13:33 GMT09 May 2021
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    Over the weekend, Moroccan King Mohammed VI announced Rabat's intention to return to the African Union after a 32 year absence. Meanwhile, the armed struggle over Western Sahara threatens to be reignited. Vzglyad news website contributor Said Gafurov discusses the danger of yet another country in North Africa becoming embroiled in war.

    On Sunday, the Moroccan head of state indicated that his country would be returning to the African Union. Morocco left the organization in 1984 after it provided membership to Western Sahara, which Rabat considers to be Moroccan territory.

    At the same time, in a detailed analysis on the situation in the region for the Russian news and analysis portal Vzglyad, Algiers-based journalist Said Gafurov warned that the partially-recognized Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic may soon resume its war of independence against Morocco.

    Last week, representatives of the Polisario Front, a national liberation movement which aims to end the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, opened an extraordinary congress to choose a new leader at the Dakhla refugee camp in Tindouf province, southern Algeria. The estimated 2,000 delegates to the congress were charged with choosing a new leader following the death of long-time Polisario Front leader Mohamed Abdelaziz.

    "The Polisario Front," Gafurov explained, "is recognized by the United Nations as the sole representative of the Western Saharan people, many of whom now live in exile as refugees, while the areas of the Rio de Oro and Saguia el-Hamra remain occupied by Morocco."

    The conflict stretches back to 1975, and the UN presently considers Western Sahara to be the last colony in Africa. The Polisario Front stopped its armed struggle against Rabat in 1991 when, under the auspices of the UN, a cease-fire agreement was reached and a referendum process agreed to. However, twenty-five years later, negotiations on the referendum remain stalled over disagreements on voting rights.

    At present, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) has been recognized by 84 UN member countries, mostly in Africa and Latin America, with 37 of them having since frozen or withdrawn recognition.

    Polisario Front soldiers raise dust in their wake during a military parade in the Western Sahara village of Tifariti, file photo.
    © AP Photo / Daniel Ochoa de Olza
    Polisario Front soldiers raise dust in their wake during a military parade in the Western Sahara village of Tifariti, file photo.

    Mohamed Abdelaziz, who led the partially recognized state from 1976 until his death in May, was the leader of the 'political faction', according to Gafurov, "i.e. the representative of moderate forces – supporters of a political solution to the Saharan conflict."

    "At the same time, he was considered the proponent of the pro-Algerian line in the SADR's leadership; Algiers has not yet recovered from a victorious but devastating war with the Islamists, and does not want another destabilizing conflict in the region (especially given that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is now seriously ill, and the new pluralist multiparty system in the country has not completely established itself)."

    "To make matters worse," the journalist noted, "officials in France have threatened that Algeria may become the next country to face an 'Arab Spring'. In this situation, Algiers is opposed to a military option in the Sahara issue, but its influence, while significant, cannot be decisive, given that in Algeria itself there are different perspectives on how to view the problem of the SADR."

    The partially recognized state has three main factions – the 'political faction', the 'youth faction', and the 'military faction'. The key issue separating them, according to Gafurov, is their position on the resumption of war. Moreover, "a 'peace faction' does not formally exist within the Polisario Front."

    "Out of the hundreds of delegates to the previous congress speaking to Russian observers, only the head of the Saharawi Women's Federation opposed the resumption of war, and even then, with great reservations." Subsequently, Gafurov warned, "the question effectively boils down to the terms and conditions of the conflict's resumption."

    "The 'youth faction' insists on the immediate resumption of war. Its more moderate part is in agreement to wait for the results of the negotiations with Morocco on the referendum, but for no more than one-and-a-half to two years, and with the unconditional beginning of combat operations in the event of the negotiations' failure."

    "The 'political faction' is closely linked to the management of the refugee camps, and is engaged in the distribution of international aid, and its position is strongly influenced by the opinion of the international community. In principle, it is not opposed to the idea of a war of liberation in the event of the failure of talks, but the resumption of hostilities is considered the worst possible option. At the same time, the faction insists on the 'de-ideologization' of SADR; The Polisario Front, in its view, must stop being a left-oriented movement in order to facilitate the receipt of aid from the EU, and to receive political support from the United States," which it presently lacks.

    Finally, the journalist explained, "the 'military faction' is composed of military leaders who were demobilized after the ceasefire, who have effectively been denied access to political and administrative positions in the refugee camps, and who have been forced to engage in small-scale retail trade, which remains underdeveloped due to the lack of market relations in these camps."

    "Gradually, elections have seen the military begin to push back the politicians, but this process is slow…The faction is aware of the unpredictability of the results of any possible war, but is looking for a change, which the political faction is advocating against."

    Moroccan Army soldiers parading in Rabat, Morocco (File).
    © AP Photo / Karim Selmaoui
    Moroccan Army soldiers parading in Rabat, Morocco (File).

    Ultimately, on July 12, the Polisario Front's snap congress voted to elect 67-year-old Brahim Ghali, a long-time Sahrawi leader who has participated in the region's national liberation movement since the 1960s, and who served as Polisario's first leader between 1973-1975. He would go on to serve as Minister of Defense during the war with Morocco, and as the SADR's representative to Spain and Ambassador to Algeria.

    "Thus, it can be said that the congress has issued a victory for the 'war faction'," Gafurov noted.

    The keynote of the newly elected president's speech, the journalist summarized, "was that Sahrawis naturally seek a peaceful resolution to the problem [of their occupation by Morocco], but are also fully prepared for the resumption of war."

    "The refugees are simply tired of waiting for changes for the better," Gafurov explained. "A quarter-century has passed since the signing of the ceasefire in 1991, and the Sahrawi people have been living in appalling conditions in camps in the heart of the Sahara throughout this period. An entire generation has grown up, witnessing the rattling of sabers, the public rejection [by Rabat] of previously signed agreements, the expulsion of officials from the UN peacekeeping mission (MINURSO), and accusations against UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon" over comments on the occupation of Western Sahara.

    "At the same time," the journalist warned, "the population of the areas under Morocco's occupation too has been expressing its discontent more and more loudly. If earlier this was manifested mainly in the form of civil disobedience, hunger strikes and protests, now, the documents of the Polisario Front congress speak of a full-fledged Intifada, while those living in the refugee camps are beginning to demand the resumption of the war and the liberation of their territory."

    Supporters of the Polisario Front separatist movement hold a banner reading All for Palestine, all for Western Sahara during a demonstration at the closing of the World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunis. (File)
    © AFP 2021 / FETHI BELAID
    Supporters of the Polisario Front separatist movement hold a banner reading "All for Palestine, all for Western Sahara" during a demonstration at the closing of the World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunis. (File)

    Effectively, Gafurov noted, the portion of the Sahrawi population living under Moroccan occupation believes that "they have little to lose, and much to gain" from ending Rabat's control over their territory. "Western Sahara has a relatively small population, and enormous natural resources. Earlier, it was believed that these consisted primarily of valuable phosphate deposits and reserves of iron ore; now, the region's coastal waters, which include a highly valuable fishing area, are considered even more important."

    Ultimately, the journalist emphasized that the threat of a resumption of war between Rabat and the SADR also increases the risk of the region being overrun with Islamist terrorists. "And if the problem is being resolved today primarily by heavy-handed methods (Islamist preachers from abroad are simply not allowed into the region) in the case of resumption of hostilities, events may take an unexpected turn," given the inevitable reduction in Rabat's security capabilities.

    "For this reason, the UN understands that a referendum in Western Sahara is long overdue. The Polisario Front proposes three options for the referendum: independence, autonomy within Morocco and full accession to Morocco. But what is of principle importance is that the people of Western Sahara are able to decide their fate for themselves. Any decision imposed from above threatens the outbreak of violence, an echo of the kind which also threatens the other side of the Mediterranean," Gafurov concluded.


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