Colonialism changed the country’s map, but the Sahara has long been -- and will continue to be -- an important part of Morocco’s history, culture, geography, and identity.
In many maps of the world, especially those created in Western countries, Morocco appears divided into two sections, with a dotted line separating its southern provinces from the north. This false conception of Morocco’s modern borders stems from a lengthy history of colonialism and conflict.
Throughout French colonization of Algeria and then Morocco, the Moroccan territory shrunk as the Algerian territory expanded. Until 1830, what is now Algeria was a Turkish-controlled territory. When the French took control of its new possession, it later unified it and called it French Algeria. As France considered its Algerian possession part of its French territory as opposed to a colony, it sought to expand Algeria at the expense of Morocco.
According to history books, by the time France took control of what is now Algeria, its area did not exceed 300,000 square kilometers. By 1920, French Algeria covered 575,000 square kilometers. When Algeria obtained its independence, it inherited a territory of 2,400,000 square kilometers. After the French-Morocco treaty of Lalla Marnia was signed in 1845, France started its journey towards amputating Morocco’s territory and taking unilateral decisions to map borders between Morocco and French Algeria.
With the signing of the French protectorate in March 1912 up until 1956, France had free reign to further annex other parts of Morocco to its French territory in Algeria. To achieve this goal, it promulgated royal decrees that Morocco’s Kings of the time, who exercised only nominal authority over the country, were obliged to sign.
France’s design to expand its French Algeria’s territory took another turn with the establishment of the La Ligne de Trinuqet (Line of Trinquet), named after the French general who decided to map the Moroccan-Algeria border in 1938. As a result of this decision, the regions of Tindouf and Colom Bechar were placed within the French Algeria territory. This decision, negotiated between French military officials without the consent of then Morocco’s King Mohammed V, served as the basis of the official Morocco-Algeria borders on the map when the former recovered its independence in 1956.
As French historian Sebastian Boussois put it, “It was without thinking about the future consequences of such an arbitrary act since all these territories are under the domination of France. Without official recognition, this virtual line negotiated between French officers for logistical reasons will serve as a basis for fixing the Moroccan-Algerian border in 1956, thus freezing the future of the problems between the two countries in vagueness, (…) However, in 1932, warned by Mohamed V, Lyautey publicly protests against the attachment of Mauritanian territories to French West Africa, arguing that they were under the authority of the Sultan.”
French and Spain’s imposition of unilateral delimitations of borders to serve their colonial ambitions set the stage for an intractable diplomatic imbroglio over Western Sahara.
By the late 19th century, not only did France covet Morocco, but so did Spain and the United Kingdom. While France, the UK, and Spain discussed their respective spheres of influence in Morocco, they did not account for Morocco’s historical rights over its territory. Nor did they consult Morocco before signing an agreement between France and the United Kingdom on the one hand, and between France and Spain on the other hand.
In April 1904, France and the United Kingdom signed a treaty by virtue of which the UK recognized France’s free hand in Morocco. That agreement included a number of confidential dispositions. One of these dispositions stipulated that France could cede northern and southern Morocco, including Western Sahara, as part of its sphere of influence.
The disposition further stressed that France could not undertake any action that would alter the status of Western Sahara as Moroccan territory as set out in the treaty that the United Kingdom signed with Morocco in March 1895. In that treaty, London recognized that what has come to be known as Western Sahara on many maps was Moroccan territory.
However, when France signed a treaty with Spain in October 1904, it violated the letter and spirit of the agreement it had signed months earlier with the United Kingdom. France, in fact, ceded Western Sahara to Spain in full possession as sovereignty, which was a violation of international law.
As the protectorate ended, Spain remained on the map of Morocco with its two coastal enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, but left Western Sahara in 1975 to joint Moroccan-Mauritanian control. Meanwhile, Algeria gained the Tindouf and Colom Bechar regions, under France’s annexation.
While a newly independent Morocco helped Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) as it waged a bloody independence war against France, France’s General de Gaulle offered to return to Morocco the regions in the Algerian borders, in exchange for the late King Mohammed V renouncing support for Algeria.
The Moroccan King refused, however. He opted, instead, in the spirit of brotherhood and a shared history, to negotiate the border issues with Algeria’s leader once the country had achieved independence.
Polisario and Moroccan nationalism
Often airbrushed from popular discussions on Western Sahara and its presentation on the map is the fact that the region’s independence was integral to Moroccan nationalism in the 1950s. Even after Morocco achieved its independence in 1956, Moroccan nationalists continued to push for the recovery of the “Moroccan Sahara” from Spain.
“While Morocco is independent today, it is not yet completely unified,” Moroccan nationalist leader Allal El Fassi said in June 1956. “Moroccans will continue the struggle until Tanger, Spain-occupied Sahara… are all liberated and reunified. Our independence is incomplete without the Sahara.”
By January 1957, the Moroccan Army of Liberation, the armed wing of Morocco’s Independence Party, was had already began to map a military campaign to liberate Western Sahara and other “Moroccan provinces under joint French-Spanish control.”
After mounting a few victorious assaults on Spanish positions in the Sahara, a furious French-Spanish coalition forced the group into retreat. Paris had not swallowed Rabat’s rejection of its plans for Tindouf and Colom Bechar, and was out to punish such an “affront” from a newly independent Morocco.
The Moroccan monarchy appeared to opt for prudence and negotiations with the understanding, ostensibly, that a newly independent Morocco had extremely slim chances of victory by frontally confronting Spain and its French ally. Therefore, this episode of armed struggle eventually faded.
For Morocco, however, this did not amount to relinquishing its historical, legitimate claims on Western Sahara. As Rabat saw it, these early setbacks meant the newly independent nation ought to explore other avenues for its reunification struggle, or perhaps simply wait for a more propitious occasion to engage Spain.
Further afield, the late 1960s and early 1970s added an unprecedented layer of urgency and renewed vigor to the Sahara question. Algeria, now independent, had a sudden — but predictable — change of heart about its pre-independence territorial agreements with Morocco.
Compounding the new Algerian attitude towards Morocco’s Western Sahara stance was the outcome of the 1963 Sand War between the two neighbors. Morocco won the confrontation, but Algeria appeared to emerge from it with a more vigorous commitment to countering Morocco’s claims over the Sahara.
In the early 1970s, a group of young Sahrawi students in Rabat started talking about picking up the “struggle for independence and reunification” where Istiqlal, the Moroccan Independence party, had left off. In the “tiny apartment” that Istiqlal put at their disposal in Agdal, Rabat, Attilio Gaudio writes in his authoritative account of the Western Sahara conflict, the young nationalists’ discussions highlighted one overarching goal: Chasing out Spain and hoisting the Moroccan flag in a liberated Sahara.
As it became clear to them that Rabat still thought a negotiated Spanish exit from the Sahara was possible, however, the young nationalists started looking for other sponsors.
They gradually relinquished both their movement’s long history with Moroccan nationalism and its long-standing commitment to the “Moroccanness of the Sahara.” They asked Libya and Algeria for help and, unsurprisingly, Algeria fervently jumped on the “Sahrawi nationalism” bandwagon in 1974.
In many ways, the Western Sahara conflict intensified in its modern, ongoing form when Algeria used the creation of the Polisario Front in 1973 to its advantage. Still harboring bitter memories from the Sand War, Algeria saw in the new militant front a golden opportunity to weaken Morocco and prevent it from achieving its territorial integrity.
After Morocco’s Green March in 1975 and Spain’s subsequent withdrawal from the Sahara, Algeria doubled its financial and military support for Polisario. Algiers provided the front with a base of operations in Tindouf, southern Algeria, leading the self-styled “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic” in fighting Mauritania and Morocco for “independence.”
Following an intense armed struggle, Mauritania withdrew from the conflict in 1979 and Morocco recovered the Oued-Ed Dahab region.
Colonialism changed the map of Morocco, but the Sahara has long been — and will continue to be — an important part of the country’s history, culture, geography, and identity.
On November 14, 2020, Polisario announced the end of its 29-year-old ceasefire when Morocco’s army acted in Guerguerat, where Polisario supporters had staged a blockade for weeks, disrupting cross-border civilian and commercial traffic. Guerguerat is part of the buffer zone monitored by MINURSO, the UN peacemaking mission in Western Sahara.
Morocco’s government has actively engaged in the UN-led political process for years as part of its commitment to finding an agreed-upon and mutually acceptable solution to the Western Sahara conflict.
Among Morocco’s efforts is its Autonomy Plan proposal. The North African country submitted its Autonomy Plan to the UN Security Council in 2007. It suggests turning Morocco’s southern provinces in Western Sahara into an autonomous region.
Under the plan, the southern provinces’ population would independently manage questions related to social, economic, and political development. Meanwhile, Morocco’s central government would tackle issues of national interest, such as defense and diplomacy.
As part of its attachment to the region, Morocco also launched a series of development projects to make its southern provinces a major investment and development hub while improving the living standards of local populations.
Morocco is not only attached to its southern provinces, but also considers the region as a bridge between the country and its African roots.
On the 45th anniversary of Morocco’s Green March earlier this month, King Mohammed VI said Morocco’s southern provinces will turn into “an engine of development at the regional and continental levels.”
Meanwhile, Morocco’s call for a compromise-based and pragmatic solution has in the past two decades won notable plaudits in the international community. Most Sahara watchers see the country’s Autonomy Plan — which the UN Security Council has described as “serious” and “credible” — as the most viable route to a lasting solution to the dispute.
As such, observers have suggested that renewed international interest in Western Sahara, spurred by Polisario’s illegal, defiant maneuvers in the buffer zone, stems from the militant front’s perceived desire to alter the new, emerging geopolitical fault lines on the Sahara question.
With its escalation and open war threats, the argument goes, a frustrated Polisario Front merely hopes to disrupt what is increasingly looking like a decisively pro-Morocco momentum.
Tamba Francois Koundouno and Safaa Kasraoui contributed to this essay.