Anti-colonial labour internationalisms: The Saharawi and Palestinian liberation struggles


First published at Socialist Project.

“…We live in a world of hypocrisy. We need to think, imagine a new world.
…We need to build new concepts of struggle for the new generation. Class struggle. Liberation. Justice.
…We need to fight, we need to solidarize, we need to meet, we need to find the relations between our struggles and fight in the best way so that they don’t corner us.”

As we enter the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila in Beirut, Lebanon, the phantoms of the 1982 Israeli-backed Phalangist massacre greet the visitor in the “cemetery of martyrs.” Beyond, we notice the jumbled wires of stolen electricity, mangled, crisscrossing, and cutting the skyline. Below, human bodies, generations of family persevering in their hope to return, are also mangled, one on top of the other in jungles of concrete.

Tindouf’s Saharan desert topography in southwest Algeria could not be more different, even if to the naked eye, both the Saharawi and Palestinian refugee camps seem as worlds without horizons. The youth, precarious, jobless, hopeless, emigrating out of desperation, endure the suffocation of imperial powers that deny both peoples their right to self-determination. This makes it all the more tragic that the dominant factions of the Palestinian national movement are pitted against the “Palestinians of the Maghreb,” one of the most silenced liberation movements in the world, that of the Saharawi people.

Balfour and Madrid once again

As mediatic eyes center on Ukrainian refugees, the plight of the Saharawi and Palestinian refugees is obfuscated: the scandalous double standards of the Western powers on full display. Western Sahara is a key point for Western colonization and imperialism in the Maghreb and on the African continent, an important geopolitical pawn in the current conflicts promoted by the US and NATO. While decrying the illegality of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, European governments, including the Spanish one, are bowing down to their North American masters in Palestine and the Sahara.

The Spanish government’s 2022 decision to support Moroccan claims in the Sahara is “another 1975 Madrid Agreement” for the Saharawis. Equally, the US decision in 2020 to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for normalizing its relations with Israel is “another 1917 Balfour Declaration” and “a new 1975” for Palestinians and Saharawis. Just as other colonized territories achieved some nominal form of independence under the guise of the bourgeois nation-state, Palestinians and Saharawis continue to endure dispossession and colonization. The “right of return” is their central claim.

Anti-colonial internationalisms and ideological ruptures

The US decision highlights the similarity between the reactionary regional forces that both struggles continue to face, some 45 years after George Habash, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), visited the refugee camps in Tindouf in the 1980s. Habash told the youth of the Saharawi People’s Liberation Army, “when you fought the reactionary monarchy in Morocco, you also fought the enemies of the Palestinian Revolution”; he denounced King Hasan II’s betrayal in accepting the 1978 Camp David Accords that normalized the relationship between Egypt and Israel; he pointed to the close alliance of Morocco with the United States, which militarily supports the colonization of both peoples; he denounced the Moroccan monarchy as a key pillar in the Maghreb along with the Jordanian and Saudi monarchies, as crucial material and ideological drivers of Western imperialism and Zionist colonization. Identifying the common enemies that thwart the self-determination of their peoples was the basis of the solidarity built between the leaders of the POLISARIO and the PFLP, Al-Ouali Mustafa Sayed and G. Habash respectively.

While the POLISARIO and PFLP do not have the same ideological roots, both drew inspiration from pan-Arab liberation movements centered in Beirut and Damascus, promoting anti-imperialist conceptions of ‘national liberation’. Founded in 1973, after the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the POLISARIO sought to avoid the mistakes that led to the fragmentation of the Palestinian National Movement, by enshrining in its constitution in exile the principle of unity as the central maxim in the liberation struggle, not only internal unity but pan-Arab and African unity against colonial domination. The same principle that underpins the iconography of the PFLP flag, symbolizing the ‘liberation of Palestine, runs through the Arab world’. For Habash, breaking the yoke of colonial oppression requires the unity of the internationalist working class. When al-Ouali wanted to meet with Habash, Habash is said to have given him only 20 minutes. However, the meeting lasted four hours and since then an enduring friendship and commitment has been sustained between the two movements.

The Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara changed the terms of the struggle from one explicitly against European colonization into an inter-Arab conflict. From the era of the Egypt of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who “despite his errors” was a central point of reference for pan-Arab unity, the Camp David Accords gave way to the Egypt of Anwar Sadat, who normalized the vision of a Greater Israel, just as the 1975 Agreements and the occupation sought to build a Greater Morocco. Both regimes, which share an expansionist vision (as stated in their constitution/basic law), seek to redraw the territorial limits of their nation-state through military occupations. The Arab world was divided between those who fell into the pro-imperialist Western camp and supported the Accords and those who opposed it. The contradictions and divisions necessary to sustain regional geopolitical instability and neocolonial domination were ensured by the outgoing European powers, materially fueled by Saudi petrodollars that managed to attract most Arab regimes into their sphere of influence, except the governments of Algeria, Libya, Syria, among others.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, American and Western ideological propaganda altered international politics by changing the venues and methods of political struggle. It changed the permissible forms of struggle, “peaceful not associated with violence,” for national liberation movements. The POLISARIO and the PLO, who upheld the right to armed struggle, were forced to adopt a defensive posture: “We are not terrorists, we are simply fighting for our liberation. We are building justice.”

These events marked a new historical stage in the Palestinian and Saharawi national liberation battles. Since the fissures of the 1970s, the POLISARIO and the dominant tendencies of the Palestinian national movement have found themselves in opposite camps. Despite Habash’s vociferous criticism of Palestinian flirtations with neocolonial Arab regimes, the PLO, under Arafat’s leadership, took a path of dependence with reactionary powers that forced them to abide by new concepts of struggle: the binaries of “moderates” versus “extremists.” With the POLISARIO remaining in alliance with the anti-imperialist Arab camp, Morocco waged an ideological battle branding the POLISARIO as “terrorists” and “mercenaries.” The PLO, including the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, “renounced the Saharawi cause,” even considering it as “competition.” When Habash wrote “Liberation Not Negotiation” in 1974, he foreshadowed the betrayal that would befall the Palestinian revolution in which the Palestinians’ dependence on the Zionist state and the imperialist camp would force them to abide by the formula of “a piece of land, for a little bit of peace,” an observance that would also lead them to betray the Saharawis.

Anti-imperialist view of national liberation: Unity in struggle

In 2020, after 30 years of the Moroccan boycott of the United Nations-sponsored self-determination referendum, the POLISARIO Front broke the ceasefire agreement to relaunch armed struggle. Following this move, says the international representative of their youth organization UJSARIO, “Rabat [the capitol of Morocco] turned against Palestine and accepted Trump’s illegal agreement, trying to create a new situation on the ground in which the United States and Israel are directly involved. …Now he is selling out the Palestinians and the Palestinian cause for the shameful acceptance of his illegal occupation of Western Sahara…”

These “colonial carve-ups” of both peoples is part of the US scramble, along with its allies, to salvage its declining hegemony. Why did Spain, which as the outgoing colonial power would derive the greatest economic and political benefits from an independent Sahara, hand over Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania? Mustafa Kattab replies: “It was a directive from the United States that Western Sahara cannot be independent.” In 1975, Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, clarified the regional geopolitical game, warning that recognition of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) would imply strengthening Algeria, Egypt (under Nasser), and Syria, countries and forces who promoted an anti-imperialist, pan-Arab, and Africanist agenda.

In the current geopolitical conflicts in the Maghreb, with Russia, China, and the BRICS alliance dependent for phosphates and other resources from the occupied Western Sahara, and with the conflicts for control of the waters of the Mediterranean and the Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco’s Alaouite monarch Mohammed VI is a “moderate” and crucial regional ally. The Saharawis, like the Palestinians, are sacrificed in this colonial and neocolonial game. Mohamed Madi, head of the Gaza-based Palestinian Committee of Solidarity with the Saharawi people, asks of the Palestinian leadership: in light of the 2020 normalization in which Morocco has openly shown its alliance with the Israeli regime, is it not time to rethink our relations with the Saharawi struggle?

Like Madi, we can ask the question regarding international trade-union movement in support of these two struggles: Should we not inter-relate them as anti-imperialist struggles? What are the limits and contradictions of our solidarity when see them as distinct? How can the anti-imperialist and class analytical axis pointed out by Habash and Al-Ouali help guide current anti-colonial trade union internationalisms? This is an urgent question given the call by the General Union of Workers of Saguía el Hamra and Río de Oro (UGTSARIO) for an international trade-union movement in support of their cause. However, it is also urgent for those actors in the solidarity movement with Palestine, who do not recognize the contradictions inside the Palestinian national movement and ally themselves with Palestinian leaders and their counterparts of the trade-union movement who are supported by the same reactionary regimes and the colonial state that are exterminating the Palestinians. 

Based on an interview with Mustafa Mohamed Lamin al-Kattab, representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguía el Hamra and Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO) for the Mashriq (Near East). Original publication in ENXERGAR, nº5, of Fundación Moncho Reboiras, Galicia in the Spanish State, March 2023. Nithya Nagarajan is currently undertaking a PhD in Politics at York University. She was active in the independent trade union movement in Palestine.