Sahara: The Polisario Front, guided by Algeria, is losing its way

By Nina Kozlowski
Posted on Wednesday, 26 January 2022 07:33

Brahim Ghali, president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and secretary-general of the Polisario Front, meets with UN envoy for Western Sahara, Staffan de Mistura, in Tindouf, Algeria, 16 January 2022. © Ramzi Boudina/REUTERS

Although the Polisario has been taking up arms against Morocco since November 2020, its leaders are finding it difficult to agree on an official position vis-à-vis the UN.

More than a revelation, a confirmation. Within the Polisario Front’s ranks, cacophony reigns. On 15 and 16 January, Staffan de Mistura, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy to the Sahara, visited Tindouf. This trip only further sowed the seeds of discord.

On 14 January, the day before the UN envoy’s arrival in Tindouf, Sidi Mohamed Ammar, the Polisario Front’s representative to the UN and the Minurso’s coordinator, gave a press conference from the Boujdour refugee camp.

Against all odds, the diplomat does not support holding a referendum. According to him, the Front “no longer feels that the referendum on self-determination is a possible solution, but instead is clinging to its belief that Western Sahara has a legitimate right to total independence”, before adding that “the Saharawi people maintain their right to defend themselves by all legitimate means”. This is a logical position, given that the Polisario has announced the end of the cease-fire, which has been in force since 1991.

However, Abdelkader Taleb Omar, the Polisario’s representative in Algiers, contradicted Ammar when he said the referendum option was “the only solution to our problems”. Brahim Ghali, president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), played a balancing act with Mistura on 16 January.

The Front’s leader reiterated his movement’s willingness to engage in talks held under the auspices of the UN and expressed his support “for any peaceful operation that allows the Saharawi people to exercise their right to self-determination and independence”- so much the worse if the UN is no longer in favour of holding a referendum.

At the end of this meeting, Ammar, although slightly disavowed by his leader and peers, did not give up, quite the contrary. The UN representative legitimised the armed struggle and affirmed that the Polisario “is still determined to fight until the SADR has full independence”.

Will the war continue?

By blowing hot and cold, was the Polisario simply trying to put obstacles in the way of Staffan de Mistura, who was making his very first trip to the Maghreb?

Bachir Dkhil, who founded the Polisario in the 1970s to fight against the Spanish occupation and has since left the organisation, felt that this was all being done for show. “Sidi Mohamed Ammar is a young leader, whose trajectory within the Polisario remains unclear. He claims to embody a kind of succession to Ghali’s power from New York, but this is impossible. At best, it blurs the lines; it makes the rest of the world believe that there are contradictory currents, or even a form of balance of power.

“There are groups that would like to take power, but the faction that reigns supreme is that of Ghali, from the Reguibat, the majority tribe in the Sahara. It has a hand in arming the Front and is directly supported by Algiers, which dampens any desire for a putsch, but there is, of course, a lot of dissension,” he said.

In any case, radicalism is a non-negotiable condition for Algiers, which would like the armed conflict in Morocco to continue because “otherwise the Polisario and its leaders will have no future and no reason to exist”, says Dkhil.

Therefore, in recent months, Ghali and his men have advocated an “intensification of the armed struggle”, sometimes even for attacks beyond the Moroccan security wall.

The Ghali succession

Moreover, all the potential successors to Ghali that Said Chengriha, the Algerian army’s chief of staff, has considered, are hawks of the organisation. One of them was Abdellah Lahbib, who died from Covid-19 in August 2021, and who had called for the armed struggle on Moroccan territory to continue.

Before his death, he had moved from the ministry of defence to the ministry of documentation, a demotion that led to his break with Ghali. Algerian officials then engaged in a lengthy mediation process to get Lahbib to take up his duties.

General Chengriha’s two other favourites, who are still alive, are none other than Omar, who said that the “war will only end once the Moroccan occupation ends”, and Mohamed Lamine Ould El Bouhali, leader of the reserve militias, who champions a “stronger response” against Morocco.

The problem is that Omar belongs to a minority tribe in the Sahara, the Ouled Dli, which is known for its history of protest, while El Bouhali is reportedly reviled by all the local tribes. As for peace – which is “desired by many in the Polisario camps”, according to Dkhil – don’t even think about it.

In 1976, El Ouali Mustapha Sayed, the SADR’s first president, was assassinated by Algerian forces under the command of then President Houari Boumédiène because he was in favour of a form of normalisation and negotiation with Morocco, says Dkhil.

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