ethnic group

poptime=disputed/uncertain (250-400,000)
popplace=Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Spain (diaspora)
rels=Sunni Islam (Maliki)
langs=Hassaniya, Modern Standard Arabic, Spanish; a northern minority also speak Tachelhit (a Berber dialect).
related=Moors, Berber, Arab
Most frequently in English language usage, the term Sahrawi ("Saharaui") is usually used in reference to populations from the disputed Western Sahara territory, sometimes with a nationalist connotation.

Origin of word and transliterations

The Arabic word "Sahrāwī" literally means "of Sahara", and should be understood as "inhabitant of the Sahara" (Saharan). There are several transliterations of the word, several of which are used in English:

*English, "Saharaui", "Sahrawi" or "Saharawi"
*French, "Sahraoui", "Saharaui"
*Italian, "Saharawi","Saharaui"
*Spanish, "Saharaui" ("saharauita")

ahrawis or Moors?

The term Moor can refer to a collection of Hassaniya Arabic speaking tribes, of Arab-Berber and pure Berber/Tuareg heritage, mainly living in Mauritania, Western Sahara (ca 200.000), southern Morocco, western Algeria, Mali (ca. 100,000) [ethnologue] and surrounding territories. These tribes are, in English speaking countries, sometimes called Moors and share the same population characteristics: Hassaniya-speaking and to a large extent descendants of nomad Arabic speaking Bedouins mixed with the historical Berber populations. They form a large, but not the only, part of the population of countries in the area of the Western Sahara.

Western Saharan, pro-independence groups have tended to utilize the term Sahrawi (Saharan) in a manner as to give a nationalist connotation, specific to the Western Sahara Territory. Common Moroccan governmental and popular usage has tended to apply the term somewhat more broadly, to include Hassani speaking Saharan populations in regions under undisputed Moroccan rule, but with similar connotations. It is now routine to describe these same populations as (Moroccan) Sahrawi. The term Sahrawi includes both Beni Hassan, Haratin (dark skinned population) and other groups, and is not confined to nomadic populations.

Early history

Nomadic Berbers, mainly of the Sanhaja tribal confederation, inhabited the areas now known as Western Sahara, southern Morocco, Mauritania and western Algeria, before Islam arrived in the 8th century AD. The new faith achieved quick expansion, but Arab immigrants initially only blended superficially with the population, mostly confining themselves to the cities of present-day Morocco and Spain. However, they introduced the camel to the region, revolutionizing the traditional trade routes of North Africa. Caravans transported salt, gold and slaves between North Africa and West Africa, and the control of trade routes became a major ingredient in the constant power struggles between various tribes and sedentary peoples. On more than one occasion, the Berber tribes of Western Sahara/Mauritania would unite behind religious leaders to sweep the surrounding governments from power, then founding dynasties of their own. This was the case with the Almoravid dynasty of Morocco and Andalusia, and several emirates in Mauritania.

In the 11th century, the Arab Beni Hilal and Beni Sulaym tribes emigrated westwards from Egypt (the Fatimid Caliphate) and gained control of most of present-day Morocco, but Western Sahara remained largely unpenetrated by the Arab advances. However, in the early 13th century, the Yemeni Maqil tribes migrated westwards across the entirety of Arabia and northern Africa, to finally settle around today's Morocco. They were badly received by the Zenata Berber descendants of the Merinid dynasty, and among the tribes pushed out of the territory, were the Beni Hassan.

This tribe entered the domains of the Sanhaja, and over the following centuries imposed itself upon them, intermixing with the population in the process. Berber attempts to shake off the rule of Arab warrior tribes occurred sporadically, but assimilation gradually won out, and after the failed Char Bouba uprising (1644-74), the Berber tribes would virtually without exception embrace Arab culture and even claim Arab heritage. [] The Arabic dialect of the Beni Hassan, Hassaniya, remains the mother-tongue of Western Sahara and Mauritania to this day, and is also spoken in southern Morocco and western Algeria, among affiliated tribes. Berber vocabulary and cultural traits remain common, despite the fact that most if not all of the Sahrawi/Moorish tribes today claim Arab ancestry; several are even claiming to be descendants of Muhammad, so-called sharifian tribes (pl. "shurfa" or "chorfa").

The modern ethnic group is thus an Arabized Berber people inhabiting the westernmost Sahara desert, in the area of modern Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria and, at its core, the Western Sahara (some tribes would also traditionally migrate into northern Mali and Niger, or even further along the Saharan caravan routes). As with most Saharan peoples, the tribes reflect a highly mixed heritage, combining Arab, Berber, and other influences, including black African ethnic and cultural characteristics. The latter were primarily acquired through mixing with Wolouf, Soninke and other populations of the southern Sahel, and through the acquisition of slaves by wealthier nomad families.

In pre-colonial times, the Sahara was generally considered "bled es-Siba" or "the land of dissidence" by the authorities of the established Islamic states of North Africa, such as the Sultan of Morocco and the Deys of Algeria. The Islamic governments of the pre-colonial sub-Saharan empires of Mali and Songhai appear to have had a similar relationship with the tribal territories, which were at once the home of undisciplined raiding tribes and the main trade route for the Saharan caravan trade. Central governments had little control over the region, although the Hassaniya tribes would occasionally extended "beya" or allegiance to prestigious rulers, to gain their political backing or, in some cases, as a religious ceremony. The Moorish populations of today's north Mauritania established a number of emirates, claiming the loyalty of several different tribes and through them exercising semi-sovereignty over traditional grazing lands. This could be considered the closest thing to centralized government that was ever achieved by the Hassaniya tribes, but even these emirates were weak, conflict-ridden and rested more on the willing consent of the subject tribes than on any capacity to enforce loyalty. []

Colonial history

Modern distinctions drawn between the various Hassaniya speaking Sahrawi-Moorish groups are primarily political, but cultural differences dating from different colonial and post-colonial histories are also apparent. An important divider is whether the tribal confederations fell under French or Spanish colonial rule. France conquered most of North and West Africa largely during the late 19th century. This included Algeria and Mauritania, and, from 1912, Morocco. But Western Sahara and scattered minor parts of Morocco fell to Spain, and were named Spanish Sahara (subdivided into Río de Oro and Saguia el-Hamra) and Spanish Morocco respectively. These colonial intrusions brought the Muslim Saharan peoples under Christian European rule for the first time, and created lasting cultural and political divides between and within existing populations, as well as upsetting traditional balances of power in differing ways.

The Sahrawi-Moorish areas, then still undefined as to exact territorial boundaries, proved troublesome for the colonizers, just as they had for neighbouring dynasties in previous centuries. The political loyalty of these populations were first and foremost to their respective tribes, and supratribal allegiances and alliances would shift rapidly and unexpectedly. Their nomadic lifestyle made direct control over the territories hard to achieve, as did general lawlessness, an absence of prior central authority, and a widely held contempt for the kind of settled life that the colonizers sought to bring about. Centuries of intratribal warfare and raids for loot ("ghazzu") guaranteed that the populations were well armed and versed in guerrilla-style warfare. Tribes allied to hostile European powers would now also be considered fair game for cattle raids on those grounds, which tied the struggle against France and Spain into the traditional power play of the nomads, aggravating the internal struggles.

Uprisings and violent tribal clashes therefore took place with increasing frequency as European encroachment increased, and on occasion took the form of anti-European holy war, or Jihad, as in the case of the Ma el-Ainin uprising in the first years of the 20th century. It was not until the 1930s that Spain was able to finally subdue the interior of present-day Western Sahara, and then only with strong French military assistance. Mauritania's raiding Moors had been brought under control in the previous decades, partly through skilful exploitation by the French of traditional rivalries and social divisions between the tribes. In these encounters, the large Reguibat tribe proved especially resistant to the new rulers, and its fighters would regularly slip in out of French and Spanish territory, similarly exploiting the rivalries between European powers. The last major Reguibat raid took place in 1934, after which the Spanish authorities occupied Smara, finally gaining control over the last unpatrolled border territories.

The Sahrawi-Moorish tribes remained largely nomadic until the early to mid-20th century, when Franco-Spanish rivalries (as well as disagreements between different wings of the French colonial regime) managed to impose rigid, if arbitrary, borders on the previously fluid Sahara. The wide-ranging grazing lands of the nomads were split apart, and their traditional economies, based on trans-Saharan caravan trade and raiding of each other and the northern and southern sahel neighbours, were broken. Little attention was paid to existing tribal confederations and zones of influence, when dividing up the Saharan inlands.

Different colonial practices

French and Spanish colonial governments would gradually, and with varying force, impose their own systems of government and education over these territories, exposing the native populations to differing colonial experiences. The populations in Algeria were subjected to direct French rule, which was organized to enable the massive settlement of French and European immigrants. In Mauritania, they experienced a French non-settler colonial administration which, if light in its demands on the nomads, also deliberately overturned the existing social order, allying itself with lower-ranking marabout and zenaga tribes against the powerful warrior clans of the Hassane Arabs. In southern Morocco, France upheld indirect rule through the sultanate in some areas, while Spain exercised direct administration in others. Spanish Sahara was treated first as a colony, and later as an overseas province, with gradually tightening political conditions, and, in later years, a rapid influx of Spanish settlers (making Spaniards about 20% of the population in 1975). By the time of decolonization in the 1950s-1970s, Sahrawi tribes in all these different territories had experienced roughly a generation or more of distinct experiences; often, however, their nomadic lifestyle had guaranteed that they were subjected to less interference than what afflicted sedentary populations in the same areas.

Debate on pre-colonial allegiances

The period of colonization destroyed existing power structures, leaving a confused legacy of contradictory political affiliations, European-drawn borders with little resemblance to ethnic and tribal realities, and the foundations of modern political conflict.

For example, both sides in the Western Sahara conflict (Morocco vs. the Polisario Front) draw heavily on colonial history to prove their version of reality. Proponents of the Greater Morocco ideology point to some Sahrawi tribes calling upon the Moroccan Sultan, who until 1912 remained the last independent Islamic ruler of the area, for assistance against the Europeans (see Ma al-Aynayn). Pro-independence Sahrawis, on the other hand, point out that such statements of allegiance were almost routinely given by various tribal leaders to create short-term alliances, and that other heads of tribes indeed similarly proclaimed allegiance to Spain, to France, to Mauritanian emirates, and indeed to each other; they argue that such arrangements always proved temporary, and that the tribal confederations always maintained "de facto" independence of central authority, and would even fight to maintain this independence.

The International Court of Justice issued a ruling on the matter in 1975, stating that there "had" existed ties between the Moroccan Sultan and some (mainly northernly Tekna) tribes in then-Spanish Sahara, but that these ties were "not" sufficient to abrogate Western Sahara's right to self-determination. The same kind of ruling was issued with regard to Mauritania, where the court found that there were indeed strong tribal and cultural links between the Sahrawis and Mauritanian populations, including historical allegiance to some Moorish emirates, but that these were not ties of a state or government character, and did not constitute formal bonds of sovereignty. Thus, the court recommended the UN to continue to pursue self-determination for the Sahrawis, enabling them to chose for themselves whether they wanted Spanish Sahara to turn into an independent state, or to be annexed to Morocco or Mauritania.

Postcolonial history

The Western Sahara question

The area today referred to as Western Sahara, remains according to the United Nations one of the world's last remaining major non-self governing territories. Morocco controls most of the territory as its Southern Provinces, but the legality of this is not internationally recognized, and disputed militarily by the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed movement claiming independence for the territory as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Since 1991, there is 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.

* "For more on this conflict, see History of Western Sahara."
* "For more on Sahrawis/Moors in Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco, see their respective entries."

The Polisario Front

The Polisario Front is the main Western Sahara nationalist organization, militating for the independence of the Western Sahara since 1973 - originally against Spanish rule, but after 1975 against Mauritania and Morocco; since 1979 against Morocco only. The organisation is based in Algeria, where it is responsible for the Tindouf refugee camps. The organisation maintains a cease-fire with Morocco since 1991 (see Settlement Plan), but continues to strive for the territory's independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) through peaceful negotiations. The Polisario restricts its claims to the colonially-defined Western Sahara, holding no claim to, for example, the Sahrawi-populated Tarfaya Strip in Morocco, or any part of Mauritania.

Demography of the Western Sahara population

Ethnic background: Berbers and Arabs

As described above, the Hassaniya speaking tribes are of a Berber descent, and were influenced by the invasion or penetration of Western Saharan region by the Beni Hassan Arab bedouin tribes, who fused with the dominant Sanhaja Berber tribes, as well as black African and other indigenous populations (e.g. various indigenous Soninke speaking groups). Even though cultural arabization was thorough, especially after the 17th century Char Bouba war, many 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 that descendancy is mainly ideological and intermarriage with other tribes and former slaves have occurred; a few, such as the Tekna tribal confederation, remain ambiguously Berber in their identity and have retained some Berber dialect of the area. Often, though not in the case of the Tekna, the Berber-Arab elements of a tribe's cultural heritage, reflects social stratification. In traditional Moorish-Sahrawi society, Arab (Hassane) tribes claimed a role as rulers and protectors of the disarmed weaker Berber tribes. Thus, the warrior tribes and nobility would be more Arab (in name), and lower-caste tribes would retain more of a Berber identity.

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. Many (the so-called chorfa tribes) will also claim descendancy from the Prophet Muhammad himself. 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.

ocial and ethnic hierarchy

Generally speaking, the Hassaniya populations were (or are) divided into several groups, of different social status. [ A Country Study: Mauritania, Library of Congress, Chapter 2 - The Society and its Environment (LaVerle Berry), section Ethnic Groups and Languages, subsection Maures. 1988 (other sections: Zenaga and Black Africans)]

At the peak of society were the aristocratic "warrior" lineages or clans, the Hassane, supposed descendants of the Beni Hassan Arab immigrants (cf. Oulad Delim). Below them stood the "scholarly" or "clerical" lineages. These were called marabout or zawiya tribes (cf. Oulad Tidrarine). The latter designation the preferred one in among the Western Sahara-centered tribes, who would also almost invariably claim chorfa status to enhance their religious credibility. The zawiya tribes were protected by Hassane overlords in exchange for their religious services and payment of the horma, a tributary tax in cattle or goods; while they were in a sense exploited, the relationship was often more or less symbiotic. Under both these groups, but still part of the Western Sahara society, stood the znaga tribes - tribal groups labouring in demeaning occupations, such as fishermen (cf. Imraguen), as well as peripheral semi-tribal groups working in the same fields (among them the "professional" castes, mallemin and igawen). All these groups were considered to be among the "bidan", or whites.

Below them ranked servile groups known as Haratin, a black population, according to some sources descendants of the original Sahara population, but more generally seen the descendants of freed slaves of African origins. (Note that "Haratin", a term of obscure origin, has a different meaning in the Berber regions of Morocco.) They often lived serving affiliated "bidan" (white) families, and as such formed part of the tribe, not tribes of their own. Below them came the slaves themselves, who were owned individually or in family groups, and could hope at best to be freed and rise to the status of Haratin. Rich bidan families would normally own a few slaves at the most, as nomadic societies have less use of slave labour than sedentary societies; however, in some cases, slaves were used to work oasis plantations, farming dates, digging wells etc.

Slavery persisted among Hassaniya-speaking populations well into the colonial age, despite that both French and Spanish colonial authorities formally banned the practice. While slavery is thought to be eradicated in most parts of Western Sahara, there are credible reports that both outright slavery and, more commonly, different forms of informal bondage are still applied to some Haratin lineages in Mauritania, and indeed among the Polisario refugee camps. [ [ BBC NEWS | Africa | Mauritania 'still practising' slavery ] ] [ Saltana no quiere ser esclava, EL PAIS dayly newspaper, Madrid, March 12, 2007 ]

Best reference on Sahrawui population etnography is the work of Spanish anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja, who in 1952-53 spent several months among native tribes all along the then Spanish Sahara. He published in 1955 a monumental book on the subjet, whose thoroughness and depth have not been equaled so far. [ Julio Caro Baroja, Estudios Saharianos, Instituto de Estudios Africanos, Madrid, 1955. Re-edited 1990: Ediciones Júcar. ISBN 84-334-7027-2 ]


The exact number of Hassaniya speakers is not clear, but tallying population figures of Western Sahara and Mauritania indicates that the number must be close to three million; additional populations are found in Algeria and south Morocco, as well as north-west Mali.

The number of Hassaniya speakers identifying as "Sahrawi" in the modern political sense, is also unknown, and estimates are hotly contested by partisans in the Western Sahara conflict. Most estimates however center around 200,000 to 400,000. These populations are centered in southern Morocco, Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, and in the Tindouf Province of Algeria, where large number of refugees from Western Sahara are located. Around 20-30,000 UNHCR-identified Sahrawi refugees also live in Mauritania (mostly around Zouerate).

The refugees

The Moroccan-Mauritanian invasion of Western Sahara following the collapse of Spanish colonial rule in 1975 produced an exodus of refugees fleeing the violence, with substantial numbers ending up in the Polisario Front movement's base areas in the Algerian Sahara, where refugee camps were set up south of Tindouf, and a smaller number in camps in Mauritania. These refugee populations form the base and recruiting grounds for the Polisario Front, contesting Moroccan control of the territory.

The UNHCR indicates that approximately 150,000 Sahrawis are present on Algerian territory, c. 2002 [ ] , although the Moroccan government contends that the figure is much lower. An additional 25,000 Western Sahara refugees reside in Mauritania, according to UNHCR figures. [ ] This population consists both of original refugees to the territory, and of former Tindouf dwellers who have since migrated to Mauritania.

Moroccan Sahrawis

Southern Morocco holds a Hassaniya-speaking tribal population defined both by themselves and by the official media as "Sahrawi", though this was a sensitive question in the past.


* "Also see: Music of Western Sahara, as well as relevant articles on culture in 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 inter-tribal religious society.


:"See article on tribalism and the .

The tribe was the historical basis of social and political organisation among the Hassaniya speaking tribes of the Sahara, well into the colonial and arguably post-colonial period. Traditionally, Hassaniya Sahrawi society was completely tribal, organized in a complex web of shifting alliances and tribal confederations, with no stable and centralized governing authority.

Lawmaking, conflict resolution and central decision-making within the tribe, was carried out by the Djema'a, (Arabic, gathering) a gathering of elected elders (shaykhs) and religious scholars. Occasionally, larger tribal gatherings could be held in the form of the Ait Arbein (Group of Forty), which would handle supratribal affairs such as common defence of the territory or common diplomacy. During colonial times, Spain attempted to assume some of the legitimacy of these traditional institutions by creating its own Djema'a, a state-run political association that supported its claims to the territory.

ee also

*Spanish Sahara
*Spanish Morocco
*List of Spanish colonial wars in Morocco
*History of Western Sahara
*Western Sahara
*Tindouf Province
*James Riley (Captain)


Background information on the Western Sahara conflict

# Western Sahara Online - Marrakesh Treaty (1767)
# Western Sahara Online - Anglo-Moroccan Treaty (1895)
# Western Sahara Online - Meknes Treaty (1799)
# Western Sahara Online - Pictures depicting one of the darkest places of Moroccan occupation, the infamous "Black Prison" in El Aaiun
# Telquel - Les ghettos du Sahara (in French)
# ZMAG - Western Sahara - An interview with Stephen Dunes
# Speech delivered by H.M. King Mohammed VI on the 28th anniversary of the Green March
# International Court of Justice - WESTERN SAHARA - Advisory Opinion of 16 October 1975.
# Sahara Marathon: Host Interview with James Baker on PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, an American, private, nonprofit media corporation
# Amnesty International - Morocco/Western Sahara - Covering events from January - December 2002
# Human Rights Watch - The United Nations Operation in Western Sahara
# BBC News - Last Moroccan war prisoners freed
# Morocco: Human Rights at a Crossroads
# US State Department - Western Sahara - Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2000
# Amnesty International - Morocco/Western Sahara - Covering events from January - December 2004
# Amnesty International - 1999 - MOROCCO /WESTERN SAHARA "Turning the page": achievements and obstacles
# US State department Morocco - Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2000
# Freedom House - Freedom in the World - Western Sahara, Morocco (2005)

Further reading on the Western Sahara conflict

* Hodges, Tony (1983), "Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War", Lawrence Hill Books (ISBN 0-88208-152-7)
* Jensen, Erik (2005), "Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate", International Peace Studies (ISBN 1-58826-305-3)
* Mercer, John (1976), "Spanish Sahara", George Allen & Unwid Ltd (ISBN 0-04-966013-6)
* Norris, H.T. (1986), The Arab Conquest of the Western Sahara, Longman Publishing Group (ISBN 0-582-75643-X)
*Pazzanita, Anthony G. and Hodge, Tony (1994), "Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara", Scarecrow Press (ISBN 0-8108-2661-5)
* Shelley, Toby (2004), "Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa's Last Colony?", Zed Books (ISBN 1-84277-341-0)
* Thobhani, Akbarali (2002), "Western Sahara Since 1975 Under Moroccan Administration: Social, Economic, and Political Transformation", Edwin Mellen Press (ISBN 0-7734-7173-1)
* Thompson, Virginia and Adloff, Richard (1980), "The Western Saharans. Background to Conflict", Barnes & Noble Books (ISBN 0-389-20148-0)

External links

* Photo gallery covering different aspects of life of refugees in Tindouf, by Danielle Van Brunt Smith

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