After decades, Western Sahara remains under Moroccan rule. Can the deadlock be broken?by Musab Younis / November 21, 2012 / Leave a comment
Two months before the event that is often said to mark start of the Arab Spring—Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010 – a few hundred people set up a makeshift protest camp in the desert, 1,500 miles west of Tunis. They constructed the small tent city, known as Gdeim Izik, as a peaceful statement against Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. Within weeks its population swelled to several thousand. On 8th November, the Moroccan authorities destroyed the camp, killing protestors and arresting many more. Images of the tent camp in flames circulated; riots spread to other towns in the region, and a protest in Madrid attracted thousands of people.
You could be forgiven for knowing very little about the Gdeim Izik camp—it emerged from what the International Crisis Group has called “one of the world’s oldest and one of its most neglected” conflicts. Once reasonably well known, by 2010 the dispute had fallen off the radar of all but the specialist press. It might easily have remained that way, but the Sahrawi people began to resort to innovative protest action. To some extent, it worked: the Guardian recently carried a letter from a group that included the director Ken Loach. It drew on a draft resolution that had just been adopted by the United Nations Fourth Committee, which supported the right of Western Sahara’s people to self-determination. But there is a risk that, as before, this attention will prove fleeting.
Why do Sahrawis still find themselves in desert refugee camps, and why is there still little prospect of the situation changing? The answers lie in the history of this region. At about 100,000 square miles the Western Sahara is bigger than the United Kingdom but, with an estimated population of just over half a million people, it is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world. It is overwhelmingly desert—just 0.02 per cent of its land is arable—but it contains high-quality mineral and fishing resources.
In the 19th-century European battle for Africa, Spain made little headway. But it did manage to establish control over Western Sahara (which it called Spanish Sahara), subject to continued resistance from the region’s indigenous peoples. When Morocco became independent in 1956, it…