Western Sahara: Who are the Polisario Front and what do they want?

Salmi Gailani was born in 1991, the year Morocco agreed to a ceasefire with the Polisario Front rebels after nearly two decades of war in Western Sahara.

Despite the peace, Gailani has grown up in exile. His childhood was spent in refugee camps in the territory controlled by the Polisario near the border with Algeria and in Spain.

Now, with the rebels and the Moroccan army ready to restart the conflict, Gailani says it is time to go home and fight.

“War means pain, death means many painful things. But we believe that 30 years is more than enough. We have exhausted peaceful means”, explica Gailani a Euronews.

On November 13, Moroccan soldiers entered the United Nations buffer zone near Guerguerat that separates the territory of Western Sahara controlled by Rabat from the “liberated zone” controlled by the Polisario Front, in violation of the ceasefire of 1991.

In response, the Polisario Front declared a “state of war” and warned that thousands of volunteers from the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) were ready to fight. Since then, the UN – which has urged both Rabat and the FP to respect the ceasefire – has received reports of several “shooting incidents” carried out by both parties, a UN spokesperson told Euronews.

Western Sahara has been described as the last colony in Africa, with two-thirds of its territory occupied by Morocco since 1975. Morocco considers strips of the former Spanish colony to be its sovereign territory, including its phosphate-rich northwest. In the framework of the 1991 peace agreement, Morocco agreed to hold an independence referendum, which it has not done so far.

Phosphate reserves

This is a vote that, despite the emigration of tens of thousands of Moroccans since the 1970s, Rabat would almost certainly lose. His occupation is backed by several of his prominent Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It’s not about valuable phosphate reserves either, explains Jacob Mundy, associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University.

Since Morocco gained its independence in 1956, France and Spain have been said to have stolen from the country the territory that would have constituted a Greater Morocco, including Western Sahara and parts of Mauritania, Mali and Algeria, also French colonies. In 1963, Morocco invaded Algeria over a border issue and suffered a humiliating defeat.

When he invaded Western Sahara in 1975, the Government of Morocco faced serious challenge from a political left fueled by the successes of Houari Boumediene in Algeria, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Nasser had died in 1970, but his pan-African socialism continued to inspire anti-monarchical movements throughout Africa and the world.

So when Spain announced that it would hold an independence referendum for Western Sahara – then called Spanish Sahara – in 1975, King Hassan II of Morocco acted. By “reclaiming” Western Sahara, the king gained legitimacy and avoided opposition from within. To this day, Mundy says, the recovery of Western Sahara is the cornerstone of Rabat’s legitimacy. “It is an article of national faith and Moroccan children are taught from day one. […]. Personally I suspect that many Moroccans would see the end of the monarchy before renouncing Western Sahara “explains the teacher.

The war against the Polisario, however, has been very costly, mostly due to the militarization of the 2,700 km of “berm” – or fortified wall – that Morocco has erected on its side of the UN-controlled buffer zone. Even since 1991, the conflict with the Polisario has seriously disrupted trade, with protesters in the liberated area blocking the roads connecting Morocco to Mauritania.


It was one of those protests that sparked the recent incident near Guerguerat, where on October 20 Sahrawi protesters prevented trucks from moving from Morocco to Western Sahara and from there to Mauritania. In response, Morocco threatened to withdraw the protesters by force, which is exactly what it appears to have done on November 13.

But for the Polisario Front, the dispute is no longer about protests, but about a total withdrawal of Morocco from Western Sahara. “The end of the war is now linked to the end of the illegal occupation,” Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, a Polisario representative, told AFP on Monday.

Gailani, the exile, said there is no turning back now but for total conflict: “We have been prepared for this for more than 30 years. […]. We have never let our guard down, “he said.

He said that the international community should be aware that the Polisario Front was more than willing to return to the armed struggle, and that the recent Guerguerat incident was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Gailani blames the UN for the fact that for 30 years Western Sahara has been a frozen conflict, with the Sahrawi people promising a referendum by Morocco that never came.. “30 years is long enough to put in the ballot boxes,” he said.