Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Death of the strongman

The passing of Mohamed Abdelaziz heralds an uncertain future for Western Sahara’s Polisario Front, a political movement that became a state, writes Haitham Nuri

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The body of Polisario Front leader Mohamed Abdelaziz was taken to Bir Lehlou, located in a Polisario-controlled area of the Western Sahara, from the Algerian city of Tindouf.

The Polisario Front declared a 40-day mourning period for its leader, who led it through 40 years of victory and defeat. Western media called him the longest serving African leader.

Ahmed Ali, the editorial director of African Studies, issued by the African Studies Institute at Cairo University, pointed out that armed revolutions in the developing world do not tend to produce democracies.

“The only armed revolution that led to a democracy is the American revolution,” he said.

The death of Abdelaziz, who led the Polisario since 1976, will likely have an impact on the future of the region called the Moroccan Sahara by Morocco, the Western Sahara by its Algerian foes, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic by the Polisario Front.

The Polisario Front, the Spanish abbreviation for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia Al-Hamra and Rio de Oro, was formed in the early 1970s by a group of students of Sahrawi extraction at Mohammed V University. Some Polisario literature locates the origin of the group in the crackdown by the Spanish occupation authorities on Zemla in 1970, while opponents of Morocco see Rabat’s suppression of the Tintan demonstrations in 1972 as the main driver of the group’s establishment.

The official Moroccan news agency immediately reported that Abdelaziz’s death did not constitute a major political event and would have no impact on the political issues at stake.

Quoting an unnamed official source, the agency reported, “Like the separatist movement he belonged to, the deceased was not an actor but a front man” for another figure directing events from elsewhere.

For four decades, the Sahara conflict has been a major point of contention in the conflict between Morocco and Algeria, along with the Sand War in 1963 and the border dispute that has flared since Algeria won its independence from France in the early 1960s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Algeria sought recognition for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic from its African allies, seeking to bring the would-be state into the Organisation of African Unity (the predecessor of the African Union). Some 70 states around the world recognised the Sahrawi republic and in 1984 it joined the OAU, prompting Morocco, a founder of the organisation, to withdraw.

But the Sahrawi victory was not long lived. Many of the states that had recognised the controversial republic began to revoke their recognition, cutting short the rising star of Mohamed Abdelaziz.

The Sahara conflict is currently going through a sensitive stage, after Morocco expelled part of the UN peacekeeping mission in the region earlier this year following disputes between Rabat and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Morocco and the Polisario Front had agreed on a truce, setting in motion a series of talks to reach a political resolution to the decades-old crisis.

“Morocco is very wary of separatist tendencies in Sahara areas,” said Abdullah Al-Hami, a Moroccan political researcher. “This prompted the decision of late Moroccan King Hassan II to stage the Green March, crossing the border to pressure the Spanish coloniser to start negotiations and turn the area over to Rabat.”

He added: “For months, Hassan II nursed his plans for the Green March. Involving more than 350,000 Moroccans, the march stormed the borders and forced Madrid to negotiate with Rabat.”

Morocco mobilised 40,000 government political cadres for the Green March, as well as hundreds of doctors and nurses to care for the volunteers on the march. Four days after they successfully crossed the border, the king ordered the marchers to withdraw. Now celebrated as a national holiday, the Green March helped to forge a Moroccan national consensus around the monarchy.

Months before the march, Morocco had referred the issue of the desert province to the International Court of Justice, which affirmed the historical and legal ties between some Sahrawi tribes and the Moroccan monarchy, but found no ties of sovereignty between Morocco and the Sahara territory in the era of Spanish colonisation of the region.

In November 1975, Morocco, Mauritania and Spain signed an agreement dividing the Spanish Sahara between Rabat and Nouakchott.

Although for years, founders of the Polisario Front have propagated the notion that they are different from the population of Morocco, reality does not support these claims. The family of Abdelaziz himself has Moroccan roots. His father was a soldier with the Moroccan Liberation Army and the family still has a residence in Kasba Tadla, located in central Morocco. One of Abdelaziz’s brothers is a doctor in Casablanca and a second is a lawyer in Agadir. Abdelaziz himself was a student at the Faculty of Medicine of Mohammed V University in Rabat, but he only completed his first year of studies, subsequently traveling to Algeria to receive military training in the Polisario.

A military leader in the ranks of the Polisario for several years, Abdelaziz was elected secretary general of the organisation in 1976 then president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic later that year. He was subsequently re-elected to both posts several times.

During his four decades in office, internal dissension emerged in the Polisario Front. Several analysts note that elements of Abdelaziz’s tribe, the Reguibat, remained loyal to him while other Sahrawi tribes were marginalised.

There was a political dimension to the conflict as well, seen largely in the dispute between Polisario hawks, led by Ibrahim Ghali, the front’s ambassador to Madrid who rejects negotiations with Morocco, and the moderate, more dovish faction led by Omar Al-Mansour, who is the biggest advocate of talks with Rabat.

This conflict may come to the forefront after the death of the Abdelaziz, which could fragment the Polisario into political and tribal currents and benefit Morocco by weakening its historical foes. Taken together with the impending shift in the Algerian political leadership, this makes the future of the Polisario more uncertain than at any other time.

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