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Roundtable Introduction: Beyond Dominant Narratives on the Western Sahara

In the past few decades, both media and academic scholarship have marginalized the Western Saharan conflict, rendering it largely insignificant within regional and global political imaginations. Beginning as a post-colonial dispute between regional powers in the 1970s, the conflict developed and was exacerbated as North Africa became an entangled site of Cold War rivalries. Following the 1975 Madrid Accords, in which Spain conceded on its promises to the Sahrawi people on honoring their right to self-determination through a referendum, Spain instead split the territory between Mauritania and Morocco. By then, the Polisario Front had grown as an armed struggle group, fighting for an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, first against Spanish colonization, then against Mauritanian and Moroccan military forces. By 1979, Mauritanian forces withdrew from the territory, leaving the conflict between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan military, which lasts up until today. After decades of violence, tens of thousands of deaths and even more refugees, the territorial dispute over the Western Sahara remains unresolved. It also remains underreported, despite the serious escalation in violence since 2010, with the Polisario Front more intent than ever to establish an independent state. Given political developments both in the Maghreb and the Sahel, the conflict’s implications for the entire region are significant.

Despite the scant attention that the Western Sahara has received, several authors have recently argued that the Sahrawi’s struggle for self-determination is part and parcel of the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Noam Chomsky went as far as to argue that the “Arab Spring” actually began in the Western Sahara, pointing to the Moroccan army’s violent repression of the October 2010 protests in Gdeim Izik, which lasted until November 2010, a month before Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. While the Western Sahara protests may have influenced the Tunisian uprisings in some way, as many authors and thinkers have shown, the exact causes of the uprising remain elusive. Chomsky’s argument draws much-needed attention to the conflict; however, situating the Gdeim Izik protests as the beginning of the “Arab Spring” disrupts a historical narrative that is centered on a decades-long struggle for self-determination in the Western Sahara.

The recent diplomatic confrontation at the United Nations over the US proposal to include human rights monitoring as a part of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has brought more attention to the neglected region. The Moroccan government responded angrily to the United States’ suggested amendment, cancelling the annual military training exercises between the two militaries in retaliation. Morocco subsequently scrambled its diplomatic missions and arranged for talks with Russia and China in attempts to recruit opposition to the US proposal. Days later, the United States announced it would withdraw its proposal and MINURSO passed without an amendment allowing for human rights monitoring. In response to the failure of the proposal, there were heightened cases of violence in the city of Laayoune. In the immediate aftermath of the annual renewal of MINURSO, Moroccan security forces violently repressed protesting Sahrawis who were demanding their right to self-determination. Reports indicated a record numbers of Sahrawis protesting in Laayoune, dispelling Morocco’s attempts at shaping a façade of stability and greater appeasement. More importantly, the growing number of dissenting Sahrawis poses a threat to Morocco’s constructed idea of “territorial integrity,” which it holds central to its legitimacy and claims on the Western Sahara.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the Western Sahara conflict has witnessed the brutal repression of activists and numerous other human rights violations against the Sahrawi people. As a result, it has caused the disruption of untold families while incurring extremely high costs for the UN in attempts to maintain stability through humanitarian aid, peace-keeping missions, and facilitating numerous failed dialogues between the parties. Despite the initial “cooling off” of the conflict following the 1991 cease-fire agreement, the presence of destabilizing forces in the neighboring Sahel region—as well as the recent demonstrations in Laayoune--underscore the current relevance of the conflict.

To make better sense of the long, complex, and largely marginalized conflict, this electronic roundtable offers a comprehensive, multidisciplinary view of the Western Saharan conflict and the discourses surrounding it. Some of the contributors have studied the region extensively while others live in and continue to experience the impacts of this ongoing conflict. In his piece, Stephen Zunes sets up the historical background of the conflict in its own political context. Zunes sheds light on Morocco’s policies towards the territory and its people, including human rights abuses and policies of settlement. He outlines reasons for why the peace process has stalled for so long. Next, John P. Entelis explores the Western Sahara’s significance for the region, particularly as the conflict has been mobilized in narratives of decolonization both in Algeria and Morocco. Entelis also offers an analysis of the US position, ultimately locked in a stalemate despite significant security concerns. 

In their article, originally published in French on Lakome, Aboubakr Jamaï and Ali Anouzla underscore the intensification of the call for self-determination in recent years. This, they suggest, is a direct response to the violent repression of legitimate claims to rights, and thus the crisis might only be resolved by equal respect of these claims through democratic measures. Allison L. McManus places the conflict in a global context, examining the role of the United Nations as a mediator. Ultimately, she concludes that the enduring nature of the crisis exposes the tension between a rule of law and respect for human rights and that of global geopolitics. Due to the relevance of this roundtable, we have reposted Samia Errazzouki’s previously published piece that examines the discourse surrounding the Western Sahara conflict as a political tool that comes at the expense of the Sahrawi population. To conclude this electronic roundtable, we have also included a photo essay by photographer Andrew McConnell. The photo essay includes images of Sahrawis living in the refugee camps in Algeria, the Moroccan controlled side of the territory, as well as the Polisario controlled side, offering a unique perspective of life under the conflict.

The Last Colony by Stephen Zunes

US Policy Between a Rock and a Hard Place by John P. Entelis

The Cost of Authoritarianism by Ali Anouzla and Aboubakr Jamaï

Global Geopolitics of the Western Sahara by Allison L. McManus

Lost in the Debate by Samia Errazzouki

"The Last Colony:" Photo Essay on the Western Sahara by Andrew McConnell

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