Five years ago, with Algeria scheduled to play Russia in a World Cup match, Moroccan security vans were out in force up and down Smara Avenue in Laâyoune. Electing to avoid the main thoroughfare, I watched the match in a café near my apartment. The atmosphere in the small café was electric, even when Algeria went down a goal early. People clapped every well-played sequence, keeper save, and even half-decent attack. When Algeria recorded the equalizer, the energy in the café could hardly be contained. Kids, prevented from entering the packed café by the owner’s son, fed off of the collective energy, instigating wrestling matches with one another on the sidewalk throughout the second half. Occasionally, they would look expectantly through the windows at those watching, but the café was full, and no one was leaving. Anticipation mounted. “One, two, three, viva l’Algérie” people chanted after that goal and–briefly before the café owner interrupted–“La badīl, la badīl” the call for Sahrawi self-determination. The game finished in a tie, and everyone burst into cheers: Algeria was guaranteed to advance to the knockout rounds of the 2014 World Cup. The rising cacophony of honking cars gave expression to a rare sense of collective victory. Yet, even as victory seemed assured, viewers had their eyes on the door and were creeping anxiously toward the café’s lone exit.
Five years later, after Algeria won the Cup of African Nations the evening of 19 July 2019, confrontations on Avenue Smara left scores injured from Moroccan police using rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, as well as, reportedly, live fire. According to eyewitnesses, as celebrants began waving Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) flags and chanting for Sahrawi self-determination, security vans sped up and down the thoroughfare with and against traffic in an attempt to chase protesters off the Avenue. Around midnight, two Moroccan security vans hit Sabah Njourni, a twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher. According to eyewitnesses cited in an Amnesty International report, the vans “sped up towards her and did not stop to save her or check on her conditions.” Njourni later died of her injuries in a hospital. Vans hit and caused injuries to at least two others. Moroccan news accounts attributed the protests to “hooligans” who looted and vandalized private establishments and set fire to a bank. Police subsequently conducted house raids and made over a dozen arrests, including four youths between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, charging them with vandalism, obstructing public throughways, use of force, and insulting authorities. One report noted that, when appearing in court days later, the detainees bore signs of beating and torture.
It might seem surprising for one nation’s soccer triumph to generate violent confrontations in a neighboring country–particularly since, elsewhere in Morocco, the victory fostered a celebratory atmosphere and calls to reopen the Morocco-Algeria border. But public gatherings of all kinds in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara often get drawn into the binary field of political conflict. Unlike elsewhere in Morocco, waving the Algerian flag in Laâyoune references Algerian support for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which relies upon Algerian security and military support and has been based in refugee camps in southwest Algeria since 1976. The politically charged symbolism of the Algerian flag thus indexes the inescapably regional dimensions of the Western Sahara conflict. In the context of Moroccan-Sahrawi nationalist conflict, “one two three, viva l’Algérie” resonates with and transmutes into “La badīl, la badīl,” the Sahrawi call for self-determination. And any call for Sahrawi self-determination invariably elicits a response from the Moroccan security state.
There has been a renewed sense that recent political developments hold the promise of ending the Western Sahara conflict’s longstanding stasis. Much of this anticipation has been tied to John Bolton’s appointment as US National Security Advisor. Bolton’s familiarity with the conflict was believed to have played a role in bringing Moroccan and SADR representatives together to renew negotiations for the first time in six years. United Nations Special Envoy Horst Köhler convened two rounds of talks in December 2018 and March 2019, engendering optimistic accounts about an opening, particularly from SADR’s perspective, if not even a possible resolution to the conflict. Bolton’s willingness to mobilize US influence to change the conflict’s status quo, it is argued, presents SADR diplomatic leadership with “the most critical diplomatic opening they have had in decades.”
While Bolton’s attention may yet impact the conflict, recent events in Laâyoune show that certain, fundamental dynamics remain starkly unchanged. The anxiousness in the café five years ago was well-founded: then, as in this past July, Algerian victory and Sahrawi celebrations led to Moroccan show of force in Laâyoune. And as with their CAN victory this summer, Algeria’s World Cup success five years ago also came on the heels of an incomplete diplomatic initiative. Where 2019 brought the promise of a return to direct, bilateral talks between Morocco and SADR, 2014 coincided with the culmination of a years-long campaign to expand the mandate of the UN's peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, to include human rights oversight. This campaign involved fervent activism locally and internationally, accompanied by intensified horizons of expectation for change. Protests and rock-throwing confrontations with the police were daily occurrences in Laâyoune that spring, while Aminatou Haidar, the high-profile Sahrawi human rights activist, toured the United States, culminating in a speech before Congress. The campaign ultimately stalled before the United Nations Security Council that April, as it had a year earlier when Morocco thwarted the same initiative by threatening to cancel joint military exercises with the United States.
The similarities between 2014 and 2019 reflect a cyclical temporality to the conflict, which the occasional high-profile Algerian soccer victory only serves to amplify. This temporality is defined by a political transition, decolonization, that remains potentially imminent and perpetually forestalled. In 1975, the Polisario Front, the liberation front that established SADR, had negotiated a transfer of power with Spanish colonial administrators, only to be forced into a fifteen-year armed conflict with Morocco (and, initially, Mauritania). In the 1990s, a UN-led effort to organize a referendum on self-determination, initially expected to take months, lasted throughout the decade. When those efforts stalled over establishing voter eligibility, James Baker led bilateral talks that culminated in a settlement plan approved by both the Polisario Front and the UN Security Council, but rejected by Morocco. Over the last fifteen years, Morocco has insisted on its Autonomy Plan, which precludes a referendum option. On the other hand, pro-independence Sahrawis have increasingly sought to draw attention to their cause by documenting Moroccan human rights violations in the disputed territory. The talks convened under Köhler’s tenure marked a return to bilateral negotiation, but Köhler resigned in May, citing health issues and leaving a planned third round of talks in doubt.
By now, the struggle over determining Western Sahara’s sovereignty has been waged in the realms of international law, diplomacy, and human rights longer than the initial period of armed conflict, which lasted from 1975 to 1991. Over decades, the politicians of Morocco, SADR (and Algeria) have battled relentlessly over Western Sahara in the field of diplomacy. Morocco has spent millions in an effort to win favorable news coverage of its governance in Western Sahara. On a much tighter budget, SADR deploys a remarkably active diplomatic corps, continually attempting to gain recognition of its sovereignty from other states. And, according to Moroccan news sources, Algeria also lobbies the US government on the Western Sahara issue, while remaining in the background. Yet, for all of these diplomatic efforts, Sahrawis remain, in effect, stranded in decolonization.
As Carl Schmitt noted, diplomacy is better suited to the temporality of sustained struggle than war itself:
A British diplomat correctly stated…that the politician is better schooled for the battle than the soldier, because the politician fights his whole life whereas the soldier does so in exceptional circumstances only.
More than any other party to the conflict, Morocco relies upon the machinery of both its diplomatic corps and a militarized, security state to simultaneously deflect attention from and quell a population in an open state of rebellion. This machine operates on many levels, from Geneva to New York to Laâyoune, and takes many forms, from the diplomat to mukhabarat to the pervasive citizen-informants known as braguig. Its most materially apparent presence in the disputed territory of Western Sahara takes the form of the security van.
Vans belonging to Moroccan security forces are everywhere in Laâyoune. In the older, lower part of the city situated on the banks of Saguia al-Hamra, the nexus of Moroccan administration since Spanish withdrawal in 1975, long, rectangular police vans sit idle, awaiting deployment. These same blue vans are stationed outside of the modest campus that headquarters MINURSO, monitoring the monitors since the UN peacekeeping body was established as part of a ceasefire in 1991. Above the riverbank, where the city’s eastward expansion reflects the outcome of massive population resettlement projects over the past three decades, police vans patrol the neighborhoods at all hours. Sheathed in protective metal grating covering its windows, the vans, like the security state, attempt to remain opaque to the outside observer. They are not, however, invulnerable: a given van’s age can be ascertained by the degree to which its doors and hood are pockmarked by previous encounters with rock-throwing protesters. When idle, their hulking presence occupies the full width of a residential side street. On wide avenues, the vans reach ferocious speeds, a phenomenon I witnessed with as much frequency as there were protests. As with crackdowns elsewhere in Morocco, when the state receives intelligence of a planned protest, security vans are mobilized to occupy public space en masse before the protesters even assemble.
These vans are the most visible sign of Moroccan occupation, a militarized security state ruling without consent. In Laâyoune, bulbous white “Auxiliary Forces” vans are often parked at one of the city’s major intersections on Avenue Smara. This intersection, known as al-Zemla, is the site in 1970 where Spanish colonial officers opened fire on Sahrawi protesters. Though there is no formal commemoration of this site in present day Laâyoune, the event remains foundational to Sahrawi historical memory, marking the emergence of Sahrawi nationalism. The number of these vans stationed at al-Zemla on any given day indexes Laâyoune’s political temperature. Though I cannot say how many were stationed on Avenue Smara 19 July, five years ago there were many, and after the violence and arrests of the past few weeks, it seems safe to assume that just as many remain in formation, awaiting deployment.
Bouabi, Mustapha El. “Defying Division: Why a Closed Border Couldn’t Stop Morocco Joining Algeria’s Africa Cup Celebrations.” The New Arab, July 25, 2019. https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2019/7/25/defying-division-with-a-united-celebration.
Chick, Kristen, and Eliza Barclay. “The $20 Million Case for Morocco.” Foreign Policy (blog), February 25, 2014. https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/02/25/the-20-million-case-for-morocco/.
Huddleston, R. Joey. “Can John Bolton Thaw Western Sahara’s Long-Frozen Conflict? – Foreign Policy.” Foreign Policy, May 9, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/09/can-john-bolton-thaw-western-saharas-long-frozen-conflict-morocco-western-sahara-polisario-minurso-sahrawi-republic/.
Jensen, Erik. Western Sahara : Anatomy of a Stalemate? Boulder, CO [etc.]: Rienner, 2012.
“Moroccan Forces Intervene Violently against Sahrawi Fans Celebrating Victory of Algerian Football Team.” Sahara Press Service, July 20, 2019. https://www.spsrasd.info/news/en/articles/2019/07/20/21864.html.
“Morocco/Western Sahara: Investigate Brutal Crackdown on Sahrawi Protesters.” Amnesty International, August 1, 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/08/morocco-western-sahara-investigate-brutal-crackdown-on-sahrawi-protesters/.
News, Morocco World. “Hooligans Vandalize Property in Laayoune After Algeria’s CAN Victory.” Morocco World News (blog), July 20, 2019. https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2019/07/278734/hooligans-vandalism-property-laayoune-algeria-can-victory/.
———. “Morocco Spends $1.38 Million in Lobbying in 2018 to Beat Algeria in US.” Morocco World News (blog), May 13, 2019. https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2019/05/272791/morocco-lobbying-us-algeria-western-sahara/.
Niarchos, Nicolas. “Is One of Africa’s Oldest Conflicts Finally Nearing Its End?” The New Yorker, December 29, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/is-one-of-africas-oldest-conflicts-finally-nearing-its-end.
Ojeda-Garcia, Raquel, Irene Fernández-Molina, and Victoria Veguilla, eds. Regional and Local Dimensions of Western Sahara’s Protracted Decolonization: When a Conflict Gets Old. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017.
Sahrawi Association in the USA. “Moroccan Oppression in Western Sahara: Violent Crack down and Unjustified Bloodshed While the World Is Silent.” Flanders New York: Sahrawi Association in the USA (SAUSA), July 30, 2019.
Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Theofilopoulou, Anna. “Ban’s Misstep in Western Sahara.” Foreign Policy In Focus, March 28, 2016. http://fpif.org/bans-misstep-western-sahara/.
Thomas-Johnson, Amandla. “Morocco under Fire after Deadly Crackdown on Football Fans in Western Sahara.” Middle East Eye. July 28, 2019. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/morocco-accused-systematic-repression-after-police-turn-algeria-football-fans-western-sahara.
“Thousands Protest in Morocco Demanding Release of Jailed Activists.” Reuters, April 21, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-morocco-protests-idUSKCN1RX0ID.
“Wilayat al-’Ayun tukshef ’an tafassil al-’aemal al-takhribiya allati nefedhuha murteziqat al-olisario ba’ed fawz al-Jaza’ir.” Akhbarona, July 20, 2019. https://www.akhbarona.com/society/276355.html.
Zoubir, Yahia H. “In Search of Hegemony : The Western Sahara in Algerian-Moroccan Relations.” Journal of Algerian Studies, no. 2 (1997): 43–61.
 As in La badīl, la badīl li taqrīr al-massīr! (“No alternative, no alternative to self-determination!”)
 The exact number remains unclear, but estimates ranged from eighty to two hundred.
 Sahrawi Association in the USA, “Moroccan Oppression in Western Sahara: Violent Crackdown and Unjustified Bloodshed While the World Is Silent,” 9.
 Oualid Kebir, a blogger living near the border with Algeria was quoted as saying, “I consider Moroccans’ happiness with the Algerian national team’s victory a token of love and an honest expression of love from Moroccans towards the Algerian people.”
 Yahia H Zoubir, “In Search of Hegemony: The Western Sahara in Algerian-Moroccan Relations,” Journal of Algerian Studies, no. 2 (1997): 43–61. Raquel Ojeda-Garcia, Irene Fernández-Molina, and Victoria Veguilla, eds., Global, Regional and Local Dimensions of Western Sahara’s Protracted Decolonization: When a Conflict Gets Old (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017).
 Mauritania withdrew from the conflict in 1979.
 Erik Jensen, Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate? (Boulder, CO [etc.]: Rienner, 2012).
 Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 34.
 The one time I visited MINURSO headquarters in Laâyoune to conduct an interview, I subsequently received a phone call from the Moroccan wilaya asking for an update on my research. Since the former UN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon’s visit to SADR-controlled Western Sahara, Morocco unilaterally reduced MINURSO’s staff in Laâyoune, further weakening the peacekeeping operation in the territory under its control. Anna Theofilopoulou, “Ban’s Misstep in Western Sahara,” Foreign Policy In Focus, March 28, 2016, http://fpif.org/bans-misstep-western-sahara/.