If you have been following the news about North Africa, you will have noticed that King Mohammed VI met with President Obama last Friday. One of the clear outcomes was the President’s endorsement of Morocco’s initiative to negotiate a political compromise to resolve this problem. In their communique following the meeting, the President made clear, once again, that his Administration considers Morocco’s initiative “serious, credible and realistic.” However, the question remains whether the Polisario Front and their indispensable backers in Algiers got the message this time around. They have missed it before. That being the case, I thought it was a good time to review the bidding for the Polisario in a blog that I posted on this webpage some months back. It follows below.
With the security situation in the Sahara/Sahel still deteriorating and a disgruntled and youthful refugee population of the Polisario camps in Algeria increasingly vulnerable to the siren songs of various terrorist and criminal gangs active in the region, the Polisario is facing a theoretical choice among three basic options on how best to resolve the situation of Western Sahara for the betterment of the Sahrawis they at least claim to represent and the greater good of everyone living in fragile circumstances in the Maghreb.
Well, actually they have four options, and maybe I should deal first with the hardest one. There is little chance that the Polisario will be able to exercise any kind of free choice among the other three options unless they can assert some independence from their present puppet masters in Algiers as a first order of business. Even if the Polisario gets some distance between itself and Algiers, not all of their remaining choices are equally viable, but more on that in a moment.
The first problem for the Polisario is that they live largely at the sufferance of Algiers which generously funds their diplomatic activity, hosts them on Algerian national territory, arms and trains them, and champions their positions in international fora to which the Polsario have limited access. Without this kind of robust support from Algiers, it is unlikely that the Polisario would be able to continue holding hostage a refugee population whose presence in the camps allows them to advance the fictional claim to “represent the Sahrawi people” as the so-called “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.”
Many, and there are thousands of them, who abandoned the Polisario over the last 20 years have done so because they came to believe that the Polisario no longer genuinely represented the original aspirations of those who were committed to socialist revolution and independence in the heady days of the 1970s, when the USSR still stood tall and “great things” seemed possible – especially to the young socialist revolutionaries of the day. Instead, many original members of the Polisario leadership and other committed cadres came to understand over time that the Polisario’s original revolutionary ambitions had been taken hostage by Algeria’s own ambitions to use the Western Sahara conflict as a means of destabilizing their Moroccan neighbor and asserting their own hegemony in the Maghreb.
Others, everyday Sahrawis in the camps, also came to understand over time that not only was this so, but that additionally it seemed increasingly less likely that the Polisario leadership under Algeria’s control would ever bring the Western Sahara issue to a conclusion that would allow the tens of thousands of refugees to leave these sweltering camps in the desert and return home to the families and friends from whom they had been separated for more than 35 years. Since the late 1980s, some 7,000 of these refugees have subsequently “voted with their feet” and risked the perils of the long open desert, and certain incarceration by the Polisario if they were caught, and fled the camps to return to Morocco. Not exactly a vote of confidence in the Polisario’s leadership, which provides those in the camps few opportunities to have a vote on anything. No free voting people ever returned the same man to the office of Head of Government for 35 years. That’s called “President for Life.” A disappearing breed in the region, even if the trend hasn’t yet caught up with the Polisario.
So what are the Polisario’s three options — at least in theory? They can go to war. They can stand pat. They can negotiate a reasonable compromise.
Can the Polisario really go back to war? Polisario leadership frequently threatens “a return to arms,” but the short answer is probably “no.” Despite a disturbing recent news report, “Algeria to give Polisario $300 million for Rearmament,” it seems unlikely that Algeria would actually allow the Polisario to resume armed conflict. Although what the Polisario might do with $300 million in new armaments deserves further thought. But, without Algerian permission, it is simply out of the question. It doesn’t seem likely that Algeria would countenance a return to open warfare that would have to be fought from Algerian national territory, given the kind of very negative attention that would draw from the international community, particularly with current circumstances in the Sahara/Sahel.
Can they stand pat? This is clearly the Algerian preference. It facilitates Algeria’s perceived interest in using Western Sahara as a means of keeping their perceived regional competitor, Morocco, off balance. It rests on the unlikely pretention, sometimes aided and abetted by the international community, that over time (and it’s been a very long time indeed, so far) “something” will give way in the Security Council and lead that body to impose a vote on unwilling parties to the conflict. For very good reasons, the Security Council abandoned the feasibility of a contentious referendum more than a decade ago in favor of a negotiated political solution. A kind of litmus test of the viability of a Security Council reversal on this was just dealt a decisive defeat in the latest brouhaha over the MINURSO mandate renewal. Just when the Polisario thought it had caught a glimmer of hope by artificially forcing human rights issues onto center stage in Western Sahara, the international community came to its senses and decided it had absolutely no interests in ruining its relations with the one country in the Middle East and North Africa that is not in a free fall into chaos and seems genuinely committed to developing a model for governance in the region that we all have an interest in supporting. It nevertheless seems almost certain that Algeria and the Polisario will continue down this dead-end road because the last option seems so much less interesting to them – for now.
Can they negotiate a reasonable compromise? Of course they can, the question is will they? Morocco has put on the table at the Security Council an initiative, called “serious, credible and realistic” by the international community, that would grant the region a broad autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. Morocco has also insisted that whatever might emerge from a negotiated agreement on the details of this initiative be put to a vote of the concerned population to ensure both its credibility and sustainability.
This is an excellent place to start in the search for the “mutually acceptable political solution” that the Security Council continues to urge on the parties. We can only hope the Polisario somehow comes to understand that compromise is not a dirty word. It sure beats going to war, or continuing indefinitely down a dead end road that will only lead to increased instability and volatility in the region.
Robert M. Holley is Senior Policy Advisor for the Moroccan American Center for Policy, MACP