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the largest city in western sahara.

Laayoune (also El-Aaiun, El-Ayoun, al-Ayun) is both the largest city in Western Sahara and the capital of one of the three provinces that Morocco established in the territory. The discovery of potable water at the site resulted in the establishment of a Spanish military garrison in 1938, marking the beginning of the town. It was made the capital of Spain's new Sahara province in 1958. The Spanish authorities subsequently established a port on the Atlantic coast 18 miles from the town, along with facilities for the export of newly discovered phosphates. The European population when the Spanish withdrew in 1976 was approximately 10,000; the local Sahrawi population was around 30,000, a considerable number of whom were living in tents or makeshift structures on the edge of town. Many of the Sahrawis fled to Algeria with Polisario forces in 1975 and 1976. Since then, the population has grown to 175,000. Morocco has sought to consolidate its control of the territory by launching large-scale infrastructure projects such as the construction of hospitals, schools, and a football stadium and the expansion of drinking water facilities, and it has given incentives to Moroccan professionals to work there.

In 1991 Morocco orchestrated the entry of around 35,000 persons of Sahrawi origin in order to expand the list of eligible voters for the proposed UN referendum on the future of the western Sahara. Most of them were housed in tents in so-called unity camps. Fall 1999 witnessed major socioeconomic protests, with Sahrawis complaining of poor employment and housing conditions and discrimination in favor of Moroccans from the north. The unrest occasioned a harsh police crackdown in the city, aided by vigilante action by "northerners." The events shook the Moroccan regime headed by newly installed King Muhammad VI and contributed to the deposal of longtime interior minister Driss Basri. The government declared a new policy emphasizing regional development in order to win the hearts and minds of the population in advance of the proposed UN referendum. This new strategy was highlighted by three visits to the region by the king between October 2001 and February 2002, when he presided over a mass ceremony of allegiance to the throne.

see also green march; hassan ii; morocco; muhammad vi; tindouf; western sahara.


Pazzanita, Anthony G., and Hodges, Tony. Historical Dictionary of the Western Sahara. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1982.

bruce maddy-weitzman