Book Review

Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution

Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy

Fall 2011, Volume XVIII, Number 3

There are three "red lines" in Moroccan politics: the country's religion (Islam), its form of government (monarchy) and its territorial integrity. The last of these refers to questioning Morocco's claim to the Western Sahara, a vast, sparsely inhabited territory that Morocco considers its "southern provinces." Spain claimed the area as a protectorate from 1884 until 1975, when Morocco's "Green March" — a mass civilian procession that would march into and "reclaim" the Spanish colony — forced it into ceding control of the territory.

Morocco had hoped for a more orderly process after requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1974. The court examined two issues: whether the Western Sahara had been terra nullius prior to Spanish colonization and, if not, whether Morocco's claims to "legal ties of sovereignty" with the territory's citizens were valid. The following year, the ICJ ruled negatively on both questions, thus upholding the right to self-determination for the Western Sahara's indigenous people as stipulated by UN General Assembly Resolution 1514. The Green March was announced shortly after this decision was made public.

The Moroccan occupation was met by a nascent Sahrawi (that is, from Western Sahara) independence movement that eventually coalesced around the Polisario Front. Within a few years, Sahrawi nationalists had created an Algeria-based government-in-exile (the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, SADR) that was recognized by most African countries and various others. Through its armed wing, Polisario mounted an insurgency that would last until 1991, when the two sides agreed to a UN-sponsored ceasefire and subsequent peace process.

As this conflict receives limited international attention, the recent book Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution is a welcome addition to the literature on both the region and conflict studies. Co-authored by Stephen Zunes, chair of the University of San Francisco Middle Eastern Studies program and an authoritative voice on nonviolent social movements, and Jacob Mundy, assistant professor at Colgate University and a Maghreb specialist, it constitutes one of only a handful of book-length English-language treatments of the conflict and the first in a number of years.

The book is divided into three sections of three chapters each. The first, "War," takes its cue from Foucault's inversion of Clausewitz's famous dictum, "Politics is war by other means," and although its first chapter does provide an overview of the 1975-91 fighting, it does so partly to contextualize what are presented as the conflict's two principal issues:

During the war, the Moroccan regime discovered that it would not be punished internationally for its belligerent and intransigent behavior in Western Sahara. Since 1975, its actions have been variously tolerated, condoned, and even supported by its allies.... The second lasting consequence of the war was its galvanizing effect on Western Saharan nationalism. During nearly twenty years of armed struggle, first with Spain and then with Morocco, Western Saharan nationalism transformed from an idea into the lived practice of thousands of Sahrawis, who found in it a reason for living and dying (p. 25).

Specific chapters look in depth at these two themes. Chapter 3 ("The Franco-American Consensus") shows how French and American support for Morocco has been constant — although to different degrees and expressed differently — not only across many and varied administrations but also despite the transformations in the international system from the Cold War through the post-9/11 era.

Chapter 4, the first of three on Sahrawi nationalism, manages the difficult task of synthesizing the historical rise of a national consciousness from Arabization through the end of colonial times. Chapter 5 delves into Polisario and SADR organizational structures, as well as their policies and administration of the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, where the bulk of Sahrawi refugees live. Despite the chapter's fine detail and demonstrated knowledge of conditions on the ground, some may argue that a sharper critique of Polisario leadership was warranted. Chapter 6 examines Sahrawi nationalism within the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, specifically looking at the 1999 and 2005 intifadas, when large numbers of Sahrawis demonstrated peacefully throughout the territory. The authors view this form of nonviolent activism, which has proven effective in both Egypt and Tunisia, as crucial to the Sahrawi movement, since "it has the potential to overcome the major hurdle facing Western Saharan nationalism: the Franco-American consensus that supports Morocco" (p. 163).

Following the book's publication, a third Sahrawi intifada took place, this time with large protest camps erected on the outskirts of the capital, Laayoune. In November 2010, barely one month before Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation sparked the Tunisian uprising, the camps were raided by Moroccan security forces, resulting in unprecedented casualties, destruction and detentions both in the camps and Laayoune itself. The details and impact of this event, which outside of Spain received limited coverage, still remain unclear. They do, though, appear to represent an escalation on both sides.

In discussing Sahrawi nationalism, the authors take aim at the tendency to portray the conflict as a purely bilateral Algeria-Morocco affair in which Polisario is little more than an Algerian proxy. They give three reasons for rejecting this interpretation: the history of Western Saharan nationalism predates Algerian support; weaker nationalist movements (East Timor, Eritrea) have succeeded without the backing of a regional power; and the interpretation itself is a political tool meant to undermine Sahrawi nationalism, and it omits foreign support for Morocco (p. 31).

The authors also decry the tendency to romanticize Sahrawi nationalism, making it clear that they aim to treat the Sahrawis "as we would any other people, nation, and country while respecting their spatial, cultural, and historical specificities" (p. xxxiv). Because of this, one would expect the conflict's impact on Moroccan nationalism to be approached in a similar fashion. The logic behind Morocco's occupation does receive a fascinating and detailed treatment in Chapter 2 ("Arab Maghrib Disunity"), where Moroccan designs on the Sahara are explained in the context of the kingdom's early postcolonial domestic politics. The basis for the irredentist claims is the idea of "Greater Morocco," which was first articulated by nationalist parties of the 1950s and readily taken up by King Hassan II upon his accession to the throne in 1961. The subsequent history of political turbulence and regime weakness of the 1960s and 1970s explains the logic behind the annexation:

King Hassan's intent regarding Western Sahara was not a classic land grab for natural resources, but a way to reassert royal legitimacy, which would afford him more political leeway domestically. He was able to mobilize the country behind him by tapping into a powerful idea — Greater Morocco — that had become central to the national identity. Furthermore, because the apparent target of the Green March was Spain, not the Western Saharans, it also played on the still palpable resentment of colonialism and the ideals of the struggle for independence (p. 40).

Once the Spanish withdrew, Morocco simply recalibrated the narrative away from colonial struggles and toward regional politics, with Algeria taking Spain's place.

This account, however, does not help us understand Moroccans' continued support for the country's claim to the Western Sahara. As the authors admit, "Outside of Sahrawis, there is still no sector of Moroccan civil society that openly supports independence. The most likely candidate for support for Sahrawis, Amazigh activists in the Spanish-colonized North, have not as yet demonstrated any ties of solidarity" (p. 162). Quite the opposite, as the authors note: in 2007, there were violent clashes between these two groups on Moroccan campuses. Moroccan nationalism is obviously very complex and deserves an approach similar to the one provided to Sahrawi nationalism. A deeper exploration of how the conflict feeds into modern Morocco's national consciousness (for instance, how the myth of the Green March has affected national culture) would provide a sharper understanding of the local stakes involved in the conflict.

The book's third section, "Conflict Irresolution," looks at the failure of the international community to settle the conflict. Its first chapter recounts the involvement of the United Nations and the OAU (now African Union) in the early stages of the SADR. The 1991 Settlement Plan created the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which was to oversee a vote to determine the territory's fate. The second chapter comprehensively details the excruciating issue of voter identification (who is truly Sahrawi?) and Morocco's repeated attempts to pad the voter rolls in order to ensure a favorable result. For the authors, the stillborn 1991 referendum process simply hardened positions that were formed during the war: Western-tolerated Moroccan impunity on the one hand, increasingly rooted and uncompromising Sahrawi nationalism on the other. Indeed, they see more harm than good from the UN attempt to resolve the conflict:

Yet in the course of the UN peace process since 1991, including the abandonment of the original referendum in 2000 and [James A.] Baker's resignation in 2004, the parties' mutual mistrust and animosity have only increased. The UN's credibility with those who matter most, the people of Western Sahara, has been severely compromised. In 1992, most Western Saharans greeted MINURSO as liberators. Before long, however, they began to see it as an accessory to occupation (p. 190).

James Baker's tenure as Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative from 1997 to 2004 is the subject of the book's final chapter. In the year 2000, the Baker-brokered Houston Accords were abandoned in favor of various schemes combining autonomy and independence. Baker's 2003 peace plan, offering a period of autonomy of no more than five years followed by a final-status referendum, merely revived the problems of voter identification that had plagued the 1991 settlement plan. Unable to achieve an agreement, Baker resigned the following year.

In 2007, Morocco unveiled an autonomy plan that was quickly endorsed by both France and the United States. The language of a "mutually acceptable" yet "serious and credible" solution has begun replacing the idea of a zero-sum referendum. The authors are skeptical, noting that Morocco would require international guarantees to its territorial integrity were it to grant autonomy. The most practical solution, they believe, will involve the support of Moroccan settlers, many of whom now sympathize with the Sahrawis. Rather than total independence or total subjugation, the authors foresee a possible "independence based on an alliance between natives and renegade settlers," not only because it would allow for a nonviolent settlement of the dispute but because "a Moroccan-Sahrawi alliance for self-determination would also allay fears that an independent Western Sahara will become an unstable ‘microstate' that threatens Moroccan and Western interests" (p. 264). Of course, they add, "It is frightening for the Moroccan regime to imagine the Western Saharans voting for independence, yet it is even more terrifying to imagine Moroccans joining with them" (p. 265). This may be putting it mildly.

The stakes in this conflict, the authors believe, are significant. Morocco's occupation of the Western Sahara is "one of the most egregious yet most underchallenged affronts to the international system in existence today. The ramifications of the international community's failure to counter this basic violation of the prohibition against aggression are of far greater consequence than just the denial of self-determination" (p. 260). An important guarantor of the integrity of the international system, in their view, is "international civil society."

One of the goals of the book, therefore, is "to influence those whom we think are best placed to affect the situation in Western Sahara: an informed citizenry and civil society" (p. xxxvi). Because of this, one would expect to find a list of "resources for action" or similar compendium for involvement. At the very least, a link to the book's useful website — http://wsahara.stephenzunes.org/ — should be included somewhere. Although the website does not have a list of resources for action, it does contain an informative blog that the two authors update somewhat regularly.

Not everyone will agree with this book. Some will see it as uncritical of Polisario, and others may decry its failure to properly explore the Moroccan position. The authors are aware of this second objection and provide a methodological justification, rejecting the notion of objectivity "by which observers are commanded to balance the facts between predetermined sides," which they see as appropriate for diplomacy but not academic inquiry. Considerations such as the viability and strategic implications of an independent Sahrawi state and other types of analysis associated with the "realist" school of international politics are also secondary to them, and they are unequivocal in the importance they give to international norms: "To live in a world of ethics, rights, and laws, both observers and critics of power — academics, journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and so on — should treat such basic norms as central, not peripheral or incidental, to world affairs" (pp. xxxv-xxxvi).

It is no small feat to present such a detailed study of this lengthy and multifaceted conflict in fewer than 300 pages of readable and jargon-free language. Arabic speakers will be pleased with the consistency in transliteration (a combination of internationally recognized conventions, most-common spelling forms and standardized transliteration), especially given that French, Spanish and English-based transliterations are all common in this area and can be as different as Moroccan dialect is from Hassaniyyah (spoken in the Western Sahara). The book will not only become a standard reference on the conflict but also an important case study for students of conflict management, international relations and political science as a whole.