Politically, Western Sahara is a unifying issue within Morocco; analysts worry that splitting it off could undermine the monarchy, and threaten a pillar of stability in a volatile region. Polisario’s socialist rhetoric and Algerian ties have not won them friends in the West, either. For the West, “the status quo is much more tolerable than the frightening futures that might result from prioritizing a solution over stability,” Mundy said.
Morocco’s own position on Western Sahara stresses this risk. It has proposed an autonomy plan that would give the Sahrawis limited self-government but not independence. Officials in Rabat insist this is for the best: An independent but weak new state, they say, would be vulnerable to extremists and jihadis.
“An independent state is not viable in Sahara. You have to be very clear for security reasons. Today what is happening in Mali is happening in the Sahara. It is threatening the security of the Sahara and everywhere,” said Youssef Armani, minister delegate of foreign affairs and cooperation of the Kingdom of Morocco, in a meeting with journalists in May. “There is no room for a failed state in the region.”
Independence-seekers respond that Morocco is inflating security threats and making false allegations about Al Qaeda infiltrating the refugee camps.
“It is propaganda,” said El Ghalia Djimi, vice president of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations, who says the independence movement doesn’t have terrorist connections.
“We are a small people with big land and big natural resources and occupied by a power that has historical relationships with Western countries,” she said. “So this is why they let this ongoing conflict not get resolved.”
How do successful national breakups happen? In the time Western Sahara has waited for its chance at independence, dozens of new countries have been born. Many were smooth spinoffs of islands by distant colonizers.
But others, especially with contiguous territories and at least one unwilling party, were painful and bloody. Yugoslavia dissolved into separate populations, propelled by ethnic cleansing. Kosovo is still under UN protection, its declaration of independence from Serbia still unrecognized by Serbia itself. Most recently, South Sudan’s 2011 independence came only after decades of brutal civil war and pressure from Christian groups in the United States who had worked for decades on the issue. In nearly all of these conflicts, including East Timor, independence was finally achieved once these self-determination struggles had won substantive support from the United States, the United Kingdom, or other Western allies.
America has tried to keep a neutral position on Western Sahara: It does not recognize Moroccan sovereignty and helps fund the UN mission there, but hasn’t aided the independence movement. It considers Morocco’s autonomy proposal to be “serious, realistic, and credible,” according to a recent Congressional Research Service report by Alexis Arieff, an analyst in African affairs.
In April, for the first time, the United States drafted a proposal for the UN to monitor human rights in Western Sahara—an effort defeated after heavy lobbying from Morocco, which set off the protests here last month.
America’s premium on stability essentially boils down to support for Morocco—for now. President Obama, in a call to King Mohammed VI in May, discussed the “importance of continuing to deepen our bilateral cooperation, especially on regional security matters of mutual concern.”
In Western Sahara, activists still say they want to break up the “right” way. Even after a recent attack on Aminatou Haidar left her black Toyota Corolla smashed by rocks, the woman nicknamed “the Sahrawi Gandhi” says she is committed to peace as the path to independence.
But she added that there is growing frustration among younger Sahrawis, who have not seen progress in this protracted, seemingly forgotten struggle. Haidar acknowledged that they could be at risk of being radicalized on the issue, and of returning to a violent struggle.
She and other Sahrawis blame the international community for not pressing forward on what they see as a long-promised vote. Last week, the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization began its periodic discussions on the case of Western Sahara and other territories. On Tuesday in New York, Polisario Front Secretary-General Mohamed Abdelaziz expressed frustration at the impasse and pressed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to give more attention to the dispute.Continued...