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Tensions between North African neighbours Algeria and Morocco have grown as the question over self-determination of their populations are drawn back out into international fora. Despite the rhetoric of war, conflict is probably off the cards for the two Maghrebi states, but the disputed region of Western Sahara and surrounding area could still suffer.
The move followed comments made by Omar Hilale, a UN envoy on Algeria’s Kabylie region, about how Algeria should not deny self-determination of the Tamazight-speaking minority located in the northern tip of the country while supporting self-determination for Western Sahara, a diplomatically fraught topic.
Morocco has long claimed sovereignty of the disputed region of Western Sahara since the signing of the Madrid Accords in 1975, relinquishing it as a Spanish colony. Its claim is not recognised by the international community at large or the UN but in strengthening ties with Rabat, some states have acknowledged Western Sahara as part of the Kingdom of Morocco, including the US under former president Donald Trump — incumbent officeholder Joe Biden is yet to confirm a new policy stance — and Israel. In both instances, the declaration was a quid pro quo for Morocco to normalise relations with Israel.
Algeria, however, has backed the Polisario Front of the region’s indigenous Sahrawi people — self-labelled the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic — in wanting independence.
Halile’s comments, say analysts, were unlikely made solely out of concern for the people of the Kabylie region, also considered by some to be an occupied territory, lost in a war for independence in 1963. Instead, they were probably said to antagonise Algeria.
“Morocco has never supported the idea of an independent Kabylia and the demand for self-determination is only articulated by a very minor political organisation in this region,” said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa Director at International Crisis Group, speaking to Fanack.
“Rabat’s goal was to respond to Algiers’ support for the Polisario Front and its struggle for self-determination… and to signal to Algeria that the kingdom is ready to take a more aggressive posture than in the past on this file.
“We have already seen in the past months Morocco locked in diplomatic crises with Spain and Germany, so this kind of hard-nosed behaviour is not really surprising and is mostly the result of the December 2020 Trump recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, which has emboldened the kingdom and made it less willing to accept any compromise,” he said.
Madrid upset Morocco when it allowed Polisario leader Brahim Ghali into Spain for hospital treatment after he suffered severe COVID-19 symptoms in May 2021. Morocco also recalled its ambassador from Germany after the European heavyweight refused to change stance on the territory.
Several days after Hilale’s statement at a meeting of the non-aligned movement on 13 July 2021, Abdelkader Bengrina, leader of the Algerian party the El-Bina Movement said Hilale’s words were akin to “declaring war on Algeria, the country and its people, and we await a firm position from the competent authorities.”
Analysts agree there is minimum likelihood of Algeria and Morocco’s current dispute leading to war, the economic, social and political impacts being too costly.
However, mounting tensions reduce the possibility of de-escalation in Western Sahara as well as renewed negotiation.
As it is, the Polisario is tired of the UN referendum and thus walked back from their ceasefire with Morocco in late 2020, points out Emily Hawthorne, Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor.
Last November 2020, an operation to drive Sahrawi separatists out of the Guerguerat crossing point — a UN-guarded buffer zone between Morocco and Mauritania — was reportedly successful. Although some Algerian press, according to the Africa Report, is still reporting frequent attacks along the 2,500-kilometre defence wall
“These attacks on the defence wall are potentially being played up,” Analyst and journalist Lina Serene told Fanack, “There are skirmishes from time to time from both the Polisario and the Moroccan army, but from what we know, there is no military build-up there at the moment. Morocco has secured the road to neighbouring Mauritania but also understands it must tread with caution.”
The friction between Algeria and Morocco, however, extends to more than just the Western Sahara issue.
Since the two countries’ independence, in 1956 and 1962 respectively, the Sand War of 1963 and border closure between the two North African states signpost a history of tensions, also fuelled by concerns over security and drug trafficking.
In 1994, Morocco placed visa regulations on Algerian visitors after a terrorist attack on the Atlas Asni hostel in Marrakech. Algiers retaliated by closing the border, although due to civil war within Algeria, the border remained closed. The spat caused difficulties for Moroccan farmers cultivating land in Algeria and families separated by the partition facing travel restrictions.
Algeria’s Minister of Communication and government spokesperson Ammar Belhimer reportedly told Arabic Post that conditions for reopening depend on “good intentions” from Morocco and measures to end weapons and drug smuggling.
Recent revelations of Morocco’s potential use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware on Algerian political figures could further exacerbate tensions.
Going forward, progress on the Western Sahara diplomatic file would greatly help reduce tensions between these two countries, says Fabiani.
“If the UN managed to appoint a new special envoy to Western Sahara, there could be a possibility of a military de-escalation in this conflict and a potential resumption of negotiations, which would contribute to containing the current row and force these two countries to reengage in constructive diplomacy,” he said, adding that bar a forceful intervention by the US and the UN Secretary-General, both parties could continue to refuse all proposed candidates having turned down 13 already.
“The UN would have to begin taking the long-promised referendum process seriously,” agrees Hawthorne, after it neglected it for almost two decades.
“Also, the situation might have to come to the brink of a real and disruptive military conflict between the Polisario and Morocco in order to convince Algiers and Rabat of the need to move past the stalemate for their mutual economic and strategic security,” she added.
Some lament that Morocco and Algeria’s tensions have also weakened what could have been a formidable bloc of the Arab Maghreb Union of Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.
Meanwhile, other impacts of diplomatic tensions surrounding Western Sahara extend to stuck infrastructure projects, Rabat’s economic and diplomatic leveraging to pressure states that disagree with it, hampered counterterrorism cooperation in the Sahel and the further neglect of border towns.
“With these tensions comes a hike in prices of basic goods and an increase in social and economic misery, in already extremely poor areas with high unemployment,” says Serene.
“These citizens are also psychologically impacted as they’re afraid of any possible escalation.”