Media confusion on passing of Polisario leader

The passing last week of Mohammed Abdelaziz, longtime leader of Western Sahara's Polisario Front, occasioned confusion in media coverage as to the difference between Arabs and Berbers—which is fast becoming a critical issue in the contest over the Moroccan-occupied territory. Most embarrassingly, the New York Times writes: "The Polisario Front was formed in the early 1970s by a group of Sahrawis, indigenous nomadic Berber tribesmen, in opposition to Spain's colonial presence in Western Sahara. When Spain withdrew from the region in 1975, the Sahrawis fought attempts by both Mauritania and Morocco to claim the territory." The Sahrawis are not Berbers. They are Bedouin Arabs who arrived from across the Sahara centuries ago. The Berbers are the actual indigenous people of North Africa, who had been there for many more centuries before that. Ironically, the Times goes on to state: "He was selected as secretary general [of Polisario] in 1976 after the death in combat of the front's military leader, Al Ouali Mustapha Erraqibi. Later that year, he was elected president of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic." 

The name Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic indicates not only that the Sahrawi are Arabs, but that their leaders are Arab nationalists who have specifically declared an "Arab Republic." This is why the indigenous Berbers of the occupied territory are suspicious of Polisario and the SADR—tensions which have escalated to some unfortunate instances of Sahrawi-Berber violence in recent months. This contradiction has also won the Sahrawi independence movement much resentment from Algeria's substantial Berber populace. Algiers is the foremost foreign sponsor of Polisario and the SADR (their de facto capital Tindouf is actually across the line in Algerian territory), but is accused by Algeria's Berbers of denying their own right to self-determination. With the recent launching of a separatist initiative in Kabylia, Algeria's Berber-majority region, two independence struggles in North Africa are in danger of being played against each other.

There is, unfortunately, much potential for Arab-Berber conflict in North Africa. The New York Times' garbled coverage only contributes to the confusion of Westerners concerning these grossly under-reported conflicts.