A silent – and at times violent – war is being fought between Morocco and Algeria, that involves wasted money, prisoners held for years, refugees and camps and 1,200 kilometers separating two armies. The Western Sahara has been a thorn in the relations between Algeria and Morocco since the end of Spanish colonialism. It almost became Moroccan territory had it not been for Algeria’s objection that brought about the Polisario Front and called for the creation of the Saharawi republic.
Vast in area, (250,000 square kilometers compared to the 6,000 square kilometers of the Palestinian Authority’s territories.), the disputed Sahara is rich in phosphate and has a lengthy 1,000-kilometer coastline — great for fishermen and, at some point perhaps in the future, for holidaymakers.
Knowing only little about the dispute, however, I, like the majority of Arabs, am inclined to consider it Moroccan territory, not out of reducing the Polisario’s rights or belittling of the Algerian position but because it has become so since the departure of the Spanish in the same way that Hong Kong became Chinese ten years ago even though some people there wanted it to become a republic after British withdrawal. In addition, there are lost regions that were arbitrarily annexed and became parts of sovereign states, such as South Sudan where the language, religion and history are not related to Sudan, and Kurdistan that was annex by the British to Iraq even though the Kurds are neither Arabs nor Iraqis.
This historic controversy and its application on the ground are complicated and dangerous because most of our present wars emerged from border disputes, including Palestine, the mother of all issues. Algerian advocates would respond stating that contemporary history is also full of examples of disputes over territories even after they are annexed and granted independence. The most recent example is that of the Balkan states, which remained subject to Belgrade for half a century and then were divided into states under the UN’s recognition and patronage. Slovakia and the Czech Republic also separated peacefully. After much chaos, East Timor was separated from Indonesia and given sovereignty, a flag, a national anthem and a UN General Assembly seat.
The details of the Sahara do not make it easier for one to understand or resolve the issue. The UN-sponsored referendum, for instance, has collided with the Moroccan claim that Algeria granted forged “Saharawi” identities to Algerians, whilst the Algerians claim that the Moroccan Saharawis are false Saharawis. Accordingly, Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa will not acknowledge who is a Saharawi, so how about Ban Ki-moon, the New York-based South Korean Secretary General of the United Nations who addressed the problem with estimable courage?
As conceived by politicians, the Sahara dispute actually reflects the difference between Rabat and Algiers regardless of the different headlines, and the issue will be resolved only through agreement between the leaderships of the two countries and behind closed doors. The two parties have taken very small steps towards a solution. The Moroccans proposed self-rule under Moroccan sovereignty, and, in response, the Algerians presented a Polisario proposal to create a republic and grant rights to Moroccan Saharawis. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon then stepped in, calling for dialogue between the three parties. I do not think we will see decisive solution because of the ongoing stubbornness of the two neighboring countries although the dispute has brought about complete destruction and many Moroccans have been detained by the “Algerian-Polisario” for years and vice-versa. For one third of a century, 100,000 Moroccan troops have been stationed along a sand wall that separates them from thousands of Polisario members and has stood witness to this uncreative chaos. Is it worth all this?