Polisario are a successor of one of the 1950s and 1960s organization Movimiento para la Liberación del Sahara, of the city of Villa Cisneros. 0.1
The Polisario Front was formally constituted on May 10, 1973 with the express intention of militarily forcing an end to Spanish colonization. Its first Secretary General was El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed. On May 20 he led the Khanga raid, Polisario's first armed action, in which a Spanish post manned by a team of Tropas Nomadas (Sahrawi-staffed auxiliary forces) was overrun and rifles seized. Polisario then gradually gained control over large swaths of desert countryside, and its power grew from early 1975 when the Tropas Nomadas began deserting to the Polisario, bringing weapons and training with them. At this point, Polisario's manpower included perhaps 800 men and women, but they were backed by a vastly larger network of supporters. A UN visiting mission headed by Simeon Aké that was conducted in June 1975 concluded that Sahrawi support for independence (as opposed to Spanish rule or integration with a neighbouring country) amounted to an "overwhelming consensus" and that the Polisario Front was by far the most powerful political force in the country.
The Polisario kept up the guerrilla war and rebased in Tindouf in the western regions of Algeria. For the next two years the movement grew tremendously as Sahrawi refugees flocked to the camps and Algeria supplied arms and funding. Within months, its army had expanded to several thousand armed fighters, camels were replaced by modern jeeps, and 19th century muskets were replaced by assault rifles. The reorganized army was able to inflict severe damage through guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks against enemy forces in Western Sahara and in Morocco and Mauritania proper.
Not even overt French Air Force backing in 1978, when SEPECAT Jaguar fighters strafed and bombed Polisario guerrilla columns en route to Mauritania, proved enough to save the regime, and the death of Polisario leader El Ouali in a raid on Nouakchott did not have the anticipated result in the collapse of Sahrawi morale. Instead, he was replaced by Mohamed Abdelaziz, with no letup in the pace of attacks. The Daddah regime finally fell in 1978 to a coup d'état led by war-weary military officers, who immediately agreed to a cease fire with the Polisario. A comprehensive peace treaty was signed on August 5, 1979, in which the new government recognized Sahrawi rights to Western Sahara and relinquished its own claims. Mauritania withdrew all its forces and would later proceed to formally recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, causing a massive rupture in relations with Morocco. King Hassan II of Morocco immediately claimed the area of Western Sahara evacuated by Mauritania (Tiris al-Gharbiya, roughly corresponding to the southern half of Río de Oro), which was unilaterally annexed by Morocco in August 1979.
In April 2007 the government of Morocco has suggested that a self-governing entity, through the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS), should govern the territory with some degree of autonomy for Western Sahara. The project was presented to the United Nations Security Council in mid-April 2007, and quickly gained French and US support. Polisario had handed in its own proposal the day before, which remained insistent on the previously agreed referendum, but allowed for negotiating the status of Moroccans now living in the territory should the outcome of a referendum be in favor of independence. The stalemate led the UN Security Council to ask the parties to enter into direct and unconditional negotiations to reach "a mutually accepted political solution". This led to the negotiations process known as the Manhasset negotiations. Three rounds have been held in 2007 and 2008, with a fourth planned for March 2008; so far, no progress has been noted, as both parties refuse to budge from what they consider core sovereignty issues. Polisario has agreed to add autonomy as per the Moroccan proposal to a referendum ballot, but refuses to relinquish the concept of an independence referendum itself, as agreed in 1991 and 1997. Morocco, in its turn, insists on only negotiating the terms of autonomy offered, but now refuses to consider an option of independence on the ballot.
The Polisario is first and foremost a nationalist organization, with the independence of Western Sahara as its main goal, and it has stated that ideological disputes should be left for a future democratic Western Sahara to deal with. It views itself as a "front" encompassing all political trends in Sahrawi society, and not as a party. As a consequence, there is no party programme. The Sahrawi republic's constitution however gives a hint of the movement's ideological context: in the early 1970s Polisario adopted a vaguely socialist rhetoric, in line with most national liberation movements of the time, but this was eventually abandoned in favour of a non-politicized Sahrawi nationalism. By the late 1970s, references to socialism in the republic's constitution were removed, and by 1991, the Polisario was explicitly pro-free-market.
The Polisario has stated that it will, when Sahrawi self-determination has been achieved, either function as a party within the context of a multi-party system, or be completely disbanded. This is to be decided by a Polisario congress upon the achievement of Western Sahara's independence.
In contrast, Polisario-Mauritanian relations following a peace treaty in 1979, with the latter's retreat from Western Sahara, have been quiet and generally neutral without reports of armed clashes from either side.
What Polisario and independence-minded sources refer to as Independence Intifada, a series of protests and riots by Sahrawis in the occupied territories, breaking out in 2005, received strong support from Polisario as a new pressure point on Morocco. Polisario's Abdelaziz characterised the protests and riots as a substitute path for the armed struggle, and indicated that if peaceful protest was squashed, in its view, without a referendum forthcoming, its armed forces would intervene.
In an interview with The European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC), commander Lahbib Ayoub, a founding member of Polisario who returned to Morocco, explained that Algeria "had chosen" Mohammed Abdelaziz at the top of the Polisario organisation although he did not belong to the very closed circle of the organization's founders and "we could refuse them [the Algerians] nothing: they were giving us everything, or almost everything. He always considered himself to be their man" .
The pre-1991 Polisario structure was much different from the present institutional system. It was, despite a few changes, inherited from the pre-1975 period, when Polisario had functioned as a small, tightly-knit guerrilla movement, with a few hundred members. Consequently, it made few attempts at a division of powers, instead concentrating most of the decision-making power in the top echelons of Polisario for maximum battlefield efficiency. This meant most power rested in the hands of the Secretary General and a nine-man executive committee, elected at congresses and with different military and political responsibilities. A 21-man Politburo would further check decisions and connect the movement with its affiliated "mass organizations", UGTSARIO, UJSARIO and UNMS (see below).
However, after the movement took on the role as a state-in-waiting after basing itself in the refugee camps of Tindouf Province, Algeria, in 1975, this structure proved incapable of dealing with its vastly expanded responsibilities. As a consequence, the old military structure was wedded to the new grass-roots refugee camp administration which had asserted itself in Tindouf, with its system of committees and elected camp assemblies. In 1976, the situation was further complicated by the Sahrawi republic assuming functions of government in the camps and Polisario-held territories of Western Sahara. The SADR and Polisario institutions would frequently overlap, and their division of labor was often hard to ascertain.
A more comprehensive merger of these different organizational patterns (military organization/refugee camps/SADR) was not achieved until the 1991 congress, when both the Polisario and SADR organizations were overhauled, integrated into the camp structure and further separated from each other. This followed protests calling for expanding the internal democracy of the movement, and also led to important shifts of personnel in the top tiers of both Polisario and SADR institutions.
The Polisario is led by a Secretary General. The first Secretary General was El-Ouali, followed by Mahfoud Ali Beiba as Interim Secretary General upon his death. In 1976, Mohamed Abdelaziz was elected and has held the post ever since. The Secretary General is elected by the General Popular Congress (GPC), regularly convened every four years. The GPC is in turn composed of delegates from the Popular Congresses of the refugee camps in Tindouf, which are held biannually in each camp, and of delegates from the women's' organization (UNMS), youth organization (UJSARIO), workers' organization (UGTSARIO) and military delegates from the SPLA (see below). All residents of the camps have a vote in the Popular Congresses, and participate in the administrative work in the camp through base-level 11-person cells, which form the smallest unit of the refugee camp political structure. These will typically care for distribution of food, water and schooling in their area, joining in higher-level organs (encompassing several camp quarters) to cooperate and establish distribution chains. There is no formal membership of Polisario; instead, anyone who participates in its work or lives in the refugee camps is considered a member.
Between congresses, the supreme decision-making body is the National Secretariat, headed by the Secretary General. The NS is elected by the GPC. It is subdivided into committees handling defense, diplomatic affairs, etc. The 2003 NS, elected at the 11th GPC in Tifariti, Western Sahara, has 41 members. Twelve of these are secret delegates from the Moroccan-controlled areas of Western Sahara. This is shift in policy, as the Polisario traditionally confined political appointments to diaspora Sahrawis, for fear of infiltration and difficulties in communicating with Sahrawis in the Moroccan-controlled territories. It is probably intended to strengthen the movement's underground network in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, and link up with the rapidly growing Sahrawi civil rights activism.
Pierre Olivier Louveaux, who went to the Tindouf camps along with a CARITAS humanitarian mission, has charged that the Polisario is controlled by a few people who put their personal interests first in the conclusion of the conflict:
"The Polisario leaders periodically exchange the various positions of responsibility between themselves. It is difficult to know whether there exist, within the leadership, different political tendencies or conflicting interests. It seems that the leaders, in total or only in part, are hugely benefiting from the current situation to consolidate their political, social and economic power. The fact that they consider themselves as leaders of a State with territory and population, and at the same time as refugees needing humanitarian aid to survive reveals a duality that they skilfully exploit."
In 2004, an anti-ceasefire and anti-Abdelaziz opposition fraction, the Front Polisario Khat al-Shahid announced its existence, in the first break with the principle of "national unity" (i.e. working in one single organization to prevent internal conflict). It calls for reforms in the movement, as well as resumption of hostilities with Morocco. It remains of little importance to the conflict, however, and Polisario has refused dialogue with it, stating that political decisions must be taken within the established political system.
One of the most innovative tactics of the SPLA was its early and extensive use of Land Rovers and other re-modeled civilian vehicles, mounting machine guns and employing them in great numbers, to overwhelm unprepared garrisoned outposts in rapid surprise strikes. This, of course, may also reflect the movement's difficulties in obtaining original military equipment, but nonetheless proved a powerful tactic.
On November 3, 2005, Polisario signed the Geneva Call, committing itself to a total ban on landmines, and later began to destroy its landmine stockpiles under international supervision. Morocco is one of 40 governments that have not signed the 1997 mine ban treaty. Both parties has used mines extensively in the conflict, but some mine-clearing operations have been carried out under MINURSO supervision since the cease fire agreement.
For a more extensive list, see Former members of Polisario.
The movement's main political and military backers were originally Algeria and Libya, with Cuba coming a very distant third. In the mid-80s, Libya detached itself from the conflict, as it joined Morocco in a short-lived union. Mauritania also attempts to avoid involvement and balance between Morocco and Polisario's backers in Algeria, despite formally recognizing the SADR as Western Sahara's government since 1984 and having a substantial Sahrawi refugee population on its territory. Support from Algeria remains strong however, despite the country's preoccupation with its own civil war. The Polisario is practically dependent on its bases and refugee camps, located on Algerian soil. While Algeria recognizes the Sahrawis' right to wage an armed struggle against Morocco, and has helped equip the SPLA army, the government also seems to have barred Polisario from returning to armed struggle post-1991, attempting to curry favor from the US and France and to avoid inflaming its already poor relations with Morocco.
Apart from Algerian military, material and humanitarian aid, food and emergency resources are provided by international organizations such as the WHO and UNHCR. Valuable contributions also come from the strong Spanish solidarity organizations.
The United States claimed political neutrality on the issue, but militarily backed Morocco against Polisario during the Cold War, especially during the Reagan administration. Despite this, Polisario never received counter-support from the Soviet Union (or the People's Republic of China, the third and junior player in the Cold War). Instead, the entire East Bloc decided in favour of ties and trade with Morocco and refused to recognize the SADR. This made the Polisario almost wholly dependent mainly on Algeria and Libya and some African and Latin American third world countries for political support, plus some NGOs from European countries (Sweden, Norway, Spain, etc) which generally only approached the issue from a humanitarian angle. With the cease-fire coinciding with the end of the Cold War, world interest in the conflict seemed to expire in the 1990s as the Sahara question gradually sank from public consciousness due to decreasing media attention.
For a comprehensive list of state recognitions of the competing claims by SADR and Morocco, see this article.