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Where could the escalation between Algeria and Morocco lead?

March 13, 2024 at 8:00 pm

A picture taken from the Moroccan region of Oujda shows Algerian border guards patrolling along the border with Morocco on November 4, 2021 [FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images]

The political and media escalation between Algeria and Morocco reached a new level last week, after the announcement of a representative office being opened for what was called the Moroccan Republic of the Rif, in the Algerian capital. This was a move that some say was a response, albeit belatedly, to numerous Moroccan statements about the kingdom’s support for the right to self-determination for “the Kabylie people” in Algeria, made at the UN and various other international forums by official representatives of Morocco years ago. They considered it at the time a response to the Algerian position in favour of the Sahrawis in Western Sahara.

Thus, we are facing a new level of escalation in Algeria-Morocco relations, which started even before the 1975 conflict over the Sahara issue, contrary to what many believe. Regardless of what point in history we speak about official Algeria-Morocco relations, they were never lacking caution and suspicion, at a minimum, between two governing systems that are politically and ideologically different. Even when they were going through periods of calm on the surface, relations never reached the point that the two peoples had hoped for. They never imagined that the issue would reach the level of playing on the deep ties that unite them and all the other countries in North Africa, such as the Amazigh. As an example of this, look at the ancient Rif people in western Algeria and the embrace that the Algerian revolution received amongst the people of the region from the pre-liberation war onwards.

The level of escalation increased more recently with the entry of new regional and international actors and the polarisation Rabat and Algiers due to the normalisation of relations between Morocco and Israel at a time when some vitality returned to Algerian diplomacy, after a deep sleep during the rule of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (1937-2021), who, in theory, had the credentials to contribute to resolving this conflict, but did not do so.

Western Sahara: heated debate at UN between Morocco and Algeria over territory

Bouteflika was born in Morocco and had direct relations with the Moroccan elites and political parties, As Algeria’s foreign minister when the conflict escalated in 1975, he had knowledge of the issue. However, it stagnated during his time as president (1999-2019) and before that, when Algeria was going through a security and political crisis in which the issue was not addressed. The world ignored it, and this may have helped exacerbate it, as it has remained unresolved for so long.

The balance of power did not change seriously between Rabat and Algiers. Together with international powers, they allowed the issue to stay at a controlled and controllable escalation level limited to the direct relationship between Morocco and Algeria whose influence was average internationally and did not really go beyond a limited regional context. Both knew how to distance their issues from the Arab regional framework, within which solutions were not expected to be found, due to the paralysis that was and still is characterising the regional umbrella organisation, the Arab League. However, some members of the league began to deal differently with the issue in favour of Morocco.

Rabat knew how to use its Gulf Arab relations when the US position was expressed by President Donald Trump shortly before he left the White House, and has managed to use these relations in the Arab-Israeli conflict that concerns Morocco and Israel. The occupation state has succeeded in finding an outlet for itself in North Africa which means we can probably expect this trend to continue if Trump returns to the White House next January. In the event of the re-election of incumbent President Joe Biden, the best-case scenario will see stagnation prevail.

Contrary to the presence that characterised this file in Africa, with all the repercussions for Morocco, which boycotted the African Union (previously the Organisation of African Unity) for years, it is an arena to which the kingdom has only recently returned as it is tries to gain positions that Algerian diplomacy had taken advantage of in its absence. Moreover, the Sahrawis joined the Union, which is considered to be one of the most important diplomatic victories for the proponents of the issue.

The accession of King Mohammed VI in Morocco was not taken as an opportunity to improve relations with Algeria.

He succeeded his father, King Hassan II, whose historical relations with Algeria were always deteriorating, unlike his predecessor Mohammed V, who had a more positive vision and dealings with his neighbour. It was during Hassan’s reign that war broke out immediately after Algeria’s independence in 1963.

Moreover, Algeria could have used President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s coming to power after Bouteflika’s death to improve relations with Morocco. Tebboune’s taking of the reins created the mostly correct impression that the Moroccan-Algerian conflict goes beyond individuals, and is more about political tendencies that affect the countries and their strategic interests.

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At a time when there are very negative signs, such as the mini arms race between the two countries, some forces within the respective regimes could think about using military force, even in a limited way, to move the issue forward. International events such as Israel’s genocidal war against the Palestinians, and the Russia-Ukraine war have increased tensions throughout the Middle East-North Africa and Mediterranean regions whose countries have been affected more than others, perhaps, by the consequent energy crisis.

Algeria has won many points in this crisis, but has not yet translated this into anything positive in its positions with Morocco on controversial issues, following the latter’s success in its positions on the Sahrawi issue. This has been achieved with, for example, Rabat’s relations with Spain, France and Germany at the expense of the Algerian position, whose advocates have fallen away around the world. Algerian diplomacy is far from adapting to this as quickly as it needs to do.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 10 March 2024

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.