Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution

Article excerpt

Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution. By Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy. Syracuse Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010. Pp. xxxvii, 319; maps, bibliography, glossary, index. $49.95.

In the autumn of 2010, several thousand Western Saharans (known as Saharawis) set up an encampment at the settlement of Gdaim Izik, a few kilometers east of the territorial capital of El-Ayoun, in order to protest the actions of Morocco, which has occupied the former Spanish colony since late 1975 and whose disputed status has produced a diplomatic impasse of over three decades' duration. The Gdaim Izik camp was designed by its organizers to be a nonviolent way of resisting the political repression, economic corruption and favoritism, and general lack of development and opportunities by Morocco, which has characterized the occupation. News of the camp- as well as the conditions that led to its establishment- spread rapidly by means of electronic social media unheard of only a decade ago, including Facebook and Twitter as well as cell phones and Internet videos. All of this publicity had been steadily restricting- probably permanently- the ability of Morocco to control which information about the territory was accessible to outsiders. But on November 8, Rabat's formidable security forces struck back, forcibly dismantling the camp and injuring and arresting perhaps hundreds of protesters. At least two dozen persons on both sides were killed, and rioting soon spread to the center of El-Ayoun in what was the worst outbreak of unrest in Western Sahara in many years. The actions at Gdaim Izik also captured the attention, however temporarily, of the international mainstream news media, focusing renewed attention on the struggle between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which has always advocated an independent Western Sahara. Gdaim Izik was also an eerie forerunner of the massive unrest in North Africa that toppled Tunisia's dictatorship in January 2011 and Egypt's a month later, and put several other North African and Middle Eastern regimes, including those in Libya, Syria and Bahrain, under severe popular pressure.

With the situation in Western Sahara and the region as a whole in such flux, it is essential for interested persons to have a one-volume history and analysis of this long conflict that is both factually correct and takes account of not only Morocco and Polisario, but also other regional and external actors, including France and the United States. The authors of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution largely succeed in giving the reader a comprehensive tour d'horizon of the dispute, one that begins with the 1975-91 war between Morocco and Polisario and continues with chapters describing the political rivalries in North Africa, which strongly affected the conflict, the policies of external actors, the development of Saharawi nationalism, and the "expressions" of that nationalism with respect both to events in the Moroccan-occupied zone of Western Sahara and in Polisario' s system of refugee camps in the Tindouf region of southwestern Algeria. There is also an extensive treatment of the United Nations effort during the 1990s (and beyond) that at first sought to hold a referendum of self-determination among the indigenous inhabitants of the territory (an endeavor that foundered due mostly to Morocco's extravagant demand that tens of thousands of persons previously disqualified from voting should be allowed to cast ballots after all), followed by a plan for the institution of some form of internal autonomy for the territory under overall Moroccan sovereignty. Prospects for the realization of this alternative are dim, not only because of Polisario's categorical rejection of the concept but also due to the reluctance of some UN Security Council members to countenance a non-referendum solution to the conflict. The chapters describing and analyzing this issue (pp. …