How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Last week, Mohamed Abdelaziz, the secretary-general of the Polisario Front independence movement in Western Sahara, passed away at the age of 68. Abdelaziz helped found the movement in the 1970s and served as the president of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the government-in-exile that the group founded in Tindouf, Algeria, since 1976. He was in the middle of his 12th consecutive term as president when he died this week.
The Polisario quickly announced an interim replacement—Khatri Addouh, a longtime aide to Abdelaziz and the current head of the Polisario’s National Council—as well as a 40-day mourning period before a permanent successor will be named. In the rush to figure out what Abdelaziz’s death might mean for a resolution to the protracted conflict between Morocco and the Polisario, observers have overlooked what his death says about the Polisario itself and, by extension, what it might tell us about the nature of an independent Western Sahara sometime in the distant future.
According to the Polisario, Western Sahara, home of the Sahrawi people, is Africa’s last colony, and it continues to employ anticolonial rhetoric to great effect. Sahara Press Service, SADR’s official press agency, published a eulogy that likened Abdelaziz to the last wave of African anticolonial leaders, such as Samora Machel of Mozambique and Agostinho Neto of Angola. Morocco, for its part, doesn’t have the best track record with the people of the Sahara (Morocco does not use the term “Sahrawi”). Rabat has offered lump sums, jobs, and housing to Moroccans willing to relocate to the “Southern provinces” and has cracked down on protests and dissent. The overarching goals have been to change the demographic makeup of the territory and to complicate the creation of a voter list, which MINURSO (the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) has mandated and could be used in a referendum on independence.
Morocco is unwilling to allow such a referendum for obvious reasons: it worries that voters would choose self-rule over remaining part of Morocco, even under Morocco’s proposed “autonomy plan.” But the Polisario’s position as an anticolonial or self-determination alternative is something of a front. Its democratic credentials are lacking; it has ruled SADR without opposition (it controls all 53 seats in the National Council) since the state-in-exile’s inception in 1975. The Polisario also receives virtually all its financial support from Algeria, which is not necessarily the best sign that a shift toward real participatory democracy would be in the cards. Backing the Polisario provides Algeria with a means of checking Moroccan expansion and regional dominance in the greater Maghreb.
There are questions, moreover, about whether the Polisario can even survive without Abdelaziz. He was part of a unique generation of Sahrawis: educated and trained in Moroccan institutions, but battle-hardened by the drawn-out war of the 1970s and 1980s and emboldened by diplomatic gains after the 1991 cease-fire. This generation came to power as a revolutionary group fighting Moroccan control. Yet in its critique of colonialism, it reified colonial legacies: the hastily drawn borders of the Spanish Sahara never really carried much significance in the lives of the mostly nomadic people of the region, but here was the Polisario declaring a unique national identity bounded by the borders drawn by colonial rule. Economic, religious, and political connections with Morocco had always been important to the people of the Sahara, yet the Polisario minimize the links.
Lung cancer made Abdelaziz’s death somewhat expected. At 68 he wasn’t quite ancient, but he and his peers in the leadership are still generations removed from a growing population of Sahrawi youth. Raised in the refugee camps of Tindouf, Algeria, under the vague hope of a return to a homeland that they’ve never called home, they might not continue the “revolution,” preferring instead to emigrate or even defect. Migration prospects for Sahrawis are restricted. Historical connections with Spain make it a popular destination, but other primary destinations are Cuba (a longtime supporter of the Polisario because of its quasi-communist platforms) and Algeria, where economic opportunities are limited. Defecting to Morocco remains an option, but it seems well understood that Rabat is likely to reward only higher-ranking Polisario officials for switching sides.
It is no secret that the Polisario suppresses dissent and opposition views. Abdelaziz talked a big game about the importance of human rights—and, in particular, the support of human rights activists—but in practice, he cared only to protect those working against the Moroccan occupation. In the Tindouf camps, there has been rising discontent. In 2009, one of Abdelaziz’s top advisers, Ahmed Ould Souilem, defected to Morocco and declared that most Sahrawis supported Morocco’s autonomy proposal. In 2013, a former Polisario police chief, Mustapha Salma, who had defected, was denied return to Tindouf in order to advocate for Morocco’s proposed autonomy plan for the Sahara. Most notably, in 2014, a contingent of soldiers released a video decrying the corruption and marginalization of opposing voices associated with the Youth Movement for Change group, before defecting to Morocco. And Human Rights Watch has heavily criticized Morocco’s suppression of opposition views on the Sahara conflict, but it has also regularly raised alarms about the Polisario’s monopolization of political life. The distinction between the movement and the state-in-exile that it rules is hazy at best, making it difficult for independent civil society groups and alternative political movements to understand what resources are available and to whom, much less gain access to them.
The potential candidates to replace Abdelaziz seem likely to favor the status quo: Brahim Ghali, who holds SADR’s most important diplomatic position as ambassador to Algeria, is thought to be the front-runner. Moroccan media outlets have labeled him the preferred candidate of Algiers, although some Algerian newspapers have come out in favor of Abdelkader Taleb Omar (SADR’s current prime minister) or Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, the current minister of the reconstruction of liberated zones. All three candidates, plus Addouh, are very much of the first wave of Sahrawi nationalists. Habibulah Mohamed Lamin wrote recently in Al-Monitor that the Polisario leadership is getting younger, but the primary evidence is the recent appointment of a 33-year-old minister of youth and sports—hardly a sea change.
For its part, Morocco would prefer to bide its time, further consolidating its control of the territory while waiting for younger Sahrawis to grow disillusioned with the Polisario. But the waiting game could have a reverse effect. The new generations have no lived experience of armed conflict, but, as a recent Al-Monitor report showed, many have little faith in the UN peace process and see a return to war as the only possible solution. At the same time, disillusion, defection, and demands for greater openness and freedom of speech are at an all-time high. The Polisario and its Algerian backers have shown little interest in increasing transparency or opening up the political process to alternative parties. They have thus far succeeded in placing the spotlight on Morocco’s human rights issues while deflecting international attention to their own internal flaws, but the transition from Abdelaziz may provide the opportunity for dissident voices to jump into the fray. International observers will also be paying closer attention. It is an open question whether the Polisario will stand up to the scrutiny.