CAIRO — Violence between Morocco and the Polisario Front (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and the Valley of Gold) has recently escalated in the disputed Western Sahara territory.
On Nov. 19, the Sahrawi National Ministry of Defense announced in an official statement that its forces launched intense attacks on a military wall that cuts through the Western Sahara territory. The Moroccan army erected the 2,700-kilometer-long sand wall at the end of the 1980s as a separation barrier from the Polisario Front.
The escalation comes after Morocco launched a military operation to reopen a key highway at the Guerguerat border crossing between Western Sahara and Mauritania, which had been blocked by members of the Polisario Front for three weeks, according to a Nov. 13 statement by the Moroccan Defense Ministry. Morocco uses this crossing to transport its products and goods to West Africa.
The next day, the Polisario Front declared a “state of war” and ended its commitment to the cease-fire agreement signed between the two parties in 1991.
As the crisis culminated, Arab countries rallied to support Morocco. Saudi Arabia issued a statement on Nov. 14, condemning any practices threatening traffic at the crossing and reaffirming its support for Morocco in its measures against the Polisario Front.
On Nov. 13, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) condemned what it described as the “illegal incursion” in the Guerguerat border area, stressing its support for any measures Morocco adopts to defend its lands.
The UAE had opened on Nov. 4 a consulate in Western Sahara’s largest city of Laayoune, which is under the control of Morocco, making it the first Arab state to have diplomatic representation in the region.
Laayoune is located in the Western Sahara territory that the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, a socialist guerrilla movement formed in 1973, claims as an independent Sahrawi state.
On Nov. 14, Jordan described the Polisario Front move as an “illegal incursion” into the crossing. On Nov. 19, Jordan’s King Abdullah II announced his country’s decision to open a general consulate in Laayoune, saying that the foreign ministries of Jordan and Morocco would “coordinate to make the necessary arrangements for this.”
Likewise, Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman, Yemen, Bahrain and Qatar announced their full support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Morocco and for whatever actions the kingdom deems appropriate to protect its lands.
However, Egypt refused to support Morocco in its war against the Polisario Front or show any support for the Moroccan army. It contented itself with a statement by the Foreign Ministry on its Facebook page on Nov. 15, saying the country is closely following up on the developments in the area. Cairo called on the parties to exercise restraint and refrain from any provocative actions and any acts that harm the economic interests and trade exchange in the Guerguerat region.
Egypt further urged both parties to commit to dialogue and resume the political process to resolve the crisis.
In response to the Egyptian statement, Moroccan writer and journalist Mustafa el-Fan lashed out at the political system in Egypt. In an interview with Arabi21 news site on Nov. 17, he said it was unacceptable for Egypt to call on both parties to exercise restraint and stop provocative actions without speaking about the sovereignty of the Moroccan state, describing the Egyptian statement as “provocative.”
Back on Oct. 14, 2016, Egyptian authorities had hosted a Polisario Front delegation in an official reception. The authorities granted the group’s members visas to enter its territory in order to attend a ceremony in the city of Sharm el-Sheikh marking the 150th anniversary of the launch of the Egyptian parliament.
Fan argued that Egypt is showing hostility to Morocco due to the latter’s role in resolving the crisis in Libya and ending the internal fighting there. “Whenever Morocco hosts a meeting or conference in Skhirat or Bouznika, [Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi would threaten military intervention in Libya,” he said in his interview.
Five years ago, specifically on Sept. 17, 2015, Morocco brought together all the Libyan parties to sign the Skhirat Agreement under the auspices of the United Nations. It was a key peace agreement in Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi's regime in 2011.
Over the past years, Morocco has tried to maintain a neutral stance with all parties in Libya. For its part, Egypt sided with retired Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter, commander of the Libyan National Army, while Turkey backed the UN-recognized Government of National Accord and its armed militias.
Morocco's neutrality helped it organize a meeting of representatives of Libya's rival administrations in the coastal town of Bouznika, south of Rabat, on Sept. 6. The meeting aimed to draft a roadmap on the representation of the Libyan factions in key sovereign positions before holding presidential and parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, Egypt hosted on Oct. 10 talks on the constitutional track in Libya in the presence of the delegations of the Tobruk-based Libyan parliament and Tripoli’s High Council of State. The talks also focused on ending the transitional phase.
Most recently, Morocco hosted Nov. 22 members of the rival Libyan parliaments for deliberation in Rabat.
Ambassador Mona Omar, former assistant minister of foreign affairs for African Affairs, told Al-Monitor that the Egyptian position stems from its close relations with Algeria and the latter’s support for it in many crises, unlike Morocco. “Egypt fears a position against the Polisario Front would undermine its relations with Algeria, hence its refusal to declare its support for Morocco,” she said.
On June 25, 2014, Sisi visited Algeria shortly after assuming power on June 8 of that year to confirm brotherly relations and discuss issues of concern to the Arab and African region.
On Dec. 12 of the same year, the Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum announced an agreement to import liquefied natural gas from Algeria at half price. The agreement aimed to support Egypt in its economic crisis following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule and alleviate the chronic energy shortage.
On Jan. 3, 2015, for the first time, the official Moroccan Channel 1 attacked Sisi, in a first such move, blaming him for the economic crises Egypt has been experiencing since the Brotherhood’s rule was overthrown in June 2013.
Algeria and Morocco have had differences spanning decades because of Algeria's support for the Polisario Front, according to Omar.
“For Morocco, the issue of the Polisario Front is a matter of national security,” asserted Omar. “Rabat froze its membership in the African Union (AU) because of this issue.”
In November 1984, Morocco withdrew from the AU in a decision taken by late King Hassan II, in response to the Polisario Front's accession to the AU. Morocco remained the only African country outside of the AU until it rejoined in 2017.
On May 20, 2018, the Moroccan Foreign Ministry accused Algeria of “scandalous support” for the Polisario Front. The ministry claimed Algeria is embracing, arming, financing, training and mobilizing diplomatic efforts for the Polisario Front.
“Egypt’s position on this [Western Sahara] issue is unlikely to budge, no matter how criticized it is inside Morocco,” Omar concluded.