Disclaimer: I originally published this article in my university's magazine, AUC Times, in November 2016
“What then is freedom? The power to live as one wishes.”
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
The concept of power, or authority, and its sources have - both - been questioned and studied by philosophers, political scientists and sociologists since time immemorial. Even the definition of “power” has been under much debate; this contention has conceived several theories surrounding the nature of power.
Political science scholars will find three prominent theories on power: Pluralism, Power-Elitism and Marxism; the first discusses how power is distributed. The second discusses how it is concentrated. The third, naturally, discusses power through class conflict. Each of these theories has a different view for every power struggle.
This is how we begin the forgotten story of Western Sahara - Africa’s last colony.
Western Sahara is a territory located in northwest Africa; it borders the North Atlantic Ocean and shares borders with Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria. It was occupied by Spain in 1884, officially becoming a Spanish province in 1934. In 1965, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopts its first resolution on Western Sahara requesting Spain to decolonise the territory, and in 1966 the UNGA requests that Spain organises a referendum, under UN supervision, for self-determination. The request is repeated every year from 1967 until 1973.
Meanwhile, in Zouerate, Mauritania, in April, 1973, the Saharawis founded The Frente Para la Liberación de Saguia Al Hamra y Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), with the purpose of obtaining independence for Western Sahara, and initiated a resistance to fight off the Spanish invaders. In October, 1975, the International Court of Justice recognized the Saharawis’ right to self-determination.
The independence of the Saharawis had relied on Spain’s protection to achieve its independence; however, on the 6th of November, 1975, the Moroccan monarch at the time, King Hassan II sent over the militarized borders more than 300,000 unarmed civilians (“The Green March”) to force Spain to abandon its promise of holding a referendum, threatening to cause a massacre if Spain pursues holding the referendum.
Spain chose to back down and negotiated a settlement with both Mauritania and Morocco, known as the Madrid Accords, on the 14th of November, 1975, which gave Morocco two thirds of the Western Sahara, and Mauritania the remaining third, in exchange for continued fishing rights and partial ownership of mining interests.
After a coup, on August, 1978, the new Mauritanian government signed a peace deal with the POLISARIO and renounced all territorial claims, which Morocco moved to occupy – Algeria, in turn, accepted Saharawi refugees to settle within its borders, where the POLISARIO
still has its main base. POLISARIO fighters led a guerilla war against Moroccan forces, up until a UN-monitored ceasefire in 1991. Violations of said ceasefire are still being reported, the territory’s status still remains undecided, and the referendum that will determine the future of Saharawis is still being postponed. Long, complicated disputes were witnessed over the following decade over the referendum; the political deadlock has not been broken till this day, allowing Morocco’s continued practice of de facto administrative control in the Western Sahara.
Each of the three theories, or models, of power - Pluralism, Elitism and Marxism - would explain the Western Saharan question in its own way; however, they would not supply equally satisfying answers.
Pluralism argues that power is dispersed and fragmented and divides society into two major groups: inside groups (established and working closely with the government) and outside groups (weaker than the former and don’t have as much access to the government); it argues that the existence of different social classes, political parties, power groups and interest groups testifies to the division and fragmentation of power. Pluralism favours groups as a better means of societal representation than election, and as such, public policies should be the outcome of grouped forces acting against one another, in such a way that no group is dominant over the other; there can only be equal and opposite groups, and as such, policies are inevitably the product of bargaining and compromise, giving them the tendency to be fair and moderate. However, the larger a group, the more influence it will have. Between all of these power groups, the state acts as a relatively neutral framework, through which the interests of the society can be addressed.
According to the CIA World Factbook, the Moroccan population is almost 34 million, while Western Saharan population is almost 600 thousand - although it is unclear if the Western Saharans are included in the Moroccan census. Given that Morocco practices de facto power over Western Sahara, this very rough use of population size as a means of measuring power provides some support to Pluralism’s claim that more power is allocated to the larger group. However, it would be far fetched to say that within Moroccan politics, that power is equally divided. The constitution grants the King extensive powers, such as appointing the Prime Minister, and the members of government, after legislative elections, and based on the PM’s recommendations, and presiding over the Council of Ministers (24 ministries). In addition, the powers given to the bicameral legislation (The Assembly of Representatives of Morocco - 325 seats, The Assembly of Councillors - 270 seats), despite the 1996 constitutional reform, is still very limited. Here, Pluralism falls short, since the most powerful group in Moroccan society is the King himself, Mohammed VI. In terms of policymaking, the POLISARIO has had little to no say in any of the Moroccan policies concerning the territory, despite their “size” being quite similar to the Moroccan establishment (excluding the Deep State). All of these highlight the criticisms and limitations of Pluralism as a power model: power is not dispersed, the state is not neutral - the monarchy’s agenda is to completely omit Western Sahara’s unique identity and establish it as purely Moroccan - and lastly, members of society are not equal. Pluralism has quite an optimistic, if not naïve, view of power.
So, Pluralism can’t really explain what’s going on, maybe Power-Elitism will have a better explanation. Power-Elitism (or just Elitism), argues that in all societies there exists a small class of rulers and decision makers that perform key political functions, and monopolise the political power. In tandem with this small class, there exists the larger class, which is ruled over, that is passive and marginalised in political affairs. Elitism states that there are many sources of elite power, such as wealth (resources not the amount of money you have).
Competition for power occurs amongst the elite in the form of elections, this is the only chance for the passive masses to choose whether the same elites or a different group of elites will rule over them. Elitism explains that the amount of power you have reflects the wealth you have; since power is unequal, so is wealth. Power/interest/pressure groups compete against each other in a system that systematically operates in favour of the middle and upper classes of society. Elitism establishes bureaucracy as the most effective method of organising the modern state. The state plays the role of a societal oligarchy. This model provides a more adequate explanation to the Saharawis’ quest for independence. One of the problems with Elitism is that it ignores the possibility of meritocracy (which is not the same as changing elites) because of its oversimplification of the distinction between the masses and the elites, additionally, it presents the existence of ruling elitists as inevitable, hence, it is unable to engage with normative issues of democracy and justice.
While this is prevalent, it is highly susceptible to change. In response to the uprisings in Morocco during the Arab Spring, the King has promised to pursue reforms that would make Morocco a constitutional monarchy; if the throne abandons its executive powers, there are one of two scenarios, either the existing elites will take on this additional power, or it may trickle down to the masses; Moroccan elections are held in Western Sahara since Morocco regards Western Sahara as part of its territory, so the distance between the Saharawis and the elites will be relatively narrower, though still wide enough for the “Moroccan” Sahrawis to sympathise with the nationalist and independence agenda of the POLISARIO.
Though sharing many similarities with elitism, Marxism provides a different explanation for power. Marxism sees the state’s role in protecting, maintaining and reproducing capitalism. Thus, public policies reflect this by maintaining the interests of the capitalist and ruling class. Marxism recognises specific sources of power (unlike Pluralism and Elitism): ownership and control of the productive means of society, controlling socialisation agencies (i.e. media, education, etc…) and control over the state. Recall that Western Sahara is rich in phosphate, fishing waters and oil reserves, making it the perfect target for capitalist interests; several sources cite that Western Sahara’s natural resources are the main reasons for Spain’s initial interest in Western Sahara in 1884, and later on Morocco in 1975. It is also known in Morocco that any news outlets criticising Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara has been subject to state-sponsored repercussions. The acquisition of Western Sahara is of severe economic importance to Morocco. The Kingdom has an extremely expensive oil subsidisation programme and almost all of Morocco’s oil is imported - citing a CIA World Factbook estimate, Morocco’s oil imports were 145,000 bbl/day in 2013. Through the lense of Marxism, Morocco’s actions heavily support the claim that it recognises the importance of having access and control over Western Sahara’s rich oil reserves, in addition to the phosphate and the fisheries.
While the POLISARIO has its own Secretary General and military power, its inability to overcome that of Morocco in the guerilla wars between 1975 and 1990 (officially), is because of Morocco’s better control of resources. Despite the fact that the POLISARIO’s claim is supported by Algeria, one of the richest African countries (in terms of natural resources), Algeria became the sole supporter of their cause after the fall of Qaddafi in Libya, its economy has been further strained when it opened its borders for Saharawi refugees, whose camps still exist today. For the POLISARIO cause alone, Algeria is providing both military efforts and basic resources for the livelihood for the refugees, causing it to be unable to overpower Moroccan military efforts, and unable to tip the scales. A limitation in Marxism as a model is that it over-emphasises the importance of power originating from economic relations, and doesn’t pay sufficient attention to non-economic sources of power, such as religious authority. One of the main reasons the monarchy has survived in Morocco is its claim to be a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad.
So, in your opinion, which model best describes the situation of the Saharawis? Will the Saharawis ultimately engage with the system (Pluralism), accept the system (Elitism), or overthrow the system (Marxism)?