Why Don’t They Fight? The Emergence and Persistence of Nonviolent Activism in the Western Sahara

By Morgan Shayer-McLeod
Submitted to Session P5001 (Triangulated Subjects: Displacement, Transit, and Activism, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Sahara;
Conflict Resolution;
Research into civil conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region has traditionally conceptualised these conflicts as occurring between a state and one (or more) non-state actors. From this framework has come an understanding of strategic nonviolence as emerging from this relationship and occurring in response to incentives from the state. However, this ignores the complexity of increasingly internationalised conflicts. Studies of transnational activist networks (TAN) for human, environmental, and indigenous rights have conceptualised this relationship as a boomerang, in which a domestic group requests assistance from international activists to put pressure on the domestic government to change specific policies (Keck and Sikkink, 1998). Further, it has been shown that groups adapt their causes and tactics to become more attractive to potential international supporters (Bob, 2006). In this paper, I will apply these insights to the relationship between Sahrawis, the international activists who support their independence, and Morocco to explain the emergence and persistence of nonviolent tactics in the Western Sahara. I do so using data collected through fieldwork in the Western Saharan refugee camps and in Europe during 2016 and 2017, focusing on research carried out during the FiSahara Film Festival in 2016 which brought over 150 activists and artists to the refugee camps, as well as 60 interviews conducted with Sahrawi cabinet members, MPs, local government officials, and foreign representatives. This research not only provides empirical insight into the dynamics of violence and nonviolence in the Western Sahara, but also makes a theoretical contribution by showing that the boomerang model can be fruitfully applied beyond the human rights context to conflicts over territorial sovereignty, leading to the conclusion that actors in conflict might instrumentally adopt nonviolence to ensure that they are able to market themselves effectively for international support. This conclusion leads to further questions about the impact of TANs on the groups with which they purport to stand in solidarity.