That put Western Sahara into a small, unhappy group of territories where decolonization was botched in part because of attempted annexation by a neighboring state, says Jacob Mundy, a professor at Colgate University and the author of a 2010 book, “Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.”
The most notable of those, East Timor, suffered near genocidal violence when Indonesian forces took control from Portugal in 1975. After a bloody referendum in 1999, East Timor finally got its independence, but it remains impoverished and corrupt, largely because of this damaging process.
Western Sahara has seen violence, too. The Polisario, organized in 1973, at first waged a guerilla war against Spain. Then, in November 1975, the king of Morocco orchestrated what became known as “The Green March,” calling on 300,000 civilians to descend into Western Sahara to stake it as their own. Spain quickly relented and transferred authority to Morocco and Mauritania. Now the Polisario turned on these countries. As war escalated, Mauritania renounced its right to Western Sahara in 1979, leaving Morocco with sole control, but no recognized claim.
The fighting continued for another decade, and slowly reshaped the makeup of the territory. Sahrawi refugees fled for camps in Algeria, which backed the Polisario movement. Today more than 100,000 live in the camps, governed by the Polisario, which faces its own accusations of suppressing freedom of expression, torture, and embezzling aid. Waves of Moroccans, meanwhile, moved into Western Sahara, lured by strong economic incentives.
The Polisario Front laid down arms in 1991 in a UN-brokered deal that gave Western Saharans the right to vote on their own future, choosing independence or integration into Morocco. The referendum was supposed to be in 1992. But the effort broke down in arguments over the eligibility of tens of thousands of resettled Moroccans who now called the territory home. Subsequent political talks went nowhere, and more than 20 years later, the people of Western Sahara find themselves in suspended animation.
“There is an abiding disappointment in the UN as an institution, one that sometimes borders on cynicism,” said Jeffrey Smith, a professor of international law in Ottawa who served as counsel to the UN mission in East Timor during that country’s transition to independence.
Despite that disappointment, in a region known for militant revolution and guerilla warfare, the Sahrawis’ playbook has come to look more like a Western protest effort. They stage marches and organize human rights activist groups. Aminatou Haidar, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who was abducted and tortured in a secret prison in the 1980s, went on a hunger strike for 32 days at a Spanish airport in 2009.
Then, in 2010, activists set up a protest camp, Gdeim Izik, in an empty stretch of desert a few miles outside Laayoune. At least 10,000 people pitched tents as a way to demonstrate against occupation and get attention for their demands to end discrimination and the lack of job opportunities. It was illegal (Morocco has strong laws against freedom of assembly without permits), but not violent—familiar to anyone who saw the Occupy camps that swept across the United States a year later. There were workshops, a charity group to collect funds, and a dialogue committee responsible for running negotiations with the Moroccan government.
“The idea came in response to the oppression that’s been going on for decades. We want to come up with something new, something different, and get out of the city limits,” said El Idrissi Mohamed Lamine, 27, who was one of the protesters.
After 28 days, authorities put an end to the civil disobedience and brutally dismantled the camp, burning tents to the ground, beating protesters, and arresting others. Protesters fought back; several people were killed, including security officers, and hundreds were injured.
To activists, Gdeim Izik was a success; it broke through the media blockage and was covered by organizations that usually ignore them. The Sahrawis like to see it as the inspiration for the Arab Spring—Noam Chomsky has argued that the widespread political and economic grievances that resulted in that wave of popular uprisings started in Gdeim Izik.
Either way , it has not made much of a difference in Western Sahara itself. That’s in part due to two circumstances: the presence of natural resources and the region’s occupation by a nation that is a strong Western ally. The 714-mile-long coastline gives Morocco access to some of the world’s richest fisheries, while phosphate reserves are becoming only more valuable as the global demand for fertilizer grows.Continued...