Polisario Front

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Western Sahara

This article is part of the series:
Politics of Western Sahara,
Subseries of the Politics series

The legal status of territory and
question of sovereignty is unresolved.
The flag above is the flag of the:

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
President: Mohamed Abdelaziz
Prime Minister: Abdelkader Taleb Oumar
Political parties in Western Sahara
Polisario Front
Elections in Western Sahara
Foreign relations of Western Sahara

See also: Politics of Morocco


Politics Portal

The Polisario, Polisario Front, or Frente Polisario, from the Spanish abbreviation of Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y o de Oro ("Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro") is a Sahrawi movement working for the independence of Western Sahara.



The beginnings

Polisario is a successor of the Harakat Tahrir in the late 1960s, lead by Bassiri, which hoped to gain independence for the Spanish Sahara through peaceful protest. In 1970, Spanish troops under Franco's regime destroyed the movement following the Zemla Intifada, and killed most of the leadership including Bassiri. This pushed Sahrawi nationalists into supporting a violent struggle.

In 1971 a group of young Sahrawi expatriates in the universities of Morocco began organizing what came to be known as The Embryonic Movement for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro. After attempting in vain to gain backing from several Arab goverments, the movement eventually relocated to Spanish-controlled Western Sahara to start an armed rebellion. The Polisario was constituted on May 10, 1973 with the express intention of militarily forcing an end to Spanish colonization. Its first general secretary was El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed. On May 20 he led the Khanga raid, Polisario's first armed action, in which a Spanish post was overrun and rifles seized. Polisario then gradually gained control over large swaths of desert countryside, and its power grew from early 1975 when forcibly recruited Sahrawi auxiliaries of the Tropas Nomadas began deserting to the Polisario, bringing weapons and training with them. At this point, Polisario's manpower included perhaps 800 men and women, but they were backed by a vastly larger network of supporters. A UN visiting mission headed by Simeon Aké that was conducted in June 1975 concluded that Sahrawi support for independence (as opposed to Spanish rule or integration with a neighbouring country) amounted to an "overwhelming consensus" and that the Polisario Front was by far the most powerful political force in the country.

The invasion

While Spain started negotiating a handover of power in the summer of 1975, in the end the Franco regime decided to throw in its lot with Western Sahara's neighbours instead. After Moroccan pressures through the Green March of November 6, Spain entered negotiations that led to the signing of the Madrid Accords between it, Morocco and Mauritania. Thus, immediately upon Spain's withdrawal in 1975 Moroccan and Mauritanian) troops invaded and occupied the Western Sahara, and expelled most of its native population. This brought widespread international condemnation, since the World Court at The Hague had found in favor of Western Sahara's self-determination just weeks before.

The Polisario kept up resistance, and rebased in Tindouf in the western regions Algeria. For the next two years the movement grew tremendously, as Sahrawi refugees flocked to the camps and Algeria supplied arms and funding. Within months, its army had expanded to several thousand armed fighters, camels been replaced by modern jeeps and 19th century muskets by assault rifles. The reorganized army was able to inflict severe damage through guerilla-style hit-and-run attacks against occupation forces in Western Sahara and in the occupying countries, but took care not to strike at civilian targets.

Polisario strikes back

The weak Mauritanian regime of Ould Daddah, whose army numbered only around 5,000 men, was unable to fend off the guerilla incursions. After repeated strikes at the country's principal source of income, the iron mines of Zouerate, it collapsed into internal disorder. Not even overt French Air Force backing proved enough to save it, and the regime fell in 1978 to a coup led by war-weary military officers, who immediately agreed to a cease fire with the Polisario. A peace treaty was signed August 5, 1979, in which the new Nouakchott government recognized Sahrawi rights to Western Sahara and relinquished its own claims. Mauritania withdrew, but the area it had occupied was now additionally taken by Morocco, and the war went on.

From the mid-1980s Morocco largely managed to keep Polisario troops off by building a huge berm or sand wall (the Moroccan Wall), staffed by an army roughly the same size as the entire Sahrawi population. This stalemated the war, with no side able to achieve decisive gains, but artillery strikes and sniping attacks by the guerillas continued, and Morocco was economically and politically strained by the war. Still today, Polisario controls the part of the Western Sahara on the east of the Moroccan Wall, comprising about a third of the territory, but this area is economically useless, heavily mined, and almost uninhabited.

Cease fire and the referendum process

A cease-fire between Polisario and Morocco, monitored by MINURSO (UN) is effective since September 6, 1991, on the promise of a referendum on independence the following year. But the referendum however stalled over disagreements on voter rights, and numerous attempts at restarting the process (most significantly the launching of the 2003 Baker plan) seem to have failed. The Polisario has repeatedly threatened to resume hostilites if a referendum cannot not held, and claims that the current situation of "neither peace, nor war" is unsustainable. Pressures on the leadership from the refugee population to resume fighting are apparent, but to date the 14-year old cease fire has been respected.

In 2004, a breakout organization, the Front Polisario Khat al-Shahid announced its existance, in the first break with the principle of "national unity" (i.e. working in one single organization to prevent factionalism). It remains of minimal importance to the conflict, however, and Polisario has refused dialogue with it.

The Sahrawi republic

On February 27, 1976, the day after Spain formally ceded its colony, Polisario proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). It has a government in exile, a parliament and a judiciary. Its constitution states that Western Sahara will be founded as a multi-party democracy with a "market economy and free enterprise". Abdelaziz is president. The SADR is a member of the African Union, but not of the United Nations. It has been acknowledged as a state by nearly 80 states (although about 35 has since withdrawn recognition) nearly all of them African or Latin American. Some countries have not recognised the SADR, but do recognise Polisario as representative of the Saharawi people. Still other countries do not recognise Polisario at all, but also do not recognise Morocco's unilateral annexation of the area. No state has formally recognized Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara. The SADR is based with the Polisario in the vast Sahrawi refugee camps south of Tindouf, but has as its formal temporary capital (until retrieving El-Aaiun) the Polisario-controlled village of Bir Lehlou in north-eastern Western Sahara.

Political ideology

The Polisario is first and foremost a nationalist organization, with the independence of Western Sahara as its main goal, and it believes ideological disputes should be left for a democratic Western Sahara to deal with. It views itself as a "front" encompassing all political trends in Sahrawi society, and not as a party. As a consequence, there is no party programme. The Sahrawi republic's constitution however gives a hint of the movements ideological context: in the early 1970s Polisario adopted a vaguely socialist rhetoric, but this was abandoned relatively quickly. In the late 1970s, all references to socialism in the republic's constitution were removed, and by 1991, the Polisario was explicitly free-market.

After independence, the Polisario will either function as a party within the context of a multi-party system, or be completely disbanded. This will be decided by a Polisario congress.

Polisario has consistently opposed terrorism, condemning suicide bombings and even sending condoleances to Morocco after the terrorist strikes in Casablanca in 2003.


The Polisario's organizational structure should not be confused with that of the Sahrawi republic, although the two frequently overlap. The organizational order described below applies today, and was roughly finalized in the 1991 internal reforms of the movement.

The Polisario is led by a general secretary. The first general secretary was El-Ouali, followed by Mahfoud Ali Beiba as interrim secretary upon his death. In 1976, Mohamed Abdelaziz was elected and has held the post ever since. The general secretary is elected by the General Popular Congress (GPC), regularly convened every four years. The GPC is in turn composed of delegates from the Popular Congresses of the refugee camps in Tindouf, which are held biannually in each camp, and of delegates from the womens' organization (UNMS), youth organization (UJSARIO), workers' organization (UGTSARIO) and military delegates from the SPLA (see below).

Between congresses, the supreme decision-making body is the National Secretariat, headed by the general secretary. The NS is elected by the GPC. It is subdivided into committees handling defense, diplomatic affairs, etc. The 2003 NS, elected at the 11th GPC in Tifariti, Western Sahara, has 41 members. 12 of these are secret delegates from the Moroccan-controlled areas of Western Sahara. This is shift in policy, as the Polisario traditionally confined political appointments to Sahrawis within the diaspora, for fear of infiltration. It is probably intended to strengthen the movement's underground network in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, and link up with the rapidly growing Sahrawi civil rights activism.

Armed forces (SPLA)

The Sahrawi Popular Army of Liberation, SPLA, is the Polisario's army. Its commander-in-chief is the general secretary. The SPLA's armed units are considered to have a manpower of possibly 6-7,000 active soldiers today, but during the war years its strength appears to have been significantly higher: up to 20,000 men. It has a potential manpower of many times that number, however, since both male and female refugees in the Tindouf camps undergo military training. Women formed auxiliary units protecting the camps during war years.

It is equipped mainly with outdated Soviet-manufactured weaponry, donated by the sympathetic Algerian government, but its arsenals display a bewildering variety of materiel, much of it captured from Spanish, Mauritanian or Moroccan forces and made in France, the United States, South Africa or Great Britain. The SPLA has several armored units, composed of old tanks and somewhat more modern armored cars and halftracks. It has used land rovers and other originally civilian vehicles extensively, mounting machine guns and employing them in great numbers, relying on speed and surprise. On 3 November 2005, Polisario signed the Geneva Call, committing itself to a total ban on landmines. Morocco is one of 40 governments that have not signed the 1997 mine ban treaty. Both parties has used mines extensively in the conflict, but some mine-clearing operations have been carried out under Minurso supervision since the cease fire agreement.

The Polisario traditionally employed ghazzi tactics, i.e. motorized surprise raids over great distances, but after the construction of the Moroccan Wall this changed into more conventional tactics, with a focus on artillery and other long-range attacks. In both phases of the war, SPLA units relied on superior knowledge of the terrain, speed and surprise, and on the ability to retain experienced fighters. The SPLA is considered well organized, and its desert warfare tactics were groundbreaking. The United States Army is reported to have studied Polisario tactics in preparation for the 1991 Gulf War.

Foreign relations

Support for the Polisario came mostly from African countries, Morocco's traditional rivals within the Arab world, and from third world non-aligned countries. The main political and military backers were Algeria and, a distant second, Cuba. For some years Libya's support was strong, but this has declined. Valuable contributions also came from the strong Spanish solidarity organizations and from some other third world liberation movements. Ties with the Fretilin liberation movement were exceptionally strong and remain so after East Timor's independence.

The United States firmly backed Morocco against Polisario during the Cold War, but Polisario never received counter-support from the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China; both rival powers preferred ties with Morocco and refused to recognize the SADR. In the nineties, world interest in the conflict seemed to expire as the Sahara question gradually sank from public consciousness with the implementation of the cease-fire. Libya withdrew support in the early 1980's, after forming a brief political union with Morocco, and its support of the Polisario today is verbal and infrequent. Support from Algeria remains strong, but the government seems to have barred Polisario from returning to armed struggle, attempting to curry favor from the US and France and to mend the inflamed ties with Morocco.

In 2004, South Africa announced its formal recognition of the SADR, delayed for 10 years despite unequivocal promises by Nelson Mandela as apartheid fell. Kenya followed in 2005, and relations were upgraded in some other countries. This seems to point to increased African diplomatic activity in support of Polisario and Western Saharan self-determination.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • Toby Shelley, Endgame in the Western Sahara (Zed Books 2004)
  • Tony Hodges, Western Sahara. The Roots of a Desert War (Lawrence & Hill 1983)
  • Jarat Chopra, United Nations Determination of the Western Saharan Self (Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs 1994)
  • Leo Kamil, Fueling the Fire. U.S. policy & the Western Sahara Conflict (Red Sea Press 1987)
  • Anthony G. Pazzanita & Tony Hodges, Historical dictionary of Western Sahara (2nd ed. Scarecrow Press 1994)
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