Established By: El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed
Also Known As: Frente Polisario; Polisario Front; Polisario; Jabhat al-Bōlīsāryū; Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro;al-Jabhah al-Shaʿbiyah Li-Taḥrīr as-Sāqiyah al-Ḥamrāʾ wa Wādī al-Dhahab;
Country Of Origin: Algeria; Western Sahara;
Leaders: Brahim Ghali;
Key Members: Brahim Ghali;
Operational Area: Algeria, Western Sahara, Morocco,
Involved In: Suicide attacks, Terrorist attacks, Recruiting terrorists, Terror financing, Kidnapping
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The Polisario Front, Frente Polisario, Frelisario or simply Polisario, from the Spanish abbreviation of Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (lit. ’Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro’; Arabic: الجبهة الشعبية لتحرير الساقية الحمراء ووادي الذهب, romanized: al-Jabhah al-Shaʿbiyah Li-Taḥrīr as-Sāqiyah al-Ḥamrāʾ wa Wādī al-Dhahab), is a rebel Sahrawi nationalist liberation movement claiming Western Sahara.
Tracing its origin to a Sahrawi nationalist organization known as the Movement for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Wadi el Dhahab, the Polisario Front was formally constituted in 1973 with the intention of launching an armed struggle against the Spanish occupation which lasted until 1975, when the Spanish decided to allow Mauritania and Morocco to partition and occupy the territory. The Polisario Front waged a war to drive out the two armies. It forced Mauritania to relinquish its claim over Western Sahara in 1979 and continued its military campaign against Morocco until the 1991 ceasefire, pending the holding of a UN-backed referendum which has been consistently postponed ever since. In 2020 the Polisario Front declared the ceasefire over and resumed the armed conflict.
The United Nations considers the Polisario Front to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people and maintains that the Sahrawis have a right to self-determination. The Polisario Front is outlawed in the parts of Western Sahara under Moroccan control, and it is illegal to raise its party flag (often called the Sahrawi flag) there. It is a consultative member of the Socialist International.
Political and military organization, North Africa:
Polisario Front, abbreviation of Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, Spanish Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro, politico-military organization striving to end Moroccan control of the former Spanish territory of Western Sahara, in northwestern Africa, and win independence for that region. The Polisario Front is composed largely of the indigenous nomadic inhabitants of the Western Sahara region, the Sahrawis. The Polisario Front began in May 1973 as an insurgency (based in neighbouring Mauritania) against Spanish control of Western Sahara. After Spain withdrew and Morocco and Mauritania partitioned Western Sahara between themselves in 1976, the Polisario Front relocated to Algeria, which henceforth provided the organization with bases and military aid. Mauritania made peace with the Polisario Front in 1979, but Morocco then unilaterally annexed Mauritania’s portion of Western Sahara. During the 1980s Polisario Front guerrillas, numbering some 15,000 motorized and well-armed troops, harassed and raided Moroccan outposts and defenses in Western Sahara. Morocco responded by constructing a berm, or earthen barrier, some 1,240 miles (2,000 km) long, which was completed by 1987. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the Polisario Front suffered a series of high-level defections and internal problems in its refugee camps. In addition, although Algerian diplomatic support continued, military support was reduced during the 1990s. Despite these challenges, the Polisario Front’s overall level of legitimacy with the Sahrawis and in the global political community appeared largely undiminished.
In 1991 the Polisario Front inaugurated a new, more democratic constitution for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR; declared by the Polisario Front one day after Spanish withdrawal in 1976). In the same year, it accepted a United Nations (UN) peace plan for Western Sahara that provided for a referendum of self-determination. Owing to disputes over voter eligibility, the referendum scheduled for early 1992 was postponed, and a series of UN-sponsored talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front were conducted. Attempts to determine the parameters of the referendum were largely unsuccessful, however, and in 2000 the UN Security Council requested that alternatives to the referendum be considered, a process that remained at an impasse in the early 21st century. UN-sponsored talks between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government took place in 2007 and 2008 amid warnings by the Polisario Front of a return to armed hostilities. Talks were renewed once more in late 2018 after the United States pushed to make the continued presence of UN peacekeeping forces in the region contingent on progress toward settling the dispute. Two rounds of talks concluded without significant progress, and the UN peacekeeping mission was renewed.
Tensions with Morocco escalated in the latter half of 2020 after the Polisario Front began obstructing a key trade route between Morocco and Mauritania. In November, after Morocco launched a military operation to confront the blockade, the Polisario Front announced that it would no longer abide by the 1991 peace plan.
The Polisario Front reportedly began receiving financial and logistical support from Iran via its proxy, Hezbollah, as early as 2016. Hezbollah’s involvement with the Polisario Front has since increased and, according to Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, in recent months “Hezbollah sent military officials to Polisario and provided the front with weapons and trained them on urban warfare.” According to several media reports, some observers have argued that Morocco’s arrest of Lebanese-Belgian Hezbollah financer Kassim Tajideen in March 2017 may have driven Hezbollah to increase its support for the Polisario Front. The Moroccan government—holding Iran responsible for Hezbollah’s activities—has accused Iran of attempting to destabilize the Western Sahara region and cut diplomatic ties with Iran on May 1, 2018.
The Polisario is first and foremost a nationalist organization, whose main goal is the independence of Western Sahara. It has stated that ideological disputes should be left for a future democratic Western Sahara to deal with. It views itself as a “front” encompassing all political trends in Sahrawi society, and not as a political party. As a consequence, there is no party program. However, the Sahrawi republic’s constitution gives a hint of the movement’s ideological context: in the early 1970s, Polisario adopted a vaguely socialist rhetoric, in line with most national liberation movements of the time, but this was eventually abandoned in favor of a non-politicized Sahrawi nationalism. By the late 1970s, references to socialism in the republic’s constitution were removed, and by 1991, the Polisario was explicitly pro-free market.
The Polisario has stated that it will, when Sahrawi self-determination has been achieved, either function as a party within the context of a multi-party system, or be completely disbanded. This is to be decided by a Polisario Front congress upon the achievement of Western Sahara’s independence.
Attitudes to armed struggle:
The Polisario Front has denounced terrorism and attacks against civilians, and sent condolences to Morocco after the 2003 Casablanca bombings. It describes its struggle as a “clean war of national liberation”. Since 1989, when the ceasefire was first concluded, the movement has stated it will pursue its goal of Western Sahara’s independence by peaceful means as long as Morocco complies with the ceasefire conditions, which include arranging a referendum on independence, while reserving the right to resume armed struggle if terms are objectively breached, for example, if the referendum is not conducted. Mohamed Abdelaziz has repeatedly stated that the Moroccan withdrawal from the 1991 Settlement Plan and refusal to sign the 2003 Baker Plan would logically lead to war from its perspective if the international community does not step in. In contrast, Polisario-Mauritanian relations following a peace treaty in 1979 and the recognition of the SADR by Mauritania in 1984, with the latter’s retreat from Western Sahara, have been quiet and generally neutral without reports of armed clashes from either side.
The series of protests and riots in 2005 by Sahrawis in “the occupied territories” received strong vocal support from Polisario as a new pressure point on Morocco. Abdelaziz characterized them as a substitute path for the armed struggle, and indicated that if peaceful protest was squashed, in its view, without a referendum forthcoming, its armed forces would intervene.
The organizational order described below applies today, and was roughly finalized in the 1991 internal reforms of the movement, although minor changes have been made since then.
The Polisario Front is led by a Secretary General. The first Secretary General was Brahim Gali, replaced in 1974 by El-Ouali at the II Congress of the Polisario Front, followed by Mahfoud Ali Beiba as Interim Secretary General upon his death. In 1976, Mohamed Abdelaziz was elected at the III Congress of the Polisario, and held the post until his death in 2016. The Secretary General is elected by the General Popular Congress (GPC), regularly convened every four years. The GPC is composed of delegates from the Popular Congresses of the refugee camps in Tindouf, which are held biannually in each camp, and of delegates from the women’s organization (UNMS), youth organization (UJSARIO), workers’ organization (UGTSARIO) and military delegates from the SPLA.
All residents of the camps have a vote in the Popular Congresses, and participate in the administrative work in the camp through base-level 11-person cells, which form the smallest unit of the refugee camp political structure. These typically care for distribution of food, water and schooling in their area, joining in higher-level organs (encompassing several camp quarters) to cooperate and establish distribution chains. There is no formal membership of Polisario; instead, anyone who participates in its work or lives in the refugee camps is considered a member.
Between congresses, the supreme decision-making body is the National Secretariat, headed by the Secretary General. The NS is elected by the GPC. It is subdivided into committees handling defense, diplomatic affairs, etc. The 2003 NS, elected at the 11th GPC in Tifariti, Western Sahara, has 41 members. Twelve of these are secret delegates from the Moroccan-controlled areas of Western Sahara. This is a shift in policy, as the Polisario traditionally confined political appointments to diaspora Sahrawis, for fear of infiltration and difficulties in communicating with Sahrawis in the Moroccan-controlled territories. It is probably intended to strengthen the movement’s underground network in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, and link up with the rapidly growing Sahrawi civil rights activism.
In 2004, an anti-ceasefire and anti-Abdelaziz opposition fraction, the Front Polisario Khat al-Shahid announced its existence, in the first break with the principle of “national unity” (i.e., working in one single organization to prevent internal conflict). It calls for reforms in the movement, as well as resumption of hostilities with Morocco. But it remains of little importance to the conflict, as the group had split in two factions, and Polisario has refused dialogs with it, stating that political decisions must be taken within the established political system.