Algeria and Morocco are two countries that share the same religion, language, culture, and cuisine. More importantly, they are neighbors, equally affected by the geopolitical dynamics and any security or economic upheaval unfolding in the region. Both heavyweights in their own right, they are individually capable of exerting significant influence on the course and trajectory of North Africa’s political economy.
The uninformed observer is therefore forgiven for being bewildered by the seemingly never-ending discord between the brother nations, and the recent announcement by Algeria that it will suspend ties with Morocco.
The aim of this article is not to highlight the reasoning behind Algiers’ decision to end diplomatic relations with Rabat, but rather to provide a brief background of the ever-festering, decades-old gripes that have consistently underpinned the frictions. Indeed, such perceptions endure today and continue to form the basis of all interactions between the two nations at state-level.
The View in Algeria
The first argument most often presented by Algerians relates to the “War of the Sands” in 1962, when Moroccan forces sought to claim territories in the West of the newly independent state of Algeria. Fighting broke out between Algeria and Morocco, with Rabat withdrawing its forces after casualties on both sides. For the Algerian public, the narrative is that a brotherly state took advantage of the nascent Algeria’s weariness from its fight against the colonial power France, in order to expand and seize territory in the spirit of unrestrained ambition. In the Algerian psyche, this was treachery of the highest order and set the tone for bilateral relations for decades to come.
The second reason that is most often cited by Algerians is the decision of Morocco in 1994 to impose visas on Algerian citizens, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on a hotel in Marrakech that Rabat believed was orchestrated by Algiers. For Algerians, this was a flagrant disregard of brotherly solidarity, especially in the midst of Algeria’s bitter civil war, in which 1994 is often noted as the worst year of the conflict. Accordingly, Rabat was left stunned when an indignant Algeria went beyond imposing visas on Moroccans in response, and unilaterally decided to shut down the entire border.
The third claim is that Morocco’s insistence on its sovereignty over the Western Sahara has led Rabat to pursue policies geared towards undermining Algeria while exacerbating domestic issues within Algerian territory. More recently, the accusation has been that Rabat has provided support for the separatist movement for the self-determination of Kabylie, or “MAK,” which Algiers deems to be a terrorist group.
The view in Algiers is that Rabat has normalized ties with Israel so as to wield Tel Aviv against Algeria’s interests in the region.
The view in Algiers has also been that Rabat has normalized ties with Israel so as to wield Tel Aviv against Algeria’s interests in the region, with the aim of vengeance for Algiers’ role in complicating Morocco’s bid for the Western Sahara. Therefore, the recent visit of the Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and his statement from Rabat criticizing Algeria drew widespread condemnation from the Algerian population. In this context, Morocco is seen as a rabid expansionist power that cannot be trusted, and thus any invitation from Rabat for talks are perceived as devoid of sincerity given its alleged simultaneous provocations.
The View in Morocco
For the Moroccans, the relationship with Algeria is also viewed through the lens of having been wronged by a brotherly state. Irrespective of where citizens might stand on the political spectrum, there appears to be a consensus that Morocco was deeply aggrieved by the legacy of colonialism with regards to its territorial integrity. Put simply, there is local agreement that lands which historically belonged to Morocco were given away to Algeria and Mauritania by the Spanish and French colonizers, and that there is an obligation on the state to contest the injustice.
As such, Moroccans defend the military attempts to “regain” the Western Sahara, and the historical efforts to seize territories that today compose part of Algeria’s Western provinces. For Moroccans, this is not “expansionism” as critics often tout, but a continuation of the struggle for freedom and restoration of territorial integrity that was forcefully denied to Morocco by colonial powers.
Moroccans believe it is hypocritical of a nation that claims to be the “Mecca of freedom and revolution” to support a status quo that upholds the historical wrongs inflicted by colonial rulers. Hence, there is an equal sense of having been taken advantage of by the brotherly states of Algeria and Mauritania. The former is seen as having unfairly assumed and incorporated Moroccan territories into its modern state, while the latter is seen as having launched an ambitious bid for the Western Sahara that only ended because of its military incapability to do so.
Algeria is accused of unnecessarily impairing Morocco’s bid for the Western Sahara.
Algeria is also accused of unnecessarily impairing Morocco’s bid for the Western Sahara. In 1975, Algeria publicly opposed the “Green March” in which Morocco encouraged more than 300,000 citizens to move into the disputed territories of the Western Sahara, in what critics decried as an attempt to impose demographic changes to the area. Algiers then proceeded to support the Western Sahara’s “Polisario,” who entered into a guerrilla war aimed at resisting Morocco’s claims to the territory. Algeria argues that it has a moral duty to support a people’s right to self-determination and that it is ready to respect any result of a UN-led referendum in the Western Sahara, even if it favors Morocco. Rabat, however, deems such actions as Algerian attempts to spite Morocco due to underlying tensions from 1962.
Even after a reconciliation in 1989, in which Morocco agreed to end its claims on territories within Algeria’s borders, Rabat argues that Algeria has continued to exacerbate relations in bad faith. In 1994, Algeria’s President Lamine Zeroual publicly stated that the “Western Sahara” was a territory “illegally occupied” by Morocco, while Algiers has insisted that Morocco supported armed militants during Algeria’s brutal civil war.
Dwindling Hope for a United Maghreb
Morocco has often been regarded as keener to reopen the border with Algeria and restore ties. The reasoning for this is simple: Morocco has lacked the natural resources that Algeria enjoys and therefore has traditionally had greater economic “need” for an open border and access to bilateral trade than Algeria. Meanwhile, Algeria’s rich hydrocarbon resources have over the years provided a comfortable economic reserve that has resulted in complacency and the absence of any urgency to reopen the border or diversify its ailing economy.
However, while economics has forced a fluctuation in the intensity of ill-feeling at various times over the past few decades, it has never served, and cannot serve, as the basis for reconciliation between the parties. The underlying tensions are rooted in legitimate, decades-old grievances that still fester on both sides. Even if these mistrusts are manipulated at times for political expediency, this does not diminish their gravity, as they evoke strong feelings not just among policymakers, but also among the populations themselves.
More specifically, as long as the issue of the Western Sahara remains unresolved, it is unlikely that there will be any marked changes in bilateral ties. In fact, the Western Sahara matter is arguably now more complicated than even the Palestine-Israel issue. Where the latter is a clear example of colonization, the Western Sahara is one where the lines of identity, history, and geography are blurred. The room for interpretation is vast and the UN has struggled to create a viable framework amenable to all parties that might help settle the dispute. Furthermore, as tensions simmer between Algeria and Morocco, the problem is becoming less about the Western Sahara itself, but rather a geopolitical tussle where the former views the territory (and Saharan independence) as a necessary check on the latter.
The popular dream of a “Maghreb Union” touted across North Africa is impossible without the reconciliation of Morocco and Algeria.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy in all of this, is that the popular dream of a “Maghreb Union” often touted across North Africa is impossible without the reconciliation and subsequent economic union of Morocco and Algeria. The vision of a European Union-like entity that promises to transform the political and economic landscape of the region, and to vastly augment the projection of power on the part of North Africa over the Mediterranean and the rest of Africa, remains elusive as long as the two brother nations remain at odds. It is in this context that conspiracy theories often emerge, suggesting external actors (such as Yair Lapid and the UAE in recent times) have a vested interest in ensuring the neighboring countries continue quarrelling, fearful of the enormous potential that their reconciliation would unleash.
Irrespective of such speculations, the reality is that the discord between Morocco and Algeria can be more accurately surmised using the Arabic word of “fitna”— a dispute where the matter of who is right or wrong is less important than the necessity of harmony and cessation of hostilities between two parties.