Posted by: John Phoenix
Photo: Dikó Betancourt
Sahrawi man in Tindouf Refugee Camp, Algeria
The Sahrawi, or Saharawi, are the people living in the western part of the Sahara desert which includes Western Sahara (claimed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and mostly controlled by Morocco), other parts of southern Morocco and the extreme southwest of Algeria. As with most peoples living in the Sahara, the Sahrawi culture is mixed. It shows mainly Arab-Berber characteristics, like the privileged position of women, as well as characteristics common to ethnic groups of the Sahel. Sahrawis are composed of many tribes and are largely speakers of the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic, and some of them still speak Berber in both of Morocco’s disputed and non-disputed territories. The Arabic word Sahrawi literally means “Inhabitant of the desert”.
Occupied by Spain until the late 20th century, Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since 1963 after a Moroccan demand. It is the most populous territory on that list, and by far the largest in area. In 1965, the UN General Assembly adopted its first resolution on Western Sahara, asking Spain to decolonize the territory. One year later, a new resolution was passed by the General Assembly requesting that a referendum be held by Spain on self-determination. In 1975, Spain relinquished the administrative control of the territory to a joint administration by Morocco (which had formally claimed the territory since 1957) and Mauritania.
A war erupted between those countries and a Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government in exile in Tindouf, Algeria. Mauritania withdrew its claims in 1979, and Morocco eventually secured de facto control of most of the territory, including all the major cities and natural resources. The United Nations considers the Polisario Front to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, and maintains that the Sahrawis have a right to self-determination.
Since 1991, there has been a cease-fire between Morocco and Polisario, but disturbances in Moroccan-held territories as well as the ongoing dispute over the legal status of the territory guarantees continued United Nations involvement and occasional international attention to the issue. As of 2017, no other member state of the United Nations has ever officially recognized Moroccan sovereignty over parts of Western Sahara. However, a number of countries have expressed their support for a future recognition of the Moroccan annexation of the territory as an autonomous part of the Kingdom.
Sahrawi woman cooking camel meat
Sahrawi people are of Arabian, Beni Hassan descent, who fused with the dominant Sanhaja Berber tribes, as well as Black African and other indigenous populations. Even though cultural arabization of the Berber people was thorough, some elements of Berber identity remain. Some tribes, such as the large Reguibat, have a Berber background but have since been thoroughly arabized; others, such as the Oulad Delim, are considered descendants of the Beni Hassan, even though intermarriage with other tribes and former slaves have occurred.
However, most tribes, regardless of their mixed heritage, tend to claim some form of Arab ancestry, as this has been key to achieving social status. In any case, no tribal identity is cut in stone, and over the centuries a great deal of intermarriage and tribal re-affiliation has occurred to blur former ethnic/cultural lines; groups have often seamlessly re-identified to higher status identities, after achieving the military or economic strength to defeat former rulers. This was, for example, the case of the largest of the Sahrawi tribes, the Reguibat. A Berber-descended zawiya (scholarly) tribe who in the 18th century took up camel nomadism and warrior traditions, they simultaneously took on more and more of an Arab identity, reflecting their new position alongside the traditional warrior castes of Arab Hassane origin, such as the Oulad Delim and the Arabic-speaking tribes of the Tekna confederation.
After the Madrid Accords which transferred administration of the Spanish Sahara to Mauritania and Morocco in 1976, an exodus of refugees fled the violence that ensued, with substantial numbers ending up in the Polisario Front movement’s base areas in the Algerian Sahara, where refugee camps were set up in the Tindouf Province, and a smaller number in camps in Mauritania. Algerian authorities have estimated the number of Sahrawi refugees in Algeria to be 165.000. For many years this figure was referred to by UNCHR, but in 2005 the organization reduced the number of “vulnerable refugees” to 90.000, until a census to determine the exact number of refugees in the camps could be done. Mauritania houses about 26.000 Sahrawi refugees, classified by UNHCR as “people in a refugee-like situation”. This population consists both of original refugees to the territory, and of former Tindouf dwellers who have since migrated to Mauritania.
Religiously, the Sahrawis are Sunni Muslims of the Maliki rite or school. Historically, religious practice has been pragmatically adapted to nomad life and local tradition. Also, since the late medieval period, various Sufi Turuq (brotherhoods or orders), have played an important role in popular religious practice; the most important among these are the Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya. Further, among the Hassaniya tribes, certain lineages reputed to be descended from the Prophet Mohammed, the chorfa, have played an important role in intertribal religious society.