Moroccan Throne Appears at Stake in a Historic Western Sahara Vote : North Africa: A 16-year war has been waged over control of the region.


There is little in this land of wind-swept dunes and rocky flats to covet.

The Sahara here rises up on ocher bluffs from a barren coastline and stretches, vacant and silent, over thousands of miles. Sand creeps across the lonely, two-lane highway that cuts through the desert to the Mauritanian frontier. There is sand on the sill under the windows of the inns, sand mounting in wind-swirled hills past the last house on the edge of town, sand piled in low drifts on a loading wharf a mile and a half out to sea.

One of the Arab world’s longest-running wars has been waged over this barren landscape, a conflict that for 16 years has pitted a band of guerrilla nomads against the wealthy regime of Morocco’s King Hassan II--a conflict that at first glance appears to be about the Western Sahara’s rich phosphate deposits but in fact is about who will dominate North Africa.

The Arab world has become a remarkably different region in the years since this bloody desert war began. The old conflicts between radical socialist regimes and pro-Western nations that quietly fed the Sahara war are easing into the past, as they have elsewhere in the world. The guerrilla fighters are running out of money and beginning to argue among themselves. Hassan himself has been stretched thin, bucking the opposition of his African neighbors and much of the rest of the world while maintaining an army upward of 100,000 men patrolling a wall that divides a desert wasteland.

And, perhaps as important as anything else, the end of the Persian Gulf War has brought a new impatience in much of the rest of the world to close the door on many of the miserable conflicts that have plagued the Arab world for half a century.


Now a U.N. peacekeeping force has arrived here to take up positions in the disputed desert territory and begin directing a referendum that will determine, once and for all, who is the master of the Western Sahara: Morocco, which claims the region as part of a historical domain that predates the Spanish colonization of northwest Africa, or the native Sahrawis who have fought under the banner of the Algerian-backed Polisario Front for an independent republic in the Sahara.

At stake, say European leaders, is the final decolonization of Africa--as well, say others, as the fate of one of America’s strongest allies in the region. Hassan has staked much of his own legitimacy on holding the Sahara, into which he sent 350,000 Moroccan civilians marching on foot 16 years ago to claim the territory and into which he has since poured upward of $1 billion out of Morocco’s troubled economy in an effort to win the hearts of the Sahrawis and lure wandering Sahrawi refugees home.

“The throne is at stake, there is no doubt about it,” said one Western diplomat in Rabat. “Nobody has wanted to forecast what would happen to the king if the referendum went against him. He has staked so much on the recovery of the Sahara.”

The roots of the conflict go back to the mid-1970s, when Spain, under international pressure and the onslaught of Morocco’s marching civilians, pulled out of the old Spanish Sahara, abandoning plans for a referendum over self-determination and leaving Morocco and Mauritania to split the territory.

Mauritania forfeited its interest a few years later, leaving Moroccan troops in control of the vast majority of the more than 100,000 square miles of territory--countered by a small but well-equipped army of Sahrawi guerrillas who formed the Polisario Front, declared an independent Saharan republic and launched the first of many years of violent hit-and-run raids on Moroccan military positions in the sprawling desert.

Tens of thousands of desert nomads have fled the fighting and gathered in refugee camps run by the Polisario in southwestern Algeria, home of the original freedom fighters of North Africa, who for years acted as patrons of the Polisario and countless other radical national liberation movements around the world. Libya, also eager to destabilize Hassan’s pro-U.S. regime, sent the Polisario money for military supplies up to the early 1980s, when it patched up relations with Morocco.

Now Algeria itself has abandoned much of its old revolutionary rhetoric, pushing socialist hard-liners out of the government, restoring relations with neighboring Morocco--and leaving the Polisario with little more than humanitarian assistance for the up to 120,000 refugees packed into four camps near Tindouf, close to the Algerian-Saharan border, and statements of encouragement.

It is Layoun, squarely in Moroccan-held territory, that is the heart of the Western Sahara and the place where the referendum, tentatively set for January, will most likely be decided.

It is in many ways a typical Saharan town of squat houses and dusty marketplaces, but it is also the place where the desert culture of the Sahrawis and that of the cosmopolitan Moroccans are curiously intertwined.

Video shops featuring the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger movies can be found next to stands selling ostrich eggs and herbal potions. Young Moroccans who came to the Sahara during the 1975 Green March, or later, to take advantage of lucrative tax and other financial advantages that Morocco offers as an incentive to settle in the Sahara, sit in slacks and T-shirts in the cafes next to Sahrawis in colorful flowing robes and head scarves.

Western diplomats estimate that at least half of Layoun’s 100,000 residents are Moroccans who settled there after the Spanish left in 1975.

“It is our land,” said Mohammed, 27, who came to the Sahara with his family when he was only 10 years old. “For us, there is no other way. . . . All people will choose Morocco, because everything you want to find is here.”

Jouman Tayeb, manager of the phosphate exporting plant on the coast at Layoun that is the economic lifeblood of the Western Sahara, said he is sure that most Sahrawis will vote to join Morocco.

“The referendum, for me, is only to open the gate to the other people who are sequestered (in the camps) at Tindouf to come back home,” he said. “The Sahara was always Moroccan, and it can never be anything else.”

Over a time, there is a kind of eerie repetition of such phrases. Hassan has said the same thing repeatedly, declaring that the referendum is intended to confirm what everyone has always known: that the Sahara belongs to Morocco. Indeed, under Moroccan law, there are only three things that cannot be questioned: Islam, the monarchy and the Moroccan identity of the Western Sahara.

Amnesty International not long ago reported indications that hundreds of Western Saharan civilians who “disappeared” up to 15 years ago for alleged support of the Polisario are still in secret detention or are dead.

More than 300 detainees released in a general pardon of Sahrawi prisoners in June reported that at least 43 others have died in custody and hundreds of others remain unaccounted for, the London-based human rights group said.

A young Sahrawi shop owner in Layoun looked outside nervously when approached by a reporter. “I think most of the Sahrawi here, maybe all of them, they will vote to be independent,” he said quietly. “With the Moroccans, it is bad. The government, the police, they are bad. They take the money from the people, they arrest them, there is no freedom here. All they want is the phosphates, you know? We want to be independent.”

In fact, Moroccan officials say the Sahara’s huge phosphate exporting facility at Layoun has been a burden, not a boon, in an international phosphate market that has gone sour. The government keeps the plant open so that the staff of 2,800 Sahrawis will stay employed, but the facility has been losing money for several years, said Yadhih Bouchaab, a spokesman for the Layoun government.

It is, Bouchaab said, only part of what Morocco has done for Layoun and the smaller surrounding towns of the Sahara, into which it has poured at least $1 billion in civilian expenditures since 1975.

Although Layoun is in many ways a typical Saharan town, some things stand out: the large, grass-equipped soccer stadium, the well-equipped hospital, 25 schools, the sewage system and a modern conference center. Neat rows of new condominiums stand empty on the outskirts of town, ready to receive disaffected refugees from Algeria.

Scores of other empty lots are ready for building, fitted with water lines and power poles--anticipating the day when the referendum will solidify Morocco’s hold over the region and the Sahrawis will come home.

There has in the past been some public grumbling about the Sahara, a few complaining about the large amounts of money and commodities pouring into the south and about the long and fitful war. Some have wondered about the advisability of taking on a population they disdainfully describe as mostly black and illiterate. (Even in Arab countries, there is some discrimination against those with darker skin.)

Yet the majority of Moroccans are so genuinely committed to keeping the Sahara that it is the one issue that has solidified Hassan’s hold on the country in the face of potentially divisive economic and political troubles that plunged some areas of the country into riots last year.

The opposition parties have demanded an end to the monarchy’s monopoly on political power, but on the issue of the Western Sahara, they are even more emphatic than the king.

“Personally, I must say that it is an eventuality which cannot happen,” Ali Yata, 71, secretary general of the Progressive Socialist Party, said of the possibility of losing the referendum. “Economically, politically, socially, the Western Sahara is part of the historical dynasty of Morocco, and no one has ever contested its Moroccanness. We are in the Sahara, and we will stay in the Sahara.”

A prominent academic from Rabat said some intellectuals have had to battle with their natural inclinations when analyzing the Western Sahara.

“There are some concepts that are very sacred for us--concepts like freedom fighters, self-determination, concepts like the right of people to decide for themselves,” he said. “But when you think about it, you realize it’s a very simplistic picture. . . . Any piece of any country could claim that ‘we have some sort of ethnic or geographical peculiarity, and we want to separate.’ . . .

“Of course, the Sahara question has been costly economically to the country,” he added. “We all feel it. There have been times when there have been shortages of goods and products, and people have known that it is because it has gone to the Sahara. But at the same time, maybe that gives us all the reason to say we have to have that piece of land.”

It used to be that Morocco had no question but that it would prevail in a referendum. Publicly, Moroccan officials say they have no doubts still. Yet diplomats here say privately that there are doubts--serious ones. One palace official recently told a Western envoy that he expects that while the majority of the Sahrawis in the Polisario-run camps will vote to join Morocco, 90% of the Sahrawis on the Moroccan side will vote for independence.