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The Case for the Moroccan Sahara

I support Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara, or the southern provinces as Morocco calls them — I just couldn’t justify why. The Western media tends to treat Morocco as an illegal occupier. They celebrate independence activist Aminatou Haidar, calling her the “Sahrawi Ghandi.” But independence would mean handing over the Sahara to the Polisario and Algerian influence, and that never felt right to me. As Moroccans see it, it would also mean cutting their country in two. So why is it so hard to find views supporting Morocco’s position in the Western media, even among news sources I respect? Are Moroccans just brainwashed by patriotic sentiment, or is it the Western media that have a one-sided view of the matter? I’ve been reluctant to express an opinion on this until now, because I didn’t feel like I knew enough. So I decided to look into things for myself, and see what I could come up with.

Early Period

A thousand years ago, the region was dominated by the Sanhaja, a Berber tribe. They spread south into Senegal and Nigeria, east into Algeria, and north as far as the Rif Mountains. Abdallah ibn Yassin, the spiritual founder of the Almoravid dynasty, was from this tribe. He formed an alliance with Yahia ibn Ibrahim of the Lamtuna, another local tribe, to spread orthodox Islam. Their string of millitary victories led to the founding of Marrakech in 1070, and an empire stretching as far north as Andalusia in Spain. So a religious movement from the Sahara was responsible for one of the major turning points of Moroccan history. Later, over the centuries, the Sanhaja intermarried with Arab tribes that came into the region, resulting in the Sahrawis of today.

Colonial Period

Spain seized control of the region after a division of Africa into “spheres of influence” by European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884. Hassan I of Morocco attempted to organize resistance to the Spanish incursion, but failed. During Spanish rule, governors were selected from prominent local tribes with the approval of the colonial administration. Each year on the Prophet’s birthday, they paid homage to the caliph of Spanish Morocco “to show loyalty to the Moroccan monarchy.” Morocco itself fell under the control of French and Spanish protectorates in 1912.

Modern Period

When Morocco regained its independence in 1956, Spain kept control of the Sahara provinces. The Polisario Front was formed in 1973 to lead an armed struggle for independence from Spain. In 1975, Spain promised the Polisario a referendum on independence, but Morocco and Mauritania went to the International Court of Justice with claims that the territory was historically theirs. Algeria opposed these claims and threw its support to the Polisario. In October 1975, the court found that the people of the Sahara had a right to self-determination. The court recognized that in pre-colonial times, certain Saharan tribes had ties of allegiance to the Moroccan sultan, but determined that these claims were insufficient to give Morocco a right to the territory.

In November 1975, as the Spanish dictator Franco lay dying, Hassan II organized the Green March, rallying 350,000 unarmed Moroccans on the southern border with the aim of peacefully occupying the Sahara provinces. Their entry into Spanish-held territory effectively dared the Spanish to open fire on them, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Spain signed an agreement with Morocco and Mauritania to divide the Saharan territory between them. Morocco would get two thirds, and Mauritania the other third. Three months later, the Spanish completed their withdrawal. Algeria continued to support the Polisario, which pressured Mauritania to give up its claims to the remaining third of the territory in 1979. Before the Polisario could move in, Morocco occupied it.

The Polisario continued their guerilla campaign against Morocco until 1991, when a UN-brokered cease-fire took effect. Since then, the battle has shifted to diplomatic channels. The Polisario has continued to demand a referendum on indepedence, in which only those families who lived in the Sahara before 1975 could vote. During the 1990s, Morocco accepted a referendum on principle, but disputed the question of who would be allowed to vote. These disputes were never resolved, so the referendum proved impossible to carry out. Shortly before his death in 1999, Hassan II decided to pursue a new strategy. Morocco would offer autonomy to the Sahara provinces, granting them the right to local self-government while retaining Moroccan sovereignty over the region.

Under Mohammed VI, autonomy has become the official Moroccan position. Morocco has withdrawn its support for a referendum of any sort, insisting that the Sahara is an integral part of Morocco. Sahrawis living on the Moroccan side of the cease-fire line have full rights as Moroccan citizens, and are free to travel anywhere in Morocco. Meanwhile, around 100,000 Sahrawis are living in refugee camps in Tindouf, just inside the Algerian border, which is also the Polisario base. Morocco views the Polisario as a tool of the Algerian generals, who seek to weaken Morocco and set up a client state on the Atlantic Ocean. Algeria denies being a party to the conflict, but it has armed, trained and funded the Polisario for more than thirty years.

In 2007, Morocco presented its autonomy plan to the United Nations. The plan states that “the Sahara populations will themselves run their affairs democratically, through legislative, executive and judicial bodies enjoying exclusive powers. They will have the financial resources needed for the region’s development in all fields, and will take an active part in the nation’s economic, social and cultural life.” The Moroccan Constitution would be amended to accommodate this new status. The UN Security Council responded by “welcoming serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution.”

Today and Tomorrow

Mohammed VI has now gone a step further, proposing what might be seen as an extension of the Saharan autonomy plan to all of Morocco — a project he calls “advanced regionalization.” In his January 3, 2010 speech, he announced the formation a committee to report back to him in six months, with plans to devolve power from the center to Morocco’s regions. He linked this directly to the project for Saharan autonomy, saying, “We intend…to make recovered southern provinces among the first beneficiaries of the advanced regionalization. … Morocco cannot confine itself to the status quo…. We are determined to move forward in…[allowing the] Moroccan Sahara to have greater leeway in managing their own local affairs and this, within the framework of the advanced regionalization.”

The king added, “I do not want regions to be merely formal, bureaucratic entities, but rather representative institutions composed of competent officials who can run their respective regions’ affairs efficiently.” By tying Saharan autonomy to a broader regionalization project, the king acknowledged the logic that connects the two. The current system of top-down control from Rabat, if it remains unreformed, would cast doubt on the viability of the autonomy plan. But if Morocco lets its regions govern themselves within a federal system, choosing their own budgets and goals, suddenly autonomy looks much more credible. If the proposed changes are put into practice, it will be a double win for Morocco, offering a way out of the 35-year-old Saharan impasse, and providing a burst of democratization to Morocco as a whole.

Some Moroccan Views

From “The Moroccan Sahara Autonomy Explained” by Zak Ettamymy:

    “For Algeria to think that Morocco will be muscled out of the Sahara is either strange imagination or wishful thinking; Morocco did not occupy a sovereign nation, Morocco did not annex a land belonging to another nation, a Sahara nation was never a reality and not even an idea. For Morocco to accept the injection of a proxy state in the 21st century is pure hallucination from the Algerian generals.”

From “Aminatou Haidar as Seen by Her Own People,” by Mohammed Beni Azza:

    “Ms. Aminatou Haidar, who claims to be a human rights activist, is actually working closely with the Western Sahara separatist group, Polisario, and their backer, Algeria’s military regime. In fact, she is currently working closely with Algeria’s ambassador in Washington, Mr. Abdallah Baali, who is coordinating and funding her ‘human rights’ lobbying activities in the US. … Algeria’s current lobbying through proxies such as Ms. Aminatou Haidar and others aims to keep the status quo in the Sahara by advancing the independence as the only option. In the minds of Algeria’s strategists, keeping Morocco mired in the current situation costs it substantial resources and mitigates any resistance that Morocco would pose to Algeria’s ambition to become a regional power in North Africa. Algeria’s long-term objective is to secure access to the Atlantic ocean through a client ‘state’ such as a ‘Sahrawi Republic’ in the disputed region.”

Further Reading

This 2007 article, “Western Sahara Between Autonomy and Intifada,” is one of the more balanced I was able to find. It seems to take the rightness of the Polisario cause for granted, nearly ignores the Algerian angle, and probably overstates the popularity of the Polisario among the Sahrawi themselves — but at least it has a decent summary of the conflict, in a clean, analytical style. Despite its bias, it reaches the same conclusion I have, that given the stakes held by the various players in the conflict, Saharan independence is no longer an option. As a result, it behooves Morocco to move quickly to offer Sahrawis something more attractive than the current stalemate.

That’s why I think the autonomy plan is so important. Autonomy becomes even more attractive if it can be seen as part of the movement of Morocco as a whole into an era of vibrant democracy and inter-regional cooperation. Aboubakr Jamaï recently made a similar point, in a letter from an imaginary “Sahraoui friend.” His fictional correspondant says that he wants to remain part of Morocco, but has grown more attracted to independence as democratic reforms in Morocco have seemed to stall. Let’s hope that Mohammed VI’s new “advanced regionalization” plan reignites the old sense of hope.


Comment from Myrtus
Time: January 18, 2010, 21:05

Well done Eatbees!
Thank you for clarifying the history, especially the part before the 19th century. It makes the world of difference.

Comment from Thomas Hollowell
Time: January 19, 2010, 05:21

Dear Eatbees,

This article is well done and thoroughly researched. I have written a book that I think you might find interesting; it is the first of its kind. It is called, Allah’s Garden: A True Story of a Forgotten War in the Sahara Desert of Morocco. You can read more at my website at or view it on Amazon at The story focuses on a little-known part of this conflict, the Moroccan POWs held by the Polisario for nearly 25 years and their own struggle, alongside the current refugees who are still there. It also details my time in Morocco with the Peace Corps. Enjoy! Thomas Hollowell

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 19, 2010, 12:56

Thomas, I remember reading the personal account of a Moroccan who was held by the Polisario for several years, when I was in Sevilla and my Moroccan friend there showed me the little book, which is in Spanish. He wasn’t even a soldier, he was kidnapped off a bus apparently while traveling to visit his family in the region. It was shocking to hear that such a thing could happen, and I agree that the story of Moroccan POWs is largely unknown in the U.S. Thanks for sharing your website, and for your efforts!

Comment from Jillian C. York
Time: January 19, 2010, 13:29

I also tend to lean toward the autonomy plan, with one not-so-small concern: the Moroccan treatment of the people who identify as Saharawi over the years has been despicable and has only pushed a generation further into supporting independence. I too feel frustration with the Polisario, but as you point out near your last line, I understand why some Saharawis feel the way they do.

As for the Moroccan sentiment…all I can say is I’ve heard some really wretched hasbara-style arguments from people I know. I have no problem with Moroccans feeling that the Sahara is Morocco, but many of my Moroccan acquaintances are quick to vilify and demean the people of the Sahara for feeling differently…and that’s never okay.

Comment from Liosliath
Time: January 19, 2010, 23:40

Your excellent work in putting together this article is *greatly* appreciated – I plan on passing it along to several people in my department.

Jillian has a good point, but it’s one that Moroccan Arabs in the Makhzen will never entertain willingly. Should they do so, it opens up another can of worms – their treatment of the Amazigh, past and present.

Comment from vankaas
Time: January 20, 2010, 08:28

The key of your story is: “Saharan independence is no longer an option. “ I think it never was to you, Eatbees. Or was it?

Sure, independence or not: that is the question and it should be an option in a referendum for the people who are concerned: the Saharawi people. Not Moroccans.

Autonomy has nothing to do with this question at all. Autonomy can only be another form of illegal occupation. It will not change any status of the territory which is listed at the UN as a non-self-governing territory.

And meanwhile, Morocco should start paying for the cost of living for those who it has chased away into Algerian and UN protection. There is a big debt building up.

Comment from Liosliath
Time: January 20, 2010, 08:53

VanKaas, I think that’s unfair. Eatbees has clearly presented both sides of the issue here, which most Western Sahara pro-independence blogs do not.

I’d bet that if Algeria could somehow convince Morocco to allow them a sea route/oil pipeline through the Western Sahara, the Polisaro would quickly fizzle out. Of course, that will likely never happen.

Do you seriously believe that support of “human rights” is Algeria’s main goal?

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 20, 2010, 12:08

vankaas, as I demonstrated, the Sahara has longstanding historic and cultural ties to Morocco. There was never an independent state there, simply a collection of tribes who moved around quite a bit within the whole Greater Maghreb. After decolonization, a certain consolidation of frontiers took place, which is inevitable. I certainly would have supported Saharan independence — from Spain. But I think that Morocco is all too aware, and I agree myself, that because of Algerian interests, a separate state called Western Sahara today would be “independent” in name only.

Morocco is offering the Sahrawi people full self-determination within Morocco. They will have their own elected government, and can manage their own resources. Meanwhile, they will be able to live, work and study anywhere in Morocco, as many do already. As Jillian pointed out, the human rights record is not perfect, and Morocco needs to work on that. I believe they are working on that, which is what the king’s recently announced reforms are all about. Meanwhile, this brings benefits to all of Morocco, since the Saharan autonomy plan will be used as a model to give greater autonomy to all Moroccan regions. I’m sincerely excited by this, and see it as the way out of a 35-year impasse for which Algeria is just as responsible as any other party.

When you say that the Sahrawi people should choose, not Moroccans — the Moroccans will respond that the Sahrawi are Moroccans. It is a vital part of their history and culture. Why should only Sahrawi who can prove their families lived there 35 years ago get to vote, when this is an issue that affects all Moroccans? As for the refugees, most Moroccans consider them to be detainees of the Polisario. They want to see the frontiers opened so those people can return. At the moment, they live in a remote corner of Algeria where food, water and firewood need to be trucked in. Are they really there because they prefer that life to freedom of movement within Morocco? Does that seem reasonable?

I’ve consciously weighed in on one side of the case, because I believe this side isn’t heard enough outside Morocco. But I respect your right to disagree. Still, let me ask you something — are all independence movements noble? Do you support the ETA, the Basque group that Spain and France consider terrorists? Or the movement to separate Kashmir from India, which is armed and funded by the Pakistani secret service? Or the desire of some Kurds to carve out pieces of Turkey, Iraq and Iran? Even the Dalai Lama has said that real autonomy within China would be an acceptable solution for Tibet. Doesn’t the stability of a nation sometimes trump self-determination at its extreme? Aren’t the interests of a people sometimes better served by remaining part of a larger union, so long as their self-determination is guaranteed?

Comment from vankaas
Time: January 23, 2010, 12:47

Eatbees, you logic is hard to follow.
As for the refugees, most Moroccans consider them to be detainees of the Polisario.
So what? Moroccan considerations are not leading. Moroccans are very poor informed people because of propaganda and censorship. You are very poor informed as well. You do not even seem to be aware of the situation of Bashir.

The refugees are not detainees. According to the UN they are refugees. As refugees they receive donations from all over the world. They fled for Morocco for Morocco tried to kill them.

Morocco should start paying up for the cost of living for those people, for Morocco is responsible for their situation, not the UN or Algeria or all other donors who are paying the bills now.
Furthermore Morocco is stealing the natural resources of Western Sahara. The money it earns should be used for the refugees, not for the Makhzen.

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 23, 2010, 13:29

vankass, you didn’t answer my question! — “Are all independence movements noble?”

Comment from Myrtus
Time: January 24, 2010, 14:06

Don’t expect to carry a serious conversation with vankaas. He/she is a polisario operative who is known to go around the Internet spamming everyone who brings up the Sahara issue, with the same nonsense over and over.

Comment from vankaas
Time: January 25, 2010, 06:03

Dear Eatbees, “Are all independence movements noble?” looked like a rhetorical question to me. But now you insist: no I do not think all independence movements are noble. Why do you want to know? (rhetorical question)

Is the Moroccan army noble? No I do not think so. The Moroccan army has been involved in acts of genocide according to Saharawi people. Furthermore the Moroccan army is accessory to robbery of Saharawi natural resources and that is also not noble at all.

Comment from BENDRISS
Time: February 4, 2010, 15:35

beautiful articale..,simlpy algeria gvt needs to back off.

Comment from Sahara Surfer
Time: September 2, 2011, 22:07

Thanks for the article. It refers to a lot of historical facts about the region. I travel frequently to the Sahara , i go till the border with Mauritania as i organise surf tours through the Sahara.
Most of the people i meet there speak north Morocco accent and the few ones who speak Sahrawian accent are so friendly and welcoming and never heared the word Western Sahara from anyone of them.
The problem is not inside the Moroccan teritory it is rather outside. The situation to me seems like a business company advertising for a business wich does not exist!!
I was chocked when i heared about the deadly clashes in Laayoun( i was in Layoun a week earlier) when Moroccan authorities tryed to dismantal Egdym izeek refugees camp.
Brutality of the refugees who refused to leave the camp was disturbing, 11 of the security soldiers were killed, some of them were stoned to death others they cut there throats, pissed on there bodies.. you can watch videos on youtube!!
Pure canibalism!!!
On the International media we’ve seen pictures and videos of dead kids and women represented as victims of the Moroccan intervention. Soon we find out that the pictures are of a murder crime that happened in Casablanca, photographer reported copyright infringment . the Polisario provided media channels with pictures and videos of victims of Israelean air strike on Gaza.
At the end, the story turned out to be that the same refugees from Tindouf who came back to Morocco, among them there was a group of people who were on a mission!! destroy , murder and riot…
The Polisario are breeding monsters in Tindouf camps unfortunatly, there is a generation or two who have been born there. They are thaught in Tindouf and Cuba.. poisonous ideas and principals.
As Abraham lincoln said: you can fool some people some times … but you can’t full all the people all the time!!
Vankaas, if you are Algerian, are you ready to die for the Polisario? Me, i m ready to die for My home!!!
If you are a Polisario, sooner or later the military rule will fall down in Algeria, Tsunami of Freedom and Dimocracy is hitting north Africa soon Algerians will seek a democratic government not a military one. Then We and Algerians are gonna be friends, because geography, history , religion language binds the two people for centuries, I don’t think the Polisario will separate them forever!!
You could be just someone paid to do this. you are missing a lot of background knowledge about this issue.
There is No more Clolonel Kadafi rulling Lybia and soon there will be no more colonels rulling Algeria neither. Polisario were captured in Lybia fighting beside kadafi forces(mercennary)
There is reports of Polisario involved with Alkaeda brunch in Almaghreb.

Comment from Sahara Surfer
Time: September 2, 2011, 22:20

Vankaas, you said this: Sure, independence or not: that is the question and it should be an option in a referendum for the people who are concerned: the Saharawi people. Not Moroccans.

What do you think about referendum in the USA, for people who are concerned: Red Indians. Not Americans.

Your game is over!!!

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