Celebrations after Morocco’s grand entry to the quarter-finals of FIFA World Cup 2022 defeating their former colonizer Spain in the penalty shootout held on for the whole night. Arabs, Africans, and people who rooted for the underdogs, all cheered the stunning victory against the heavyweight European side.
There were rhetorics all over the win. “Next up, we’re taking back Al Andalus,” a fan tweeted. Many made reference to the Reconquista that led to Muslims losing Spain.
But not all of North Africa is happy about the Atlas Lions’ win. In Western Sahara, a region on Africa’s Atlantic coast that has been disputed by Morocco and independence fighters from the Polisario Front, the match was between two colonizing powers.
The territory was meant to be shared between Morocco and Mauritania when Spain relinquished control in 1965.
On 17 December 1965, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution requesting Spain to decolonize the territory. Subsequently, On 20 December 1966, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution requesting Spain to organize, under UN supervision, a referendum on self-determination of the territory.
Meanwhile, Saharawi nationalists led by El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed established the Frente Popular para la Liberation de Saguia el-Hamra y Rio de Oro (Polisario Front) in the Spanish Sahara on April 29, 1973. Polisario’s armed wing, the Saharawi People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), began a rebellion against the Spanish colonial government in 1973.
However, Morocco and Mauritania claimed sovereignty over the territory. The UN secretary-general sent a fact-finding mission to the territory to understand the people’s mandate. The mission reported that a majority of the inhabitants of the territory favoured independence.
The ICJ issued a ruling on 16 October 1975, which suggested that while there were historical ties between the territory and both Morocco and Mauritania, these ties were not sufficient to preclude the people of the territory from choosing to establish an independent country.
Angered by the ruling, King Hassan of Morocco initiated the Green March of some 350,000 Moroccans across the border of Western Sahara on 06 November 1975.
Spain agreed to abandon the territory to Morocco and Mauritania and King Hassan of Morocco ordered the marchers back into Morocco on 09 November 1975. Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania signed the Tripartite Agreement on 11 November 1975, in which Spain agreed to relinquish administrative control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania.
But in 1976 the Polisario Front proclaimed the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) – and was determined to fight for it. The government was recognized by some 70 countries.
Eventually, Mauritania reached a peace agreement with the Polisario Front in 1979, but in response, Morocco annexed Mauritania’s portion of Western Sahara.
Rich in phosphates and adjacent to bountiful Atlantic fishing waters, Morocco now controls around 80 percent of Western Sahara and refers to the entire region as its “southern provinces”. The remaining region is under the control of the Algeria-backed Polisario Front.
The unrest saw some decline after both Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed to a cease-fire in 1991.
Polisario Front have made several attempts to get autonomy but Morocco has rejected it at each occasion. In 2020, Polisario Front walked out of the cease-fire agreement after tensions escalated between the neighbouring countries.
In December 2020, the United States became the first country to formally recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, in exchange for Morocco’s normalization of ties with Israel.
While repeated support for Palestinian people marks that people reject the king’s normalisation of ties with Israel, Moroccon fans are asked about the situation of Western Sahara.
Morocco will next play Portugal in the quarter-finals on 10 December.