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The State of the Western Sahara

[Image of Sahrawi women protesting against Moroccan occupation. Image from WesternSahara/Flickr.] [Image of Sahrawi women protesting against Moroccan occupation. Image from WesternSahara/Flickr.]

In June 2013, Maghreb Page co-editor, Samia Errazzouki, and I produced an electronic roundtable of articles describing various historical and political contours of the Western Saharan conflict, opening with a brief summary of its history: 

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 (SADR), 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…

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.

This roundtable was similar to most analyses of the conflict in that it featured prominent scholars, journalists, and an artist working in the region. However, what was missing from this format, as with many others, was the voice of the Sahrawi themselves. Many Sahrawi (including those featured in this article) write and advocate quite prominently for their cause. 

This questionnaire was formulated as a response to outsiders’ depictions of life and politics in the Western Sahara and to address the tireless stream of misinformation and distraction that is produced by state media of Algeria and, especially, Morocco. The answers to this questionnaire hope to offer a more accurate portrayal of life in the Western Sahara, whether in the Polisario-administrated or the Morocco-administrated regions.  

Aluat Hamudi is a Sahrawi born in the refugee camps, he holds a master degree from the University of Notre Dame in International Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution. His expertise is conflict resolution and transformation.

Mohamedsalem Werad is twenty-eight years old and works as a teacher, blogger, and interpreter/administrator for the blog Saharawi Voice.

Agaila Abba is a Sahrawi freelance Journalist and writer with a focus on North Africa/Middle East, born in the Tindouf refugee camps. 

Khalil Asmar is a citizen of Morocco-administrated Western Sahara. His full biography has been withheld for his safety.

Allison McManus (AM): How do you understand your citizenship? (SADR, Morocco, Algeria, other, none?) 

Aluat Hamudi (AH): I understand it as a Western Saharan national citizen who aspires to return to a free and a sovereign Western Sahara, regardless of the current situation. 

Mohamesalem Werad (MW): I understand my citizenship as Sahrawi SADR.

Agaila Abba (AA): In terms of identity I am Sahrawi, however when it comes to citizenship I am Algerian only when I travel abroad. However, if I am in the camps I only carry my Sahrawi identity card issued by the Polisario. Both the Polisario and Algeria accept such identification; in Algeria, Sahrawi do not have the same rights as the rest of Algerians, because they are not Algerian, but in the camps they have all these rights as a Sahrawi. Even though I do not support the Polisario due to their poor leadership, I do in fact support the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). 

Khalil Asmar (KA): SADR

AM: What do you see as myths perpetrated by media about Western Sahara? 

AH:  Generally, the international media does not talk about Western Sahara and if they do, they categorize it as a forgotten people and nation. With regard to the Moroccan media, this is pure propaganda that is mainly directed to the Moroccan public to convince them of the “Moroccanization” of the Western Sahara territory and to legitimize Moroccan historical narratives and illegal occupation of Western Sahara. 

MW: There are many myths perpetrated by the media (especially Moroccan media) about Western Sahara, such as that the Polisario did not exist before 1975 and that the Sahrawi never fought for Western Sahara’s independence.  Another myth is that Green March was a peaceful march by Moroccan people to return Western Sahara from the Spanish colonization.  This is probably one the biggest myths for two reasons:

First, Moroccan forces preceded Moroccan settlers by at least five days, and its invasion was belligerent, bloody, brutal, and resulted in Sahrawi deaths, forced disappearances, imprisonments, and last, but not least, it made many flee their land to seek safe refugee in the Algerian desert.

Second, Morocco invaded Western Sahara after signing the Madrid triplet accord that divided Western Sahara, giving land illegally to Morocco. 

To guarantee Moroccans' support for the occupation, Moroccan media depicted the Sahrawi fight for freedom and independence as an “Algerian conspiracy” against Morocco in their regional enmity, therefore, portraying the Sahrawi as a group of “Algerian puppets” fighting a proxy war for Algerian interests. It portrayed the refugees (those who escaped the Moroccan violence) as “prisoners” held against their will by Algerian generals and the Polisario. For us, our generation, those who were born in refugee camps, they call us “brainwashed.” One has to give Moroccan propagandists credit for being creative with their name-calling techniques. Here are a few of the ones the use against Sahrawi: puppets, traitors, prisoners, terrorists, brainwashed.

For international media, there is one myth that is worth mentioning. It is the one that considers the conflict unsolvable and that two parties are to blame for that. The conflict is solvable when the United Nations Security Council has enough will to force the Moroccan occupation to implement UN resolutions. On the other hand, the Polisario is asking for nothing more than for those resolutions to be respected and implemented.

AA: A myth that I see perpetrated in the media is a misconception of the difference between the Sahrawi and the Moroccan, and mix-ups of important historical facts that seems to confuse readers. 

KA: These myths are: 

1. Sahara is Moroccan.

2. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) admitted sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara.

3. Polisario is an Algerian creation.

4. International law stands with Morocco.

5. The historical ties between Morocco and Sahara justify sovereignty. 

6. The Sahrawi are tribes and not a people because they are part of Moroccan people.

AM: How is the quality of governance in Western Sahara? Has this changed over time? 

AH: As far as the Western Saharan national liberation movement (the Polisario Front), have seen a change from a national liberation movement style of governance (in particular after the ceasefire in 1991) to a relatively open form of governance through building a state in exile (SADR) with a government of ministers that has women as members in its cabinet. 

MW: Our constitution says it is a republic, but sometimes there is confusion between the government and the liberation movement in when our system should work as republic and when it should work as a revolutionary movement.

AA: If we are talking about the occupied territories of Western Sahara, the governance is poor. Every day, we see Moroccan authorities abusing women and children; as far as I know Sahrawi are treated as second-class citizens in their own land. 

When it comes to the camps, people are truly free to build their lives, and despite the hardships of the refugee camps, people are allowed to express their identity and speak their language freely. However, when comes to the leadership of the Polisario, they are handling the conflict in a poor way, and over these past years, corruptions among them have increased. Even thus, the Sahrawi accept their representation on the international platform. Most of the Sahrawi do not agree with how the Polisario financially benefit from international aid. Sadly, governance in both places is only getting worse, making Sahrawi’s lives more difficult. 

KA: In the occupied territories, Moroccan governance is based on tribal divisions (divide to control) and still goes on. Besides this, the Western Sahara is still a taboo and a red line. For Morocco, it is still a sacred issue.

The Moroccan regime’s policy is also based on flooding Western Sahara with settlers so that the Sahrawi become a minority.

AM: Do you feel that your freedoms and rights are protected in Western Sahara? 

AH: There are no rights and freedoms in occupied nations. Countless violations of human rights committed by the occupying Moroccan forces have been documented by various international human rights organizations: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, the Moroccan Associations for Human Rights, Reporters Without Borders, War Resisters’ International, etc. which have documented abuses against the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. 

MW: Our rights in the refugee camps are protected; unfortunately, this is not the case for our people in the occupied territories of Western Sahara.

AA: I personally do not think that my rights are protected–neither in Western Sahara nor in the camps. 

KA: What prevails is suppression within the scary control of a police state.

AM: What is the greatest struggle or hardship faced by the Sahrawi people? 

AH: We are deprived from our basic right to decide our internationally recognized political status in a free and democratic referendum. In addition, we have suffered ongoing humanitarian crises, forced exile, separation from our families, and an inhumane and undignified existence due to the ongoing Moroccan occupation of our land. 

MW: The greatest struggle for the Sahrawi is to continue to believe in international law and that we can achieve our hopes and longings in freedom and independence through peaceful means.

AA: This would be the media misconceptions and propaganda that tend to distract and confuse the public. Also, living in the refugee camps, Sahrawi no longer have the patience to wait for the Polisario and Morocco to work their differences. Finally, the human rights violations in the occupied territories are heartbreaking to watch or read about.

KA: The lack of free speech or the right to express one’s position supporting self-determination.

AM: What do you believe is the most ideal solution to the cold conflict in Western Sahara? 

AH: The Sahrawi people must be given the chance to freely express their desires in a free and democratic referendum, otherwise, the resumption of war against Morocco in order to force it to respect our inalienable right of self-determination. 

MW: The ideal solution is for Morocco to withdraw from Western Sahara, so the Sahrawi can build the independent and democratic country for which they have longed, fought, and sacrificed.

AA: Referendum is the original solution, or else a free Western Sahara with no Moroccan influence. However, time has shown these solutions are impossible. To be honest, I do not think there is any solution to the conflict; there is no hope (I lost hope in the Polisario and I do not trust Morocco). The Sahrawi should be left alone to live in dignity. 

KA: A solution that guarantees a free and democratic referendum in which the Sahrawi choose between integration, autonomy, or independence.

AM: What are the obstacles to achieving this ideal solution? 

MW: The obstacles are many. First, one of the reasons Morocco occupied Western Sahara was the presence of natural resources and their importance to the Moroccan economy. Those resources are still critically important to the Moroccan economy; they only become more important with oil prospects in Western Sahara.

Second, there is not an honest will from the international community (especially the superpowers) to put the necessary pressure on Morocco to accept a referendum on Western Sahara's political fate. What we have is quite the opposite: they are allowing Morocco to continue to violate international law, defying the UN resolutions that clearly support the Sahrawi right to self-determination. 

Ironically, the Sahrawi people placed their trust and confidence in the Security Council and it is the same council that the Moroccan occupation’s biggest allies (namely France and the United States) can veto any solution that is not desirable to Moroccan occupation.

KA: There are several reasons: the first is the Moroccan politics of facts on the ground, because the Moroccan monarchy’s legitimacy has become linked to the Sahara issue. The Moroccan monarchical state could be at stake if it loses in the referendum. The second is because there currently is no serious political crisis, and the Moroccan regime’s hubris indicates that they believe the Sahrawi refugees will give up as they live in harsh and difficult conditions. Finally, the Moroccan civil and military lobbies have powerful interests in Western Sahara, influencing global geopolitics. 

AM: What do you believe is the most likely solution to it? 

AH: Based on what I see now, war will be the most likely solution, because since 1991 we have been in this limbo of neither war nor peace in Western Sahara.

MW: I think that unless there is war that will force the international community to act and work tirelessly to find solution for the conflict, there is not going to be a solution.

KA: A transitory period of autonomy to a final referendum.

AM: One proposed solution to breaking the impasse in negotiations on the referendum is to adopt an autonomy plan, proposed by Morocco, which would allow internal affairs to be handled independently if the Sahrawi were to recognize Morocco's sovereignty in the region. What are your thoughts on this proposal?

AA: Many Sahrawi see the autonomy plan as a dangerous plan not only to their self-determination, but also to their human rights. Morocco has expertise when it comes to violating Sahrawi rights and accepting such a plan will only make matters worse for the Sahrawi. As a Sahrawi, my personal thoughts about the autonomy plan are that Morocco proposing such a plan not only violates international laws, but it also breaks the promise to hold a free and fair referendum. Morocco should have never proposed such a plan and the Polisario should never accept it under any circumstances.

AM: What would you like to share with the world about the situation in Western Sahara? 

AH: There exists the continuous illegal occupation of an extremely courageous, patient, and incredible people that have been suffering for too long now. Shame on the world for allowing a human tragedy like this to be happening in the twenty-first century! Please help us raise awareness about our situation. We simply want our rights to be respected and live in peace and dignity as other peoples and nations live. We demand no more than this!

MW: Personally, I want the world to know that I do not have any hope in them, but the vast majority of the Sahrawi still naively believe that if the world knows about the Moroccan occupation and the injustice that has been done to them, they would act immediately to show their solidarity and support for their rights in freedom and justice.

AA: Despite the hardship of the war and being refugees, Sahrawi are extremely proud of who they are. It is important to note that Sahrawi wish not to have anything to do with Morocco and their only dream is self-determination; they view Morocco’s autonomy plan as extremely dangerous when it comes to their rights and dignity. 

KA: We need to act to make the world aware of the systematic human rights abuses inside the occupied territories, and the imperative to push for a peaceful solution by placing pressure on the Moroccan regime before hostilities and war resume.  

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