The colonization y decolonization of North Africa

A report from the November 27 edition of International Panorama.

By Alejandro Bodart

On November 14, the Polisario Front that governs the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic declared that the ceasefire with the Kingdom of Morocco, in force since 1991, had been broken.

To contextualize the current struggle of the Sahrawi people for their self-determination, we want to make a brief review of the history of colonization and decolonization of North Africa.

At the end of the 19th century, European capitalism was going through the second industrial revolution.

It fueled the largest economic expansion in history and propelled European states into fierce global competition for control of raw materials, cheap labor, and new markets.

Within a few decades, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the newly formed states of Germany and Italy, and Spain and Portugal lagging behind, came to dominate much of the world.

Africa was distributed like a pie at the Berlin conference in 1884 organized by the Prussian chancellor and architect of the German unity Otto von Bismarck.

In North Africa, France imposed itself on most of the Mediterranean coast and the Sahara, colonizing Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania.

The United Kingdom occupied Egypt, recently independent from the decaying Ottoman Empire, and also Sudan.

Italy conquered Libya and Spain maintained its dominance of Western Sahara, south of Morocco.

As always, oppression and exploitation generate resistance.

As early as 1910, the British colonies in the south of the continent became independent and formed the Union of South Africa, although the British Empire managed to maintain them as domains of the Crown.

After the First World War, a revolutionary struggle for independence broke out in Egypt and the United Kingdom was forced to recognize the end of its protectorate, although it maintained control of the strategic Suez Canal.

However, it was at the end of the Second World War, in the heat of the revolutionary rise that swept the entire world, that the decolonization process took off in Africa, as well as in India and Southeast Asia.

Libya was the first African colony to achieve its independence. After the defeat of Italy, the Allies installed a monarchy related to Saudi Arabia and that would favor British interests.

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was another trigger for the mass movement in the Arab countries.

The treacherous role played by the monarchies of most Arab countries made them the target for the rising revolutionary mobilization.

In 1952 a sector of young Egyptian army officers overthrew the monarchy and adopted an anti-colonial, nationalist and pan-Arab policy.

The new Nasser-led government implemented land reform and nationalized key industries.

However, what elevated him as a hero of the movement in the region was the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956.

The following year Egypt and Syria founded the United Arab Republic and pan-Arab nationalist forces also took power in Iraq.

Nasser also supported the rebels who had been fighting against the French occupation in Algeria, another epicenter of the anticolonial revolution that swept across the continent.

Resistance against the French occupation had exploded after the massacre of 45,000 Algerians in 1945 and had started an armed struggle with urban guerrillas in 1954, when various independence organizations founded the National Liberation Front.

In 1956, France granted independence to Morocco and Tunisia to try to stop the rebellion from spreading.

The French plan was to grant formal independence to its colonies, installing dependent governments and forming an economic community like the Commonwealth that the United Kingdom has with numerous former colonies.

But that plan failed when a string of rebellions broke out in 1960, in which 17 colonies, 14 of them French, achieved their independence.

After this defeat, France redoubled its war against the Algerian people, but the brutality of the massacres and torture made it lose the support of the French people, and the tenacious struggle of the Algerian people could not be broken.

Defeated, the de Gaulle government had to recognize Algerian independence in 1962.

The new Algerian government would nationalize French properties and other key companies in the economy and implement an agrarian reform, among other progressive reforms.

In 1969 a nationalist sector of the Libyan army led by Gaddafi also seized power there and put in place a regime similar to those in Egypt and Algeria.

However, pan-Arab nationalism would not break with capitalism, it was limited to rebuilding bourgeois states and did not solve the fundamental problems of the working masses.

That is why they ended up declining.

Disillusionment with Nasserism in Egypt paved the way for more right-wing sectors of the army and the Mubarak dictatorship that would only fall in the Arab Spring of 2011.

In other countries, such as Algeria and Libya, the nationalist leaders themselves would adapt to the dominant currents of imperialist capitalism, and they implemented brutal dictatorial regimes to stay in power.

They themselves would face the popular wrath of the Arab Spring.

Western Sahara was the last European colony in Africa.

Spain only abandoned it in 1975, but it did so in agreement with Morocco and Mauritania, who immediately occupied the country militarily.

70% of the territory fell into Moroccan hands and the other 30% in Mauritania´s.

An important part of the Saharawi people were forced into exile to Algeria, where they still live in inhumane conditions in refugee camps.

The Saharawi people, however, took up arms for their self-determination.

Two years before, the Polisario Front had been founded with the goal of fighting for the end of the Spanish occupation and achieving the independence of Western Sahara.

It was built on pan-Arab nationalism and socialist foundations and led the popular uprising and war against the new occupying forces.

In 1976 the Polisario proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

In 1979 its forces triumphed over Mauritiana, who withdrew from the territory it occupied, but the war continued against Morocco.

In 1981 the Moroccan government, a monarchy allied to Spanish and French imperialism, raised the wall of shame along 2,500 km of desert with fortifications and landmines, dividing the country in two.

The fighting lasted until 1991, when a ceasefire was signed on the basis of the United Nations promise to hold a referendum on self-determination.

Of course the referendum has not taken place to this date.

On the contrary, the UN has done nothing beyond declarations, while Morocco with the support of Spain, France and the European Union maintains its brutal occupation and plunders the resources of the Saharawi people.

In fact, European countries and companies are partners of Morocco in numerous businesses that exploit the fisheries and phosphate of Western Sahara.

For example, Germany’s Siemens Gamesa has several contracts from the Moroccan government to build wind farms in occupied Western Sahara.

The generators that Siemens already has in the country supply energy to the phosphate mines that place Morocco as the third world exporter of the mineral, only behind the United States and China.

Spanish fishing companies also have a huge business with Morocco, which obtains 83% of the fish it exports to Europe from Saharawi waters.

But the Arab Spring and last year’s wave of rebellions, particularly the one that broke out in Algeria, radicalized a new generation of young Sahrawis.

This vanguard has caused a change in the Polisario’s policy, abandoning the failed confidence in the UN negotiations, and leading a new offensive against the occupation.

The recent Moroccan violation of the Saharawi territory established in the 1991 ceasefire to export the products looted through the El Guerguerat border crossing has opened a new stage in the struggle.

A Sahrawi mobilization marched to the place and established a blockade of the passage since October 21.

In the early hours of November 13, the Kingdom of Morocco mobilized its army and repressed the protesters.

This led the Polisario Front to consider that the ceasefire had been broken, mobilize its own forces and declare a state of war since November 14.

The International Socialist League has been promoting an international campaign of solidarity with the Saharawi people, in support of their struggle to free themselves from Moroccan colonization and achieve their right to self-determination.

Faced with this new situation and the mortal danger of the Moroccan army, one of the most equipped in the area, we redouble our campaign.

We call on all democratic and Left organizations and people around the world to surround the Saharawi people with solidarity, to repudiate the criminal colonial occupation of Morocco and to support the fundamental right of self-determination of Western Sahara.