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Western Sahara – Polisario Ambitions and Reversals – Robert M. Holley

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The Sahrawi refugees – a forgotten crisis in the Algerian desert Photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations

Robert M. Holley
June 4, 2018

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

I keep having to ask myself, “what is it that Polisario really wants?” I know what Algeria really wants. They want the Western Sahara issue to drag on forever, all the better to keep poking Morocco in the eye with it. And in that project, Polisario is their ever ready stick. Nothing new here.  I have it on good authority that in a rare moment of candor a senior Algerian political leader admitted as much to a senior US diplomat many, many years ago.

Also some years back, many of the founding members of Polisario came to a similar conclusion, including the man who invented the name ”Polisario,” and decided to abandon an organization that they judged had morphed into little more than a puppet for Algerian ambitions in the Maghreb. I have had that conversation with a number of them, asking just what it was that led them to change their minds and return to Morocco and remake their lives. Some admitted that they had a change of mind and heart about their commitment to what had clearly become a Stalinist execution of the communist ideal in the search for Sahrawi “self-determination,” but most were also very clear in explaining to me that the Sahrawi dream of identity had died in Algerian captivity.

There remains a serious and genuine degree of authenticity in the Sahrawi search for self-identity.  I have spent the last 20 years on frequent visits to the region, and it is one of my clear “take-aways” from that experience that the Sahrawis do place a high value on their distinctive sense of themselves and their cultural specificities.  Many continue to question to what extent they should demand a separate political space in which to express and govern themselves, but Morocco’s autonomy initiative continues to enjoy wide political support in the region – even if some are also beginning to wonder if that day will come anytime soon.

But back to the Polisario. What do they really want and are they any closer to getting it these days? I think it is pretty clear that much of Polisario’s senior leadership is quite content to do whatever keeps them in Algeria’s good graces and the privileges that brings them. But I also have no doubt that some of the Polisario cadres and everyday refugee camp dwellers still cling to the dream of an independent state, even though any objective analysis of circumstances should lead them to understand that this is simply not in the cards. But you know how it is with dreams. They are remarkably resistant to hard realities.

The trick for Polisario’s leadership is how best to keep the dream alive among the true believers, and thus their continued support, while at the same time accommodating the Algerian objective of keeping the problem alive. This is becoming a progressively more difficult balancing act.

The Polisario tactic of attempting to discredit Morocco’s claim to popular support in the region through often highly exaggerated charges of massive human rights abuses and cultural “genocide” seems now to have run its course. The charges continue, but the dividends are increasingly meager. The American audience in the halls of power in Washington has vastly diminished with the departure of the Obama Administration. There are few, if any, genuine human rights champions in the current Administration and even fewer, if any, bleeding hearts ready to accept exaggerated claims as truth so long as the human rights cause gets advanced. It was a reasonably effective tactic while it lasted. It did serve Algeria’s purpose of preventing any real progress towards a solution. But it certainly did not move the needle any closer to an independent Sahrawi state.

Likewise Polisario’s attempts to arouse sympathy for their cause by suggesting that Morocco is exploiting the natural resources of the region for illicit gain. In fact, there are few resources to exploit to begin with. The publicity stunt in South Africa with a cargo of phosphates from the region recently ended up with the cargo back in Moroccan hands and the ship back to its legal owners. The similar theatrical in Panama never got off the ground. Strike three on that stunt. The fisheries agreement with the EU seems back on track for a fruitful outcome for the people of the region. Another out for the Polisario.

Polisario’s latest tactical maneuver is an attempt to gain attention by raising the stakes of war and peace through provocative misbehavior in the buffer zone. This is a sign of desperation in the leadership’s attempt to sustain the balancing act between alleged objectives and Algerian realities.  The first indication of a similar outcome was evident when the Security Council clearly took offense at this disruption of a comfortable status quo in the renewal of the MINURSO peacekeeping mandate in April. In mid-May the Polisario staged a display of military saber rattling with a parade in the buffer zone, but little attention was paid in the international community which does not seem to take Polisario’s latest gambit very seriously – though it did give Morocco the opportunity to publically flex its own military muscle in reply.

Whatever it is that Polisario really wants in its heart of hearts, the time has come for some deeper soul searching among its leadership.  Will they remain content to play Algeria’s game, or can they bring themselves to commit to the well-being of the Sahrawi people and look for some reasonable political compromise with Morocco to put this issue to rest. Time will tell, but Polisario should have no illusion about whose side time favors.

 

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