Sometimes it is not necessary to write great chronologies and go back decades to provide some context and an understanding of imperialist movements, it is enough to obtain the perspective of a few weeks and to be aware of the regional map.
The Algerian political crisis and the Sahara
In 2018 the negotiations on the future of Western Sahara under the auspices of the UN are finally over. Morocco sees the revolt of the Algerian petty bourgeoisie with increasing apprehension, so much so that it fears contagion – of which has already suffered some symptoms– the crisis will end with a military assertion of Algerian interests which were being eroded by all the powers involved in Libya and, by the Moroccan government itself, in the Western Sahara. Aware of the danger, the Makhzen closes 2019 inviting the new Algerian president to restart the dialogue. As in previous appeals, Algeria does not take the offer seriously in view of the Moroccan aggressiveness in the few international forums in which they still coincide.
August of 2020. Egypt, which has become the new decisive force in Libya, is trying to bring about an agreement in Rabat and Algiers to jointly evict the Muslim Brotherhood from the Tripoli government. The common enemy seems to perform the miracle of a certain appeasement, at least, between the two Maghrebi powers. But in the meantime, the economic crisis and the French-EU Sahelian war increase the social contradictions in the Moroccan-occupied Sahara. The Makhzen decides to open the migratory tap to relax these tensions and to win at the same time a new bargaining chip with the EU. The migration flow towards the Canary Islands turns into a humanitarian and political problem that the Spanish government is handling ever worse. The conditions in the Canary Islands worsen on a daily basis.
November in the Sahara
November 9th. The Sánchez government presents its foreign policy guidelines. It insinuates once again a turn that had been taking shape since Zapatero’s days. Spain opens the door to recognizing Morocco’s dominance over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco’s role as a guardian against migratory flows. This is indirectly conditioned on Algeria entering the agreement, but on the other hand, it proposes to include Algiers among the beneficiaries of the EU policy to contain migration.
November 11th. Israeli intelligence sources claim that the United States has offered Morocco recognition of its dominance over the Sahara in exchange for recognizing Israel and signing a peace agreement.
November 12th. The road to Guerguerate, the exit of Moroccan exports to Mauritania and the Sahel, is cut off by a small group of members of the Polisario. The responsibility shown by the Moroccan army is greeted by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs with an explicit support for the annexation of the Sahara as a Moroccan autonomous region.
November 13th. Encouraged by what it understands a European support, Morocco acknowledges having entered the demilitarized zone to break the blockade of its exit of merchandise to Mauritania. The Polisario accuses Morocco of breaking the cease-fire and declares that the war has begun.
Algeria requests from the UN the scrupulous fulfillment of its mission. This is what the Spanish press hastily misinterpreted. Following the Spanish government, it believes that the Algerian military does not want to risk a new war on its borders. So they prematurely declare the Polisario’s movement to reopen the conflict and put a stop to the growing pro-Moroccan diplomatic consensus a failure. Most importantly, they are wrong: the Polisario would never make a statement of such weight without the support of its patrons in Algiers.
In fact, the Algerian military have lived helplessly the development of the war in the whole region, paralyzed as they were by the internal revolt in Algeria. But now, reassured in power, and with the opposition movement weakened and repressed, they are increasingly asserting themselves regionally. Starting with Mali, the heart of the Sahel war, followed by Libya and with one eye always set on Morocco.
In fact, Egypt’s sudden blow on the table this summer which changed Libyan balances, led the Algerian regime to accelerate something unthinkable for years: a true constitutional change to allow the army to operate abroad.
November 14th. The Egyptian government, which has cautiously monitored the constitutional change in Algiers, is much more prudent than the Europeans and is attempting to open an avenue of negotiation between the Algerian military and the Makhzen. It is true that the primary goal of the Algerian army’s constitutional change is to intervene in all regional international missions that directly or indirectly affect national borders, whether under UN, Arab League or African Union flags…. or whatever is necessary at any given time. But Egypt understands that the overall message is not only that Algeria wants to participate in any international force occupying Libya or the Sahel, but also that it opens the door to legal intervention in Western Sahara, at the behest of the Polisario.
November 15. The strategy of Algiers is clear: to keep the conflict open at low cost in order to force a realignment of the European and US positions towards a negotiation involving Algeria in the future of the Sahara. worry permeates the Egyptian press, but no one in Europe wants to think of the Algerian army leaving its borders to liberate Laayoune, which is the underlying threat. The Spanish press emphasizes that these are only of skirmishes with no cost in lives. The French press emphasizes that the free movement of goods between Morocco and Mauritania has been re-established, eager to ignore the phantom war of the Polisario.
November 16. But in Morocco, things are much clearer… at least once you get out of the unctuous world of official statements. Among the military, academics, and political analysts, the diagnosis is brutally clear: If there is a war, it will be against Algeria.
November 17. The King of Morocco publishes a letter addressed to the UN Secretary-General pledging to keep the cease-fire while reaffirming his position of factual strength. Meanwhile, the Polisario keeps on announcing attacks against the wall without real military relevance. And the press in Algiers points to the bloc of Gulf countries, articulated by Emirates and Saudi Arabia, allied with Egypt in Libya, as the main instigator of the alleged Moroccan aggression in the Sahara.
Does the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic even exist? Does the Polisario exist as an independent force?
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguía, Hamra and Río de Oro, the Polisario, was born sponsored by Algiers at a time when the Algerian regime saw in the crisis of Spanish Francoism an opportunity to expand as a dominant power in the Maghreb. It played at the same time the card of the armed independence of the Canary Islands and, later, also more cautiously, a certain support to ETA.
The Polisario was from its birth militarily organized and internationally recognized by Algeria. The Saharawi organization encouraged the departure of the Spanish army, which was used by Morocco to occupy the until then colony, and waged a war with Mauritania on behalf of Algiers, which it won, only to lose the territory gained to Morocco. The fifteen years of low-intensity war that followed, ending with the building of walls and the UN truce of 1994, which is now breaking down, served to keep Morocco under certain and vigilant pressure from Algeria.
Inevitably it also transformed the Polisario leadership. Militant nationalists with aspirations to state bourgeoisie, the long wait for a territory to govern left their entire para-state apparatus in limbo. Their lifetime presidents and their bureaucratic-military elite consolidated a life halfway between the African luxury of the Mauritanian and Algerian upper class neighborhoods and their ghostly diplomatic headquarters spread throughout Europe, Africa and Latin America. Dependence on Algerian state funds, originally an imperialist patronage, became definitively a way of life. Income was complemented by that derived from various illegal traffics through the desert and by a powerful NGO arm. This non-profit network maintained a semblance of legitimacy and alleviated a little the situation of the camps in the Algerian desert in which it still keeps its ruled people locked up in the open; but -every exploiting class always demands its pound of flesh- it also served to pay scholarships to its own children in the best international universities and to generate managerial and administrative positions for them in the same management of funds and activities.
Meanwhile, as the international status quo consolidated, Algeria was less inclined to stir up internal problems in Morocco, so the domestic role of the Polisario became less and less relevant to Algiers’ interests. Meanwhile, the Moroccan Makhzen was consolidating alliances with the Saharawi elites in Laayoune and the cities of Western Sahara, making them beneficiaries of the industrialization and tax benefits it was promoting.
As a result, the Polisario became irrelevant in the real Sahara, increasingly assimilated as a southern region of Morocco. Today the establishment of the Polisario in Western Sahara is practically non-existent, even in Saharan nationalist circles in the capital. Its mobilization capacity has not gone beyond a hundred people these days. To make matters worse, it has struggled for years to maintain discipline in the camps. The independent drug-smuggling mafias and the Salafist armed groups -linked either to Al Qaeda or to the Islamic State- have recruited at large in Tinduf during the last decade, questioning the capacity of the Polisario to maintain even a semblance of internal order among the new generation in its bases.
If one thing is clear from all this evolution, it is that the Polisario is neither running a state nor a political force autonomous from Algerian military power. It was never really independent, but at this point, after decades of economic dependence on Algerian aid, it is not independent at all.
Is there a real danger of war?
It is possible that the belligerence of the Algerian press is simply the local expression of what we see in half the world: the media talking about any subject, preferably topics that strike a nationalist chord, in order to minimize the pandemic peak being suffered throughout the country, affecting especially the working class, which is increasingly mobilized against the government’s policy of new normality, a policy as criminal as those we suffer every day in other countries.
But it is also true that for the Algerian state the Saharan crisis goes far beyond the eternal give and take with French and Spanish capitals. The backdoor closure of the Saharan issue was being shaped for years. But, in the middle of the recession, the interest of the United States in obtaining Moroccan recognition of Israel and Spain’s interest in stopping the Sahelian and Saharan migratory flow, threatened with a rapid outcome contrary to Algerian imperialist interests.
As Egypt and Mauritania’s concern corroborates, the situation threatens to deteriorate into a new Sahara war. This time it would not be a war by proxy. The Polisario does not even have the capacity for a guerrilla war like it did in the seventies. It would be a frontal combat, an open imperialist war between Morocco and Algeria.