A recent controversy around insecurity and instability in the Tindouf camps featured Algeria unwittingly validating Morocco’s claims that there is no Polisario without Algeria.
Rabat – It is by now a very familiar scene in the Western Sahara conflict: Morocco accuses Algeria of being the main reason for the existence and continued hostility in the Western Sahara territorial dispute, while Algeria laughs off Morocco’s “unfounded claims,” saying that it is only an interested “observer” in a territorial conflict that fundamentally opposes Morocco and the Polisario Front.
Who runs Tindouf?
However, as Algeria tried, on two separate occasions in the past weeks, to come to the rescue of the Polisario Front amid converging reports of growing instability in the Polisario-run camps, the country appeared to unwittingly vindicate one of Morocco’s sticking points: That the Polisario Front is the offshoot of the Algerian military establishment. It also validates the argument that there would be no Western Sahara territorial conflict had it not been for Algeria’s support for, and mentoring of, the independence-seeking breakaway group.
The latest of the two developments came as Sabri Boukadoum, the foreign minister of the Algerian interim government, recently tried to paint Morocco’s intransigence as the main reason behind continued hostility between the two neighbors. Boukadoum, speaking to the Arabic version of the Russian outlet Sputnik suggested, in glaring disregard for some of the latest regional developments, that Algiers is—and has always been—in a mindset of dialogue and compromise with its Moroccan neighbor to “examine” their regional divergences, including on the Western Sahara question.
He stressed his country’s belief in, and devotion to, “the relationship that binds Moroccans and Algerians.” For him, Algeria has always expressed its readiness for dialogue and compromise, only for Morocco’s inclination for expansionism and regional hegemony to block Algeria’s initiatives for friendly bilateral ties and regional stability.
The latest news, mostly including Algiers’ long silence after King Mohammed VI’s repeated offers for “frank” and “brotherly” dialogue, does not corroborate the Algerian FM’s logic. He continued to make his case, however, saying his country is now setting out to “examine problems with Morocco, including the Western Sahara issue.” And what would happen after Algeria has examined the problem? Would that, for example, lead to the much-anticipated but consistently frustrated settlement hopes for Western Sahara?
Boukadoum did not directly address such questions. He stressed, though, for the sake of anyone who might be doubtful of his country’s genuine interest in “political solutions,” that Algiers and Rabat owe it to their shared histories and similar social traits to collaborate and put an end to decades of hostilities and proxy war.
As the Algerian FM shrewdly shunned suggestions of Algeria’s full involvement in the Western Sahara dispute, his assuredness when speaking of Algeria’s willingness to “examine” the standoff with Morocco on the Sahara question was understandably meant to showcase Algeria’s unmistakable regional significance. At the same time, however, Boukadom also appeared to unwittingly buttress one point Morocco has repeatedly raised in discussions over lasting settlement for Western Sahara: That Algeria sets the tone for Polisario.
But that was only the least remarkable of the two developments mentioned at the outset.
The second development came amid talks of growing security risks and of impending terrorist acts in Tindouf, an Algerian province that is home to the Polisario-run refugee camps.
As Islamist groups set their sight on Africa and cause havoc in the Sahel region, a number of reports from foreign intelligence services marked the entire Sahel as potentially dangerous for travelers—especially Western nationals.
Spain, the first country to officially sound the alarm over a concerning situation it described as stemming from “real” and “imminent” terrorist threats “confirmed by foreign secret services working in the region,” warned its citizens against traveling to the Polisario-run camps.
As should be expected, Polisario’s response to Spain’s “attempts to distort” the camps’ reputation not only dismissed the security warnings, but it accused Madrid of conniving with Rabat to organize a smear campaign against Polisario and its “Sahrawi cause.”
Polisario suggested the warnings were nothing but Spain peddling Moroccan tropes to embarrass the Polisario leadership and undermine its fight for self-determination in the disputed territories.
“Once again, the Spanish government unfortunately seeks to create ambiguity and confusion, and even paint a fabricated picture of fear and imminent danger in the Sahrawi refugee camps. It is the same government that had previously sought to compel humanitarian organizations to cease their activities in the camps and to reduce the humanitarian support provided to the refugees in consonance with the campaign led by Morocco and France,” Polisario’s response notably said.
The idea behind the militant group’s swift response was that it was in total control of ongoings in the Tindouf camps and that any other idea to the contrary was inaccurate and politically motivated.
Algeria’s alleged warning and Polisario’s silence
Amid the noise that resulted from that first wave of reports and counter-reports, TSA, one of the most reliable Algerian news outlets—especially on matters related to the developments within spaces of power in Algiers— reported similar security warnings from Algeria. TSA indicated that Algeria had provided the UN peacekeeping Mission in Western Sahara with “information regarding preparations to kidnap foreign nationals in the refugee camps and in areas east of the [Morocco’s defense] wall.”
The news did not only confirm Spain’s narrative over Polisario’s; it also made—unintentionally, of course—a mockery of Polisario’s claims that Morocco was behind the “fabricated” security warnings. From Polisario came deafening silence, not knowing what, or whether, to reply to statements attributed to Algiers. It would have been both out of place and counterintuitive to deny Algeria’s reported warnings. But lurking beneath Polisario’s silence was Morocco’s suggestion that Tindouf is actually under Algerian control, with the Polisario leadership a figurehead, an outlet for Algeria’s regional ambitions.
Things, however, got even more colorful at that point, with Algeria now flying to the defense of its protege—the Polisario leadership—to deny reports by a news outlet (TSA) whose reliability is partly due to its known closeness to the Algerian regime, its connections in the high places of Algiers’s political and military establishments.
Also, TSA had not quoted an unnamed senior official, the usual anonymity card government officials use when speaking to the press on sensitive matters. Anonymity comes with the promise of convenient deniability. TSA had directly quoted “the Algerian government,” citing an official statement to which it had been granted access. This made the news more reliable, less vague and less doubtful than the usual “an anonymous government official said” type of reporting.
Tindouf is Algeria’s business
Yet, Algiers roundly denied the reports, with Abdelaziz Benali-Cherif, the spokesperson for the Algerian government, describing them as “false and unfounded.” The reports, Benali-Cherif said, were intended to “harm Algeria, its people, and its institutions.” More important still, the Algerian official added what, from a Moroccan perspective, hit the jackpot. “Tindouf camps are on Algerian territory and so their security is entrusted to the [Algerian] national army.”
While well-intended in its defense of Polisario’s denial of Spain’s warnings, Algiers made matters more complicated for a militant group earnestly claiming “full control” and sovereignty in the Tindouf camps, which it tellingly refers to as its capital city.
Polisario’s response to Spain said it was in full command in Tindouf and knows whatever happens in the camps’ remotest corner. And yet there was Algeria, strenuously siding with Polisario’s denial of growing insecurity in Tindouf but somehow hurting the group’s sovereignty claims. To say that security in Tindouf is “entrusted to” the Algerian army makes Polisario look like what Morocco has long presented it to be: an offspring of the Algerian military-industrial complex.
Morocco’s point has always been that Algiers does not only lobby diplomatically to advance the “Sahrawi cause.” Algeria, Morocco has maintained over the years, sets the ground for Polisario, informs the tone of its self-determination-suffused rhetoric, fuels its “Sahrawi nationalism” narrative, and provides it with military logistics and personnel.
Sandwiched between foreign warnings of instability in Tindouf and confirmations of such reports from its own backyard, Algeria could only come up with an ill-conceived denial that reinforced the very perception it set out to dispel: That Polisario operates at Algiers’s behest.
“It is Algeria that hosts, arms, backs up, and brings diplomatic support for the Polisario,” Morocco’s King Mohammed VI emphasized in an April 2018 written note he addressed to the UN Secretary-General.
While Algeria has often dismissed Morocco’s insistent claims that it bears “full responsibility” in the Western Sahara dispute, preferring to conveniently refer to itself as an “observer state,” the episode of narratives and counter-narratives around security in Tindouf is perhaps the closest thing to an inadvertent admission from Algeria that it does indeed have a lot to do with Polisario’s “Sahrawi cause” and virtually everything else that takes place in the Polisario-run territory.
Meanwhile, amid the Morocco-Algeria proxy war in the region, there recently emerged glimpses of mounting exasperation among Polisario leaders at Algiers’s all-powerful grip on the front’s every move.
In a recent interview, Bachir Mustapha Sayed, a senior Polisario member, appeared to be expressing displeasure at the fact that the militant group has no sovereignty over the camps it supposedly runs. Every move and consequential decision in relation with Tindouf, Sayed said, is actually dictated by Algiers. Nothing could be farther from being an “observer” state.