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Western Sahara: Why Nothing Will Change After Mohamed Abdelaziz’s Death

Samir Bennis

New York - Mohamed Abdelaziz, former leader of the Polisario Front, died on Tuesday, May 30 at age 68. For the members of the Polisario, he was a “leader who fought tirelessly for independence,” while for Moroccans he was a “traitor who betrayed his country and sold his soul to Algeria.” His death offers an opportunity for observers to shed light on the life of this controversial personality, his political motivations and his goals.

Mohamed Abdelaziz was born and raised in Morocco until he joined the Polisario in 1973. His father was born in 1912 and lived his life in Morocco, serving in the army until 1976. Unlike his father, who joined the Liberation Army upon Morocco’s independence in 1956 to fight the Spanish presence in southern Morocco and then Moroccan Royal Army, Abdelaziz dreamed of establishing an independent state in the so-called Western Sahara. His determination to achieve this dream sat well with Algeria, whose leaders were adamant in preventing Morocco from achieving its territorial integrity.

Like other members of the Polisario, such as El Oualid Mustapha Sayed, the founder of the separatist movement, and Bachir Edkhil, one of its early leaders who later defected to Morocco, Mohammed Abdelaziz studied at Moroccan universities and held Moroccan degrees. He and his acolytes were all part of the leftist movements that developed in Morocco starting in the 1960s.

Following the death of Abdelaziz, many are wondering if his passing will signal a change in the Polisario’s handing and approach to the Western Sahara and if new leadership will bring a new dynamic to the conflict. The main question that observers are asking is whether the new Polisario leader will have any willingness to open up to Morocco and show readiness to negotiate a political solution or stick to Abdelaziz’s legacy and maintain his call for the establishment of an independent state in southern Morocco.

Abdelaziz’s successor will follow Algeria’s agenda

Given the history of the conflict over the past four decades and Algeria’s upper hand over the Polisario leadership, it would be both premature and naïve to think that his death might bring a new or positive dynamic to the conflict and that his successor might have a different vision for a political solution.

If things were different, we could say that the designation of a new leader might bring a positive change that would likely help Morocco and the Polisario put an end to the conflict.

However, those who have the last word in the Tindouf camps are the Algerians who will only select a new leader who will stick to the same approach defended by Abdelaziz for 40 years, which is the demand for the establishment of an independent state in the territory.

Abdelaziz was just a simple civil servant faithfully implementing the instructions given to him by the Algerians. What we should not overlook is that the Polisario is not the master of its own destiny. Abdelaziz remained at the helm of the Polisario simply because he was serving the Algerian agenda. Those who knew him and know the basics of Algeria’s foreign policy doctrine towards Morocco since the mid 1960s have always been aware that Abdelaziz was a tool used by Algeria to weaken Morocco and prevent it from achieving de jure sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Abdelaziz was the perfect docile “leader” for Algeria

Abdelziz owed his longevity at the helm of the Polisario to the Algerians. Had Algeria not decided to place him in charge of the separatist movement, he would have never dreamed of being its leader. Since the early days of the movement, the Algerians realized how malleable Abdelaziz was and how he could be used as a tool in their struggle against Morocco. The Algerians are believed to be the ones who killed the Polisario founder and first leader El Ouali Mustapha Sayed.

Many former Polisario operatives who fled to Morocco argue that Sayed was not killed in the battlefield against the Mauritanian army; he was killed by the Algerians after they realized that he was open to negotiating a solution with Morocco in a way that would have put an end to the conflict and guaranteed the Sahraouis rights within the framework of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.

According to the same version of events, over a year after Algeria started lending military and financial support to the Polisario, Sayed realized that Algiers’ goal was not to help the Sahraouis achieve their goal of independence or lead a dignified life, but to use the conflict as a tool to weaken Morocco. This prompted Sayed’s decision to open up to Rabat in order to explore the best way to end the conflict. This decision cost him his life.

To achieve their goal of perpetuating the conflict, the Algerians found no “leader” more docile and loyal than Mohammed Abdelaziz.

Bachir Dkhil, one of the founding members of the Polisario, remembers how former Algerian President Houari Boumedien said that he wanted to turn the Sahara into “a stone in Morocco’s shoes.”

Since the Sand War that pitted Morocco against Algeria in 1963 and the ensuing humiliation the Moroccan army inflicted on its Algerian rival, one of the main tenets of Algiers’ foreign policy has been to weaken Morocco, prevent it from achieving its territorial integrity and stop it from being the main regional power in the Maghreb.

By resorting to this strategy, Algeria does not only seek to weaken Morocco, but also to prevent it from laying claims to large swaths of Algerian territory such as Tindouf and Colmbe Bechar, which, before the French occupation of Algeria, always belonged to Morocco. The cause of the Sand War was Algeria’s decision to declare the inviolability of borders inherited from colonialism, in total disregard of the promise made in 1958 by Algeria’s Farhat Abbas to return the aforementioned territories to Morocco once Algeria achieved independence from France.

A solution to the conflict can only come from Algeria

Following Abdelaziz’s death, the only person who can bring a positive dynamic and put an end to the ongoing impasse is the president who will succeed to Bouteflika in Algeria. There will only be a solution to the Western Sahara conflict if the Algerians change their foreign policy doctrine toward Morocco, come to terms with the fact that there can be no establishment of an independent state in the region and become willing to negotiate directly with Rabat in order to explore the best way to put an end to the conflict.

It is an undeniable fact that the conflict over the Sahara is not between the Sahraouis and Morocco, but between Morocco and Algeria. The Sahraouis have been used as tool in the proxy diplomatic and media war that Algiers has waged against Rabat for 40 years.

Regardless of the new Polisario leadership’s course of action with regards to Morocco, the most important element to take into account in the coming weeks is what will happen inside the camps. In recent years and more intensely in recent weeks, many opposition movements have been calling for a change in the way the Polisario has handled the conflict so far. One of these movements is that of Khatt Ashahid, who called on many occasions for the Polisario leadership to open up to Morocco in order to put an end to the conflict.

The only fear is that the vacuum caused by Abdelaziz’s death might cause some unrest in the Tindouf camps. It would be hard to predict what could happen next if this occurred.

At this time of uncertainty for both the leadership of the Polisario and the Algerian government, the international community has to step up more than ever before, look at the conflict with realism and push for a mutually acceptable political solution that would preserve stability in the region.

An earlier version of this article was published on the New Arab

Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis

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