Sovereignty in Exile: A Saharan Liberation Movement Governs

Sovereignty in Exile: A Saharan Liberation Movement Governs

Sovereignty in Exile: A Saharan Liberation Movement Governs

Sovereignty in Exile: A Saharan Liberation Movement Governs


Sovereignty in Exile explores sovereignty and state power through the case of a liberation movement that set out to make itself into a state. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was founded by the Polisario Front in the wake of Spain's abandonment of its former colony, the disputed Western Sahara. Morocco laid claim to the same territory, and the conflict has locked Polisario and Morocco in a political stalemate that has lasted forty years. Complicating the situation is the fact that Polisario conducts its day-to-day operations in refugee camps near Tindouf, in Algeria, which house most of the Sahrawi exile community. SADR (a partially recognized state) and Polisario (Western Sahara's liberation movement) together form an unusual governing authority, originally premised on the dismantling of a perceived threat to national (Sahrawi) unity: tribes.

Drawing on unprecedented long-term research gained by living with Sahrawi refugee families, Alice Wilson examines how tribal social relations are undermined, recycled, and have reemerged as the refugee community negotiates governance, resolves disputes, manages social inequalities, and improvises alternatives to taxation. Wilson trains an ethnographic lens on the creation of administrative categories, legal reforms, aid distribution, marriage practices, local markets, and contested elections within the camps. Tracing social, political, and economic changes among Sahrawi refugees, Sovereignty in Exile reveals the dynamics of a postcolonial liberation movement that has endured for decades in the deserts of North Africa while trying to bring about the revolutionary transformation of a society which identifies with a Bedouin past.


The heat of the day softened, and we began to stir from our midday slumbers. Thirsty for air, we emerged from the tent to resume the morning’s abandoned labors. It was nearly the end of my month-long sojourn with a family of camel herders in the pasturelands that my hosts called, in the accent of the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic, the badīah. Having traveled a few weeks previously from the refugee camps where my hosts usually resided, now that I was in the pasturelands, I understood those refugees who longed from the refugee camps for the calm of herding. Any sense of tranquility in the pasturelands was interwoven, though, with the thrill of being out of the harsh Algerian ḥamādah desert, where the refugee camps were located, and in Western Sahara itself, the territory on which the refugee community looked as its homeland. Yet as I looked out onto unbroken steppeland as far as the eye could see, I could also understand those refugees who, finding themselves in the badīah, itched for the bustle of the refugee camps. In the pasturelands, one could only hope for the company of visitors if one heard the distant hum of a car. The first person to detect it would call out, “I can hear a car!” The growing rumbling would spread hope and excitement that it would deliver a guest.

But this late afternoon we were taken by surprise. Almost silently, a lone man and his camel came upon us. As my host sister, Khanātha, and her aunt prepared with glee to welcome him, they proudly taught me a new word for such a traveler arriving by camel, bijāwī.

When the visitor reached us, elaborate greetings broke out from all parties. As Khanātha prepared a drink of sweetened milk for our visitor, I observed the rider’s face. It bore the marks of long years in the desert. He was of the generation known and praised in the refugee camps for having fought for Western Sahara’s liberation movement against neighboring Morocco, which had partially annexed Western Sahara in 1975.

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