Mohamed Chtatou

Morocco and Algeria: the never-ending cold war

Algeria’s hostility toward Morocco since its independence in 1962 is considered a real enigma by many foreign observers. In reality, it is explained by the nature of power in Algeria, which, lacking democratic or at least historical legitimacy, sees this hostility as necessary for its internal hegemony and continuation.

Countries similar in appearance but heterogeneous in fact

The two countries have a common border and share the same language, religion, and culture. At first glance, it is easy to believe that they are similar in every way. However, while the countries are similar in many areas, the political anchoring is different between Morocco and Algeria.

Morocco is more liberal and attached to Europe. Nabil Adghoghi, the first advisor to the Mission of the Kingdom of Morocco to the European Union, confirms that the foreign policy of the Sherifian Kingdom is anchored in Europe with a marked economic openness.  The desire to adopt the European model of trade and investment is a key factor in Morocco’s development. The desire to adopt the European model is such that Morocco even went so far as to apply for membership in the European Union in 1984. This application was rejected three years later for geographical reasons, as Morocco is not European.

In reality, Morocco, playing on its Arab and Muslim membership on the one hand – the Sherifian monarch being legitimate on the religious level – acts as the EU’s good pupil in the Maghreb by adhering to its principles and maintaining cordial relations with European countries. In this regard, Henry Kissinger, the American diplomat, and political scientist wrote of Morocco that it has been

for a century at the intersection of the great strategies of foreign powers, which forces its leaders to maneuver with art, subtlety, and authority.

Moreover, Morocco is one of the Union’s main partners throughout the Mediterranean.

As for Algeria, it is, also, an important partner of the European Union, but it is deeply marked by its history of a long period of French colonization (1830-1962). This period had an impact on Algerian politics, which perceived Europe as a neo-colonialist threat. During the Cold War, Algeria was much less inclined to liberalism. On the contrary, it became a socialist country and joined the leading countries of Third Worldism.

Western Sahara is today the burning issue between Morocco and Algeria. During the Cold War, the late King Hassan II used this conflict as an instrument, drawing a parallel between the Western Sahara conflict and the confrontation between East and West, citing Algeria’s ideological proximity to the USSR.  Moreover, the two countries had already engaged in open warfare in 1963.

Indeed, shortly after Algerian independence, tensions between the two countries rose. Moroccan irredentism, the absence of clear borders, and Algeria’s unwillingness to reconsider the borders inherited from the colonial period were all reasons that gave rise to the conflict.

Called the War of the Sands,  this war refers to the attack of the Algerian army on Moroccan troops which caused the death of 12 Moroccan soldiers. The conflict was a Cold War theater: Algeria was supported by Egypt and Cuba, while Morocco was endorsed by the United States.  Although this war ended in a cease-fire permitted by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) under the proposal of Malian President Modibo KEÏTA, the resulting enmity remained a problem that hindered the establishment of peace in the region since.

Breaking off diplomatic relations

The severance of diplomatic relations with Morocco announced on August 24, 2021, came against a backdrop of vulnerability for the Algerian regime,  which has not stopped denouncing plots against Algeria since the “Arab revolts” of 2011. The major events of the decade in neighboring countries – the change of Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, the declaration of independence of Azawad in Mali, in 2012, the French Serval intervention, the attacks of jihadists against the gas site of Ain Amenas in the south in January 2013 – are interpreted as evidence of a desire to destabilize the country.

Discredited for its inability to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the fury of the fires ravaging Kabylia, Algeria has accused Morocco of complicity in these fires denounced as “hostile acts.”

To justify this new break in diplomatic relations, Algiers enumerates a long list of grievances, which goes back to the War of the Sands of 1963, about the delimitation of the border, then evokes the conflict of Western Sahara and ends by denouncing the danger that represents for Algeria and the region the normalization of relations between Israel and Morocco acted in December 2020.

The Algerian authorities no longer see Morocco as a rival but as a potential enemy,   seeking to destabilize a regime already weakened by an economy damaged by the fall in the price of oil in 2014 and by a political situation that has been at a standstill since the emergence of the Hirak in February 2019, a peaceful movement demanding a democratic transition.

In the eyes of the Algerian regime, there is the “blessed Hirak“, the one that put an end to the mafia-like excesses of the presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika (1999-2019), and “the cursed Hirak“, the one that demands a change of regime and which would be supported according to the Algerian military regime by “Imperialist-Zionist” forces. The “New Algeria”, the political and economic program of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in December 2019, is supposed to respond to the claims of the “blessed Hirak“.

In this regard, after his election, the President of the Republic Abdelmadjid Tebboune said that the “authentic blessed Hirak movement has saved Algeria from a real catastrophe, which almost caused the collapse of the State,” stressing that “the recent demonstrations have unknown organizers and were no longer unified in terms of ideas, demands or slogans.”

Algiers denounced on August 18, 2021, the incessant hostile acts perpetrated by Morocco against Algeria. The deterioration of relations between the two Maghreb brothers has, indeed, worsened after the recent rapprochement between Morocco and Israel.

Tensions between Algeria and Morocco were at their highest this past summer. The Algerian High-Security Council (HCS), an organ of consultation between the President of the Republic, the army, and the security services, declared on August 18, 2021, in a statement, that

the incessant hostile acts perpetrated by Morocco against Algeria required the revision of relations between the two countries and the intensification of security control at the Western borders. “

The land border closed between the two countries since 1994, and the ongoing diplomatic war on the Western Sahara issue has been added to the case of the call for independence of Kabylia in recent months and the spectacular rapprochement of Morocco with Israel.

The fires in Algeria were ordered by Rabat according to the Algerian propaganda

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune accused Morocco of supporting the Kabyle pro-independence organization MAK (Mouvement pour l’autodétermination de la Kabylie), classified since last May as a terrorist by the same HCS. However, it is to the MAK, and to the Rachad organization stamped pro-Hirak, also judged “terrorist”, that the Algerian power has decided to attribute the fires in Kabylia and in many regions of Algeria.

Morocco’s “hostile acts” would thus indirectly be the arson that caused 92 deaths and thousands of displaced persons in the country between August 9 and 16, 2021 even if the material evidence of such accusations is of course absent.

It must be said that Rabat, seeking a counter-fire to Algiers’ support for the Polisario, the independence movement of Western Sahara, crossed a “red line” in mid-July by distributing, via its diplomatic representative in New York, a report evoking “the right to self-determination of the Kabyle people. “

Algerian Foreign Minister Lamtane Lamamra’s vehement condemnation was then accompanied by a tacit threat about the risk of the Moroccan monarchy facing a separatist claim in the Rif, an Amazigh/ Berber-speaking region in northern Morocco in recurrent conflict with the central government. An unwritten dissuasive consensus united the two regimes, Algerian and Moroccan, not to use Kabylia and the Rif as an extension in their conflict over Western Sahara. Today, one must consider that this consensus is dead.

While Morocco’s financial support for the MAK leadership abroad “is in little doubt” for many dissidents of the organization born in the aftermath of the Kabyle Black Spring of 2001 (126 deaths), no actions by Algiers in support of the Rif Hirak are known yet, but this could change under the terms of the HCS communiqué.

An aggravating circumstance in such a context was the statement by Yair Lapid, Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Rabat on August 12, 2021, expressing his country’s “concerns” about Algeria because of its “proximity to Iran. “In Algiers, this is not far from being considered a declaration of war.

It is, moreover, the Moroccan “proximity” to Israel – which the Pegasus spying affair has only made more likely – that has fuelled pro-government propaganda in Algeria during the fires. The latter mentioned in particular stealth drones – it is understood that they were supplied by Israel to Morocco – which would have spread the fires in Kabylia.

Kabylia, land of Algeria?

The Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations in New York, Omar Hilale on July 15, 2021, presented Algeria’s support for the “self-determination” of the Western Sahara region as hypocritical, in the face of Algeria denying similar rights to its Kabyle people. The remarks, which came in the conclusion of a statement, have since been dubbed by Algeria’s foreign ministry as “a particularly dangerous drift.”

Indeed, in a recent meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, which took place on July 13 and 14, 2021 by videoconference from New York, caused a stir. The Moroccan ambassador to the UN, Omar Hilale, in a note addressed to the members of the conference, seems to have crossed the Rubicon in the eyes of Algeria by declaring that he is in favor of the self-determination of the “valiant Kabyle people“, the Tamazight-speaking Algerian minority. Referring to the speech of Ramtane Lamamra, the new head of Algerian diplomacy, at the same conference, he also said that Algeria should not deny this right to the Kabyle people while supporting the self-determination of the Sahrawis and Palestinians.

Omar Hilale’s comments immediately aroused the ire of the Algerian media and the Algerian political class, of all stripes, who defended in unison the territorial unity of the country and castigated the Moroccan willingness to annex Western Sahara by force. Even the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS), the oldest opposition party in Algeria, recalls that the unity of Algeria “is a red line that no one can cross under any pretext“, and that “Kabylia is an integral part of the land of Algeria” and states that this is “a desperate attempt to strike at the unity of Algeria and sow discord among the Algerian people united and proud.

In the absence of a positive and appropriate response from Rabat to these actions, the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had recalled its ambassador in Rabat “for consultation with immediate effect” pending the taking of “other possible measures depending on the evolution of this case” and in particular the position of Morocco on this “particularly dangerous” drift. The Algerian government is taking this case particularly seriously since it is firmly opposed to any desire for independence from Kabylia, an Amazigh/ Berber-speaking region in northeast Algeria. On May 18, 2021, the government classified the pro-independence Movement for Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK) as a “terrorist organization” after a meeting of the High-Security Council (HCS).

Thus, the tone rises again between the North African brothers who have historically always maintained a stormy relationship. Against the backdrop of the dispute over Western Sahara, relations between Algiers and Rabat have recently deteriorated further.

Algerians, who are generally not very receptive to the bellicose rhetoric of the two regimes, did not appreciate the December 2020 restoration of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel in exchange for Donald Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

The “review of relations” referred to in the HCS statement risks including restoration of travel visas between the two countries and a reduction in economic cooperation at a time when both markets need more opportunities. Immediately, it risks materializing as Algiers rearming the Polisario, which has declared that it is no longer concerned with the ceasefire and has been at war with the Moroccan presence in Western Sahara since November 2020.

The long history of Western Sahara

For decades, Algeria and Morocco have been at loggerheads over the Western Sahara conflict between the Polisario Front independence fighters, who proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 – supported by Algeria since the departure of the former Spanish colonial power in 1975 – and Morocco, which currently administers and occupies this former colony, considering it an integral part of the Sherifian kingdom. Tensions between the two neighbors crystallized following the normalization of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel under the Trump administration in late 2020, in return for the U.S. recognition of the Moroccan identity (marocanité) of Western Sahara, and this in a complete break with a six-decade-old policy.

Western Sahara is an integral part of Morocco for Rabat. However, Algeria considers that the Sahrawi people should be able to gain independence and has supported the Polisario Front since 1975 when Spain ceased to exercise its autonomy over the region after years of colonization.

The Western Sahara crisis continues to poison relations between the two states. For Algiers, this issue is a matter of decolonization and the prevalence of the right of peoples to self-determination, enshrined by the United Nations since its creation in 1945. Algiers is therefore calling for action by the major powers, particularly those with a seat on the UN Security Council, to enforce the law in this crisis.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), created in 1976, is supported by Algiers, which even agrees to shelter its leaders and hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi refugees on its soil.  For Rabat, it is a matter of defending the integrity of its territory.

In response, Algeria denounced foreign maneuvers aimed at destabilizing it, citing a real desire to attack Algeria through the “arrival of the Zionist entity at its doorstep. “According to Rabat, which controls 80% of the natural resources (fishing, phosphate) of this vast area, Western Sahara is an “autonomous territory” according to the UN, in the absence of a final settlement of the conflict. For the time being, however, all attempts have failed despite the autonomy plan proposed by Rabat and the claim of a referendum by the Polisario Front. Proof of the high level of tension around this issue is that the two neighbors closed their borders in 1994 for security reasons. However, in November 2020, following the reopening of the Guerguerat border crossing with Mauritania, occupied by Sahrawi troops, clashes broke out between the Sherifian kingdom and the Polisario Front, threatening the cease-fire put in place in 1991.

Pegasus  in Algeria

According to the investigation by the Forbidden Stories Consortium and Amnesty International, about 6,000 Algerian phone numbers – including some belonging to senior political, military, and intelligence officials, including current Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, as well as the current and former army chief of staff – were identified as targets of the Pegasus software, which was marketed by the Israeli company NSO in 2019.

These revelations have caused widespread outrage in Algeria, especially on social networks. The Algerian Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation to “shed light on the materiality and extent of these crimes that threaten international peace and security, as well as human security,” according to the official statement from Algiers.

The Algerian government expressed its “deep concern” on this issue, considering these actions as an inadmissible systematic violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms which also constitutes a flagrant violation of the principles and norms governing international relations, and automatically attacked Morocco without any substantial evidence:

“Algeria expresses its deep concern over the revelations made by a consortium of several media bodies with a high professional reputation and revealing the widespread use by the authorities of some countries, and notably Morocco, of a spyware called “Pegasus” to spy on Algerian officials and citizens, as well as journalists and human rights defenders worldwide.

On the Moroccan side, Rabat denied such baseless allegations and declared that it has undertaken to sue the consortium behind the investigation for defamation before the criminal court in Paris.

Morocco and Algeria are on the brink of a destructive war?

Clearly, neither Algeria nor Morocco wants an open conflict with inevitably catastrophic consequences for both countries. But history shows that states do not always have absolute control over their own level of aggressiveness: an escalation that is initially controlled can quickly degenerate.

Especially since Algiers first, followed by Rabat, has been engaged in an arms race – Russian for Algeria, Western for Morocco – for the past fifteen years, which has not had the virtue of creating a more fraternal atmosphere between the two countries.  And that the careers of Algerian and Moroccan security officials, some of whom were recently appointed, are marked by the Sahrawi question and therefore by antagonism with the neighbor.

It is now on the military terrain that this almost fifty-year antagonism between the two enemy brothers is unfolding. Since the evacuation in mid-November by Moroccan forces of the Guerguerat crossing, blocked for several weeks by Sahrawi independence fighters, it is again, if one is to believe the latter, war between Rabat and the Polisario. Not a week goes by without the Front, systematically relayed by Algeria Press Service (APS), announcing an attack against the Moroccan defense wall, without it being possible to distinguish the part of reality and intoxication.

However, Morocco has recently scored astounding military successes against Polisario fighters thanks to its efficient drone strikes. Such an action can basically defuse the tension between Morocco and Algeria and make this movement bear the brunt of mounting aggressivity in the region.

Morocco and Algeria: What Future?

Relations between Morocco and Algeria are historically difficult and cold. They are characterized by a rivalry for leadership in the region, but also by periods of tension. This was first seen in the territorial dispute that led to the confrontation between the Algerian army and the royal army in 1963 during the Sands War (1963-1964). Then, these tensions crystallized around the Western Sahara conflict following Algiers’ support for the Polisario Front, which claims independence for the territory disputed between Polisario and Morocco. These tensions finally resulted in the closure of land borders in 1994.

Of course, the race for regional hegemony remains a major motive for both countries. Algiers is seeking to reassert its weight in the region after several years of retreat that had left the way open for Rabat’s influence at the regional and international levels. Rabat’s African strategy has allowed it to develop relationships and trade agreements with regional groups such as ECOWAS and turn some African states in its favor on the Western Sahara issue.

Trade agreements with the European Union incorporating the disputed territory are considered an achievement by Rabat both for its claim to the Moroccan identity of the Western Sahara and its positioning as a regional leader. This diplomatic activism is likely to irritate Algiers and rekindle the competition between the two neighbors.

But regional instabilities, in Libya and the Sahel in particular, are putting a lot of pressure on both countries, and are also contributing to the escalation of tensions. Algeria and Morocco are two pivotal countries in the Maghreb-Sahel region that are considered key partners by international powers to ensure stability in the region, fight terrorism, and curb organized crime. Rising tensions between the two countries could tarnish the picture in the eyes of the international community, or at least raise its concern. Indeed, these tensions could hinder the already fragile regional stability.

However, even if Algiers has chosen to escalate by refusing to renew the gas contract and by closing its airspace, these measures are being taken with some restraint. Both states are aware that such an escalation would be frowned upon internationally. They will therefore do everything to avoid pressure from the international community.

Conclusion: The myth of the Maghreb

But if the myth of a united Maghreb is still alive, it no longer covers the same realities. There is no longer any question today of establishing institutional links between the three major countries i.e. Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The construction of the Maghreb must now be understood, more modestly, as a simple harmonization of traditionally competitive economies, and the development of more coherent diplomacy in a certain number of areas, particularly in relation to the European Union.

Reduced to these realistic proportions, such a policy may seem feasible. In short, it would be a matter of arranging peaceful coexistence between dissimilar regimes that have given up – at least for Morocco – on the chimerical idea of a kind of Maghreb integration. But this perspective itself may still seem too ambitious.

Relations between the Algerian Socialist Republic and the Sherifian Monarchy are far from stabilized, and one cannot avoid considering peace in this region of the Maghreb as a fragile truce that the slightest incident could call into question. Since the War of the Sands, nothing has been settled between the two countries, except for a few problems whose solution could not be delayed too long, and which required delicate negotiations: such as the demarcation of the demilitarized zone on the border, or the fate of the people and goods on both sides that suffered from the conflict, or the cooperation agreements concluded or prepared before the crisis and which were never put into effect.




You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu




About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.