Acronym of the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Rio de Oro (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro), the movement struggling to establish the independent state of Western Sahara in Spain's former Spanish Sahara colony.
POLISARIO was founded on 10 May 1973 by a combined group of Moroccan students of Sahrawi background studying at Muhammad V University in Rabat, Morocco; a small number of veterans of anticolonial struggles during the late 1950s residing in Mauritania; and youth from within Spanish Sahara. The group evolved out of the earlier, more informal Movement for the Liberation of the Sahara. Its first head was the charismatic Mustapha Sayed al-Ouali. POLISARIO's founding manifesto spoke of a strategy of "revolutionary violence" and "armed struggle" against Spanish colonial rule, but it was not until the second congress, more than a year later, that independence was explicitly declared as POLISARIO's goal.
The notion of a Sahrawi nation was a new one, the combined product of the sedentarization among the formerly nomadic Saharan tribes, socioeconomic changes in Spanish Sahara, and new ideological currents linked to decolonization in Africa and developing nations. POLISARIO was a reflection of these changes as it sought to transcend traditional tribal cleavages and fashion a supratribal Sahrawi national identity, although the majority of the POLISARIO leadership was Reguibat in origin, from the largest of the Sahrawi tribal confederations.
Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi was the first head of state to provide support and until the early 1980s was an important supplier of arms. Algeria was initially hesitant but by mid-1975 had become POLISARIO's main benefactor and POLISARIO was rendered almost completely dependent on Algiers. The Spanish departure in early 1976 and the entrance of Moroccan and Mauritanian troops inaugurated the Western Sahara War. (By agreement with Spain, Morocco was to occupy the northern two-thirds of the territory and Mauritania the remaining one-third.) One immediate outcome was a large-scale exodus (estimates range from one-third to two-thirds) of the Sahrawi population (about 74,000, according to the 1974 Spanish census) from Western Sahara to the Algerian side of the border, around Tindouf. POLISARIO was granted a great degree of autonomy to run the refugee camps, which served as POLISARIO's military, political, and social base. POLISARIO's military wing, the Sahrawi Popular Liberation Army, numbered between ten thousand and fifteen thousand during the early 1980s, and eight thousand to nine thousand in 1991. The POLISARIO leadership established a formal government-in-exile, SADR (Saharan Arab Democratic Republic). Al-Ouali was killed in fighting in June 1976. His replacement, Muhammad Abd al-Aziz, was chosen at the third POLISARIO congress and was still head of POLISARIO and president of SADR in 2003.
Morocco gradually gained the upper hand militarily and consolidated its control over the bulk of Western Sahara during the 1980s. Concurrently, Algerian aid decreased. Hence, POLISARIO's diplomatic gains—recognition of SADR by more than seventy countries at its peak, and full membership in the Organization of African Unity—proved to be of limited value. Morocco and POLISARIO formally agreed to a United Nations–sponsored cease-fire in 1991, which was to be followed by a UN-supervised referendum in 1992, giving Sahrawis the option of independence or incorporation into Morocco. The plan was POLISARIO's best hope, but it was also risky. Its winner-take-all formula stipulated that defeat would necessitate POLISARIO's disbanding. As it happened, the vote never took place, owing to the two parties' persistent failure to reach agreement on the list of eligible voters. In 2001, Morocco's unhappiness with the revised voter rolls, and the UN Security Council's unwillingness to impose the referendum by force, led UN mediator James A. Baker to propose delaying the referendum in favor of a five-year period of autonomy for the region, to be followed by a referendum with an expanded voter list. POLISARIO initially resisted the plan. However, in 2003, under the prodding of Algeria, it assented, and the UN Security Council endorsed the plan. Fearing that its claim to sovereignty over the territory, Morocco rejected the plan, and the matter remained unresolved.
see also morocco; saharan arab democratic republic (sadr); spanish morocco; western sahara; western sahara war.
Damis, John. Conflict in Northwest Africa: The Western Sahara Dispute. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.
Hodges, Tony. Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1982.
Hodges, Tony. Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War. Westport, CT: L. Hill, 1983.
Lawless, Richard, and Monahan, Laila, eds. War and Refugees: The Western Sahara Conflict. New York and London: Pinter, 1987.
Zoubir, Yahia H., and Volman, Daniel, eds. International Dimensions of the Western Sahara Conflict. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.