Algeria, the Maghreb Union, and the Western Sahara stalemate.

AuthorZunes, Stephen

Despite the 1991 cease fire and agreement to hold a referendum on the fate of the Western Sahara, the peace process continues to be stalled. The agreement, signed by the Kingdom of Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) under UN supervision has been put on hold due to disagreements regarding those eligible to vote. Allegations of a pro-Moroccan bias by the Secretary General's office and the continued backing of Morocco by France and the United States has led many observers to conclude that Morocco's 1975 invasion and occupation of this former Spanish colony will be allowed to stand.

This essay examines the irresolution of the Western Sahara conflict from a regional perspective. After a brief overview of perspectives from the broader Arab World, the article will show how the formation of the Arab Maghreb Union and the internal crisis in Algeria has contributed to Morocco's apparent ability to sidestep its obligations under the Western Sahara peace agreement and successive United Nations Security Council resolutions. It examines the history of Algerian relations with the Polisario Front - the liberation movement of Western Sahara - as well as Algeria's relations with Morocco, and how, despite continued ideological support for the Sahrawi cause, the Algerians are no longer in a position to support strongly their erstwhile ally.


Efforts to gain support in the Arab World for the idea of a greater Morocco did not receive much support despite efforts in the early 1960s to enlist the Arab League for its cause. Indeed, Morocco's expansionist ambitions caused strains, including a temporary rupture of relations with Tunisia. The Moroccans have been more successful regarding the Western Sahara. Unlike the Organization of African Unity which has strongly backed Western Sahara's right to self-determination, the Arab League has shown little interest in the area. In addition, King Hassan has major influence in the Arab League and the Islamic Conference. Knowing it was in the minority, Algeria has never placed the issue on the table at such forums. Algeria,s efforts in the Arab World to link the Sahrawi's struggle to that of the Palestinians has fallen on deaf ears, as sultanic solidarity dominated the political agenda of most Arab states.

Prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Western Sahara situation was unique in the history of inter-Arab conflicts. While there had been a number of border wars, never before in modern history had one Arab state completely swallowed up another. Kuwait's financial support of the Moroccan war effort made its pleas to international law appear less than sincere when it found itself in the same situation as the Sahrawis.

The Arab Steadfastness Front, composed of hard-line Arab states opposed to U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with Israel in the late 1970s, formally endorsed the Polisario cause, though such support was little more than rhetoric. At the same time, however, some of Morocco's strongest supporters have been backing off on their previous unconditional endorsement. Saudi Arabia, Morocco's chief financial backer in the war effort, hosted direct talks between the SADR and Morocco in July 1988, has played a major role in Moroccan-Algerian reconciliation and has reportedly pushed the Moroccans to compromise.(1) Egypt has evolved from all-out support of Morocco under Anwar Sadat to a more cautious and balanced approach to the region under Husni Mubarak.


The six countries of the Maghreb - Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania - comprise nearly one@third of the Arab World's population. In both the period of conquest and subsequent liberation struggles, the Maghreb has paid a higher price in human and social terms than elsewhere in the Arab World. Algeria and Libya led the way in the wave of nationalizations and oil price rises in the 1960s and 1970s and both Morocco and Algeria have played major roles as mediators in the Middle East and elsewhere. All of the North African states, like many of their Middle Eastern counterparts, share a dependency on mineral exports, the interest rates charged by Western lending institutions, and on the amount of rainfall. They are also dependent on the export of human resources to industrialized Western Europe and their financial remittances. Nearly two million Arabs from the Maghreb live and work in Europe, about half of whom are Moroccans, and the majority of whom are in France.(2) The Europeans are not taking any more immigrants, and have therefore eliminated what had been an important social safety valve.

During the first ten years after Morocco's invasion, the Western Sahara conflict was clearly the most important diplomatic issue facing the region. Despite progress in the peace process, however, the Western Sahara has been eclipsed by economic problems. The entire region has been faced with stresses from rapidly growing populations, rising unemployment, problems with foreign debt, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and increasing calls for political pluralism. The rise of radical Islamists in Algeria, rather than distracting Algeria and the others from greater cooperation, scared the parties into trying to develop some mutually beneficial economic arrangement that would save them from the fundamentalist threat. It was becoming apparent that greater trends of demographic growth and urbanization were of more importance than individual alliances. Though the countries of the Maghreb are quite disparate politically, they had all come to the realization that economic instability - which they had all been experiencing - breeds political instability, and they could gain much through greater cooperation. There were also concerns about outside economic threats, such as the imminent cohesion of the European Economic Community (EEC) as well as outside military threats, as exemplified by the U.S. bombing of Libya and the Israeli bombing of Tunisia, both of which resulted in scores of civilian casualties.

With Algeria taking the lead, negotiations led to the signing by the leaders of the five Maghrebi states (excluding Western Sahara) of an agreement in Marrakesh in February 1989 for the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA). The document called for the easing of border restrictions, designed to help both tourists and migrant workers. In order to facilitate trade, the agreement called for expanded rail links and the establishment of a single regional airline. The treaty is vague in its phrasing, but the call for economic reciprocity in industry and agriculture encourages countries with surpluses of certain resources to trade with those that lack them. The Arab Maghreb is the most important regional grouping geographically and demographically to the EEC, and its formation has been the focus of much international interest.

Morocco's successful effort to exclude the SADR was a major victory for King Hassan. However, four of the five countries in the Maghrebi union support Sahrawi self-determination and support direct Moroccan-Polisario negotiations. The fact that the 1989 treaty contains a clause for the admission of new members appears to open the possibility of inclusion of the SADR, since it is difficult to see how any other country could be considered part of the Maghreb. Despite its initial exclusion, the SADR acknowledges the benefits of such economic, strategic and cultural interactions, and has endorsed the trend toward greater unity.(3) This greater union,raised the possibility that with the decline of the North African nation-state that a Western Sahara settlement could emerge that would be less than full statehood without continued domination by Morocco. King Hassan brought forth a proposal for a federalization of Morocco comparable to the German lander, which would include Western Sahara with a large degree of regional autonomy similar to that granted to sections of Morocco.(4) Morocco's long history of centralized government and King Hassan's history of direct control made such an offer dubious to many observers, but it was an indication that Greater Maghrebi unity could lead to considering a variety of options.

Algeria had hoped that with the signing of the UMA agreement there would be greater willingness for Morocco to cooperate with the peace...

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