By Cedrus Deodara. Originally published on July 29, 2022.
For the communist movement in the west, the Palestinian national liberation struggle well known. Unfortunately, the national liberation movement in the Western Sahara of the Sahrawi people is lesser known. This article is not to belittle the struggle in Palestine, but to bring to light a struggle of equal importance to the consciousness of the international communist movement. This work will attempt to concisely analyze the history of the Sahrawi liberation movements initially from the Spanish Empire and later from the Moroccan and Mauritanian hold on the land and its connection to the present struggle led by the Polisario Front.
To get a full picture of the Sahrawi liberation movement, we must briefly begin with the history of colonization of the region by the Spanish Empire. From 1884-5, the European imperialist powers met in Germany to discuss how Africa would be divided among the powers. In 1884, Emilio Bonelli of the Spanish Society of Africanists and Colonists, initiated the colonization of what would be called the Spanish Sahara, signing treaties with coastal locals. After the treaties, Spain claimed a protectorate over the region from Cape Bojador to Cape Blanc.1 Fast forward to 1949, the Spanish Imperialists realized that the Saguia el-Hamra region, there was contained the largest deposit of phosphate in the world. The mining town is now called Bou Craa and is the site for the extraction of 2 million tons of phosphate per year.2 This phosphate mine is very profitable for whoever controls it as the phosphate is vital for the agricultural industry worldwide.
In 1956, Morocco gained independence from Spain and France, replacing the colonial rule by a native constitutional monarchy headed by Sultan Mohammed V. Immediately after gaining independence, Morocco sought to claim the rest of the Spanish holdings in the region. In 1957, the Spanish under the fascist dictator Francisco Franco sent in battalions of the elite Spanish Legion to suppress liberation movements in the region. The Spanish Legion clashed with the Moroccan Liberation Army resulting in an 8-month war called the Ifni war. The Moroccan government never officially sent any of its armies into the conflict, instead, the Moroccan Liberation Army(MLA) was made up of Moroccan militias and Sahrawi revolutionaries. Toward the end of the war, the Moroccan government abandoned neutrality and began supporting the Spanish. In February 1958, the Spanish and French launched a massive offensive which led to the Western Sahara branch of the MLA, the Saharan Liberation Army, to be disbanded. In April, the Moroccan and Spanish governments signed the treaty of Angra de Cintra which ceded Cape Juby to Morocco but maintain the Spanish hold over Sidi Ifni and the Spanish Sahara.3 4
The end of the Ifni war and the signing of the Treaty of Angra de Cintra did not end the Moroccan sultanate from seeking the acquisition of the phosphate-rich Western Sahara and the Sahrawi desire to become independent of Spanish rule. In 1963, the UN special committee on decolonization added Western Sahara to the list of regions for decolonization per the UN general assembly resolution 1514 of 1960.5 6 In 1965, the UN special committee on decolonization reiterated its call for decolonization of Ifni and Western Sahara in the UNGA Resolution A/2072 of 1965. In 1967, Mohammad Bassiri founded the Movement for Liberation of Saguía el-Hamra and Río de Oro or the Harakat Tahrir, meaning Liberation Movement, for short. Bassiri and the Harakat Tahrir leaders pushed for peaceful resistance against Spanish rule. In 1970, the Harakat Tahrir launched a demonstration in the city of Zemla later to be called the Zemla Intifada. When the Spanish learned of the protest, the Spanish Legion was sent in and the demonstration culminated in the massacre of at least 11 protesters. Leaders including Bassiri disappeared, presumed dead and hundreds of Sahrawi people were arrested. This marked the destruction of the Harakat Tahrir.7
Learning from the mistake of the Harakat Tahrir, El-Ouali Mustafa Sayed created the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, popularly known as the Polisario Front in 1973. In 1974, El-Ouali was elected the general secretary of the Polisario Front. The Polisario Front engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Spanish and captured much of rural Western Sahara. Losing grasp on the region, Spain began entering into negotiations with Polisario Front to transfer over control in the Summer of 1975. In the Fall of 1975, Morocco and Mauritania invaded Western Sahara and held the Green March in November. This led to the Spanish, Moroccan, and Mauritanian governments signing the Madrid Accords on November 14, 1975, which partitioned Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania. El-Ouali and other Polisario Front leaders fled to Algeria.
In February 1976, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was established with the capital being declared in El Aaiún but located the provisional capital in Bin Lehlou with a government in exile. That same year, the World Court at the Hague pronounced Polisario Front as the legitimate government of Western Sahara.8 With the Spanish presence withdrawn, a power vacuum between Morocco and Mauritania against the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic ensued which would be dubbed the Western Sahara War. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew from its portion of Western Sahara but Morocco claimed the territory as its own and continued the war with SADR.
Military conflict between Polisario Front and Morocco went on until 1991 when the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) and the United Nations together brokered a ceasefire. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in United Nations has been involved in the conflict since 1991 to develop and broker a transition for the independence of the Sahrawi people with little success. This marked an end to direct warfare between the two but did not end the conflict. Since 1991, the Moroccan government led by King Hassan II and, after 1999, the Mohammad VI regimes have been waging a conflict eerily reminiscent of that of Israel upon Palestine in the form of apartheid. In 2003, former UN envoy to Western Sahara, James Baker, proposed the Baker Peace Plan which would grant autonomy to the Sahrawis under five-year sovereignty by the Moroccan government. The plan would also grant Native Sahrawis as well as Moroccan settlers to vote for either independence of Western Sahara or integration into Morocco. King Mohammad VI rejected the plan claiming it would only accept a plan for the autonomy of the Sahrawi people under Moroccan Sovereignty.9 In November 2020, Morocco illegally sent its military to the buffer zone of Guerguerat and harassed Sahrawi rebels. As a result, Polisario Front declared the 1991 ceasefire had ended. Since 2020, the U.S. imperialist apparatus has been the biggest supporter of Morocco’s occupation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The U.S. provides 91 percent of the Moroccan’s arms against the liberation struggle with Morocco spending $10.4 billion on arms through the U.S.10
The international Communist movement must join in solidarity with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s struggle for liberation from illegal occupation by Morocco. This fight for liberation has been a major struggle against western imperialism for over 70 years. The job of the international Communist movement is to struggle against all forms of imperialism and to support the right to self-determination of all people subjected to imperial conquest.
- Arieff, Alexis. “Western Sahara.” Congressional Research Service, October 8, 2014.
- Balagan. “War in a Land of Sand and Stones.” Accessed July 7, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20061007202021/http://www.balagan.org.uk/war/iberia/1956/index.htm.
- Cohen, Dan. “The Empire’s Hidden Hand: How the US Established, Sustains and Benefits from Morocco’s Occupation of Western Sahara.” Mint Press News, February 24, 2021. https://www.mintpressnews.com/how-us-established-benefits-from-morocco-occupation-western-sahara/275608/.
- Crivelente, Moara Assis. “Self-Determination as Resistance: Sahrawi and Palestinian Struggle for the UN.” E-International Relations, March 19, 2020. https://www.e-ir.info/2020/03/19/self-determination-as-resistance-sahrawi-and-palestinian-struggle-for-the-un/.
- Dan. “April 1, 1958 – Ifni War: The Treay of Angra de Cintra is signed, where Spain cedes Cape Juby and Tarfaya Strip to Morocco.” Wars of the 20th Century, April 1, 2022. http://20thcenturywars.com/april-1-1958-ifni-war-the-treay-of-angra-de-cintra-is-signed-where-spain-cedes-cape-juby-and-tarfaya-strip-to-morocco/.
- Díaz Hernández, Ramón, Josefina Domínguez Mujica, and Juan Manuel Parreño Castellano. “Gestión De La Población Y Desarrollo Urbano En El Sahara Occidental: Un Análisis Comparado De La Colonización Española (1950–1975) Y De La Ocupación Marroquí (1975–2013).” Revista Electrónica De Geografía Y Ciencias Sociales, vol. 18, no. 493 (48) (Noviembre 2014). https://revistes.ub.edu/index.php/ScriptaNova/article/view/15037/0.
- Environmental Justice Atlas. “Phosboucraa and phosphate production in Western Sahara.” Last modified November 11, 2016. https://ejatlas.org/conflict/resource-extraction-in-boucra-western-sahara-updated-by-julie-snorek-7-nov-2016.
- “Polisario Front – History – Withdrawal of Spain,” Liquisearch, accessed July 10, 2022, https://www.liquisearch.com/polisario_front/history/withdrawal_of_spain.
- Sahara Question, ed. “The Ifni War.” Sahara Question, accessed July 9, 2022. https://sahara-question.com/en/opinions/ifni-war.
- Zuber, David. “El-Ouali Mustafa Sayed (1948-1976).” Black Past, May 18, 2022. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/people-global-african-history/el-ouali-mustafa-sayed-1948-1976/.