Western Sahara Complicates Morocco’s Bid to Rejoin the African Union

Western Sahara Complicates Morocco’s Bid to Rejoin the African Union
Protesters hold portraits of Morocco's King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan flag during a rally, Rabat, Morocco, March 13, 2016 (AP photo by Abdeljalil Bounhar).

On July 18, Morocco made a request to reintegrate into the African Union, more than three decades after it withdrew from the organization over its controversial claims to Western Sahara.

The dispute over Western Sahara, which Morocco annexed in 1975 following Spain’s withdrawal, has lingered for decades and been a thorn in Morocco’s regional and foreign relations, particularly with neighboring Algeria. In 1984, the African Union recognized an independent Western Sahara as the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, known by its French acronym, RASD, and granted it membership, prompting Morocco to leave the supranational body. The Polisario Front, a liberation movement representing the Saharawi people that is backed by Algeria, claims sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara, but only controls a small strip—about 25 percent—and considers Morocco’s authority over the rest illegitimate. The issue has been at the forefront of tensions between Algiers and Rabat, two major regional powers in terms of security and economic heft.

Morocco would still like to see the AU suspend the RASD’s membership, a move Algeria opposes. Twenty-eight of the AU’s 54 member states have signed a petition requesting the RASD’s suspension, eight signatures short of the necessary two-thirds threshold.

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