Morocco and Algeria refuse another war in Western Sahara

After the last episodes of tension in El Guerguerat
In this archive photo taken on 3 February 2017 a Saharawi man holds a Polisario Front flag in the area of Al-Mahbes in Polisario-controlled Western Sahara

PHOTO/AFP  -   In this archive photo taken on 3 February 2017 a Saharawi man holds a Polisario Front flag in the area of Al-Mahbes in Polisario-controlled Western Sahara

Each of the parties involved in the dispute over Western Sahara has maintained their interests since the Green March took place 45 years ago and Morocco occupied Spanish territory at that time, but circumstances have changed significantly over this period. Particularly in recent years, where the initiative of King Mohammed VI of Morocco to grant broad autonomy to the region under his sovereignty has been gaining weight and international backing, which is more or less evident and has had greater or less public echo.  

The events that have taken place throughout history are essential to understand the context of the situation. From the short-lived but influential 1963 Sands War between Algeria and Morocco for control of the Eastern Sahara and the capital Tindouf, where one of the largest camps of the Sahrawi independence fighters was established. Algeria's intention, under the influence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, to gain an outlet to the Atlantic Ocean was rejected outright by the United States and Europe. The war that pitted the Moroccan army against the Polisario Front from 1975, which ended with a ceasefire in 1991, but with swords raised in the political-diplomatic arena within the UN and its special mission where holding a referendum remains the claim of the Polisario Front while Morocco argues that the census is unreliable. For many years, nearly 200,000 Saharawis have been living in the camps with international aid, being held hostage by the different interests of the Polisario Front leaders; few, if any, live or have lived in the camps; by Algeria and its pressure groups where military of both sides were fighting for control; and by Morocco, which defends its sovereignty over the region and offers broad autonomy as a political, economic and social solution.  

Refugiada saharaui en el campamento de refugiados saharauis de Boujdour, en las afueras de Tinduf, al suroeste de Argelia
AFP/RYAD KRAMDI - Sahrawi refugee in the Sahrawi refugee camp of Boujdour, outside Tindouf, South-West Algeria
Spanish neutrality

The Spanish government continues to maintain a historic position of supposed neutrality on the situation in Western Sahara or the southern provinces, as the Moroccan government likes to call the area. This must be the most appropriate attitude from a diplomatic point of view and in line with the United Nations' criteria because Spain still has some legal responsibility for a territory occupied by Morocco with the Green March. At present, the special envoy post of the United Nations has been vacant since May 2019, following German Horst Kohler's resignation for health reasons. 

Miembros del Frente Policial saliendo de su campamento cerca de la frontera mauritana en Guerguerat, situado en el Sáhara Occidental, a lo largo de la carretera que conduce a Mauritania
AFP PHOTO/HO/ROYAL MOROCCAN ARMY FACEBOOK PAGE - Members of the Police Front leaving their camp near the Mauritanian border in Guerguerat, located in Western Sahara, along the road leading to Mauritania
Blockade in Guerguerat

Four weeks agoa certain tension erupted again as the border crossing at El Guerguerat, in south-western Western Sahara, was cut off on the Mauritanian side by some twenty demonstrators who blocked some 200 Moroccan trucks using the road that climbs up the Mauritanian and West African coast, some 38 km north of Nouakchott. This road, used by Morocco for trade with sub-Saharan Africa, had already been the subject of controversy for years. Now, on Friday 13 November, units of the Moroccan army entered this demilitarised strip of land south of the Sahara to break the traffic blockade imposed by these Polisario Front demonstrators.  On the ground, we witnessed a localised confrontation which resulted with no injuries or serious damage for the time being, only an exchange of fire, but led to the umpteenth reiteration of the Polisario Front's threat to resume the war.

Sede de la Misión de las Naciones Unidas para el Referéndum del Sáhara Occidental (MINURSO) en El Aaiún
AFP/FADEL SENNA - Headquarters of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in El Ayoun
Agreement versus provocation

Nobody believes this war option is likely to materialise owing to the huge inequality in armaments between Moroccans and Polisario and also because Algeria does not seem willing at this time to send troops and engage in a war of unpredictable consequences, but with the almost total certainty that everyone would lose out. In Algiers, recent political developments are paving the way for a possible change in attitude to the problem, despite the fact that a good number of former military leaders are attempting to keep the confrontation open in their struggle for political and military control and for economic benefits. The new Constitution, approved by referendum on 1 November and pending ratification by president Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who has been admitted to a hospital in Germany infected by COVID-19, suggests that a new political stage has begun in Algeria as a result of the considerable pressure exerted, week after week, for the Hirak, for the peaceful protest movement that every Friday brought thousands of citizens onto the streets of Algerian cities demanding the end of the regime installed for 25 years around Abdelaziz Bouteflika. New winds of Algerian regeneration have led to the arrest and imprisonment of prominent figures from the world of business, the gendarmerie and politics. The key lies in the renewal of the military leadership inherited from the war of independence from France, which is supported by the National Liberation Front, and in President Tebboune's intention to assume responsibility for the Sahara issue, which has so far been in the hands of the military.   

Manifestación en París el 5 de julio de 2020 en apoyo del movimiento de protesta clave de Argelia Hirak
AFP/FRANCOIS GUILLOT - Demonstration in Paris on 5 July 2020 in support of Algeria's key protest movement Hirak
Coronavirus impact

As for the current situation, the coronavirus pandemic is hitting both Algeria and Morocco hard, with a high rate of infection and quite a few deaths, and causing a very serious economic crisis which, in the case of Algeria, has worsened a fairly precarious situation prior to the appearance of the virus. For years, businessmen from both countries have been using various platforms to demand an agreement that would put an end to bilateral disputes, enable the border between the two countries to be reopened to the benefit of thousands of neighbouring citizens and propose a joint position on the international scene that would considerably improve their relations with the European Union, for example. Economic and social organisations have quantified the benefits of putting an end to the confrontation between the two major Maghreb countries and more so at this very sensitive time, which requires all possible collaboration to overcome the damage caused by the coronavirus, and those that it may continue to cause.

El presidente de Argelia, Abdelmadjid Tebboune
REUTERS/RAMZI BOUDINA - The President of Algeria, Abdelmadjid Tebboune

Of course, the thousands of Saharawis who have been living in very precarious conditions in the camps for years have much to say, yet the reality of recent times is that the vast majority of these people have become discouraged, with serious problems in their daily lives and suffering from subhuman living conditions, hardship that leads to the desperation of many young people who trace the path of the current leader of Daesh in the Sahel, in the Great Sahara, Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, a Sahrawi from the Tindouf camp, who has become fertile ground for Islamist jihadism to recruit young people to its ranks.  

The political hegemony exercised in the camps by the Polisario Front has been broken by the creation of a political movement, Saharawis for Peace, which is the result of the discontent and frustration of the Saharawis in the camps. 

El rey Mohamed VI de Marruecos, en el centro, acompañado por su hijo el príncipe heredero Moulay Hasán, a la izquierda, y su hermano el príncipe Moulay Rashid
PHOTO/MAP - King Mohamed VI of Morocco, centre, accompanied by his son Crown Prince Moulay Hassan, left, and his brother Prince Moulay Rashid

In short, the action of blocking Guerguerat's passage by a Polisario Front group headed by Secretary-General Brahim Ghali in order to provoke Moroccan military intervention to unblock free trade in that area and then denounce the violation of the ceasefire by the Moroccan military's entry into the demilitarised zone and declaration of war would be part of a strategy to attempt to create a situation of warlike confrontation that could abort any hint of agreement likely to be negotiated with the intermediation of major powers. Last October's United Nations resolution renewing MINURSO's mandate for a further year once again contains a clear appeal to the parties to achieve a peaceful negotiated settlement. 

The new political situation in Algeria, the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic, the weariness of the Saharawis themselves, the option of generous autonomy with resources from Morocco, the pressure from the major countries involved and the new United Nations resolution point to a possible solution, which some intend to boycott in order not to lose their privileges, although thousands of Saharawis continue to suffer.