End the Stalemate in the Sahara

End the Stalemate in the Sahara

The United States and the international community ought to support the stability of North Africa by safeguarding the territorial integrity of Morocco and ending the conflict in the Saraha.

The Kingdom of Morocco, an unflinching ally of the United States in the war on terror, faces a major threat to its national sovereignty. This threat comes from the Polisario, a secessionist group, which is challenging the territorial integrity of the kingdom. Such a challenge will either be supported or rebuffed by the international community when the United Nations Security Council debates Morocco's proposal to grant autonomy to the Sahara region on April 20. America ought to support the plan and reward Morocco, which has helped the United States prosecute the war on terror, in addition to relentlessly pursuing democratic reforms.

Morocco achieved independence from France in 1956, but its southern part remained under Spanish control. Morocco immediately called for full independence of all its territory, and through negotiations regained Tarfaya in 1958, Sidi Ifni in 1969 and the rest of the Sahara in 1975. The Cuban- and Algerian-backed Polisario refused to recognize Moroccan sovereignty and waged a guerilla war of secession which ended in 1991 after a UN-brokered ceasefire agreement.

The Polisario is the Spanish acronym for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro, and was launched in 1973 by a group of Moroccan students of Sahraoui origin led by the charismatic Mohamed el-Ouali. The Polisario, which originally did not make any declarations for independence from Morocco, favored violent struggle against Spain and eventually grew impatient with Moroccan gradualism. Moreover, the period leading up to 1975 in Morocco was one of intense ideological and political struggle, as Marxists and other anti-monarchists intended to overthrow the king. The monarchy fought back by repressing most leftists, including members of the then-embryonic Polisario. Disillusioned, the latter sought and received material support from revolutionary states, such as Libya, Cuba, and Algeria. Today, the group has softened its socialist revolutionary rhetoric, but continues to draw support from Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Though the Cold War ideological differences between Morocco and the Polisario no longer persist, the problem of the Sahara remains as a phantom, an artificial conflict from a by-gone era.

The Polisario argues that Morocco has no right to claim the desert territory. Its members point out that, historically, some tribes did not always favor Moroccan sovereignty. True, but they neglect the fact that for centuries, many more tribes pledged allegiance to the Moroccan sultan than not. Moreover, the International Court of Justice ruled in 1975 that historically "there were legal ties between this territory and the Kingdom of Morocco."

After the 1991 ceasefire agreement both Morocco and the Polisario showed good will to resolve this issue and agreed to a referendum for the self-determination of the people of the Sahara. However, after years of preparation, this plan has proven unworkable because the two sides cannot agree on a common list of eligible voters, thereby postponing the referendum indefinitely. After 16 years, this process has become an irritant for the UN and a burden on the people of the region. The United Nations continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep its mission, MINURSO, operating; one third of the Sahraoui people continue to suffer in the desolate, sequestered Algerian desert camps of Tindouf; and Morocco's efforts for political and economic reform have been hamstrung. All the while, the Maghreb Union, which promises to deliver economic integration and prosperity to the countries of the Maghreb, remains in limbo. In times and situations like this, a swift and fair solution to the problem is no longer a luxury; it is a moral and strategic necessity.

After two years of painstaking consultation and negotiations with various contingents, including tribal leaders and human rights groups, Morocco is proposing a solution. Morocco's proposal gives the people of the region all the prerogatives of self-rule. The plan respects international standards for autonomy, guarantees the social and cultural characteristics of the Sahara region, allows people to rule themselves democratically, and guarantees Moroccan sovereignty and the security and stability of the region.

It is time for serious leadership to emerge from the Polisario and respond in a constructive manner to Rabat's proposal. So far, however, Polisario chief Mohamed Abdelaziz, who has been at the helm of the group for 31 years, has responded with what he calls a "flexible" plan, which proposes a special relationship between Rabat and the newly proposed state in the Sahara if such a state is formed by a referendum. Unfortunately, this plan is not a serious proposal; it is merely another call for the same referendum that the parties have been unable to implement for 16 years.

At a time when North Africa is facing an onslaught of renewed Al-Qaeda activity, the United States and the international community ought to support the stability of the region by safeguarding the territorial integrity of Morocco. The kingdom has played a positive role in the Middle East and Africa, and has been unique in the region for initiating far reaching economic, social and political reforms. The United States in particular ought to show its goodwill to one of its oldest allies by taking a clear stand at the UN in support of Morocco's initiative to dialogue. With this problem solved, Morocco has the potential to serve as a beacon to the region in terms of political and economic reform and will continue to play an essential role in the fight against terrorism. The alternative is bleak: conflict in North Africa will continue, and a Sahara with weak authority will become a marketplace for groups with the most nefarious motives such as drug trafficking, human smuggling and terror.

Talal Belrhiti is a director at the Maghreb Center, a Washington, DC think tank. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Maghreb Center.