Tunisia and the Polisario crisis - TAHA KILINÇ

Tunisia and the Polisario crisis

Tunisian President Kais Saied hosted on Friday Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, which is fighting for Western Sahara’s independence, and his envoy with an official ceremony. This meeting caused great rage in Morocco. The Moroccan administration recalled its ambassador to Tunisia, describing Tunisia’s behavior as “hostile,” and “unnecessary provocation.” Upon this, the Tunisian Foreign Ministry called back its ambassador in Rabat “for consultation,” said Morocco’s act was a “surprise.” 


As a matter of fact, if we recall the Western Sahara matter, it will be clear that Morocco’s act was no “surprise” at all. 


The Polisario Front, short for the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al Hamra and Rio de Oro,” was founded on May 10, 1973, by a group of university students. The movement, whose objective was to ensure the independence of the Western Sahara region under Spanish occupation back then, was based in Mauritania. After Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975, the area was then annexed by Morocco and Mauritania. Upon this, the Polisario Front declared war against both countries. The front that received arms and intelligence support from Algeria, left Mauritania no choice but to sign a peace deal in 1979. Morocco, on the other hand, held the locations from which Mauritania withdrew, claiming all of Western Sahara. Until the ceasefire was signed in 1991 with UN intervention, the Moroccan military and Polisario Front militias fought a series of destructive clashes. It was the ordinary public – similar to every crisis – that carried the heaviest burden of this whole process. Tens of thousands of civilians today are struggling within the Morocco-Algeria-Mauritania triangle to live today under the tough conditions at primitive refugee camps. 


The Western Sahara question is the top item on the Moroccan Kingdom’s foreign policy agenda. While the Rabat administration experiences tensions with Algeria, as it continues to actively provide support to the Polisario Front, it also provides support under Western countries. The U.S. administration completely changed its traditional position during Donald Trump’s term, and supported Morocco’s theory, recognizing Western Sahara as “Moroccan territory.” In return, Morocco joined the group of Arab countries that signed a peace deal with Israel. The addition of the Israel factor served only to tangle Morocco-Algeria relations further. 


One other Moroccan theory is that Iranian and Hezbollah-member armed groups are providing training at the Polisario camps in Western Sahara. This claim, which the Moroccan Foreign Ministry officially declared to the press shows that the Polisario crisis has turned into a political whirlpool that pulled in even Iran from the other side of the geography. 


French President Emmanuel Macron was in Algeria for an official visit on the same day President Saied received the Polisario Front. This interesting coincidence was another matter that angered Morocco. While all the tensions in the Maghreb pleased France, as it is striving to prevent the formation of a joint front against it, Algeria and Tunisia’s consensus regarding the Polisario matter is certainly not in Rabat’s favor. 


Morocco has been able to maintain its impartiality in the decades-long crises between Algeria and Morocco and speak to both sides. However, the fact that it has now made a sudden shift is thought-provoking. President Saied, who dismissed the government in July, suspended the parliament, and assumed executive authority, chose to take on almost every segment of the country. It now seems he is trying to take a position by mediating between two of North Africa’s powerful countries. It could be thought that the primary motivation for Saied, who stands as a zealous Arab nationalist, is to “punish Morocco for making peace with Israel.” But this makes it difficult to explain the deep engagement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the strongest supporter of his own government. It was the UAE that started the peace with Israel trend, followed by Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. 


My article published in this column on Aug. 28, 2021, exactly a year from today was, “Crisis in Maghreb.” It seems Maghreb’s crisis will not cease to continue, and will thus be subject to further analyses – while France rubs its hands in a corner.

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