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The Polisario, Polisario Front, or Frente Polisario, from the Spanish abbreviation of Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro ("Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro") is a political movement working for the separation of Western Sahara from Morocco.
 The beginnings
In 1971 a group of young Sahrawi students in the universities of Morocco began organizing what came to be known as The Embryonic Movement for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro. After attempting in vain to gain backing from several Arab governments, including both Algeria and Morocco, but only drawing faint noices of support from Libya and Mauritania, the movement eventually relocated to Spanish-controlled Western Sahara to start an armed rebellion.
The Polisario Front was formally constituted on May 10, 1973 with the express intention of militarily forcing an end to Spanish colonization. Its first Secretary General was El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed. On May 20 he led the Khanga raid, Polisario's first armed action in which a Spanish post manned by a team of Tropas Nomadas (Sahrawi-staffed auxiliary forces) was overrun and rifles seized. Polisario then gradually gained control over large swaths of desert countryside, and its power grew from early 1975 when the Tropas Nomadas began deserting to the Polisario, bringing weapons and training with them. At this point, Polisario's manpower included perhaps 800 men and women.
 Withdrawal of Spain
While Spain started negotiating a handover of power in the summer of 1975, in the end the Franco regime decided to throw in its lot with Western Sahara's neighbours instead. After Moroccan pressures through the Green March of November 6, Spain entered negotiations that led to the signing of the Madrid Accords between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania. Upon Spain's withdrawal, and in application of the Madrid Accords in 1976, Morocco recovered the Saguia El Hamra while Mauritania took control of Rio De Oro. The Algeria-backed Polisario Front proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on 27, February 1976, and waged a guerilla war against both Morocco and Mauritania. The World Court at The Hague had issued its verdict on the former Spanish colony just weeks before, which each party interpreted as confirming its rights on the disputed territory.
The Polisario kept up the guerilla war and rebased in Tindouf in the western regions of Algeria. For the next two years the movement grew as Sahrawi refugees flocked to the camps and Algeria supplied arms and funding. Within months, its army had expanded to several thousand armed fighters, camels been replaced by modern jeeps and 19th century muskets by assault rifles. The reorganized army was able to carry on the war through guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks against enemy forces in Western Sahara and in Morocco and Mauritania proper.
 Mauritania pulls out
The weak Mauritanian regime of Ould Daddah, whose army numbered under 3,000 men, proved unable to fend off the guerilla incursions. After repeated strikes at the country's principal source of income, the iron mines of Zouerate, the government was nearly incapacitated by the lack of funds and the ensuing internal disorder. Ethnic unrest in the Mauritanian armed forces also strongly contributed to the ineffectiveness of the army: forcibly conscripted black Africans from the south of the country resisted getting involved in what they viewed as a northern intra-Arab dispute, and the Moors and Sahrawis of northern Mauritania often sympathized with Polisario, fearing the regional ambitions of Morocco, and Daddah's increasing dependence on Moroccan military support.
Not even overt French Air Force backing in 1978, when SEPECAT Jaguar fighters strafed and bombed Polisario guerrilla columns en route to Mauritania, proved enough to save the regime, and the death of Polisario leader El Ouali in a raid on Nouakchott did not as anticipated result in the collapse of Sahrawi morale. Instead, he was replaced by Mohamed Abdelaziz, with no let up in the pace of attacks. The Daddah regime finally fell in 1978 to a coup d'état led by war-weary military officers, who immediately agreed to a cease fire with the Polisario. A comprehensive peace treaty was signed on August 5, 1979, in which the new government recognized Sahrawi rights to Western Sahara and relinquished its own claims. Mauritania withdrew all its forces and would later proceeded to formally recognize the alleged Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, causing a massive rupture in relations with Morocco. King Hassan II of Morocco immediately claimed the area of Western Sahara evacuated by Mauritania (Tiris al-Gharbiya, roughly corresponding to Saguia al-Hamra), which was unilaterally annexed in August 1979.
 The Moroccan wall stalemates the war
From the mid-1980s Morocco largely managed to keep Polisario troops off by building a huge berm or sand wall (the Moroccan Wall), staffed by an army roughly the same size as the entire Sahrawi population, enclosing within it the economically useful parts of Western Sahara (Bou Craa, El-Aaiun, Smara etc). This stalemated the war, with no side able to achieve decisive gains, but artillery strikes and sniping attacks by the guerillas continued, and Morocco was economically and politically strained by the war. Today Polisario controls the part of the Western Sahara on the east of the Moroccan Wall, comprising about a third of the territory, but this area is economically useless, heavily mined, and almost uninhabited.
 Cease-fire and the referendum process
A cease-fire between the Polisario and Morocco, monitored by MINURSO (UN) has been in effect since September 6, 1991, on the promise of a referendum on independence the following year. The referendum, however, stalled over disagreements on voter rights, and numerous attempts at restarting the process (most significantly the launching of the 2003 Baker plan) seem to have failed. The Polisario has repeatedly threatened to resume hostilites if a referendum cannot be held and claims that the current situation of "neither peace, nor war" is unsustainable. Pressures on the leadership from the refugee population to resume fighting are apparent, but to date the 14-year old cease fire has been respected.
 The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
On February 27 1976, the day after Spain formally ceded its colony, Polisario proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). It has a government in exile, a parliament and a judiciary, all based in Algeria. Its constitution promises that Western Sahara will be founded as a multi-party democracy with a "market economy and free enterprise". Abdelaziz has been its president for more than three decades. The SADR is a member of the African Union, but not of the United Nations. It is currently recognised by 43 countries, nearly all of these are African or Latin American, and has been acknowledged as a state by over 70 states although about 35 have since withdrawn recognition. The SADR and Polisario are both based in the Sahrawi refugee camps south of the Algerian border town of Tindouf, but has its symbolic temporary capital of Bir Lehlou in north-eastern Western Sahara. The formal capital, according to the SADR constitution's §4, is El Aaiún, presently under Moroccan administration.
 Political ideology
The Polisario is first and foremost a nationalist organization, with the separation of Western Sahara from Morocco as its main goal, and it has stated that ideological disputes should be left for a future democratic Western Sahara to deal with. It views itself as a "front" encompassing all political trends in Sahrawi society, and not as a party. As a consequence, there is no party programme. The Sahrawi republic's constitution however gives a hint of the movements ideological context: in the early 1970s Polisario adopted a vaguely socialist rhetoric, in line with most national liberation movements of the time, but this was abandoned relatively quickly in favour of a non-politicized Sahrawi nationalism. In the late 1970s, references to socialism in the republic's constitution were removed, and by 1991, the Polisario was explicitly free-market.
The Polisario has stated that it will, when Sahrawi self-determination has been achieved, either function as a party within the context of a multi-party system, or be completely disbanded. This will be decided by a Polisario congress upon the achievement of Western Sahara's independence.
 Attitudes to armed struggle
Polisario has consistently denounced terrorism and attacks against civilians,, and even sent condolences to Morocco after the terrorist strikes in Casablanca in 2003. It describes its struggle as a "clean war of national liberation". Since 1989, when the cease-fire was first concluded, Polisario has stated it will pursue its goal of Western Sahara's separation by peaceful means as long as Morocco complies with the cease-fire conditions, which include arranging a referendum on indpendence. Any breach of these terms, however, entails the possibility of Polisario resuming the war, and Abdelaziz has repeatedly warned that the present stalemate will logically lead to war if the international community does not step in.
On the other hand, the permanent peace which was signed between Polisario and Mauritania in 1979, at the latter's retreat from Western Sahara, has been scrupulously respected by both sides. There are no reports of armed clashes from either side.
The Independence Intifada, a series of peaceful protests (though some have resulted in minor riots) by Polisario supporters in the disputed territorise, is strongly supported by Polisario.
 Algeria and the Polisario
Algeria has been backing the Polisario since 1975, delivering arms, training, financial aid, food, without interruption for more than thirty years. At the level of international relations, Algeria appears as a main actor and negotiator in opposition to Morocco since the beginning of the Western Sahara conflict.
In a interview with The European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC) commander Lahbib Ayoub, a founding member of Polisario, who returned to Morocco, explained that Algeria "had chosen" Mohammed Abdelaziz at the top of the Polisario organisation although he did not belong to the very closed circle of the organization's founders and "we could refuse them [the Algerians] nothing: they were giving us everything, or almost everything. He always considered himself to be their man" <ref>The Polisario Front – Credibles Negotiation Partner or After-Effect of the Coldwar and Obstacle to a Political Solution in Western Sahara?</ref>.
 Organizational background
The pre-1991 Polisario structure was much different from the present institutional system. It was, despite a few changes, inherited from the pre-1975 period, when Polisario had functioned as a small, tightly-knit guerrilla movement, with a few hundred members. Consequently, it made few attempts at a division of powers, instead concentrating most of the decision-making power in the top echelons of Polisario for maximum battlefield efficiency. This meant most power rested in the hands of the Secretary General and a nine-man executive committee, elected at congresses and with different military and political responsibilities. A 21-man Politburo would further check decisions and connect the movement with its affiliated "mass organizations", UGTSARIO, UJSARIO and UNMS (see below).
However, after the movement took on the role as a state-in-waiting after basing itself in the refugee camps of Tindouf Province, Algeria, in 1975, this structure proved incapable of dealing with its vastly expanded responsibilities. As a consequence, the old military structure was wedded to the new grass-roots refugee camp administration which had asserted itself in Tindouf, with its system of committees and elected camp assemblies. In 1976, the situation was further complicated by the Sahrawi republic assuming functions of government in the camps and Polisario-held territories of Western Sahara. The SADR and Polisario institutions would frequently overlap, and their division of labor was often hard to ascertain.
A more comprehensive merger of these different organizational patterns (military organization/refugee camps/SADR) was not achieved until the 1991 congress, when both the Polisario and SADR organizations were overhauled, integrated into the camp structure and further separated from each other. This followed protests calling for expanding the internal democracy of the movement, and also led to important shifts of personnel in the top tiers of both Polisario and SADR institutions.
 Present structure
The organizational order described below applies today, and was roughly finalized in the 1991 internal reforms of the movement, although minor changes has since been effected.
The Polisario is led by a Secretary General. The first Secretary General was El-Ouali, followed by Mahfoud Ali Beiba as Interrim Secretary General upon his death. In 1976, Mohamed Abdelaziz was elected and has held the post ever since. The Secretary General is elected by the General Popular Congress (GPC), regularly convened every four years. The GPC is in turn composed of delegates from the Popular Congresses of the refugee camps in Tindouf, which are held biannually in each camp, and of delegates from the women's' organization (UNMS), youth organization (UJSARIO), workers' organization (UGTSARIO) and military delegates from the SPLA (see below). All residents of the camps have a vote in the Popular Congresses, and participate in the administrative work in the camp through base-level 11-person cells, which form the smallest unit of the refugee camp political structure. These will typically care for distribution of food, water and schooling in their area, joining in higher-level organs (encompassing several camp quarters) to cooperate and establish distribution chains. There is no formal membership of Polisario; instead, anyone who participates in its work or lives in the refugee camps is considered a member.
Between congresses, the supreme decision-making body is the National Secretariat, headed by the Secretary General. The NS is elected by the GPC. It is subdivided into committees handling defense, diplomatic affairs, etc. The 2003 NS, elected at the 11th GPC in Tifariti, Western Sahara, has 41 members. Twelve of these are secret delegates from the Moroccan-controlled areas of Western Sahara. This is shift in policy, as the Polisario traditionally confined political appointments to diaspora Sahrawis, for fear of infiltration and difficulties in communicating with Sahrawis in the Moroccan-controlled territories. It is probably intended to strengthen the movement's underground network in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, and link up with the rapidly growing Sahrawi civil rights activism.
Pierre Olivier Louveaux, who went to the Tindouf camps along with a CARITAS humanitarian mission, has charged that the Polisario is controlled by a few people who put their personal interests first in the conclusion of the conflict:
"The Polisario leaders periodically exchange the various positions of responsibility between themselves. It is difficult to know whether there exist, within the leadership, different political tendencies or conflicting interests. It seems that the leaders, in total or only in part, are hugely benefiting from the current situation to consolidate their political, social and economic power. The fact that they consider themselves as leaders of a State with territory and population, and at the same time as refugees needing humanitarian aid to survive reveals a duality that they skilfully exploit." <ref>Le Sahara Occidental aujourd’hui</ref>
In 2004, an anti-ceasefire and anti-Abdelaziz opposition fraction, the Front Polisario Khat al-Shahid announced its existence, in the first break with the principle of "national unity" (i.e. working in one single organization to prevent internal conflict). It calls for reforms in the movement, as well as resumption of hostilities with Morocco. It remains of little importance to the conflict, however, and Polisario has refused dialogue with it, stating that political decisions must be taken within the established political system.
 Armed forces (SPLA)
The "Sahrawi Popular Army of Liberation", SPLA (often abbreviated in French, as ALPS), is the Polisario's armed force. Its commander-in-chief is the Secretary General, but it is also integrated into the SADR system through the institution of a SADR Minister of Defence. The SPLA's armed units are considered to have a manpower of possibly 6-7,000 active soldiers today, but during the war years its strength appears to have been significantly higher: up to 20,000 men. It has a potential manpower of many times that number, however, since both male and female refugees in the Tindouf camps undergo military training at the age of 18. Women formed auxiliary units protecting the camps during war years.
Originally forced to capture its own weapons gun-by-gun as it began the anti-Spanish rebellion, and moving only on foot or camel-back, the Polisario multiplied its arsenals and military sophistication after striking an alliance with the anti-Moroccan Algerian government in 1975. The modern SPLA is equipped mainly with outdated Soviet-manufactured weaponry, donated by Algeria, but its arsenals display a bewildering variety of materiel, much of it captured from Spanish, Mauritanian or Moroccan forces and made in France, the United States, South Africa or Britain. The SPLA has several armored units, composed of old tanks and somewhat more modern armored cars and halftracks. SAM anti-aircraft missiles have felled some Moroccan fighter jets, and helped compensate for the complete Moroccan control of the skies.
One of the most innovative tactics of the SPLA was its early and extensive use of Land Rovers and other re-modelled civilian vehicles, mounting machine guns and employing them in great numbers, to overwhelm unprepared garrisoned outposts in rapid surprise strikes. This, of course, may also reflect the movement's difficulties in obtaining original military equipment, but nonetheless proved a stong tactic.
The Polisario traditionally employed ghazzi tactics, i.e., motorized surprise raids over great distances, which were inspired by the traditional camel-back war parties of the nomad tribes. However, after the construction of the Moroccan Wall this changed into tactics more resembling conventional warfare, with a focus on artillery, snipers and other long-range attacks. In both phases of the war, SPLA units relied on speed and surprise, and on the ability to retain experienced fighters.
According to ESISC lack of democracy and an oppressive climate under the leadership of Polisario, several members have left Tindouf. Some of them have joined the Moroccan side or gone off into exile abroad.
Among the top leaders who joined Morocco are the following names:
- Ahmed Moulay M’Hamed, known as Ahmed Cherif, former Head of the Security Services.
- Commander Ayoub Lahbib, founder member of the Polisario.
- Bahir Dkill, founder member of the Polisario, former representative of the organization in several countries.
- Brahim Hakim, former minister and representative of the Polisario in North America.
- GhaoutaMohamed Ahmed Baba, one of the census officials.
- Ghoulam NajemMouichame, representative in Germany.
- Guajmoula Bent Ebbi, former member of the Politburo, and today Moroccan MP.
- Mohamed Salem Khatri, former member of the Polisario’s national leadership.
- Hametti Rabani, former Minister for Justice and Cults
- Mustapha Bouh, former Political Commissar for the army.
- Keltoum Khayati, formerly in charge of the organization of women.
- Omar Hadrami, founder member of the Front and member of the Politburo.
- Sidati El Ghallaoui, former representative of the Polisario in Rome and Malta.
- Mohamed Ahmed ben Omar Ouled M'Brirek, Polisario representative for the identification of Sahrawis <ref>[ http://www.lereporter.ma/article.php3?id_article=1228 Mohamed Ahmed Ben Omar Ouled M’Brirek : « Les gens en ont assez d’attendre jusqu’à l’éternité »]</ref>
Many of these leaders are now active for Morocco’s sovereignty on Western Sahara. For a more extensive list see Former members of Polisario.
 Foreign relations
Support for the Polisario came mostly from African countries, Morocco's traditional rivals within the Arab world, and from third world socialist countries. The main political and military backers were Algeria and, a distant second, Cuba. For some years Libya's support was strong, but this has declined. Valuable contributions also came from Spain. Ties with the Fretilin liberation movement were exceptionally strong and remain so after East Timor's independence.
The United States firmly backed Morocco against Polisario during the Cold War, but Polisario never received counter-support from the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China; both rival powers preferred ties with Morocco and refused to recognize the SADR. In the 1990s, world interest in the conflict seemed to expire as the Sahara question gradually sank from public consciousness with the implementation of the cease-fire. Libya withdrew support in the early 1980's, after forming a brief political union with Morocco, and its support of the Polisario today is verbal and infrequent. Support from Algeria remains strong, but the government seems to have barred Polisario from returning to armed struggle, attempting to curry favor from the US and France and to mend the inflamed ties with Morocco.
In 2004, South Africa announced its formal recognition of the SADR, delayed for 10 years despite unequivocal promises by Nelson Mandela as apartheid fell. The recognition came since the announced referendum for Western Sahara never was held. Kenya and Uruguay followed in 2005, and relations were upgraded in some other countries, while the recognition of the SADR was cancelled by others (Albania, Chad, Serbia); and in 2006, Kenya temporarily froze relations to act as a mediating party.
 See also
- Morocco's foreign relations
- History of Western Sahara
- Independence Intifada
- Politics of Western Sahara
- Zemla Intifada
 External links
- The Association for a Free & Fair Referendum in Western Sahara
- Report of an independent Committee of inquiry into allegations of violations of Human Rights against the Polisario Front
- ESISC's critical report on the refugee camps durign the last floodings
- France Libertés - Report: International Mission of Inquiry - The Conditions of Detentions of the Moroccan POWs Detained in Tindouf (Algeria)
- Michael Palin's visit to Smara Refugee Camp
- The European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC) report on the Polisario
- Western Sahara (pro-Polisario view)
- Western Sahara Online (pro-Moroccan view)
 Further reading
- Jarat Chopra, United Nations Determination of the Western Saharan Self (Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs 1994)
- Tony Hodges, Western Sahara. The Roots of a Desert War (Lawrence & Hill 1983)
- Leo Kamil, Fueling the Fire. U.S. policy & the Western Sahara Conflict (Red Sea Press 1987)
- Anthony G. Pazzanita & Tony Hodges, Historical dictionary of Western Sahara (2nd ed. Scarecrow Press 1994)
- Toby Shelley, Endgame in the Western Sahara (Zed Books 2004)
- Forced Migration Organization: FMO Research Guide Bibliography