Will tensions between Algeria and Morocco escalate?

Will tensions between Algeria and Morocco escalate?

 Will tensions between Algeria and Morocco escalate?

Tensions rise between Algeria and Morocco

Algiers decided last week to recall its ambassador in Rabat for “consultations with immediate effect”, against the backdrop of a new diplomatic crisis between the two Maghreb countries caused by the Western Sahara dispute.

This recall follows “the drift of the Moroccan diplomatic representation in New York which has distributed an official note to member countries of the non-aligned movement in which Morocco “publicly and explicitly supports an alleged right to self-determination of the Kabyle people”, said the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement.

During a meeting of the non-aligned movement on July 13 and 14 in New York, the Moroccan ambassador to the UN, Omar Hilale, passed a note in which he believes that “the valiant Kabyle people deserve, more than any other, to fully enjoy their right to self-determination.

This is a red line for Algiers, which opposes any desire for independence in Kabylia, a Berber-speaking region in northeastern Algeria.

This is the first time, it seems, that a Moroccan diplomat has expressed his support for Kabyle separatism, in reaction to Algiers’ support for Sahrawi independence fighters against Morocco.

The Movement for Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK) was classified on May 18 by the Algerian authorities as a “terrorist organization.

On Friday, the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement urging “the Kingdom of Morocco to clarify its final position on the extremely serious situation created by the inadmissible remarks of its ambassador in New York.

“In the absence of any positive and appropriate response from the Moroccan side, it has been decided today, the recall, with immediate effect, for consultations, of the Algerian Ambassador in Rabat, without prejudice to other possible measures depending on the evolution of this case,” warns the Algerian statement.

Long tense relations between Algeria and Morocco have deteriorated of late as the Western Sahara conflict flared after a long ceasefire.

Morocco considers the former Spanish colony an integral part of its kingdom, but Algeria has backed the Polisario movement which seeks independence there.

Morocco’s normalization last year of diplomatic ties with Israel, which came with a quid pro quo of American recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, stirred new tensions with Algeria.

Meanwhile, reports Sunday said that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is planning on visiting Morocco early next month to attend the inauguration of the Israeli diplomatic mission in Rabat. Algeria and Morocco’s opposing stances towards Israel are also increasingly becoming a source of tensions.

The possible risks

Rising diplomatic tensions between Algeria and Morocco over the disputed Western Sahara region risks sparking a tit-for-tat exchange of low-level military and economic actions between the two North African neighbors.

Though relations between the “brotherly countries” have never been without bumps in the road, Morocco and Algeria’s chilly ties have given way to open hostility over the past few months. The main culprit? The Western Sahara conflict.

Progress on the issue has been at a standstill ever since Morocco and the Polisario Front signed a cease-fire agreement in 1991, but Rabat recently scored a few diplomatic wins, such as the United States’ move to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the territory in late 2020.

The Moroccan kingdom’s proactive approach to diplomacy within African institutions has led, in a little over a year, several African countries to open consulates in Western Sahara. In doing so, they have effectively pledged their support to Morocco.

And in a deal brokered by the US, the kingdom agreed to resume diplomatic relations with Israel, a long-standing taboo for Algeria – which also happens to be the Polisario Front’s main backer. These developments were all it took for both countries’ media outlets to launch into virulent and often insulting smear campaigns against the opposing side.

In Algiers, Morocco’s latest moves have been a clear source of tension at a time when Algeria’s once highly influential diplomatic corps is starting to pick up the pieces after 20 years of stagnation under former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime.

Even within the African Union, Algeria’s virtual monopoly on the Peace and Security Council, which previously gave the country a platform where it could discuss the Sahrawi question whenever the pan-African institution convened, is a thing of the past.

With the breakdown of the status quo, the nearly 50-year-old antagonism between the countries is now playing out on the military front. After Moroccan forces carried out an operation to drive Sahrawi separatists out of the Guerguerat crossing point in mid-November, as the rebel group had blocked access to the area, Sahrawi fighters are once again saying a war has erupted between Rabat and the Polisario.

It is plain to see that neither Morocco nor Algeria want a full-blown conflict, as it would have disastrous consequences. But history shows that countries do not always have complete control over the scale of their own aggression, as seemingly minor escalations have quickly degenerated in the past.

Army releases worrying signs

Meanwhile, some of the worries predicted by analysts are coming true, as tensions are rising between the Algerian and Moroccan militaries.

The Algerian military accused Morocco of trying to destablise the country, considering the move as a continuation of an old Moroccan policy based on “grudge and hatred.”

An editorial published by the Algerian magazine El Djeich this week stated that “a neighbouring country that moves and works against the interests of Algeria has not hidden its hatred and resentment for our country, not only today, but for centuries.”

Hinting at the possibility of a military intervention, the magazine pointed out that the Algerian army has had the opportunity to intervene in Morocco twice or at least support the coup attempts in Skhirat in 1971 and the attack on the king’s plane in 1972, “but the Algerian army was not indoctrinated with treachery and betrayal, and refused to interfere in the affairs of others.”

The attack launched by El Djeich magazine against Morocco comes in the light of the persistent tension between the two neighbouring countries due to an ongoing dispute over the fate of the Western Sahara, at a time when Rabat offered the Saharawis the option of autonomous rule with broad powers under Morocco’s sovereignty, while Algeria insists on allowing the disputed area’s residents to exert their right to self-determination by holding a referendum.

Hazem Zahab

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