The breakup of diplomatic relations between Algeria and Morocco in August is the product of a long history of tension. The two nations have never had long periods of friendship, notwithstanding the many factors that bring them together. Indeed, they belong to the same Maghreb region, share the same religion (Sunni Islam and Maleki rite) and identity, and speak a similar dialect. They also share a 1,550km common border.
In fact, Algerian and Moroccan people are so close that it is difficult to distinguish them. But, historical, political and ideological dissimilarities since their respective independence weigh heavily in the relations between these “brotherly” countries.
How can one account for the tensions that have characterised their relations, which have now gone through a second breakup in diplomatic relations? The first, initiated by Morocco, was from 1976 to 1988.
I have researched relations between Algeria and Morocco for more than 40 years and published studies on the topic. Relations between the Algerian and Moroccan governments have seldom been cordial. This is due to the different nature of their anti-colonial struggle, their dissimilar political systems, and opposite ideological orientations.
In the last decade, Morocco exploited the lethargy of Algeria’s diplomacy and the paralysis of the political system to advance its interests, often to the detriment of Algeria. The reawakening of Algeria’s diplomacy and its decision to counter what it considers Morocco’s “hostile acts” resulted in the latest breakup.
Their tumultuous relationship has been an impediment to the integration of the region, which could bring sizeable benefits to both. Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia founded the Arab Maghreb Union in 1989. But since 1996, the union has become moribund due to repeated tensions in Moroccan-Algerian relations.
The divergences of recent years are potentially far more consequential. They could threaten the stability of the whole North Africa region.
History of Algerian-Moroccan relations
Algerian nationalists had relatively good relations with King Mohammed V of Morocco He died in 1961, one year before Algeria gained its sovereignty. Morocco became independent in 1956 and Algeria in 1962.
King Mohammed’s son, King Hassan II, who succeeded him, made claims over Algerian territory. He invaded the country in 1963. This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Algeria’s ill-equipped fighters.
Although short, this war shaped the minds of the Algerian military-political establishment. There was an era of cooperation between 1969 and the mid-1970s. But the conflict in Western Sahara, invaded by Morocco under the so-called Green March in 1975, resulted in another era of tensions.
Indeed, in March 1976, Algeria’s recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, proclaimed by the Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, saw Morocco break diplomatic relations with Algeria. Many other African countries recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Relations were restored in May 1988.
The renewal of relations was based on a number of agreements. These were:
a commitment to enduring relations of peace
good neighbourliness and cooperation
hastening the building of the Great Arab Maghreb
Algeria’s noninterference in Morocco’s domestic affairs
solving the Western Sahara conflict through a referendum on self-determination.
From Algeria’s perspective, Morocco has reneged on all of them.
In the background, there has been a continuous buildup of Algerian-Moroccan tensions.
In the 1990s, Algeria underwent a bigger crisis than it had ever known. The country was devastated by civil strife opposing the state, and armed Islamist groups. In 1994, in the midst of that crisis, Moroccan authorities falsely accused Algerian intelligence of being behind the deadly terrorist attacks at the Asni hotel in Marrakech.
Morocco imposed visas on Algerians, including those holding another citizenship. Algeria retaliated in imposing visas and closed its land borders with Morocco. In late 1995, Morocco froze the institutions of the Arab Maghreb Union due to Algeria’s support for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
A shift in relations seemed to have occurred when Abdelaziz Bouteflika became president of Algeria in April in 1999. He planned on meeting King Hassan II to iron out differences. But the king died in July that year. His successor Mohammed VI showed no inclination for a resolution of Western Sahara under United Nations terms.
Amazingly, during his presidency, Bouteflika not only neglected the question of Western Sahara, he also instructed officials not to respond to any Moroccan hostile actions.
Following his forcible removal in April 2019, Algeria reiterated its support for the principle of self-determination.
For its part, Morocco had been lobbying the African Union, Europe and the US for support for its claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara. Two events in the last 10 months escalated tensions. The first was an attack on Sahrawi demonstrators in El-Guergarat, the buffer zone in the south of Western Sahara, by Moroccan troops. Then there was a tweet from President Donald Trump announcing US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara.
These constituted part of Algeria’s decision to break up diplomatic relations with Morocco.
Trump had traded Moroccan occupied Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco normalising relations with Israel. Other Arab states did the same thing in the framework of the Abraham Accords brokered by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Before the Abraham Accords, Moroccan officials displayed relentless hostility toward Algeria to which the Algerian government did not respond. Trump’s tweet on 10 December seemed to galvanise Morocco’s hostile attitude toward Algeria.
Algeria perceived both decisions as a real threat to its national security.
Algiers’ threshold of tolerance against acts it considered hostile came in mid-July when Morocco’s ambassador to the UN distributed a note expressing support for a group fighting for the secession of the Kabyle coastal region of Algeria. The group is listed as a terrorist group by Algeria. This resulted in Algeria recalling its ambassador in Morocco for “consultations” and asking Morocco to clarify whether this was the ambassador’s sole decision or the government’s. It never received a response.
Another hostile act in the eyes of Algeria was a vast spying scandal revealed by a consortium of international newspapers and human rights organisations. They found that Morocco had targeted more than 6,000 Algerians, including many senior political and military officials.
Algeria decided to break diplomatic relations with Morocco as of 24 August.
Implications of the breakup
The breakup may result in geopolitical realignments. But all will depend on whether Morocco will escalate tensions and use the Israeli card against Algeria, or whether it will seek to reduce tensions.
Algeria has already begun strengthening its control at the Algerian Moroccan border. It could create serious problems for Morocco if it decided to expel the tens of thousands of Moroccans (many of whom are illegal migrants) from Algeria.
There are wider implications too.
The breakup has marked the death knell of the Arab Maghreb Union, which was already dormant. The strained relations will either mean the regional grouping remains at a standstill or a new grouping might emerge.
And the rivalries between Algeria and Morocco can be expected to intensify at the African Union over Israel’s observer status at the AU, and over Western Sahara.
In the economic realm, the Algerian energy minister announced in late August that the contract for the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline (GME), which goes through Morocco, will not be renewed after it expires on 31 October 2021. The decision has now been confirmed. The pipeline goes directly from northwest Algeria and then crosses Mediterranean.
Instead, Algeria will distribute natural gas to Spain and Portugal via the pipeline, MEDGAZ.
The term impact of this breakup is unpredictable. What’s certain, however, is that Algerian-Moroccan rivalry will intensify.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author and are not endorsed by Business Kedge School or those of the Brookings Doha Centre.