Women of the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara, 1976.
Abbreviation of Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, Spanish Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro, Polisario was a politico-military organization striving to end Moroccan control of the former Spanish territory of Western Sahara, in northwestern Africa, and win independence for that region. The Polisario Front is composed largely of the indigenous nomadic inhabitants of the Western Sahara region, the Saharawis. The Polisario Front began in May 1973 as an insurgency (based in neighbouring Mauritania) against Spanish control of Western Sahara.
After Spain withdrew and Morocco and Mauritania partitioned Western Sahara between themselves in 1976, the Polisario Front relocated to Algeria, which henceforth provided the organization with bases and military aid. Mauritania made peace with the Polisario Front in 1979, but Morocco then unilaterally annexed Mauritania’s portion of Western Sahara.
During the 1980s Polisario Front guerrillas, numbering some 15,000 motorized and well-armed troops, harassed and raided Moroccan outposts and defenses in Western Sahara. Morocco responded by constructing a berm, or earthen barrier, some 1,240 miles (2,000 km) long, which was completed by 1987.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the Polisario Front suffered a series of high-level defections and internal problems in its refugee camps. In addition, although Algerian diplomatic support continued, military support was reduced during the 1990s. Despite these challenges, the Polisario Front’s overall level of legitimacy with the Saharawis and in the global political community appeared largely undiminished.
In 1991 the Polisario Front inaugurated a new, more democratic constitution for the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR; declared by the Polisario Front one day after Spanish withdrawal in 1976). In the same year, it accepted a United Nations (UN) peace plan for Western Sahara that provided for a referendum of self-determination. Owing to disputes over voter eligibility, the referendum scheduled for early 1992 was postponed, and a series of UN-sponsored talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front were conducted.
Attempts to determine the parameters of the referendum were largely unsuccessful, however, and in 2000 the UN Security Council requested that alternatives to the referendum be considered, a process that remained at an impasse in the early 21st century.
UN-sponsored talks between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government took place in mid-2007 amid warnings by the Polisario Front of a return to armed hostilities.