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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.]

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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.



[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.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 26, 2009 10:24

    Good overview. Algeria does not control Polisario but the country obviously supports the Saharawi cause and probably Algeria gives diplomatic guidance as well. Polisario is in fact, well, a refugee organisation. They have to get education and intelligence from wherever they can. Algeria provides for those and they have very legitimate reasons to do so.
    The Algerian position after the coup in Mauretania was very formal and in line with Europe and the USA: no coups please. But Polisario has a lot of intelligence on Mauretania as is explained above. And Polisario does not need to be as formal in its attitude as the great powers. As a poor liberation organisation they need to be more practical as formal.
    On top of that Mauretania seems to be a battleground: remember the murdered French tourists, the beheaded soldiers, and the killing of the American Christopher Ervin when UN envoy Christopher Ross came to visit the nation.

    By the way, both the Saudi ruler and the Saudi minister of defense are in Morocco at the moment. They are in time for the festivities around M6’s 10th year of rule and for the start of Ross’s negatiotions.

  2. July 26, 2009 16:35

    The Saudi visit is likely to be an internal thing. Prince Sultan, the defense minister, is a major powerbroker in the Saudi monarchy, but now he is (terminally?) ill and resting under care in Morocco. The king is probably there to visit him as much as to visit M6. But I guess that doesn’t prevent them from talking local politics on the side, although spare time is probably more devoted to eg. Israel-Palestine and such.

    As for Mauritania being a battleground, what are you saying? That al-Qaida killed an American to disturb the Sahara peace process? To put it mildly, I think that’s overestimating the importance of Western Sahara to them.

  3. July 27, 2009 09:54

    Just wondering why Moroccan care would be better than Saudi care for the Saudi crown-prince. Anyway it shows the two are very close.

    Are you saying the killings of the French tourists and Mauretanian soldiers and the murder of the American teacher when Ross was about to visit are only a footnote to the Western Sahara issue? I don’t think so for in my suspicion Morocco is a exporter of terror.

  4. July 27, 2009 18:20

    Saudi A: 1. Don’t know, 2. Yes.

    AQIM: I’m saying it’s not even a footnote, and I can hardly even imagine the conspiracy theory that would make you think so, unless it’s just about a general dislike for Morocco. But, well, it’s good to know someone in the loyal readership is rooting for M6 as the secret puppetmaster of bin Ladin — that means we’ve pretty much covered the Maghreb states, and it’s time to head south.

    Democratic Kongo, any takers?

    • July 27, 2009 20:40

      Heading south? Nono, simple plain suspicion leads to the east ofcourse. Saudi Arabia. That’s Bin Laden country.
      And by the way, my suspicion is not because I dislike Morocco, its just counting the times Morocco seems to be involved. Did’nt you notice?

      And surely you must have noticed this so what you make of that?

  5. July 27, 2009 21:52

    Okay… so that’s a bunch of random links that mention al-Qaida and Morocco on the same page. Or, in one case, mentions only the jailing of Chakib el-Khiari, a Riffian human rights activist who, as far as I know, has nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qaida.

    To return to the subject, what makes you think Morocco had anything to do with the Leggett killing, or with the murders of Mauritanian soldiers, or with the attack on French tourists? About the only connection I’m seeing is that Morocco is a neighbouring country, but so is Senegal — or, for that matter, Algeria. And Western Sahara. Hey, maybe POLISARIO did it?

  6. July 28, 2009 09:18

    Ofcourse Polisario could have done it. That is the point. The murder of the French tourists stopped Paris – Dakar, an annual French-Moroccan show of neglect of the Saharawi issue. Mauretanian soldiers were ambushed close to Western Sahara. The American teacher was attacked when negotiator Ross was coming to visit. These are weak clues but they could be considered good enough for a superficial conclusion about who to blame: Saharawis. And just that could be a Moroccan motive. Morocco could be playing a blamegame as the English call it.

    Terror is part of recent Moroccan political history. Hassan II was a notorious terrorist. Carlos Ruiz Miguel provides Spanish arguments for the statement that terrorism is part of Moroccan policy today.

    Chakib exposed and made Morocco break up a drugs trafficking operation with the assistance of Spanish media. In retaliation against Spain two antennas of the Spanish intelligence were closed in Morocco. The case of Chakib makes it clear Morocco consideres the co-operation in the global fight against terrorism as a commodity to deal with the Christian world. Like hasj.

    Any bunch of random links that mention al-Qaida will mention Morocco on the same page if it is about al-Qaida attacks in the west, or maghreb in Arabian, like London, New York, Amsterdam, Madrid.

    I don’t think the Polisario would have done the Mauretanian attacks. They never have, as far as I know, been into terrorism. Not necessarily because they are better people but because it would be counter-productive to their cause. From the very start of the organisation they have been winning hearts and minds. And they know how important it is to stay on the right side in the global fight against terror. Again, this position is so crucial for Polisario it may give a motive to their enemies to undermine it.

    I can imagine other Saharawi groups may have been formed with Islamic funds, but well, my imagination is from time to time fueled, I must admit by what I do not dislike: Moroccan kif.

  7. July 28, 2009 10:59

    Hm, have you considered the possibility that maybe the UN controls al-Qaida? That could also explain the shocking coincidence that a murder happened while a UN mediator visited a neighboring country. Any sightings of Black Helicopters over Mauritania lately?

    my imagination is from time to time fueled, I must admit by what I do not dislike: Moroccan kif.

    See, now that’s what could unite the Maghreb.

  8. July 28, 2009 20:27

    Well, no. I’m sorry I have not considered the possibility that maybe the UN controls al-Qaipa before posting to the blog. Maybe next time. Or maybe I’ll just take a smoke ofcourse. That will blow awe full dreams of Alle in a black helicopter away.

  9. July 30, 2009 18:10

    I suggest that many of the terror events which have been attributed to Al-Qaida have actually been perpetrated by local organisations in the countries concerned, often aided and instigated by agents of the local security services, for example Casablanca, London, Madrid, Bali etc.

    Al-Qaida as a worldwide global organisation controlled by Bin laden or Zahiwiri is for the most part a construct of US propaganda fabricated in order to justify their imperialist ambitions, just as Al-Qaida in the Maghreb is used by both Algeria and Morocco, both US client states, to justify their own continued state terror against their own people.

    Take for example, the incredible case of the Belliraj Network, a Moroccan State fantasy whereby, 35 individuals allegedly organised by Belliraj, a former Belgian state informer and Gangster, have this week been convicted of plotting terror.

    The Belliraj Network, includes leading politicians from small left wing islamist parties, the correspondent of the Lebanese Hezbollah’s TV station Al-Manar reporter, they allegedly had allegiance to both al-Qaida and Hezbollah.

    We have to see through the Myth of Al-Qaida and expose all state sponsored terrorism which is perpetrated under the guise of the ‘War on Terror’, in order to bring an end to the wars of occupation in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or in the Sahara.

    • July 31, 2009 19:10

      Well, Bali, for example, was the work of a Jemaah Islamiah cell, not AQ (although there are ties between them), and that’s what all governments involved have been claiming. That sloppy media reporting gets it wrong is another matter.


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

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