Within two months of the death of King Hassan II and the enthronement of his eldest son, King Mohammed VI in July 1999, a series of demonstrations erupted in the Western Sahara. This territory has been administered by the Kingdom of Morocco since 1976, though Morocco’s claim of sovereignty in the Western Sahara is not recognized internationally. Since September 1991, the United Nations has deployed a mission there to organize a referendum that would give qualified Sahrawi voters the choice of integration into Morocco or independence.

Since its arrival in 1976, the Moroccan administration has governed the territory with a firm and sometimes heavy hand. In particular, it has not tolerated any expression of pro-independence sentiment by the local Sahrawi population. Those who dared to speak out were dealt with harshly; many were seized or arrested and imprisoned. Though last year’s demonstrators stopped well short of calling for independence, their actions expressed a variety of grievances held by the local population. There was no relation between the demonstrations and the Polisario Front, the national liberation movement that has been struggling since 1973 to establish an independent state in the Western Sahara.

Diverse Aims

The first wave of demonstrations took place from September 22-29, 1999 in Laayoune, home to a large part of the population of the Western Sahara. A sleepy administrative center of 25,000 inhabitants at the time of the Spanish departure in 1975-1976, Laayoune is now a bustling and increasingly Moroccanized city of nearly 200,000. In 1991, tens of thousands of people, who now live mostly in cinderblock bidonvilles, were brought into Laayoune by the Moroccan government to facilitate their participation in the referendum anticipated for January 1992. Since then, these people have been supported and sustained by the government.

The Laayoune demonstrations’ organizational push came from Sahrawi students enrolled in university or technical studies in Agadir, Rabat and Marrakesh. The students sought to double the size of their scholarships and to obtain further financial aid to cover the transportation costs for the long journeys to and from their homes. Former Sahrawi political prisoners, part of a total of 320 who had been released from prison under King Hassan II’s general amnesty of June 1991, joined the students in the demonstrations. The former prisoners included members of the Coordination Committee of Sahrawi Groups Surviving Forced Disappearance and Arbitrary Detention, an unrecognized (that is, illegal) 12-member group formed in November 1998. The former prisoners protested that they had not received compensatory benefits promised by the government, and that they were obliged, in order to receive indemnification, to sign away their rights to future claims and the right of appeal. Beyond indemnification, the former prisoners were seeking information about Sahrawis who “disappeared” before 1991 and death certificates for the 57 Sahrawis who have died in prison.

Angry miners from Phosboucraa, a subsidiary of the Moroccan parastatal Cherifian Office of Phosphates (OCP), also participated in the demonstrations. When OCP received majority ownership of Phosboucraa in a 1975 agreement with the Spanish, a contract was negotiated that guaranteed Sahrawi miners their same wages and retirement benefits. The miners claim that Phosboucraa has refused to honor these terms, while the company management argues that these terms should be made consistent with the wages and benefits all OCP miners receive. Phosboucraa management claimed, further, that the Sahrawi miners who participated in the demonstrations were retired relatives of the disgruntled students. Sahrawi unemployed graduates (chômeurs diplomés) also participated in the demonstrations.

The September 1999 demonstrations kicked off a series of demonstrations in the several months that followed. Protesters hit the streets in Laayoune (October 30-31), in Smara in the Western Sahara, in Agadir, in Marrakesh on May 17, 2000, and in Rabat on the same day. Some of the Sahrawis living in Moroccan towns were students from the Western Sahara pursuing their higher education, while others were members of Sahrawi families who fled the territory in 1957-1958 in the wake of an unsuccessful insurrection against Spanish and French military forces. The grievances manifested in all these demonstrations reflected, but were not limited to, the demands expressed by the Laayoune demonstrators in September 1999.

In January-February 2000, three Sahrawi men living in Agadir, who worked as low-level government employees, were arrested and charged with spying for unknown foreign powers (read the Polisario Front and Algeria). The three were tried and convicted; one man was given a four-year prison sentence and the other two were given three-year sentences. Their lawyer appealed all three verdicts. In a travesty of judicial review, the appellate court refused to hear the case and then increased the sentences of the two men with lesser sentences to four years. This case sparked a new series of demonstrations in the following weeks in Agadir, Marrakesh, Rabat and Laayoune. The immediate cause of the Marrakesh demonstration on May 17 was the aggressive behavior of two local policemen. The policemen had been drinking and harassing a Moroccan coed, who sought refuge in some Sahrawi students’ dormitory room. When the police treated these students roughly, other students took to the streets the next day in protest.

The Government’s Mixed Response

The Moroccan government responded to these demonstrations with a combination of tough police action and administrative reform. During the demonstrations in Laayoune in late September and the end of October 1999, the police are reported to have used “brutal force” to disperse the demonstrators, beating people with batons. Moroccan human rights organizations allege that police unlawfully entered Laayoune homes at the end of October to arrest and detain protesters sought by the authorities. Substantial evidence, including photographs, indicates that local police systematically beat some of the detainees. A US State Department report says that police encouraged local thugs to intimidate various Sahrawi families in Laayoune by breaking into, looting and destroying their private shops, and attacking local Sahrawi residents. [1]

In the days surrounding the first round of demonstrations in Laayoune in September 1999, nearly 150 persons were detained. Most of those detained were subsequently released, though 26 persons — the local thugs encouraged to act by the Laayoune police — were charged with destruction of property and sentenced to 10-15 years in prison. [2] In the last four months of 1999, some 40 Sahrawis were arrested following their participation in the demonstrations, plus another 50 in the first half of 2000. By July 2000, about 100 Sahrawis had been arrested since the September demonstrations and were in detention, either convicted or awaiting trial.

According to a US State Department report, there is credible evidence that there was considerable disregard of accepted judicial procedures in the arrests and trials of these persons. Moroccan human rights organizations made some initial efforts to monitor the Laayoune demonstrations and lodge protests with the government. Overall, however, Sahrawis’ cases have not been a high priority for the Moroccan Organization of Human Rights (OMDH), the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) or the League for the Defense of Human Rights (LMDH). This relative lack of interest in Sahrawis whose human rights have been violated has been hard for the Sahrawis involved and foreign observers to understand.

In the wake of the harsh tactics used by local police to deal with the first round of demonstrations, the government took various actions to avoid further outbreaks of violence. King Mohammed VI quickly replaced the liaison between the Ministry of Interior and the UN Mission in the Western Sahara (MINURSO), Governor Mohammed Azmi, with a diplomat from the Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Mohammed Loulichki; he removed the local police chief, the deputy police chief, the pasha of Laayoune and two district heads (caïd d’arrondissement) in Laayoune; and he dispatched military security forces to restore order. These forces were welcomed by the local population, which preferred them to the police. Subsequently, some police officials were transferred out of Laayoune. [3]

In his speech of October 6, 1999, the new king announced that he had decided to deal with the Sahara issue “according to a new vision, allowing fairness, objectivity and realism.” This new vision included the creation, on September 23, of the Royal Follow-Up Commission of Saharan Affairs, which was to make suggestions to the king on such issues as housing and economic infrastructure in the Western Sahara. The commission held its first meeting on October 25. Mohammed VI then called into action the Royal Consultative Council for Saharan Affairs. Created by his father, the late King Hassan II, in 1991, the council had never met. King Mohammed VI changed the council’s membership basis from appointment to election. Earlier, on August 16, 1999, the king had set up an arbitration panel to award indemnification to all former victims of forced disappearance and arbitrary detention. The panel has a total of 5,879 claims to arbitrate, including several hundred former Sahrawi prisoners. In July 2000, it awarded its first indemnities to 68 persons whose cases were among the best known and studied. [4]

Thus far, former Sahrawi prisoners take issue with the composition of the arbitration panel and are not prepared to sign away in advance their rights to appeal the panel’s decisions. The 378 former Sahrawi prisoners include 57 people who died while in prison and 17 others who died after their release in 1991; these claims are now represented by the families of the deceased.

Only two of the 304 former prisoners still living have agreed to the panel’s procedures.

Delegation to Laayoune

Sahrawi students who had demonstrated in Laayoune did not rely on Moroccan media to present their case. They sent a delegation to Rabat where they met with representatives of various political parties, including the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), whose leader, Abderrahman Youssoufi, has been Morocco’s prime minister since February 1998. To examine the Sahrawi grievances, a delegation of leaders of the Koutla — a progressive bloc of four parties (including the USFP) which form part of the Youssoufi government — went to Laayoune in April. The Kutla leaders met with 17 delegations from various parts of the Western Sahara, and their frank exchanges included sharp criticisms in the presence of the local administration.

The Koutla delegation found that with the progressive Moroccanization of the Western Sahara since 1976, Sahrawis were experiencing some of the same problems familiar throughout Morocco — the lack of effective intermediaries between the population and the authorities and heavy-handed control by the Ministry of Interior, a legacy of the system headed by the former minister of interior, Driss Basri, from the late 1970s until his removal by Mohammed VI in November 1999. The delegation issued a communiqué which stressed a variety of local grievances, and it subsequently transmitted them to its representatives in the government. The Koutla delegation’s communiqué also insisted on the principle of Morocco’s territorial unity, which, in its view, cannot be subject to negotiation or concession. [5]

The Sahrawi students were able to air their grievances in Rabat, which helped to promote the wider exchanges with the Koutla delegation in April. Nonetheless, further demonstrations were held on May 17, in both Marrakesh and Rabat, where a total of 51 persons were reportedly arrested. According to former Sahrawi prisoners interviewed in Laayoune in July, there has been no perceptible improvement in their situation. They still feel intimidated from expressing their political views openly. They claim their pro-independence sentiments are widely shared by Sahrawis living in the territory, though it is impossible in the present circumstances to confirm. They claim further that at the time of the police beatings in September 1999, Moroccan residents of the cinderblock bidonvilles came to their defense, and that since then a previously absent solidarity has developed between some of these people and the Sahrawi population of Laayoune.

Morocco and the Western Sahara

Has there been any shift in Morocco’s position on the Western Sahara during King Mohammed VI’s first year and a half on the throne? As noted above, the king took several steps to lighten the heavy hand of Moroccan administration in the territory. He took other actions on the national level — for example, the creation of an arbitration panel in August 1999 — that affect Sahrawis as well. But the main lines of his Saharan policy have substantially continued his father’s campaign to assert and defend Morocco’s historic rights to the Sahara, to “recover” the territory and to integrate it into the Kingdom of Morocco. Despite half-hearted pressure from the US and UN, Mohammed VI delayed a scheduled referendum over independence in the Western Sahara indefinitely.

In a rare public interview in June 2000, the king took a firm position on Algeria’s important role in the problem. He stated “frankly” that the Sahara issue “is a problem between Morocco and Algeria,” and said of the Polisario Front’s government-in-exile, the Saharan Democratic Arab Republic (RASD), “This is Algeria’s creation.” [6] In view of the strong political consensus within Morocco against concessions on the Sahara issue and King Mohammed VI’s strong stand on Algeria’s involvement, it is very unlikely that Morocco’s Saharan policy will shift dramatically in the foreseeable future.


[1] US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “1999 State Department Human Rights Report on Morocco,” mimeo., February 25, 2000, pp. 4, 5, 7, 10 and 14. According to p. 10 of this report, “Human rights NGOs claim that such police actions created a ‘climate of fear’ in the city, forcing some families to flee the city or change residences nightly to avoid such police actions.”
[2] Ibid., p. 14.
[3] Ibid., pp. 5, 14.
[4] The amounts of compensation awarded by the “Instance d’arbitrage indépendante pour l’indemnisation des victimes de la disparition forcée et de la détention arbitraire” varied from $5,000-$15,000 for one category of persons to $25,000-$300,000 for another category. Demain, July 22-September 8, 2000.
[5] Le Journal 119, April 22-26, 2000.
[6] Time (international edition), June 26, 2000.

How to cite this article:

John Damis "Sahrawi Demonstrations," Middle East Report 218 (Spring 2001).

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