Long-simmering tensions between Morocco and Algeria have boiled over, following Algiers’ decision to cut diplomatic ties with Rabat over alleged ‘hostile actions’.
Although Morocco has dismissed the accusations, made on August 24, as ‘absurd’, the decades-long animosity between the two countries looks set to intensify in the coming months and casts a wave of uncertainty across the wider Maghreb region.
The backdrop to this latest fallout relates in large part to the ongoing conflict over the disputed Western Sahara region, a large strip of resource-rich desert that stretches along the Atlantic coast north of Mauritania and is often referred to as Africa’s last colony.
Morocco has occupied most of Western Sahara since Spain left the region in 1975.
The southeastern triangle, however, is controlled by the independence-seeking and Algeria-backed Polisario Front, considered by the UN to be the legitimate representative of the indigenous Sahrawi people.
Algeria’s pro-independence stance in Western Sahara was at the root of a previous break in diplomatic relations with Morocco in 1976, that would ultimately last until 1988.
While diplomatic ties between the two countries were subsequently restored, they have remained fragile, with political figures in both countries routinely taking potshots at each other in the media and, more recently, online.
Things began to take a sharp turn for the worse at the end of last year.
In November, Polisario rebels ditched a 30-year ceasefire with Morocco after the latter’s military attacked peaceful Sahrawi protesters in Guerguerat, a buffer zone in the south of Western Sahara.
Then, in December, outgoing US president Donald Trump recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco normalising ties with Israel.
Saharawi refugees in Toulouse, France, protest the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in December 2020.
Algeria reacted strongly to this development, with the country’s then prime minister, Abdelaziz Djerad, calling it a ‘real threat on our borders, reached by the Zionist entity’.
According to Khadija Mohsen-Finan, a political scientist and specialist on the Maghreb and the Arab world, the normalisation with Israel represents a significant ‘symbolic victory for Morocco over Polisario and also over Algeria’s strategy to support the movement’.
Algiers’ tolerance threshold appeared to have finally been reached in mid-July when Morocco’s ambassador to the UN expressed support for a secessionist group in Algeria’s restive Kabylia coastal region. The Algerian government considers the group a terrorist organisation. This ultimately resulted in Algeria recalling its ambassador from Morocco and demanding an explanation from the kingdom. After none was forthcoming, Algeria announced it would be cutting ties.
Some commentators have suggested that Algeria’s announcement was primarily an attempt to distract domestic audiences from its myriad internal problems. The country has faced mounting discontent in recent years over a stagnating economy and the rot that has beset state institutions.
‘The internal situation is truly grim on many fronts and that is part of the reason for Algeria’s actions,’ explained Jalel Harchaoui, a North Africa researcher at Global Initiative. ‘But it’s certainly not the only issue at play here. Morocco has undoubtedly behaved aggressively, and this is a very real geopolitical crisis, it’s not just a distraction.’
Whatever the reasons for the latest rupture, the implications could be manifold. Algiers has announced that it will stop supplying Spain with gas through the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline (GME), which runs overland through Morocco. Annual profits from the pipeline’s passage through Moroccan territory are estimated at about $50 million. Morocco is currently supplied with natural gas through GME, which would also severely impact the kingdom’s supply of power.
‘We also have a potential security situation brewing,’ added Harchaoui. ‘Things might all look good from a diplomatic perspective for Morocco in Western Sahara, but the southeastern triangle remains unresolved. We could have a harder conflict in terms of clashes between Polisario and Moroccan authorities in that region and Algeria still has the option of equipping and arming the resistance if it comes down to that.’
It remains to be seen whether Morocco’s September parliamentary elections will have any bearing on the rift, after the long-ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) suffered a crushing defeat to liberal parties.
Mohsen-Finan remains concerned that the ‘logic of an external enemy’ is linked to a broader authoritarian creep across the wider region, as populist regimes that are becoming ‘increasingly divorced from society’ look to consolidate their power.
Despite the long rivalry between Algeria and Morocco, their people share a common cultural and religious identity and speak a similar dialect.
‘Morocco has no real problems with Algeria,’ Zaak Rayan, a taxi driver in the Moroccan city of Marrakech, told NewsAfrica. ‘The only small thing is Algeria needs to understand that Western Sahara belongs to Morocco. Apart from that, everything is fine between us.’