In a recent interview for Al Jazeera English with Mark LeVine, Professor Stephen Zunes provides a scathing critique of Morocco as an occupying force in the Western Sahara. Zunes, a well-respected scholar of international relations, goes so far as to compare Morocco’s 1975 annexation of the Western Sahara to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Zunes declares:

Morocco, like Israel, is in violation of a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice regarding their occupation. Morocco, like Israel, has illegally moved tens of thousands of settlers into the occupied territory. Morocco, like Israel, engages in gross and systematic human rights abuses in the occupied territories. Morocco, like Israel, has illegally built a separation wall through the occupied territories. Morocco, like Israel, relies on the United States and other Western support to maintain the occupation by rendering the UN powerless to enforce international law. Morocco, like Israel, is able to maintain the occupation in part through the support of multinational corporations.

While a number of those claims are factual, Zunes’ statement is also deceptively one-sided, simplistic, and fails to account for the political and historical dimensions of the conflict.

The Western Sahara has been the subject of controversy, international litigation, and bellicose conflict since 1975 when Spanish colonial forces left the territory. The territory was thereafter divided into two, with one part controlled by Morocco and the other by Mauritania.

Immediately after Spanish decolonization, a rebel Sahrawi group in the camps of Tindouf in Algeria led by the POLISARIO (Spanish acronym for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro) and supported by the Algerian government, declared the territory’s independence and unilaterally proclaimed the establishment of the Sahraoui Arab Democratic Republic.

After Mauritania’s withdrawal from the territory, Morocco quickly assumed control over the southern part of the Western Sahara. A decade of violence ensued, lasting most of the 1980s, between the POLISARIO and Moroccan forces. The conflict ended in 1991 with an UN-brokered cease-fire and a planned UN-sponsored referendum for self-determination, which has yet to take place.

As Zunes states, it is true that the UN has labeled Morocco an occupying force in the Western Sahara. It is also true that, during the long years of military conflict with the POLISARIO, Morocco built a fortified defensive wall called “berm” in the region.

However, in his interview, Zunes never mentions Algeria’s influence over the conflict or its consistent rejectionist stance toward any solution to the stand off. Algeria has been the POLISARIO’s principal benefactor since the beginning of the conflict in 1975, and has maintained a closed grip on the POLISARIO camps in Tindouf.

While talk of the referendum has diminished because of Morocco’s plans to grant autonomy (though not independence) to the Sahrawi region, Zunes squarely blames Morocco for the referendum’s failure. This allegation is misleading, and, again, fails to provide an accurate picture of the process.

Moroccan opposition to the referendum centers on two issues: the difficulty in determining voter eligibility, and Morocco’s historical ties to the region.

The concept of self-determination has long dominated discourses on the Western Sahara conflict. As such, the conflict’s resolution has depended on identifying who qualifies as Sahrawi, and is, thereby, eligible to vote in the referendum.

Modern theories on self-determination lack the basic parameters for defining a “people” entitled to self-determination or autonomy. As with most conflicts, the dizzying number of UN resolutions on the Western Sahara conflict fail to demarcate the contours of identity, while clearly positing self-determination as a sine qua non to self-governance.

This approach to the Western Sahara also reflects the UN’s lack of historical knowledge about the territory. Such knowledge could have enriched its understanding of the complex identity issues at stake for all parties to the conflict.

Historically, the Western Sahara was not demarcated and may local tribes paid allegiance to different powers. Sahrawi tribes, which had their own internal governance structure, led an autonomous life and paid allegiance to the central authority of the Makhzen, or monarchy, in Morocco.

This power-sharing structure is similar to what Morocco is offering the Western Sahara today – under the autonomy plan, the region’s residents would pay allegiance to the Moroccan king while leading an autonomous life within their tribes.

In his interview, Zunes refers to the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) advisory opinion, which sought to determine whether the Western Sahara was “terra nullius” (no man’s land) during Spanish colonization. On October 16, 1975, the Court rendered its opinion, finding no evidence “of any ties of territorial sovereignty” between the Western Sahara and either Morocco or Mauritania. It found, however, that there were “indications of a legal tie of allegiance between the Moroccan Sultan (King) and some of the tribes in the territory.” It is on this basis that Morocco annexed the territory, albeit unlawfully according to the UN.

Zunes provides scant detail on the ICJ’s decision and its historical context. Indeed, the interplay of power within the Makhzen between bled al-makhzen (territories firmly under state control in terms of rule and taxation) and bled es-Siba (territories paying allegiance to the Moroccan Sultan, but not necessarily paying taxes) is often de-emphasized both by analysts of the conflict and referendum advocates in the international community.

In North Africa, territorial boundaries are colonial creations, which were drawn with no respect for the nomadic tribes that roamed sub-Saharan region. The UN referendum seeks to define the Western Sahara based on colonially imposed demarcations of the region. What Zunes and other analysts fails to understand is that Moroccan opposition to this approach lies in its complete disregard for the Makhzen’s historical ties to the Western Sahara.

The Western Sahara conflict will remain a contentious issue in the Maghreb region, especially in the absence of strong international pressure, Morocco’s intransigence regarding its historical ties to the region, and Algeria’s realpolitik, rejectionist posture. Arguments about Moroccan occupation of the territory, while valid from the point of view of international law, do not do justice to the intricate issues of identity, sovereignty, and history that define the conflict. In order to resolve the Western Sahara standoff, negotiators must reconcile these issues with the geopolitical aspirations of the involved parties.

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  • Brahim

    First of all, let me begin by quoting the great Shakespeare: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

    And again, the misinformation that is widely spread by people who don’t really understand the conflict and its stakeholders, who make up opinions and analysis thinking that with those “political analysis” they’re being experts on the issue….

    -As a person who have been born and raised in the Saharawi refugee camps, it is highly comic and funny the fact that you say “and has maintained [Algeria] a closed grip on the POLISARIO camps in Tindouf.”

    This is just one of the proofs of the huge lack of knowledge that you have about the Western Sahara’s issue.

    The Saharawi Refugee camps are under the one and only rule of the Polisario and its citizens. The saharawi people who live in the refugee camps are free to leave ANY given moment they want to do so. But what I think you’re getting confused here with is that we haven’t all left the camps, and the answer to that is very very simple my dear, we haven’t left the camps because the simple reason that by staying in the camps we are showing the sign of resilience, we are just on the process of achieving what we came here originally for: INDEPENDENCE. And the Saharawi won’t leave the camps until achieving that goal.

    After being bombarded with Napalm and cluster bombs by the Moroccan army in the invasion of the 1975, with its American and French supplied aircrafts, and having nowhere to go but to flee inside the Sahara desert and ending up in Algeria, being in it today is not a choice nor a decision, but it saved most of our civilians (the majority of whom were children, elderly and women) from being exterminated by the nazi Moroccan regime. Algeria was the only country from the region that supported the Saharawi people after being invaded and bombarded by the Moroccan occupiers, so the fact that you’re pointing out Algeria as a “part of the conflict” by their favourable position of the Saharawi people of deciding for themselves what they want for their future is a bit absurd and idiotic. I hope this quote from the book “Thirty one” helps you understand a little bit Algeria’s position and that of the other Arab countries:

    “The Saharawi republic and the POLISARIO found from their emergence a very cold perception in other Arab and Muslim countries. Most Arab countries, in fact, have actively supported the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara. Even the position of the Palestinian movements has traditionally been distinctly ambivalent, since Moroccan support has always been more important for them than that of a group of a few hundred thousand Bedouins lost in an inhospitable corner of the Great Desert. Only Algeria has helped the Saharawis unambiguously. However, the reception of the Saharawi diplomats and envoys in the sub-Saharan Africa, and especially, in Latin America from the beginning much more positive.”

    In fact, Algeria has never claimed, not even a single piece of land, of the territory of the Western Sahara.

    Another part that makes me feel disgust for these labels is when you say: “what Morocco is offering the Western Sahara today – under the autonomy plan, the region’s residents pay allegiance to the Moroccan king while leading an autonomous life within their tribes”.

    First of all, if you haven’t noticed yet, SADR stands for: Saharawi Arab Democratic REPUBLIC. My point here is that we will never pay allegiance or respect to king, let alone an occupying and oppressing king…
    Second of all, the life that the saharawis had separated in tribes isn’t accurate, the tribes are still there, but we all are saharawis and are united, not divided and separated and labeling ourselves as tribal people.

    The Moroccan government feels, thinks and believes that not only the Western Sahara is part of its territory, but also part of Algeria and the whole of Mauritania (what they so call “Greater Morocco”) and this is why it doesn’t matter at all whether “Moroccan opposition to this approach lies in its complete disregard for the Makhzen’s historical ties to the Western Sahara.” as you say.

    I understand that from an outside point of view you might see the actual mainstream reality but when you take a closer look at the issues you’re analyzing and not only defend one part, but give the word to BOTH sides, then you’ll truly understand the conflict and will by able to truly analyze it.
    And I’m saying this because after reading this article I have the deep sense that you are greatly inclined to the occupier side of Morocco, and criticizing Stephen Zunes, who actually is an expert on the issue and
    has WROTE A BOOK about it seems to me as great demonstration of hypocrisy.

    I have been, and keep being confronted by the Moroccan propaganda with the SAME, always the SAME tackling of the issue: Algeria, Algeria and Algeria.
    Well guess what!? It’s not because of Algeria. There is something called SAHARAWI people, and those people are the ones whose natural resources are being stolen from them in broad daylight, suffering in refugee camps, being tortured by the Moroccan government in black prisons, and suffering colossal inequalities in their own country, refugees in their own land! And those are the ones who are confronting the illegal Moroccan occupation. And let me tell you one thing, after 40 years of occupation, we are nowhere near stopping, we will keep the fight until achieving our legitimate right: INDEPENDENCE.

    The Western Sahara has always and will always belong to the one and only legitimate owners of it, the Saharawi people.

    I deeply invite you to come to the refugee camps one day and see the picture for yourself, then I would like to see what you write about that. But until then, please make you sure you have the right and unbalanced facts with you.

    Comment from a frustrated and fed up young Saharawi,
    who’s waiting to hear your response.