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Algeria, POLISARIO and the Mauritanian election

July 25, 2009

An interesting aspect of the Mauritanian 2008 coup was the way it immediately sank into the pattern of Moroccan-Algerian rivalry. The first government to welcome the coup was Morocco, which already had strong ties to Gens. Abdelaziz, Ghazouani and the other main putschists, and may well have been encouraging them to act, since relations with President Abdellahi were quietly irritated. The Algerians briefly hesitated, but soon came out against the junta and started furiously rallying African opposition to it. Interestingly enough, the POLISARIO took a different line.

* * *

Now, there is a debate on how much freedom POLISARIO truly enjoys under Algerian tutelage, given that should Algerian support vanish, so would POLISARIO as a cohesive and effective organization (although not necessarily Sahrawi nationalism as such). Some argue that the group is essentially free to do as it pleases, but that for obvious practical reasons it would never challenge Algeria. Others, notably most Moroccan media, claims that it is wholly controlled and even created by Algeria. That last claim is demonstrably false — the states most involved with pre-1975 POLISARIO were Mauritania and Libya, not Algeria — but that doesn’t mean the group couldn’t have fallen under total Algerian control since.
Myself, I think the truth could plausibly be somewhere in between, and this is what I (without claiming to know any details of that very murky relationship) considers most probable. That would mean: POLISARIO is a still Sahrawi-run organization with grassroots Sahrawi support, but its leadership is for practical reasons fully aligned with Algeria, to the extent that it sometimes resembles control (and on top of that it is massively penetrated by Algerian intelligence); but even when able to exercise direct control, Algeria normally gives free reins to what it considers a loyal ally. But certainly, the Algerians have proven able to get what they want from POLISARIO when they really truly want it. [1.]

* * *

In any case, it’s always interesting to note when Algerian and POLISARIO politics diverge. Mauritania was one such case. While Algeria led the African and Arab charge against the junta, POLISARIO took extreme care to remain neutral, although the growing perception that the putschists were in Morocco’s pocket must have unnerved them. After the coup, they maintained a strained silence for a long while, eventually releasing some carefully worded, non-committal statements of brotherhood with the Mauritanian people.

The Mauritanian elections this month meant that Gen. Abdelaziz added civilian legitimacy to his essentially military-based rule, but they didn’t really change power dynamics inside the country, nor were they intended to. Morocco was, again, first to congratulate. But this time around, Algerian state media also refers to Abdelaziz as the elected president, and the Algiers regime was already involved with  rolling back African sanctions.

Clearly, the line has changed, whether that reflects a realization that the general was at this point impossible to remove, that Mauritania could no longer bear the strain of a political vacuum, or that the obstructionist line no longer served Algerian interests. It could also be that new international circumstances (i.e. broad support for the Dakar deal that permitted junta-run elections) made opposition untenable, and Algeria simply hastened to rally to the winning side. More probably, however, someone somehow sweetened the Dakar deal for Algeria, causing it to declare victory and line up behind the new ruler. POLISARIO has happily followed suit, and is issuing cheery messages of support to Gen. Abdelaziz, pointedly ignoring opposition complaints of electoral fraud and instead praising the “atmosphere” of the elections. The Sahrawis in fact seem to display considerably more enthusiasm than their Algerian sponsors.

* * *

There are a number of possible reasons for this. One should realize the depth of Mauritanian-Sahrawi, including POLISARIO, ties, and the complexity of Mauritania’s position towards the Sahrawi cause. The two peoples are the same, except for colonial boundary, and family links tie all Hassani-speaking tribal areas together, regardless of modern citizenships and the rather ahistorical ethnicization campaigns pursued by independent governments.

In fact, sometimes a Mauritanian and a Sahrawi is literally the same thing: dual Mauritanian and SADR citizenship appears to be quite common. A considerable Sahrawi diaspora has emerged in northern Mauritania, consisting of refugees from the war post-1975, as well as migrants from Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, but perhaps mostly of ex-Tindouf dwellers who have found work and/or purchased property outside of the camps, and who now live there on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. Many northern Mauritanian tribes include great numbers of both Sahrawi and Mauritanian (and dual) citizens, and some have extensions way into present-day Western Sahara or the Tindouf region of Algeria. Other tribal groups may be more or less firmly in one national camp, but can still have a long legacy of historical and cultural ties to tribes under the other flag. [2.]

Finally, trade — both legitimate and contraband — involves both peoples, and Mauritanians as well as POLISARIO members (and Moroccans and Algerians and Malians) have been very actively involved in the smuggling routes that pass through northern Mauritania and skirts the Algerian border. After the coup, POLISARIO web sites published material both in favor of the junta and against it, showing its Mauritanian sympathizers were divided on the issue. And indeed, groups who were perceived as favoring the Sahrawi cause in Mauritania were found on both sides on the conflict, although that point was made less apparent by the fact that some of their most stalwart allies (UFP) headed the opposition. [3.]

* * *

The point I want to make with this long catalogue of POLISARIO-Mauritania links is that there are a number of specifically Sahrawi interests in Mauritania, that are not necessarily tied to the independence struggle, and that are not necessarily shared with Algeria, but which are neither necessarily opposed to them. In Tindouf no less than in Mauritania, local populations and leaderships must have been split on the issue, preferring one camp over the other for political, economical, ideological, tribal, familial, or whatever other reason.

This all boils down to a rather simple statement: POLISARIO’s relations to Mauritania are extremely complex and nuanced, not only concerned with the independence issue (though this may well override all others, since it is POLISARIO’s raison d’être), and any clear stand in favor of a Mauritanian faction is likely to be the subject of controversy inside the movement. And that’s where one should look for the explanation of why POLISARIO doesn’t simply toe the Algerian line on Mauritanian affairs. Perhaps the POLISARIO leadership even wanted Gen. Abdelaziz to win all along, for whatever reason, but couldn’t say so while Algeria was trying to topple him? But most probably, the stakes are simply so high for them, that they made every effort to hedge their bets and wait to see who would emerge the winner. In that case, Algeria’s more clear-cut stand must have been the cause of much grinding of Sahrawi teeth, because of the damage it did to POLISARIO’s ability to pursue their interests flexibly.

Finally, intriguingly, one must wonder if POLISARIO isn’t actually quite useful for Algeria in Mauritania? The Sahrawis are as well connected as can possibly be in that complicated country’s deeply tribal and personality-based politics, where the Algerians — like the Moroccans, excepting their own Sahrawi protéges – will forever be strangers and northerners.

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FOOTNOTES

[1.] —  For what it’s worth, I met an Algeria-based POLISARIO official once who mentioned that for example statements on the peace process are written by the Sahrawi leadership independently, then coordinated with the Algerians who may suggest fine-tuning before release. He then looked a bit troubled, as if he regretted letting me in on that last part.

[2.]  –  By way of example, consider Gen. Moulaye ould Boukhreiss, a former Mauritanian chief of staff under the el-Tayaa regime. A member of the large transfrontier Reguibat tribe, he was viewed as a protector of POLISARIO and Tindoufi interests in the Mauritanian north, and was apparently as much involved in the smuggling trade as in regime politics. (The Reguibat, an Arabo-Berber nomadic tribe whose historical grazing lands stretch from the southern tip of Morocco through Western Sahara and the Algerian Tindouf region, deep into Mauritania’s north, are the by-far largest tribe of Western Sahara, and form a large percentage of POLISARIO’s leadership and support.)

[3.]  – Another example of the complexity, and the difficulty to pin down a specific political position with many players, is the Mauritanian politician Ahmed Baba Miské. He’s a former Mauritanian diplomat who defected to the Sahrawi camp during the war, became a major POLISARIO leader in the 70s, only to later rediscover his Mauritanian roots and re-defect, whereafter he has slithered his way as a writer, politician, intellectual, parliamentarian and much else, through successive Mauritanian regimes. This time around, he first supported President Abdellahi, then Gen. Abdelaziz, and as usual seems to have landed on his feet.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Laroussi permalink
    August 9, 2009 19:28

    van Kaas: Never ever ever trust information in Moroccan mainstream media, especially if the info comes from MAP and deals with “confessions” obtained by Moroccan security forces.

    People will most likely confess to anything having passed some time in the hands of these well known torturers…

  2. August 11, 2009 08:47

    Laroussi, thank you. Well. It seems like nobody wants to get involved with Moroccan confessions…

  3. ibnkafka permalink*
    August 15, 2009 14:57

    Laroussi: the same should apply to SPS or APS info, and all info should always be vetted against the ideological mindframe of those who diffuse it as well as their possible interest in diffusing it.

    alle: I am a bit confused by this part “POLISARIO is a still Sahrawi-run organization with grassroots Sahrawi support, but its leadership is for practical reasons fully aligned with Algeria, to the extent that it sometimes resembles control (and on top of that it is massively penetrated by Algerian intelligence); but even when able to exercise direct control, Algeria normally gives free reins to what it considers a loyal ally. But certainly, the Algerians have proven able to get what they want from POLISARIO when they really truly want it”.

    A much shorter way of putting it would be that Algeria controls the Polisario, with no known cases of insubordination on important matters, considering furthermore where the Polisario gets its weaponry, training, financing and diplomatic support from.

    By the way, it could be useful to identify those who hold the belief of total Polisario autonomy vis-à-vis Algeria.

  4. August 16, 2009 09:48

    Ibn KA much shorter way of putting it would be that Algeria controls the Polisario, with no known cases of insubordination on important matters, considering furthermore where the Polisario gets its weaponry, training, financing and diplomatic support from.

    Yes and no. There is a difference in saying that a group is simply a created tool of some nation, and saying that it is semi-independent, but constrained by its environment into full alignment with a greater power. In the latter case, changes in that environment might cause it, or large factions of it, to want to change its behavior independently of the sponsor, whereas if POLISARIO were simply an outgrowth of the DRS, it would remain in place whatever happened.

    One could of course argue that this a wholly academic question, since the result is the same today anyway: POLISARIO does Algeria’s bidding. But I think the wiggle space that may exist for them even on important issues is interesting, and it’s useful to know where interests actually diverge. Hypothetically, if Algeria were to turn 180 degrees and back Moroccan sovereignty in W.S. (unlikely as it seems), could it count on getting the POLISARIO apparatus to follow automatically, or is there enough independent conviction and organization inside the group to resist and split? Mauritania was one case of a major issue for both Sahrawis and Algerians where I think there was clearly a difference in their approaches, and where they acted differently. Another is the Baker Plan, where they apparently held disagreeing views but where Algeria prevailed, to much grumbling in the camps.

    As for guns etc, definitively. I wrote: “should Algerian support vanish, so would POLISARIO as a cohesive and effective organization”.

    By the way, it could be useful to identify those who hold the belief of total Polisario autonomy vis-à-vis Algeria.

    Well, both POLISARIO and Algeria obviously claim this to be the case, and lot of pro-POLISARIO people seem to believe it, or at least not want to talk about the alternatives.

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  1. Algeria, POLISARIO and the Mauritanian election « Maghreb Politics … | algertoday

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