Whose Sahara? Morocco’s Nationalist Games / by George Bajalia

This article was originally published in Muftah.org and has been reprinted here with permission.


George Bajalia, with contributions from Toshiro Baum

Over the past few months, a series of high profile events have refocused international attention on the territorial dispute between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara. In a series of forthcoming articles, we will look at the historical trajectory and present implications of this dispute in the context of the domestic political economies of Morocco and Algeria and regional power dynamics in North Africa.

In this article, we focus primarily on Morocco. By outlining the country’s history with the Frente POLISARIO, the Western Sahara’s indigenous independence movement, as well as the domestic political factors shaping notions of Moroccan sovereignty and regional primacy, we provide context for understanding the kingdom’s position on the Western Sahara’s status.

Historical Roots of the “Sahara Issue”

Like many contemporary border disputes in North Africa, the conflict over the Western Sahara is rooted in colonial politics. In the 1970s, the Kingdom of Spain, which had controlled the territory since the late nineteenth century, partitioned its Sahara properties and ceded all authority to Morocco and Mauritania.

In 1973, the Frente POLISARIO, which claims to represent the indigenous Saharawi people, launched an insurgency against Moroccan and Mauritanian control. The POLISARIO ultimately succeeded in driving out Mauritanian forces in 1979. Involved in its own post-colonial border dispute with Morocco, Algeria supported the POLISARIO by providing sanctuary inside the country. Algeria also supplied the POLISARIO with arms and money, which were used in the group’s full-scale military battle with the Moroccan government. Because of its support for the insurgency, Algeria’s relations with the kingdom soon came unraveled.

Following years of conflict, in 1991, Moroccan and POLISARIO representatives signed a tentative cease-fire. By this point, Morocco controlled the coastal half of the territory, while the POLISARIO controlled the interior portions along the Algerian border.

The UN dispatched a peacekeeping force in coordination with the Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) to monitor the ceasefire agreement and prepare for a popular referendum on the territory’s independence. Over the ensuing two decades, disagreements over voter eligibility and the wording of referendum questions stalled all progress on resolving the fate of the Western Sahara.

This past November, Algeria withdrew its diplomatic presence from Morocco as a result of the fallout from November 1st, when a Moroccan protestor scaledthe Algerian consulate in Casablanca to tear down the Algerian flag. As he returned to a crowd of cheering protestors, Moroccan police looked on but made no efforts to stop the man. The protest coincided with the 59th anniversary of the start of the Algerian War of Independence. Despite their common colonial heritage, this event sparked a series of harsh diplomatic overtures between Morocco and Algeria.

In the lead up to these events, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika had called for the expansion of MINURSO’s role—unchanged since 1991—to include specific human-rights monitoring benchmarks. Though couched in terms of international cooperation and human rights vigilance, it is apparent that Bouteflika’s statements emerged out of a long-term diplomatic, and at times military, feud between Algeria and Morocco.

Beyond Territorial Integrity

Since it first pushed for Spain’s withdrawal from the territory, Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara has become an issue of “territorial integrity” for the government. “Territorial integrity” has, in fact, long been a buzz-word used in Moroccan schools to emphasize the Kingdom’s historical dominance in the Maghreb. Grade school history books emphasize that the northern Sahara was once part of a Moroccan Empire that stretched from the northern border of present-day Senegal to southern Spain and as far east as Libya.

The strength of Morocco’s narrative on nation-building is significant. Within this self-constructed history, the Sahara represents Morocco’s aspirations to regain its regional predominance and act as a bridge between the continents of Europe and Africa.

But, the Western Sahara’s symbolic value only partly explains why Morocco has so steadfastly held to and even suffered sacrifices for its position on the territory. In addition to its icy relationship with Algeria, the kingdom’s game plan in the Western Sahara has also been fueled by domestic political circumstances. In response to the political instability wrought by the Arab Awakening over the last few years, the decades-old debate in Morocco over the Western Sahara has been reframed by internal political factors.

These trends have cemented Morocco’s claims over the territory and helped the government portray domestic calls for change in its Sahara policy as subversive to the kingdom’s political stability, threatening to its regional aspirations, and a danger to its economic growth and well-being. For many Moroccans, these claims are not unreasonable given King Mohammed VI’s reputation as a business-friendly monarch who embraced popular demands to reform the constitution in the spring of 2011.

Tailoring International Priorities for Domestic Ends

As the Arab Spring brought unprecedented changes to the region, the international community’s reactions ranged from enthusiastic endorsement to cautious optimism, the latter tempered by concern over long-standing regional security arrangements. For Morocco, the uprisings presented a further opportunity to capitalize on international anxiety and secure its hold over the Saharan provinces. To do so, Morocco simply adapted its existing security commitments to fit the new regional context.

In the first decade of the 21st century, Morocco engaged in a series of strategic partnership agreements with the United States. In the context of the U.S.-led “Global War on Terror,” these partnerships aimed at securing ungoverned spaces U.S. analysts deemed beyond state control and thus susceptible to exploitation by terrorist organizations. A hallmark of the Bush Administration’s North Africa strategy, the two governments hoped that law enforcement cooperation, coupled with long term economic growth, would lead to higher youth employment levels, and ultimately, reduce incentives to join radical, violent, organizations.

Clearly evident in the media coverage of the Western Sahara, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is regarded as a formidable presence in the region. In the eyes of the Moroccan government, taking control over “ungoverned spaces,” like the Western Sahara, fit perfectly into the US-Moroccan partnership’s goals.

There were other benefits to controlling the Western Sahara for Morocco too. The EU launched initiatives similar to the U.S. strategies, such as the French-sponsored  European Neighborhood Partnership Initiative. Reflecting the concerns of European governments, these arrangements contained provisions to stem the flow of North African and Sub-Saharan irregular migrants as they transit to Europe. Whoever could control the Western Sahara would also control this human flow, and receive EU support in the process.

As the Arab Awakening toppled governments across North Africa, international concern mounted over the status of these security agreements. Again, Morocco took advantage of these circumstances to promote itself as a vital strategic outpost for its international partners, vis à vis the Western Sahara. By curbing potential violence through law enforcement and counterterrorismefforts in parts of Casablanca, the Moroccan government demonstrated to its strategic partners that it could regulate illicit cross-border trade through the Western Sahara. Moreover, by linking international counter-terrorism initiatives to its territorial concerns, Morocco attempted to advance its claim over the area despite long-standing diplomatic gridlock.

Unity in the Face of Unrest

While the Arab Spring uprisings provoked international concern, for the people of the region, these events revealed the region’s many economic shortcomings. In Morocco, unemployed and dissatisfied youth were a major component of those demanding change. Unique to Morocco, however, the unrest allowed the kingdom to cement its control over the Sahara.

In response to popular protests in February 2011, King Mohammed VI announced a constitutional revision through popular consultative process. The revisions included expanded rights for citizens and increased powers of parliament, and contained explicit language reinforcing Morocco’s territorial integrity as a kingdom that includes the Sahrawi people. Not insignificantly, the new constitution also enshrined Hassaniya, an Arabic dialect spoken exclusively in the Western Sahara, as a national language.

While the government has always deemed calls for Saharan independence as subversive, the constitutional changes have heightened the stakes. By codifying the status of the territory and its inhabitants as supreme law, Morocco has cast challenges to its control of the Sahara, even by its own citizens, as both treacherous and threatening to the country.

In the two years since the constitutional reforms, the Moroccan parliament has also refocused its attention on the territory. Riding the wave of popular discontent over economic issues, the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) won the 2011 parliamentary elections on an economic growth platform. Upon coming to power, the PJD pursued increased trade with countries in the Middle East and North Africa region and sub-Saharan Africa. To accomplish this, the PJD attempted to set aside the Sahara issue to repair bilateral relations with Algeria in the hopes of opening the Moroccan-Algerian border, closed since 1994 to official trade and immigration.

The PJD’s governing arrangement suffered a major setback in mid-2013, when the second largest member of its coalition, the nationalist Istiqlal Party, announced its withdrawal from the government. In connection with this move, in July 2013, Hamid Chabat, Istiqlal’s secretary-general, called for Morocco to invade Algeria and retake several Western Saharan provinces, thereby bringing a host of tensions to the surface again.


Initially, Istiqlal’s manipulation of the Western Sahara issue aimed to mobilize public opinion in its favor and against the PJD. While it is hard to determine the long-term impact of Chabat’s statements and castigations of the PJD’s domestic policy, it is clear why Istiqlal chose to deploy the Western Sahara conflict against its Islamist rival.

Mythologies are always central to nationalist movements, and narratives of Morocco’s former glory from the Western Sahara to Andalusia and beyond certainly fit this mold. As was evident in the storming of the Algerian consulate in October 2013, the Western Sahara issue is capable of mobilizing Moroccan public opinion and uniting popular nationalist elements. For these reasons, the Western Sahara has become a political football within domestic Moroccan politics, which the kingdom is unlikely to give up any time soon.

*George Bajalia is a staff writer for Muftah and former Fulbright research grantee in Morocco. Follow him on Twitter @ageorgebor atwww.georgebajalia.com. Toshiro Baum is a former Fulbright research grantee in Morocco. Follow him on Twitter @toshirobaum.