The artificial crisis triggered around the El Guerguerat border crossing, a town 60 km north of the border on the road between Morocco and Mauritania, is a fatuous fire aimed at putting pressure on the UN Security Council, which is due to discuss in October the report prepared by Secretary General António Guterres with a view to extending the mandate of the UN mission, MINURSO, which has been monitoring the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario since 1991.
The Saharawi movement has decided to mobilise hundreds of inhabitants of the Tindouf refugee camps, transporting them in lorries and all-terrain vehicles along the 2,000-kilometre strip separating the camps in Algerian territory from the buffer zone guarded by MINURSO south of the defence walls built by Morocco in the 80s to prevent armed incursions by Polisario guerrillas.
The challenge launched by the Polisario Front has three aims: to put political pressure on the members of the Security Council to bring the "Saharan question" to the table this October; to threaten Mauritania with the drowning of trade by closing the country's only land border with the north; and to provoke the Moroccan regime with an unarmed civilian mobilisation, forcing Rabat to seek ways of defending the transit of lorries and commercial vehicles.
The UN has reacted to the challenge. The deputy spokesman of the secretary general, António Guterres, Farhan Haq, declared to the press that "regular civil and commercial traffic must not be obstructed (in El Guerguerat), and no measures should be taken that could constitute an alteration of the 'status quo' in the buffer zone". For the United Nations, therefore, it is not a question of military transports or Moroccan actions, as Polisario maintains, which could be considered a violation of the ceasefire and the agreement signed in 1991.
The Moroccan government has not yet replied officially, but has sent the inspector general of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah Louarak, number two in the military hierarchy after the king, commander-in-chief of the FAR, to the area to supervise the state of the Moroccan forces in any scenario that might arise from the current tension.
General Louarak's visit is a message addressed to the Polisario Front and to the countries in the region directly and indirectly involved in this mini-crisis, chiefly Mauritania and Algeria, making it clear that Morocco is considering all the hypotheses of how the situation will develop and is keeping its forces on the alert.
Several Mauritanian media have warned the Nouakchott authorities about the situation in El Guerguerat and the catastrophic effects on the Mauritanian economy of the blockade of the border post by "Saharawi civilians". Several thousand Saharawis live in the northern part of Mauritania, mostly from grazing, mining, fishing and trade. Furthermore, the closure of the border crossing would harm the whole of Mauritania's economy and its trade relations with West Africa, mainly with Senegal.
It is a fact that Algeria cannot help "the Saharawi civilians" protected by the armed units of the Polisario Army in the event of violent confrontation. The area is 2,000 km from Algeria, and until the new Algerian Constitution proposed by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in a referendum on 1 November next is approved, the Algerian army is forbidden to intervene outside its borders. Once the new constitution enters into force, it could do so in "humanitarian missions", according to the text approved by the two legislative chambers and which must be endorsed by the referendum.
For these reasons, Polisario would be helpless in the face of a possible major crisis; a situation which, according to some sources, has created division within its ranks. Secretary General Brahim Ghali would be in favour of a low profile in the crisis, whereas the former number two of the Front, Bachir Mustafa Sayed, is in favour of forcing a stand-off with Morocco.