UNDERPINNING the United Nations referendum that will decide the status of the Western Sahara early next year is a favorable regional and international context. If the UN is able to file away its Western Sahara dossier in January 1992, it will be because at least two key factors came together to allow a peaceful solution to the 15-year conflict.
First, micro-revolutionary movements no longer have the support they once enjoyed from such quarters as the formerly communist Eastern Europe. Second, creation of the United Maghreb Union in 1989 and the North African desire to create an economic community along the Mediterranean's southern shore meant that Morocco and Algeria had to put behind them a source of mutual recrimination.
"The simple fact is that the future of Morocco passes through Algeria, and the future of Algeria passes by way of Morocco," says Habib el-Malki, an socialist opposition leader in Morocco. "Neither was going to realize its potential with the Western Sahara holding up cooperation."
Since 1975, when Spain relinquished its hold on its colony, Morocco has been at war with the Polisario Front over possession of the sparsely populated Western Sahara. For more than a decade Algeria supported the Polisario's independence drive, allowing countries like the former East Germany to ship arms to the rebels through its ports and over its territory. But Algeria cut off this backing in 1989.
"There is no question that the initiative to create a Maghreb union had a helpful effect on resolving the Saharan issue," says a top official in the Algerian Foreign Ministry. "Our only interest is in seeing that the wishes of the people of the region are fairly gauged."
Since 1989, a growing number of Polisario officials have defected and returned to Morocco, claiming repression and a loss of faith in the revolutionary cause. "I felt since 1984 that we were no longer on the right path, history's path," said former Polisario member Abdallahi Ould Bouh, in a recent interview in the magazine Jeune Afrique. "Our movement had dreamed of a better world at a time when Nasser, Che Guevara, Giap, and others maintained their prestige. But that world collapsed...."
The UN, which is expected to spend nearly $200 million organizing and conducting the referendum, faces a difficult task in establishing the Western Sahara's legitimate voter list.
In Morocco, the view is that the referendum is necessary only as a means of convincing international opinion of the Western Sahara's rightful status as part of Morocco.