The Stages of Peaceful Resistance in the Occupied Western Sahara

A very interesting resume of the last 50 years of peaceful struggle against occupation in Western Sahara.

by Khalil Asmar via Jadaliyya


In any history of occupation, the forms of resistance the colonized populations adopted have been shaped by, and shape, the modes of occupations. Peaceful resistance in the Western Sahara has been no different; Saharawi methods of nonviolent protest underwent transformations, first during Spanish colonialism and throughout several phases under Moroccan occupation. The Saharawi peoples’ ongoing struggle to secure their independence has faced repressive ways and means, either during the Spanish era or the subsequent Moroccan settler occupation.

The aim of this paper is to document the dialectics in stages of non-violent resistance and the precipitating events that the occupied Western Sahara witnessed, from the Spanish colonial era to the ongoing Moroccan occupation. Because of the suppression of accounts outside of Moroccan state-sponsored narratives, particularly in the occupied territories and within Morocco, such records are essential in establishing a historical memory of the Sahrawi struggle. In addition, since Moroccan control, the Western Sahara has been almost completely inaccessible to journalists, researchers, and academics, causing considerable scarcity of information on different themes in relation to field studies in the occupied territories. Thus, this paper mainly draws on primary sources, including memoirs and first hand testimonies of eyewitnesses who experienced or documented the events.

The End of the Spanish Colonial Era and the Spontaneous Non-Violent Resistance Stage

The news of the United Nations resolution 1514 issued in 1960 that called upon the Spanish state to decolonize the non-self-governing territory of Western Sahara led the Saharawis to foster their aspirations of liberation. Aware of this fact, the Spanish administration took the initiative to fabricate local political parties loyal to its colonial rule—as was the case for the Saharawi National Union Party (PUNS)—in order to avoid the emergence of independence movements. However, the first independent Saharawi movement that came to light and consistently contested the Spanish occupation and demanded the right to self-determination was “the Forefront Movement for the Liberation of Sahara.” In his memoirs, Mohamed Lamin Ouled Ahmed, a leading figure in the Saharawi struggle for the liberation of the Western Sahara currently based in the refugee camps in south of Algeria, writes that journalist and activist Sid Brahim Bassiri led this movement. Mohamed Lamin, a friend of Bassiri’s, argues that this movement appeared at the end of the 1960s and launched its demand for the departure of the Spanish colonizer under the slogan of “Spain out, and free Sahara.”

On 17 June 1970 in El Aaiun,[1] Western Sahara, the movement succeeded in rallying thousands of Saharawis in the largest peaceful street demonstration of its kind at that time, lifting banners, and calling for independence. The demonstration, however, faced a violent Spanish response through the use of live ammunition, leading to several deaths and injuries. This spontaneous event was known as the “Intifada of Zemla,” named after the neighborhood in which that uprising took place. This event remobilized the collective consciousness of the Saharawi people toward the cause of liberating their land. It marked a watershed in the Saharawi peaceful resistance. According to Ouled Ahmed’s memoirs, in 1969, Bassiri sent two letters in the name of the Saharawi people to the General Governor of the Spanish administration, stating many demands and stressing the need to abide by a process of decolonizing the Western Sahara. These demands gained a consensus among the local population and gave Bassiri a more prominent presence in the Saharawi political scene. The “Zemla” uprising that flared up in 1970, characterized by its nonviolent nature, was thus the outcome of his political activism and the beginning of the Saharawi resistance against Spanish colonial rule.

Subsequently, the Spanish colonial administration launched recursive attacks against the Saharawis to uproot their civil movement, but that escalation gave way to a sudden burst of an overall armed resistance. Bassiri himself was abducted and never seen again; the sudden abduction and puzzling disappearance of the leader left an irreparable void in the scene of peaceful resistance. As a result, this gave way to the emergence of the Polisario Front, led by its iconic figure and founder El Ouali Mustapha Essayed.

On 10 May 1973, the Polisario inaugurated its first congress under the slogan “with the rifle we get our independence.” The slogan’s choice evidently shed light on the new tactic of using force to oust the Spanish colonialism from Western Sahara. Faced with disproportionate brutality, this resort to arms was, in fact, conceived as the sole effective means to achieve independence, and was also pursued when Morocco and Mauritania later enmeshed in their joint occupation of Saharawi land.

Notwithstanding, the Saharawi peaceful resistance continued to manifest itself through different forms even while the armed conflict heightened both against the Spanish colonization and, at a later stage, against the Moroccan and Mauritanian occupying forces. In fact, the Saharawis continued performing different non-violent acts ranging from distributing leaflets and writing slogans on walls to individual and collective protests in the occupied cities and villages. This culminated into a mass demonstration where Polisario flags were lifted as the Saharawis greeted a United Nations commission during its visit to the territory in 1975, just prior to the promised referendum to end Spanish colonialism, which, ultimately, proved to be an illusion.

The Saharawis’ nonviolent resistance against Spanish colonial rule did not stem from an awareness of the principles of non-violent resistance. Rather, it was characterized by its spontaneity as the autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later indicate. These aforementioned sources underscore the fact that Bassiri and his colleagues never mentioned the term non-violent resistance. Instead, their uprising against Spanish colonial rule came as a result of a sudden overwhelming collective national feeling to liberate the land after the United Nations had declared the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination, putting an end, thus, to approximately ninety years of colonialism. The term “resistance” is the only term that is found in the Saharawi narrative at the time of the Spanish colonialism. The resistance during Bassiri’s time was non-violent only in practice and not the result of a conscious understanding of non-violent resistance concepts.

Within the same stream of uprising for liberation and in the aftermaths of Moroccan invasion and occupation, the Saharawis’ peaceful resistance in the occupied territories of Western Sahara has gone through a number of subsequent stages.

The Moroccan Occupation and the Protective Stage

Under the supervision of the Spanish administration and in exchange for safeguarding its colonial economic interests, the tri-partite Madrid accords of 1975 paved the way for a joint Morocco-Mauritanian invasion of the Saharawi lands. The Saharawis who fled and took refuge in south of Algeria launched a guerilla war against the two invading powers while those who remained in the occupied territories continued performing different non-violent acts despite the sheer brutality; under the Moroccan occupation, thousands of Saharawis disappeared, were executed, or perished in hellish prisons. Some other tens of thousands were rooted out and displaced, forced to flee to south western Algeria, where they set up their sheltering tent cities. In 27 February 1976, which coincides with Spain’s evacuation of its last soldiers from the territory, the Polisario Front announced the proclamation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) which, in 1984, became a full member of the Organization of the African Union and later a member founder of the African Union. Since then, the self-proclaimed republic has gained the recognition of over eighty countries.

In 1979, Mauritania relinquished the part of the territory it had occupied to the SADR authorities and the two belligerents signed of a peace treaty in the Algerian capital. Morocco, subsequently, invaded the portion of the territory Mauritania formerly controlled, causing another eastward exodus of the local Saharawi population who had been living under the de facto Mauritanian controlled zone.

Saharawis considered the withdrawal of the Spanish administration from the lands of the Western Sahara a “great treason” to their cause, as they had been promised a referendum of self-determination. The withdrawal was followed by Morocco’s military invasion of the territory, in flagrant violation of United Nations resolutions and the International Court of Justice decision, introducing its settlers and effectively displacing the indigenous Saharawi population. But while Morocco propagated “a peaceful march” of hundreds of thousands of Moroccan settlers in what was called the “Green March,” its troops at the further east side of the occupied territory waged a sweeping military operation. This military operation unfolded on a vast amount of land that the Spanish army had previously evacuated, resulting in the death of a large number of Saharawis.

During these horrific events, the Saharawis had to confront a heinous ethnic cleansing as whoever opposed the Moroccan presence was abducted, killed, thrown down from planes in the open desert, or simply buried in mass graves. Dozens of families were entirely wiped out and many nomads’ camps were totally pulverized. A Spanish forensic team made the recent first discovery of two mass graves in the Polisario-controlled zone of Western Sahara, which was published in the Spanish daily El Pais. The finding has uncovered a portion of the genocide that Morocco committed against the Saharawi population that amounts to the level of crimes against humanity. The two mass graves contained the corpses of six men along with two children gunned down in cold blood.

Yet, the Saharawis stood firm despite the odds and developed different forms of peaceful resistance to preserve their culture and unity, whether within or beyond the prisons. As the Moroccan state was waging its war of genocide against the Saharawis, the atmosphere of horror was engendered in the social framework of the Saharawi community. The Saharawi peaceful resistance mainly entailed safeguarding their identity, sticking to their traditional clothes, and safeguarding their language, the Hassaniya Arabic dialect. Meanwhile, there were multiple attempts at secretly distributing the SADR flags and leaflets or writing slogans on walls calling for the resistance against the occupation, but the Moroccan authorities’ retaliation against such acts was often unmercifully handled.

Tracing the record of the Moroccan troops’ progressive invasion of Western Sahara, the more lands Morocco controlled, the more activists were abducted, jailed, or killed, and thus, the discipline needed to maintain the non-violent campaign became increasingly difficult. This resulted in a vacuum in the political arena within the occupied territories, causing a mounting all-pervasive fear and the disruption of a sustained, more organized non-violent resistance. It was mainly through individual acts that some non-violent actions took place. Moreover, Morocco’s police state policies succeeded, to a large extent, in eradicating the spirit of collective militancy among Saharawis, causing the non-violent resistance to shrink and remain confined to protective practices.

The United Nations Sponsored Peace Plan and the Confrontational and Consciously Entrenched Stage

In 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire and set up its peacekeeping force under the auspices of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), thus ending the sixteen years of armed conflict between the Polisario Front, and Morocco. But as the one-year-span promised referendum extended for many years and caused mounting indignation and frustration, the Saharawis rose up restively against the belligerent occupation. They invented new ways of peaceful resistance that were marked, for the first time, by raising the Saharawi Republic flag in street protests. Those released from prison and those who endured the oppression regrouped, brimming with more self-confidence and determination to challenge the occupation and call for the right of self-determination.

In retrospect, the Moroccan authorities responded with sheer brutality against these peaceful protests, committing flagrant human rights abuses, as major international human rights groups have documented. The peaceful Saharawi resistance, however, stood resilient and did not yield to the ruthlessness of the Moroccan forces. In 1992, only a year after the failure to implement the referendum, the Saharawis took to the streets in mass protests in different cities, resulting in the incarceration and torture of hundreds of Saharawis. Malainin Lakhal, a Saharawi activist and campaigner who joined the refugee camps after a search warrant had been issued against him, was an active member of an underground student organization during the 1992 events. Responding to the reasons behind those protests, Malainin asserts that “many secret organizations emerged at that time as a response to the MINURSO inaction in holding a referendum, and our main purpose was to convince people to maintain the fight in a peaceful manner as it was crystal clear that Morocco did not have the political will to pursue the process of decolonization through a fair and democratic plebiscite.”

Henceforth, the mounting oppression and counter resistance incessantly continued to October 2010, reaching its highest zenith when the Saharawis set up a protest tent city. The protest tent camp of Gdeim Izik that was set up in the suburbs of Western Sahara’s main city, El Aaiun, was not only in protest of the dire social and economic circumstances in which the Saharawi people had been living. Gdeim Izik was mainly set up as a form of peaceful resistance with political grievances. It was a means to political ends; the same as all the revolutions that subsequently flared up in what has been named the “Arab Spring.” According to Noam Chomsky, the Gdeim Izik protest camp was the true beginning of the “Arab Spring” that brought to the surface concepts of democracy, regime change, and the peoples’ right of self-determination. However, after one month of its autonomous establishment, the Moroccan forces brutally raided the camp, setting ablaze the tents and flattening the camp to the ground. Thousands were displaced or flanged in prisons in which some Saharawis are still languishing after heavy-handed military trial sentences. Yet, the numbers of deaths and injuries from both sides remain largely contested.

This period also witnessed a large scale emergence of local Saharawi human rights and other civil society organizations. Although the Moroccan authorities still have not granted them the legal status and permission to operate, some of them have gained accreditation through major international rights groups, and their activists have also been commonly prosecuted on trumped-up charges. Aminatou Haidar, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and former political prisoner, often referred to as the Gandhi of Western Sahara, is the most renowned human rights activist and pacifist campaigner in the occupied territories. She was first abducted following a demonstration that had occurred during a United Nations delegation visit to El Aaiun in 1987. Blindfolded, she spent four years in prisons where she underwent all forms of torture and degrading mistreatment. After her release, she pursued her battle for justice and once again she was subjected to heinous police brutality and detention when, in 2005, she staged a sit-in together with other Saharawis denouncing the ongoing occupation and Morocco’s human rights abuses.

This same non-violent mass mobilization led by Aminatou Haidar marked a historical change in non-violent resistance practices in occupied Western Sahara. It established a solid basis for the Saharawis’ peaceful resistance as an ultimate choice in bringing an end to the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. In fact, if all peaceful actions made beforehand had been unconscious popular rise up, the one Aminatou Haidar led established the beginning of a conscious action for an organized collective involvement in a civil non-violent resistance. Since then, the non-violent resistance has become a concept and a social culture. It is with Aminatou Haidar that the noble principles and human merits of the non-violent resistance, as they are known internationally, have found their way into the culture of the Saharawis. The concept of non-violence has become, henceforth, a collective conscious act used to face and defeat the Moroccan occupation’s wrath of injustice and cruelty. Non-violent resistance has become entrenched in the Saharawi culture of resistance.

In 2009, Aminatou Haidar staged a one month hunger strike in Lanzarote, Spain, airport after she had been forcefully expulsed from her homeland, and in 2010, the Saharawis engaged in their largest non-violent action through setting up the Gdeim Izik mass protest camp.

The United Nations Peace Plan Stalemate and the Extended and Holistic Stage

The protracted peace plan—still locked in a stalemate—and the flagrant human rights abuses that this given situation engendered in the occupied territories of Western Sahara have led to the extension of the non-violent resistance practices among the Saharawis. These practices have reached those who live in the refugee camps and in the diaspora, garnering the solidarity of a growing number of sympathizers. The Saharawis whether in the refugee camps or in the diaspora have also joined this campaign of non-violent resistance, inventing and developing it in other ways. In fact, Saharawis in the refugee camps and with the collaboration of international solidarity groups often organize protests to denounce the Moroccan 2700-kilometer berm that divides Western Sahara’s land and jeopardizes its people’s lives and livelihood. The berm contains more than seven million land mine scattered all along its perimeter. The Saharawis in the diaspora, on the other hand, have been keen on organizing platforms, lobbying campaigns, and street protests to raise awareness of the ongoing human rights abuses committed in the occupied territories. Spain, the former colonial master of Western Sahara, is where most of the activities to decolonize the territory have been taking place. It is the country that has the largest Saharawi community in Europe, where the Saharawi issue has an immense social and political presence and impact, and where most of the protests to decolonize Western Sahara take place. Additionally, Spain’s civil and political societies are one of the primary sources of aid to the Saharawi refugee camps.

Equally important, the different campaigns to divest and block foreign economic collaboration with the Moroccan state from exploiting the vast resources in the occupied territories have also been active, as is the case with the multinational “Western Sahara Resources Watch” organization. Other Saharawi organizations have emerged as well, monitoring and lobbying against the foreign companies attempting to collaborate with Moroccan authorities in exploiting Western Saharan resources.

The non-violent resistance, thus, comprises the whole Saharawi body wherever it exists; within the occupied territories, the refugee camps, the liberated territories, or the diaspora.

Through all these stages, the peaceful resistance in occupied Western Sahara has reached an advanced level, drawing upon peoples’ experiences and embracing the theories of peaceful resistance either philosophically or through tactics. It is common to hear the Saharawis talking about Gandhi and other iconic figures of non-violence, looking to them as models to identify with in their non-violent resistance, and at the same time looking forward to the international community to bring about a peaceful resolution to the persistent conflict. 


The non-violent resistance in occupied Western Sahara has unequivocally become a third component in the ongoing decolonization dispute between the Polisario Front representing the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic and Morocco. In recent years, the Saharawi non-violent resistance has resurrected this forgotten conflict of decolonization and brought it back to international light. However, this resistance occurs in the absence of a human rights monitoring component under the MINURSO and in the absence of an influential Moroccan civil or political society to impose pressure on the Moroccan state to decolonize Western Sahara.

Considering these absences and Morocco’s politics of oppression and flooding the territory with settlers who currently outnumber the Saharawi population, many questions are yet persistently raised: Will the Saharawi non-violent resistance work in achieving its main objective set to end the Moroccan occupation? Will it continue amid Moroccan Western-backed-politics? And will the Saharawi youth remain patient in the face of brutality perpetrated by Moroccan authorities?

These are, indeed, questions that sound the alarm of a possible resumption of armed hostilities in the foreseeable future if the current situation persists. This leaves open the possibility that the gains, aspirations, and brave sacrifices of this decades-long peaceful resistance might unfortunately face a dead end, leaving the platform clear for a destructive violence.

[1] The author uses “El Aaiun” instead of “Laayoune” because the name of the city according to UN documents is El Aaiun, the international name of the city before Moroccan occupation. Morocco has changed it to “Laayoune” as part of a strategy to “Moroccanize” the territory by changing the names of cities.

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