Algeria’s Reasons for Its Dispute with Morocco
Hasni Abidi is Senior Lecturer at Geneva University and Director of the Centre d’Étude et de Recherche sur le Monde Arabe et Méditerranéen (CERMAM), Geneva. His contribution to this paper was written in collaboration with Brahim Oumansour, a CERMAM research associate.
The deterioration of diplomatic relations between Algeria and Morocco is a result of deep-rooted rivalry that has intensified recently between the two countries. Algeria and Morocco have always had strained relations because of competition for regional leadership, in addition to historical and ideological differences that date back to their independence from France. The most recent friction occurred on August 24, when Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra announced that his country was cutting off diplomatic relations with Morocco. He cited the latter’s spying on Algerian officials, support for a separatist group, and failure on bilateral issues, especially that of the Western Sahara.
In the past, Algeria and Morocco came into direct military confrontation twice: Algerian and Moroccan troops first clashed over a border dispute in the so-called Sand War that started in September 1963; then, the two armies fought at the oasis of Amgala in January 1976, following the 1975 Madrid Agreement in which Spain ceded the Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario Front, claiming to represent the Sahrawi people, was excluded from the agreement. When the front established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), Algeria adopted it and hosted its leaders in addition to thousands of Sahrawi refugees.
When the [Polisario] front established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), Algeria adopted it and hosted its leaders in addition to thousands of Sahrawi refugees.
Because of these tensions, Morocco broke off diplomatic relations with Algeria, leading the two states to expel thousands of citizens of each other’s countries. Moreover, the hopes of permanently settling the tensions aroused by the signing of the Arab Maghreb Union Treaty in 1989 vanished; this occurred when Algeria shut its borders with Morocco in 1994 after Rabat imposed visa regulations on Algerians and implicated Algeria in a terrorist attack on the Atlas Asni Hotel in Marrakesh in which two Spaniards died. The borders have remained closed since then despite renewed calls from Morocco to normalize relations. At the same time, both states have since made efforts to avoid major escalations that may trigger direct armed conflict and threaten regional stability. Until now, there has been a fragile appeasement consolidated in 1991 by the withdrawal of Morocco and the Polisario from the armed conflict in favor of a peaceful diplomatic settlement.
However, recent developments have led to renewed escalation. Morocco has exploited Algeria’s internal crisis and the inertia of its diplomacy in order to achieve important advances over the past four years on the issue of the Western Sahara and to strengthen its hand in the region. This was fostered by Morocco’s return to the African Union (AU) in 2017. Policy shifts in some African and Arab states in favor of Rabat, such as Gambia, Gabon, Senegal, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, the opening of consulates in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, and then the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory by President Donald Trump have exacerbated the frustration of Algerian officials. Renewed armed conflict between the Royal Moroccan Army and Polisario troops has also fueled hostilities between Morocco and Algeria, the latter accusing Rabat of violating a cease-fire by moving troops into the buffer strip at the Guerguerat border zone between Morocco and Mauritania.
Morocco’s normalization with Israel has deepened the rift between Algiers and Rabat, leading to bitter vitriol between the two neighbors.
In addition, Morocco’s normalization with Israel has deepened the rift between Algiers and Rabat, leading to bitter vitriol between the two neighbors. This normalization has brought a new dynamic into the region and placed additional pressure on Algeria, as evidenced by its diplomatic activism against Israel’s efforts to extend influence in the African continent. Algiers also condemned the AU’s decision to grant Israel observer status to the pan-African institution. Moreover, Algeria is also fearful that cooperation between Rabat and Tel Aviv might jeopardize its influence within the continental organization and the region.
Beyond these regional tensions, Algerians considered a series of decisions and declarations from Morocco in recent months as “hostile actions,” thus further intensifying the conflict. On July 15, Omar Hilal, Morocco’s permanent representative to the United Nations, called for self-determination for Algeria’s Kabyle people. This outraged Algerian officials, who consider drawing parallels between the Sahrawis’ demands and the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK) as nonsense and a violation of Algerian sovereignty. Furthermore, revelations alleging that Morocco used the Pegasus software produced by the NSO Group, an Israeli company, to spy on high-ranking Algerian political and military officials—such as the Chief of Staff Said Chengriha and the former Algerian ambassador in Paris, Abdelkader Mesdoua—fanned the flames of discord.
The fact that Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, on a visit to Rabat, voiced “worries” about Algeria’s regional role and alleged that it is “getting close to Iran,” is considered by Algiers as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Algerian officials felt betrayed because Lapid’s statement was understood as coming from neighboring Morocco, an act that violated the principles of unity and neighborliness articulated by the Arab Maghreb Union project since 1989. Finally, Algeria blames Morocco for backing the MAK, labeled by Algerian authorities as a terrorist organization and accused of setting wildfires in the Kabylia region this year, which killed scores of people. Such allegations have exacerbated hostilities between the two states.
In response, Algerian officials broke diplomatic relations and closed the country’s air space to Moroccan civil and military aircraft. Algeria also decided to cut off gas supplies to Morocco and instead only supply Spain with natural gas via the Medgaz pipeline as of the beginning of November. Such an action adds an economic dimension to the dispute, one that could seriously impact Morocco’s development.
The current diplomatic tensions between Algeria and Morocco could very well last for decades. The new geopolitical configuration triggered by the kingdom’s normalization with Israel and the Israeli presence in regional politics, including in the African Union, has led to a new and fraught dynamic in relations between the two states. The growing tensions might have dire consequences; indeed, a direct-armed conflict between Algeria and Morocco is very unlikely to erupt. After years of isolation, Algiers is demonstrating a will to return to international diplomacy and thus expects to be seen as a respected player in the region.
Still, the history of the crises between Algiers and Rabat shows that the hard-line approach always wins. In the current circumstances, the retrenchment is likely to increase as a result of three elements: the ambiguity of France’s position, which is perceived by Algeria as pro-Morocco; Israel’s intrusion into the Maghreb and the destabilization it brings; and Russia’s arrival in the nearby Sahel region, which worries both Morocco and France. This is why the return of diplomacy to North Africa is now more necessary than ever.
Morocco’s Reasons for Its Dispute with Algeria
Aboubakr Jamai is Dean of the School of International Relations at the American College of the Mediterranean in Aix-en-Provence, France.
On July 31, more than three weeks before Algeria severed diplomatic relations with Morocco, King Mohammed VI extended an olive branch to his neighbor, pledging that his country “will never cause any evil or problem.” As tensions were rising between the two countries, the overture was surprising and remains confusing to this day. Morocco’s attitude toward its eastern neighbor has been—before and after the king’s speech—all but conciliatory. Serious issues underlay the tensions, most importantly that of the Western Sahara. There also were three vexing issues of spying by Morocco and official comments by Moroccan officials regarding the Algerian Kabyle region, where an independence movement has been active.
Acrimony between post-independence Morocco and Algeria has ebbed and flowed. With the exception of brief interludes, relations have remained tense. There was the “Sand War” of 1963 and the conflict-prone framework of the cold war, but the paradigmatic cause of tension has been the Western Sahara issue.
Since the emergence of the Polisario, Morocco’s position has been, practically speaking, that Sahrawi nationalism was manufactured by Algeria, whose logistical and diplomatic support to the movement is beyond doubt.
Since the emergence of the Polisario, Morocco’s position has been, practically speaking, that Sahrawi nationalism was manufactured by Algeria, whose logistical and diplomatic support to the movement is beyond doubt. This situation allowed the movement to confront Morocco militarily from the mid-70s until the 1991 cease-fire and the initiation of the UN-led referendum process, as set forth by UN Security Council Resolution 690, which established the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
It is precisely the unbearable cost of the war and a dire economic situation that forced the late King Hassan II’s hand into agreeing to a referendum on self-determination in 1981. However, Moroccan authorities were developing an alternative to the self-determination process by initiating a national regionalization policy that was a quasi-federalization of the Moroccan state. That process was intended to subsume the Western Sahara issue into what will become an autonomy plan for the region.
The insistence on Algeria’s involvement in a political solution for the area was addressed by the UN Security Council in its Resolution 2468 of 2018, in which it started to refer to Algeria as a party to the issue alongside Morocco, the Polisario Front, and Mauritania. Algeria joined these parties in two roundtable meetings in December 2018 and March 2019 to try to “identify elements of convergence.”
Algeria’s recent refusal to participate in these roundtable meetings and its strong rejection of the UN resolution renewing MINURSO’s mandate are clear signs that it will not accommodate Morocco’s approach to the conflict. Moreover, while relations with Algeria were seldom amicable, they turned worse recently. Morocco’s attitude toward Algeria is part of a larger context, and Moroccan diplomacy has taken a decidedly increased confrontational turn. The most striking illustration of this evolution is Morocco’s reaction to the Spanish authorities’ decision to allow the COVID-19-stricken Polisario leader, Ibrahim Ghali, to receive treatment in Spain.
While relations with Algeria were seldom amicable, they turned worse recently. Morocco’s attitude toward Algeria is part of a larger context, and Moroccan diplomacy has taken a decidedly increased confrontational turn.
Moroccan authorities protested Spain’s decision, and not only through diplomatic channels. On May 17, 2021, they ostentatiously allowed and encouraged more than 6,000 Moroccan citizens to illegally enter Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in Northern Morocco. Although migration has been a sore point between Morocco and the European Union, and Spain in particular, Rabat’s weaponization of the issue is uncharacteristic of Morocco’s modus operandi.
Spain is not the only European country to suffer Morocco’s wrath. Relations with Germany have been at a standstill since December 2020. That month, Morocco’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a stern order to all Moroccan organizations to cease any cooperation with German organizations. Morocco then recalled its ambassador to Berlin on May 6th. Germany had summoned a UN Security Council meeting after the Trump Administration decided to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara; the Germans worried that the US decision would sidetrack the UN-led efforts to resolve the conflict. Morocco’s reaction was surprisingly swift and stern. It was essentially cutting diplomatic ties with the most powerful country in the European Union and one of its most generous donors; to be sure, Germany’s aid package to Morocco reached almost €1.4 billion in 2020.
One action adding to Algeria’s wrath is Morocco’s spying activities using the Pegasus spyware from an Israeli company, the NSO Group. The operation targeted Algeria’s political, diplomatic, and high military officials and included 6,000 Algerian nationals.
Additionally, what seemed to enrage most Algerians was Morocco’s stated support of the Kabyle independence movement. On July 13, Omar Hilal, Morocco’s UN ambassador, circulated a document calling for the right to self-determination for the Kabyle people. The king’s amicable words toward Algeria later in July were first construed as backtracking, or a correction of Hilal’s initiative. But Algerian authorities claimed that Morocco gave material support to a pro-Kabyle independence group based in France, the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK). They arrested members on the ground and accused them of planning terrorist operations on Algeria’s soil. The threat might have been inflated, if not fabricated; after all, it is typical for contested power elites, as the Algerian authorities are with the MAK, to manufacture external threats to justify silencing internal dissent. However, Morocco’s stirring of the Kabyle self-determination issue is not manufactured.
The most invoked reason behind the evolution of Morocco’s diplomacy is the Trump Administration’s decision to recognize the kingdom’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
The Western Sahara issue has been a central component in Morocco’s foreign relations. Still, Morocco’s attitude toward countries opposing its “territorial integrity” has never been as bellicose. The most invoked reason behind the evolution of Morocco’s diplomacy is the Trump Administration’s decision to recognize the kingdom’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
In the wake of the American decision, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita called on his country’s closest allies in the region, Spain and France in particular, to emulate the United States. However, after Trump’s defeat, the Biden Administration has all but reneged on its predecessor’s decision vis-à-vis the Western Sahara issue. This does not pacify Morocco’s behavior, however. It is noteworthy that the Ceuta incident happened five months into Biden’s presidency.
An alternative explanation is related to Trump’s change of policy. Morocco’s decision to normalize ties with Israel has always been considered as the price to pay to obtain US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. But assuaging the pro-Israel camp in the United States has benefits beyond the Western Sahara issue. Morocco is now getting military support from Israel as it struck a deal to buy drones for use in the Sahara conflict. On the economic side, Morocco signed an agreement with the Israeli company, Ratio Petroleum, to conduct gas exploration on Western Sahara shores.
In that context, it is not surprising that relations with Algeria became more belligerent. Data show that Morocco increased its military budget by 50 percent during the last 10 years, in what the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ascribed partly to “tensions with Algeria.” The Abraham Accords are allowing more conspicuous Israeli military support to Morocco; in July, for example, the two countries signed a cooperation agreement to purchase knowledge and technology and to coproduce kamikaze drones.
What makes the situation potentially flammable is the internal situation in both countries. In Morocco’s case, domestic popular discontent with the economic and social situation might lead the regime to use the perennial “external threat” card to justify more authoritarian policies.