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Qaddafi’s fall strengthens Morocco over Western Sahara

Published:

The fall of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi means a change in the geopolitics of north Africa that could put the conflict in the Western Sahara back in the spotlight, regional observers said.

A source of recurrent tension between Morocco and Algeria, the 36-year-old conflict also strained ties between Rabat and Tripoli: Qaddafi backed Polisario Front, the independence movement in the Western Sahara.

This support, which ebbed and flowed depending on Qaddafi’s frame of mind, long prevented his Jamahiriya “people’s republic” and the Moroccan kingdom from maintaining stable relations.

When Libyan rebels announced their victory towards the end of August, Morocco was one of the first countries to send its foreign minister, Taeib Fassi Fihri, to Benghazi to express support for the new regime.

Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) swiftly aired its views on the issue of the Western Sahara.

“The future of the Sahara can only be conceived under the sovereignty” of Morocco, NTC spokesman in London Guma al-Gamaty said on regional television in Laayoune, the capital of the Western Sahara.

From that point on, neighboring Algeria became the sole main political and financial supporter of the Polisario Front.

The Front has been observing a ceasefire with Morocco for two decades, while the United Nations attempts to organize a referendum on the future of the territory.

In this context, NATO’s intervention in Libya and the active role of France in the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime could change the regional situation. It may lead the international community to press for a rapid solution to the Western Sahara conflict.

“The cards will be reshuffled, and in terms of the requests the countries of the south could make on the north, Morocco could include the Western Sahara,” said Khadija Mohsen-Finan, a researcher at Paris-VIII University.

“Now, a new partner has come out of the woods: NATO,” Finan, a specialist in north African affairs, added.

“And France in particular is saying that we need to reconsider relations between the north and south of the Mediterranean.

“Even if the position of Algeria regarding this conflict has not changed, because it continues actively to support the Polisario Front, the new regional situation could lead the international community to press for a rapid solution to this conflict,” Finan concluded.

For Mustapha Naimi, a researcher at the University Institute of Scientific Research in Rabat, Algeria appears today to be isolated in the north African region, despite its links to NATO and the United States.

“Algeria remains a reliable partner in terms of cooperation and security exchanges concerning the region, as much with the United States as with NATO,” he said.

But Algeria “is sticking to positions of principle that isolate it and today appear overtaken by events,” Naimi said.

“Certainly, what interests France today is the economy, and the French can no longer intervene politically on behalf of either party,” Mohsen-Finan said.

“But France can put the Western Sahara issue high on the agenda of priorities, in an international framework,” she added.

Rabat proposes considerable autonomy to the Western Sahara, with its own government and parliament, but insists that sovereignty is not negotiable.

The Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, seeks “the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination.”

The Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony annexed in 1975 by Morocco, which lays a historical claim to the phosphate-rich territory.