Muhammad Bassiri was born to Sahrawi bedouin parents in Tan-Tan in Southern Morocco, then colonized by Spain. He would later live in Lemseid near Western Sahara's capital El-Aaiun. In 1957 he left for newly independent Morocco to go to school, and proceeded to study the Quran in Cairo, Egypt and Damascus, Syria. On returning to Morocco in 1966, he founded Al-Shihab (The Torch), a Sahrawi nationalist paper.
The next year he returned to Western Sahara (then Spanish Sahara) and settled in the city of Smara as a Quranic teacher. It was there he started to organize the anti-colonial movement known as the Harakat Tahrir or Liberation Movement, working for Western Sahara's independence from Spain. Bassiri stressed non-violence and wanted to bring about change through democratic action, although the ruthless colonial rule imposed by Francisco Franco's Fascist Spain forced the Harakat Tahrir to remain clandestine.
On June 17 1970 the organization appeared openly in a peaceful demonstration against Spanish rule in the Zemla quarters of El-Aaiun, which was brutally put down by the army. Bassiri was tracked down and jailed, and a photograph of him registering before the prison authorities is the last known trace of him. He is widely believed to have been murdered or tortured to death in jail. These events have been dubbed the Zemla Intifada by Sahrawis.
Present-day Sahrawi nationalists such as the Polisario Front honor him as the father of the modern Sahrawi independence struggle, as well as the first of the "disappeared" and a national martyr for the Liberty.