Algeria, the Maghreb Union, and the Western Sahara Stalemate

By Zunes, Stephen | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Summer 1995 | Go to article overview
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Algeria, the Maghreb Union, and the Western Sahara Stalemate

Zunes, Stephen, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Despite the 1991 cease fire and agreement to hold a referendum on the fate of the Western Sahara, the peace process continues to be stalled. The agreement, signed by the Kingdom of Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) under UN supervision has been put on hold due to disagreements regarding those eligible to vote. Allegations of a pro-Moroccan bias by the Secretary General's office and the continued backing of Morocco by France and the United States has led many observers to conclude that Morocco's 1975 invasion and occupation of this former Spanish colony will be allowed to stand.

This essay examines the irresolution of the Western Sahara conflict from a regional perspective. After a brief overview of perspectives from the broader Arab World, the article will show how the formation of the Arab Maghreb Union and the internal crisis in Algeria has contributed to Morocco's apparent ability to sidestep its obligations under the Western Sahara peace agreement and successive United Nations Security Council resolutions. It examines the history of Algerian relations with the Polisario Front - the liberation movement of Western Sahara - as well as Algeria's relations with Morocco, and how, despite continued ideological support for the Sahrawi cause, the Algerians are no longer in a position to support strongly their erstwhile ally.


Efforts to gain support in the Arab World for the idea of a greater Morocco did not receive much support despite efforts in the early 1960s to enlist the Arab League for its cause. Indeed, Morocco's expansionist ambitions caused strains, including a temporary rupture of relations with Tunisia. The Moroccans have been more successful regarding the Western Sahara. Unlike the Organization of African Unity which has strongly backed Western Sahara's right to self-determination, the Arab League has shown little interest in the area. In addition, King Hassan has major influence in the Arab League and the Islamic Conference. Knowing it was in the minority, Algeria has never placed the issue on the table at such forums. Algeria,s efforts in the Arab World to link the Sahrawi's struggle to that of the Palestinians has fallen on deaf ears, as sultanic solidarity dominated the political agenda of most Arab states.

Prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Western Sahara situation was unique in the history of inter-Arab conflicts. While there had been a number of border wars, never before in modern history had one Arab state completely swallowed up another. Kuwait's financial support of the Moroccan war effort made its pleas to international law appear less than sincere when it found itself in the same situation as the Sahrawis.

The Arab Steadfastness Front, composed of hard-line Arab states opposed to U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with Israel in the late 1970s, formally endorsed the Polisario cause, though such support was little more than rhetoric. At the same time, however, some of Morocco's strongest supporters have been backing off on their previous unconditional endorsement. Saudi Arabia, Morocco's chief financial backer in the war effort, hosted direct talks between the SADR and Morocco in July 1988, has played a major role in Moroccan-Algerian reconciliation and has reportedly pushed the Moroccans to compromise.(1) Egypt has evolved from all-out support of Morocco under Anwar Sadat to a more cautious and balanced approach to the region under Husni Mubarak.


The six countries of the Maghreb - Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania - comprise nearly one@third of the Arab World's population. In both the period of conquest and subsequent liberation struggles, the Maghreb has paid a higher price in human and social terms than elsewhere in the Arab World. Algeria and Libya led the way in the wave of nationalizations and oil price rises in the 1960s and 1970s and both Morocco and Algeria have played major roles as mediators in the Middle East and elsewhere.

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