whose plans have failed over and over again. Algeria must step up to the plate and increase its ties with neighbouring Morocco, as it is unable to afford to quell its own brewing social unrest, stop the terrorist activities being conducted by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as well as continue supporting the Polisario Front. In the end, Algeria must end its lofty ambitions in the Western Sahara and instead look to cooperating with Morocco, as the two look increasingly to be in the same position. Both are under threat from terrorism, and both could potentially be overtaken by civilian unrest.