[Part of the material in this article is based on an interview with Toby Shelley, who has recently visited the Polisario camps.]

After fifteen years of armed struggle, the Sahrawi people stand at the threshold of independence. They are a small nation, in a remote part of the Arab world; and so they have been ignored not only by the estab­lished media but also by most of progressive public opinion.

The Sahrawis live in the Western Sahara, which is part of north­west Africa. Their western border is the Atlantic Ocean; in the north, they share a long border with Morocco; to the east is Algeria; and to the south and south-east Iies Mauritania.

All the countries surrounding the Sahrawis were colonized by the French or the Spanish. The Sahrawis were the last to be spared. Spain made some unsuccessful attempts in the 15th and 18th centuries; but finally in 1881 Spanish troops landed on the coast of Western Sahara, claiming it for Spain; and their claim was endorsed by the other colonial powers in 1884. Until 1935 they remained in coastal garrisons. By then French colonial troops had managed to contain, then defeat the Sahrawis after three campaigns, over 25 years. The Sahrawis rose again in 1957. The French feared that this insurrection would connect with the Algerian FLN and even threaten the Moroccan kingdom. The French and Spanish armies then mounted the Ecouvillon operation which destroyed the Sahrawi armed forces.

The Spanish were now in total control of Western Sahara, but it was only in 1962 that they started to develop a mining industry. For eco­nomic and political reasons, the Spanish forced the Sahrawis to settle in towns and villages, and so proletarized them.

In 1970, the Sahrawis organized openly in a political movement to claim their independence. In 1973, they started a guerrilla war, led by the Polisario Front. In 1975, the Spanish decided to withdraw from the Western Sahara, as a result of the political and military activities of the Polisario. But instead of granting self-determination, as it had promised to the Sahrawi people, it signed a tripartite agreement with Mauritania and Morocco. The former took one third of Western Sahara, the latter two third of it, which was also the richer part. Even before the signing of the agreement, Morocco moved its troops into Western Sahara, with tacit Spanish consent.

Morocco claimed that Western Sahara ‒ along with some regions of Mauritania, Mali and Algeria ‒ was and had always been part of the Moroccan empire. In fact, in the distant past Western Sahara may have owed formal allegiance to the Moroccan Sultan, but there was never a close linkage such as existed between the various regions that now con­stitute the Moroccan state. The Moroccan state never controlled the area. The main connection was a social one: it was the result of the movement of tribes that migrated northwards over the centuries, in search of bet­ter conditions, and part of them settled among Moroccans. More recently, especially since the 1920s, older Sahrawis remember that they took in Moroccan refugees driven out by Spanish and French forces. Furthermore, culturally the Sahrawis are very distinct. Their practice of Islam is different from the Moroccans’, and unlike the latter they do not recognize the Sultan as their religious leader. Their Arabic dialect is different: it originated in Yemen, from where the tribes that constitute today’s Sahrawis emigrated in the 16th century. All these facts did not deter King Hassan of Morocco from achieving by conquest what he could not gain by right.

Economic Background

Before embarking on a review of the last thirteen years of struggle, we must highlight one aspect which has never been mentioned by Hassan of Morocco. In 1947 Spanish geologists found indications of diverse mineral deposits. Further research in the early 1960s uncovered reserves of potassium and copper, some uranium, prospects of oil, rich iron fields, large quantities of underground water, and, more importantly, vast fields of high-grade easily extractable phosphates. In the 1960s, Spain drew into its development projects major capitalist interests. It sold oil leases to various companies, mainly American ones. More impor­tantly, it sold shares of the mining company it had set up to develop the very profitable phosphate deposits. The Spanish government sold the majority of the shares of its mining company to non-Spanish capital­ists: French banks and investors (Cofimer and Schneider) and an American firm (Westinghouse). It also involved German firms (Krupp and Strabach) in the construction of the infrastructure needed for large-scale mining. By so doing, the Spanish wanted to insure the backing of major capital­ist interests for its colonial venture. It certainly awakened their interest in the future of the Western Sahara and its phosphates.

Phosphates are mainly used as a raw material for artificial fertilizers. As such their price varies with the vagaries and changes in agricultural policies. In the 1960s, prices were low in general. As a consequence, the reserves in Western Sahara held little importance. In the early 1970s, prices rose due to a combination of several factors. The consumption of fertilizers rose world-wide, while at the same period the USSR and many other countries needed to import basic foodstuffs. US farmers increased their use of phosphates and so the USA’s exports of phos­phates decreased sharply (it is the largest exporter of phosphates).

As a result, Morocco became a leading exporter of phosphates. In 1974 it increased its prices from £7 to £34 per ton, an increase of 400%. As the profit from phosphates funds a large part of Morocco’s budget, King Hassan began to think that the state’s economy would be on a secure footing from now on, as had seemed to be happening to other Arab states during the oil boom. But by 1975 the demand for phosphate decreased, while the mines of Western Sahara began a serious export drive. Morocco’s profit was seriously hit, and so was its development plan. By now the seizure of the Western Sahara had become an economic aim: the swallowing of a rising competitor. The political goal of a grand Moroccan empire had now a solid economic raison d’etre.

Changes in Social Structure

The invasion of Western Sahara by the Moroccan regime started in November 1975, and by February 1976 the Moroccan army had forced the Polisario to retreat to Tindouf, in the south-western corner of Algeria. Under the impact of the bombing and napalm attacks, two-thirds of the population fled to the interior, then took refuge In Tindouf. The majority of the Sahrawis had voted with their feet, in support of an independent Sahrawi state.

Many Sahrawis, some 167,000, are still living around Tindouf, in four refugee camps. Estimates of the total number of Sahrawi people vary from 250,000 to 500,000. The reason for the uncertainty is that the situation inside the territory (occupied by Morocco) is not well known.

The war and the occupation have radically changed the circumstances of the Sahrawis. In the past they were a predominantly nomadic people. Their economic activities included some handicrafts, and shallow-water fishing. In the last years of Spanish occupation, more and more people were forcibly settled and had to work in the phosphate mines or in the local administration.

Since the Moroccan occupation, many, If not most, Sahrawis were expel­led from their jobs. As a result, many moved to petty trading, while others returned to agriculture. There is little information available beyond these bare facts.

The situation in the camps is different: the emphasis there is on self-­reliance. Small-scale agriculture has been developed as well as handicraft.

The Moroccan invasion also affected the social structure of the Sahrawi people. It used to be a tribal society and, according to some reports, was stratified into a hierarchy resembling a caste system. Some tribes had artisan status, others the status of fishermen, yet others of serfs. But the majority of tribes had the highest status, that of warriors and free herdsmen. This hierarchy had changed somewhat by 1975, at least at a formal level, as can be seen from the fact that in 1975 the Polisario promulgated an agreement, which was signed by all the tribes, declaring that tribal divisions were dissolved, and that from now on the Sahrawis would fight as one people.

It is worth pointing out that in interviews old Sahrawis claimed that tribal stratification had not been very sharp. In their lifetime, Spanish and French colonialism had put an emphasis on tribal stratification, in order to promote division. Today, in the camps, there is more of a fusion between the tribes. Many young people do not know to which tribe they are supposed to belong. Moreover, tribal origin is not viewed as important in regard to the allocation of tasks or for marriage purposes, or any significant aspect of their lives.

The war against the Moroccan invasion has had an obvious impact on the social condition of Sahrawi women. As 80% of the men are away most of the time, fighting against the Moroccan army, women run the committees in the camps, directing all social and economic aspects of life. It can be said that women run the civil society. It is equally important to point out that the military structure, waging a guerrilla war against the Moroccan army, is run by men.

Hassan Looking for a Way Out

In the early days of the occupation, after 1975, the Polisario inflicted severe casualties on the Moroccan army. It even took and occupied towns and roadways. Then the Moroccan army changed its tactics. It built enormous defensive walls around what it considered as the eco­nomically important parts of the Western Sahara. The walls stretch along some 1,000 miles. They encompass about 10% of the Western Sahara. In other words, the Moroccan control only 10% of the territory they have been trying to conquer since 1975. The existence of the walls (they are massive banks of sand) had an impact on the ability of the Polisario guerrillas to inflict massive casualties and move at will within the whole of the Western Sahara. But the walls did not deter the Polisario fighters. Their spirit and ability to fight is intact, as shown by the latest reports (25 August and 19 September 1988) published in the British daily The Guardian. In September 1988, a whole Moroccan battalion was put out of action. There is also resistance from the interior, but the repression is severe.

The cost to Morocco is heavy. The regime has accumulated an £18 billion debt, despite military aid from the US, France, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and Spain. The troops are disaffected, morale is low. Still, there are some gains for the Moroccan regime: the risk of a coup is smaller, as the troops are away from the centres of power. As for the opposition parties in Morocco, left and right, all of them have supported the invasion of the Western Sahara, except the Communist Party (ML). As a result, these parties have lost credibility as an alternative to the current govern­ment and to King Hassan.

King Hassan is looking for a way out, according to a report in The Guardian (25 August 1988). The reasons are both internal and external. The Moroccan people are showing a growing disenchantment with the regime. The war is exacerbating the economic crisis. By 1982, the spend­ing on defence (mainly on the war) constituted 45% of the budget. Morocco’s external debt had grown to a staggering £5 billions by 1983. The repayments on the debt absorbed 40% of the country’s income. Meanwhile, the Polisario kept up the military pressure. More importantly, Morocco’s backers are pressing Hassan to find a way out. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States especially favour an end to the conflict. They have been the main financial supporters of Hassan, but now their own financial situation has worsened and they consider their contributions as an unnecessary burden. One of the main reasons for their support for Morocco had been to put pressure on the relatively radical Algerian state. But in their view Algeria no longer represents a threat. Therefore an end to the war is now a desirable option financially and politically. The USA too is taking the same view of the Algerian regime and there­fore is not opposed to ending the conflict. As for France, it is owed £200 million by Morocco and the sooner the conflict ends the better its chances of being repaid. Against this background, it is not surprising that efforts were made to bring the two sides to some kind of peace talks. The latest reports on direct talks are the outcome of the November 1987 fact-finding mission jointly organized by the UN and the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and presented to both sides.

Both sides had reservations towards the report. Initially Hassan proposed an autonomy deal, which was unacceptable to the Polisario. The latter wanted a referendum that would offer a choice between total independence and integration. Now it seems that Hassan might agree to a referendum. The problem is, then, who will be entitled to vote? The Polisario rightly accuses the Moroccans of planting settlers and calling many of them Sahrawis. The Moroccans, in turn, say that the Polisario accepted Touareg people as Sahrawis in order to bolster their numbers. It seems, then, that the issue of the referendum is surrounded with problems. Nevertheless, in the medium term there are hopes of a resolution to the conflict. In this regard, the October 1988 events in Algeria ‒ the popular demonstrations and the harsh repressions exercised by the regime ‒ may have effects detrimental to the Polisario’s cause. The Algerian government has always been its only unconditional backer. If the composition of the present leadership changes to a more “liberal” one, more reactionary and pro-American, it might put pressure on the Polisario to settle for a form of autonomy within Morocco rather than independence.

Political and Social Colour of Polisario

But Polisario is committed to the demand for an independent state; so either the Polisario will be totally defeated or it will go on fighting for the creation of an independent Sahrawi republic.

The Polisario does not regard itself as a movement with a socialist or communist ideology, but as a national liberation movement pure and simple. The Polisario has stated that it does not desire to establish a one-party state but would rather see a multy-party system, if people wishes it so. Of course many national liberation movements have made similar statements.

The ideology of the Polisario, like that of many other liberation move­ments, is nationalism. To what extent may we expect the future Sahrawi republic to be progressive rather than repressive and retrograde? An answer to this can perhaps be glimpsed from some of the activities in the camps, and the way they affect social relations. The camps are in a way a miniature welfare state. Efforts are made to enlist every adult as member of one committee or another: education, justice, local production.

As 80% of the men are away fighting, virtually the entire social adminis­tration, the social structure of the camps is in the hands of the women. This is bound to have an effect on the status of women in the future Independent Sahrawi republic. True, in most ex-colonies women’s hope for equality were not fulfilled ‒ Algeria and Tunisia are examples of this. However, the participation and contribution of women in the Sahrawi struggle for independence is far greater than in the countries named above. Moreover, in the traditional Sahrawi nomad society women enjoyed a relatively larger measure of equality with men. The condition of women deteriorated quite recently since they had settled, during the period of Spanish colonization. Whatever the real condition of women in the old nomadic society, the decisive point is that the perceived legacy of that society has greatly influenced the camp culture in regard to the condition of women. It is now a blend of traditional equality and forward­looking liberation ideology.

In many if not most countries where Islam is the dominant religion, the religious establishment has played a reactionary role in regard to women’s condition in the present and also in the recent past since independence, as can be seen from the situation in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. In the latter, the Shari’a (Islamic religious law) has even been reinstated, which makes women officially second-class citizens.

The tradition and situation in Western Sahara are quite different. The religious dignitaries are educators; their main task is to teach the Quran. They have no political control. There were no mosques in Western Sahara until the Saudis helped build some. As a result, there are no religious institutions where women are separated from men. Unlike most countries where Islam is dominant, women do not wear the veil. More­over, it could be said that in Sahrawi society religion is an individual affair, a private matter between the believer and his or her god. That is not to say that a religious establishment could not be created by the state after independence, as part of the reinforcement of a Sahrawi/Arab cultural identity.

At the moment this does not seem to be the direction chosen by the leadership of the Polisario. School-age children get basic Quranic education, but otherwise the educational system is thoroughly secular and very streamlined. One very large school complex had been built by the late 1970s, which encompassed all the children of school age. It felt very much like regimentation to people who came to visit the place. The Arabic language was very forcefully promoted. The Polisario had been shocked by the outcome of the educational choices made by the Algerian establishment. After independence, French had remained and still occupies a preponderant place in the universities in today’s Algeria. It tends to emphasize the distance between high and low culture in Algeria, class difference and gap in communication between the “educated classes” and the “others”.

The Polisario has chosen another road. It has emphasized the teaching of Arabic, rather than Spanish (the colonial language dominant in higher education in the past, as French was in Algeria prior to independence).

Furthermore, the Polisario has learned from the Cuban and Nicaraguan experience on literacy. School children return to the camps for a period of three months each year, and engage in literacy campaigns among adults. When they return to the school compound, their grasp of their national language, the Hassani Arabic dialect, has been reinforced through their contact with adults who use it as a daily language. Moreover during the same period traditional skills are being passed on, like desert navi­gation, herbal medicine, preparation of desert food. These skills remain important in Sahrawi society today. For example: during a sandstorm an older man taught a young soldier how to discover in which dry river­bed his unit was situated. He picked up a handful of sand and let it filter through his fingers, then told the soldier where they were. It appears that the sand in each place has a slightly different texture, and through experience one can distinguish between them just by using one’s tactile sense.

Such sharing of experience and skills, it is hoped, may help the nascent state during the transition period between old and new. Most new nation-­states that emerged from European colonial domination had rather harsh internal conflicts to deal with. This strategy of ongoing communication between generations may well insure a smoother transition, by reducing the gap between generations as each is then more able to appreciate in very practical terms what the other has to offer.

External Pressures

The development and direction of the struggle for independence of the Sahrawi people is not decided by their inner momentum and dynamic alone. The Sahrawis are a small nation; therefore the general global socio-­political context in which they move weighs heavily on their destiny. The USA is backing the Moroccan regime, as it is their staunchest regional ally. For the last ten years the USA has poured financial aid and military hardware into Morocco, to supply a Moroccan army always on the defensive. The military supplies have proved effective in allowing the Moroccan army to maintain control of the coast and the main population centres in the Western Sahara.

The USSR and its satellites toyed with the Sahrawis, but essentially they remained at a distance: the USSR did not want to upset Morocco, because the Russians consider Morocco as a fairly important power broker within what they see as the non-allied movement. More impor­tantly, the USSR wants to maintain access to the very rich fishing grounds off the Moroccan coast and the coast of Western Sahara, which is in the hands of the Moroccans. To this day the Sahrawis are buffeted by the larger world powers. The Sahrawis have no purchasing power to speak of, they have virtually no attraction as a valuable trading part­ner, at least in the foreseeable future. As a consequence, France and Spain followed their own narrow material interests and chose to help Morocco against the Sahrawis.

In contrast, the OAU has accepted the Polisario as the representative of the Sahrawi nation. As for the Arab states, most of them regard the Sahrawi national liberation struggle as an embarrassment, to say the least. They have accepted the boundaries created by the old imperialist powers, and regard these borders as sacrosanct. The general view is that other­wise a Pandora’s box would burst open. Moreover, the Arab states do not want to admit the existence of such a conflict in the Arab world. To recognize that one Arab state can openly colonize another Arab country is anathema to the majority of them ‒ for different reasons obviously ‒ ­be they the ones with a “radical” image such as Syria, or the reactionary ones like Saudi Arabia.

The major exception is Algeria, which has constantly and thoroughly supported the national liberation struggle of the Sahrawis. Certainly the aggressive and antagonistic behaviour of King Hassan towards Algeria has played a part, especially his territorial claim on some of Algeria’s area; but the memories of their own struggle was still very much alive, besides the fact that the Sahrawis had helped them during their armed struggle against French colonialism.

The reaction of the Moroccan polity to the war against the Polisario has had an influence on the length of the conflict. Virtually all the political parties supported Hassan’s decision to invade Western Sahara. The Istiqlal, the main nationalist party, was Hassan’s main supporter in the matter; it even tried to outbid the regime in nationalist fervour. On the left flank, the Communist Party also supported the king’s action. It seems that its calculation was that in this way it had a better chance to get legalized. Only one small party (CPML) opposed the invasion of the Western Sahara, and it paid dearly for its principled stand.

In Morocco, the struggle for independence of the Sahrawi people has never become a contentious issue between the Moroccan government and its internal opposition. Nevertheless, the resolution of the conflict is now a shade nearer than it was some years ago. This is due to change in the world context, but primarily to regional and local developments. The Arab backers of Morocco, especially Saudi Arabia, are now exerting pres­sures to end the conflict. Moreover the countries of the Maghreb are moving towards a closer economic cooperation with the aim of setting up a kind of common market. This has contributed to a lowering of the

tensions between the Maghreb countries and to closer political cooperation between them. The existing conflict between the Moroccan regime and the Sahrawi people is not conducive to a closer cooperation between the Maghreb countries, especially Algeria and Morocco; and it seems that it has become an important issue for the latter. Obviously, Morocco must make some gesture towards a settlement, and will probably work harder on less violent ways to achieve its aim: to incorporate the Western Sahara in the Moroccan kingdom. This explains the latest reports of contacts between Morocco and the Polisario (August 1988).

The next report in the international press mentioned a Polisario operation against a battalion of the Moroccan army. The battalion suffered heavy casualties, and even its colonel was captured. This happened in Sep­tember, a month after the report of contacts between Hassan and the Polisario. Obviously the latter wanted to convey the message that it was not parleying from a position of weakness. The Polisario will not accept less than total independence for the Sahrawi. Their plan for the future is to set up an independent Sahrawi republic. This aim seems closer now, but it takes only a small change in the needs and policies of the major powers to crush a small people such as the Sahrawis. This danger, albeit remote at this moment, keeps the Sahrawis awake at night. The October 1988 upheaval in Algeria has weakened, at least for some time, the sec­tion of the Algerian establishment most favourable to the Sahrawi cause and most antagonistic to Morocco. This might force the Polisario to accept less than outright independence.

Scenario for the Future

The struggle for independence is foremost in the mind of the Polisario. This struggle in its many aspects will influence the shape of the future Sahrawi state. The declared intention of the Polisario is the setting up of an independent, secular, republic, with a multi-party system, where religion is a private matter, and where the status of women will be equal to that of men. The reality may turn out to be closer to the Algerian model, or that in the People’s republic of South Yemen (in the “better case” scenario).

The dynamic of the current processes and institutions of the emerging state structures may prove stronger than the projected ideals, especially when the latter will be confronted with the economic base (not to speak of deeply-rooted cultural traditions) on which the future republic will depend: the extraction of raw materials, especially phosphates. If the development of the oil-states is any indication, such situations tend to reinforce or create a powerful state bureaucracy, whose nucleus was formed by the very people who headed the struggle for independence.

Certainly, the economy of the Sahrawi state will include fishing, agri­culture and herding, but its mainstay will be mining, especially phosphates. A likely consequence will be the decline in the traditional way of life (particularly herding), and so the independent economic base of women will shrink. This will create tension between the raised expectation of women, due to their very active participation in decision-making in the social life of the camps now, and their probable reduced economic lever­age in an increasingly settled population in the future Sahrawi republic. Added to this will be the “unknown quantity” constituted by the “warrior class”, the majority of men now engaged in armed combat against the Moroccan army, when these men will return home, to family life and work.

A certain number will work in the phosphate mines, which are very rich, by any standard. These mines are highly mechanized, so they can only provide employment for a relatively small number of workers. It is quite likely that this will create a small well-paid layer of people (almost exclusively men), a sort of workers’ aristocracy. Before 1975 there existed already a good number of phosphate workers, but they have been in the camps ever since, or in fighting units. Certainly a trade union of mine­workers has been kept alive, but it is an empty shell, maintained by a few trade-union officials. By their own admission, it is to keep alive the tradition and the spirit of the mineworkers, so that one day, after libera­tion, miners might be able to pick up where they left off. At present this trade-union centre has no contact with the mines in Abu-Craa, within the occupied territory of the Western Sahara. The same can be said in regard to the relation between the trade-union centre and other trades and occupations. Therefore the level of class consciousness of the Sahrawi working class is unlikely to provide a progressive, let alone revolutionary, base for the future republic.

Whatever the condition of the working class, especially the miners, after independence, It will for quite a long time remain a small section of the population, and even if it could give a very good qualitative base to the new regime, it would be a narrow social base. The youth, the younger generation, might provide a more solid, wider base for the future regime to build upon. It seems that the current Sahrawi leadership is in some way aware of that. Since 1978 at least, a large-scale educational structure has been built, and appears to have been very successful. The young are taught to be proud of their Sahrawi people, and also to be aware they belong to the Arab nation. Under the condition in which they live, this

is quite right and proper. At the same time, quite naturally, such a nation­alist ideology is bound to become the dominant creed. And nationalism, even progressive nationalism is not an antidote to social exploitation and social differentiation.

So, despite the ideals of the present Sahrawi leadership, it is quite probable that after liberation the structure of the society will be made up of a sizeable number of herdsmen and small traders, a marginal peasantry, fishermen, a small but well-paid working class, and a powerful and politically dominant state- bureaucratic class.

In a society which has had to fight for a long time for its liberation, the leadership and apparatus thus created accumulate goodwill and experience. And since classes and social strata will be in constant move­ment (herdsmen) or in isolated spots (oases), or groupings (miners), the influence of a centralized, structured, state administration will be very large, if not decisive. One can foresee a differentiation, if not dissociation, between civil society and state structure.

Whatever the intentions of the Polisario, it will be constrained by the development of the social base of its society and the channels in which it has developed. Independence will be the first step towards a freer society. But equality for all ‒ women, workers, youth ‒ will still have to be fought for.