US President Ronald Reagan once said: “peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.” On August 25, 2021 Algeria broke off relations with Morocco accusing the country of several offenses marking only the latest episode in one of the world’s most self-destructive conflicts. Six decades ago Algeria and Morocco looked primed to turn the page in Africa’s independence era. Regrettably instead of working together the two spent over half a century locked in a high-stakes rivalry. Their shared border has been closed since 1994 and both nations have spent tens of billions of dollars on military procurements attempting to achieve regional supremacy. Neither side is any closer to matching the other and just as neither is willing to let go of old habits. In reaction to the closure of diplomatic ties there is talk of shutting down airspaces and energy pipelines while also increasing military presence on the borders.
At first glance Morocco and Algeria look almost indistinguishable in their national identity. They occupy the same corner of Africa, and have comparable levels of populations. Both perform similarly in economic indexes and they share strong Arab-Berber Muslim populations and French influences. Back in the 1960’s it was easy to imagine these two countries working together for the prosperity of the region, however, unfortunately that is not what has transpired. The two countries developed along strikingly different ideologies leading to conflict not cooperation.
The origins of the Moroccan-Algerian rivalry date back to the colonial era. When the French conquered Algeria in 1830, Morocco stirred up a rebellion against the occupation. A decade later France responded by crushing the Moroccan army and then annexing parts of Moroccan territories near the Algerian border. These regions now designated as the provinces of Bashar and Tinduf became part of France not Algeria. The French, however, had no use for the areas and therefore never demarcated the boundaries. In the 1950’s when precious metals and minerals were discovered in the provinces.
France transferred to regions to Algerian sovereignty. Years later in 1957 France offered to return the provinces to Morocco if Rabat agreed to form a joint administration to exploit the newly discovered minerals. Morocco rejected the offer because at the time the Algerian independence movement was in full swing and they didn’t see the value of accommodation with France. Instead the Moroccan leadership came to an understanding with the provisional Algerian government to settle the territorial disputes as soon as Algeria secured its sovereignty.
However, upon gaining independence in 1962 the Algerian leadership changed its mind. Too many lives had been lost and Algeria was in no state to make territorial concessions. Moroccan and Algerian lawmakers walked away from the talks with mutual impressions of mistrust and hostility. A year later the two sides came to blows and fought to a stalemate in what became known as the Sand War. Though the border dispute was later settled the relationship between Morocco and Algeria never normalized and frankly it couldn’t. Morocco’s monarchy provided the nation with a sense of historical continuity. Unlike most Arab monarchies during the cold war, Morocco had sided with the United States and historically on December 20, 1777, the Kingdom of Morocco became the first country in the world to recognize United States independence.
Meanwhile Algeria was characterized by its anti-colonial struggle. Up to 1.5 million people died in the Algeria’s independence war and by the end of the carnage Algeria came out with a sense of anxiety and urgency to restore the country. It developed a nationalist-socialist revolutionary zeal that leaned towards the Soviet Union.
Therefore policymakers in Rabat and Algiers lined up on opposite sides during the cold war. Then in 1975 something changed the equation. Spain gave up on Western Sahara an area about the size of the United Kingdom that sat South of Morocco. Spain’s surrender came after a lengthy legal battle at the United Nations and after some 350,000 unarmed Moroccan civilians crossed into Western Sahara. Spanish policymakers had no appetite for a fight and conceded the territory to Morocco. Nobody had bothered asking what the local Saharawi people wanted, but that was the state of play. For Algeria control over Western Sahara meant access to the Atlantic Ocean and an alternative corridor by passing the Gibraltar Strait. Western Sahara seemed like the key to Algeria’s aspirations for regional dominance.
It was a geopolitical prize well worth fighting for. So immediately after Morocco annexed Western Sahara, Algeria sided with the local Saharawi militias that led to a long excruciating proxy conflict. The Saharawi proxy groups led by the Polisario Front operated from Algerian territory and periodically launched attacks into Morocco. After almost two decades of fighting Morocco came to control about 85 percent of Western Sahara and in 1991 a ceasefire ended the hostilities and uneasy peace has held since. However, the dispute tainted all relations between Morocco and Algeria. At the same time in the early 1990s Algeria descended into a horrible civil war against Islamist groups. Algiers accused Rabat of supporting rebel militias and the border was closed in retaliation. Though many half-hearted attempts at normalization have been made since then the border has remained closed since 1994.
On top of all this, relations were also strained by their rather different political outlooks. While Morocco was a conservative Islamic monarchy, Algeria emerged as a socialist republic espousing secular Arab nationalism. Given these long-standing difficulties, what has caused this latest dramatic deterioration in relations? In essence, it comes down to a series of developments over the course of 2020 and 2021. As ever, Western Sahara figures highly. Although Morocco and the Polisario reached a United Nations-brokered peace agreement in 1991 that envisaged an independence referendum, the vote has never taken place. Amidst growing frustration, in November 2020, the Polisario announced it was ending the 29-year ceasefire and launched a series of attacks on Moroccan forces in the territory. Given Algeria’s long-standing support for the Polisario, Morocco argues that this could only have happened with direct Algerian approval.
Equally, in Rabat the leadership announced the formal recognition of Israel and has taken steps to improve relations with Israel and in return in December 2020, the Trump Administration recognized Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara; the United States recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara; thereby reversing decades of U.S. policy. Given that a growing number of African countries have also been moving in the same direction, with more and more countries opening consulates in Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, Algeria is no doubt nervous that Morocco’s claim is now starting to gain real traction. While Morocco and Israel have long had relatively good relations behind the scenes, like most of the Arab world, Morocco had refused to formally acknowledge Israel since its creation in 1948. Indeed, up until 2020, just three members of the Arab League had recognized Israel: Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. However, over the course of late summer and autumn 2020, Washington brokered a series of agreements that saw the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and, finally, Morocco’s acceptance of Israel. As a long-standing advocate of the Palestinian cause, Algeria was extremely critical of these moves and was quick to condemn Morocco’s decision; arguing that it was in fact all part of a plot by Israel – or “the Zionist entity”, as it calls it – to move closer to its borders. To add to all this, tensions have overflowed into other areas.
Therefore, two of Africa’s most dynamic economies have walled themselves off from each other costing immeasurable amounts of economic growth. Still worse mutual hostility plunged Morocco and Algeria into a costly arms race. Morocco operates one of the most sophisticated militaries in Africa. Its arsenal includes F-16 jets, M1 Abrams main battle tanks, self-propelled howitzers, medium-range missile systems, and observation satellites. Between 2005 and 2015 Morocco spent roughly $48 billion dollars on its military that’s a fortune by regional standards and as if that wasn’t enough in 2020 Morocco announced a five-year plan worth $20 billion dollars to achieve regional military supremacy. Algeria with its vast hydrocarbon wealth has met the arms race head on.Between 2005 and 2015 it had spent $58 billion dollars on defense $10 billion more than Morocco.
In the pursuit of military superiority Algeria has acquired Kilo-class submarines frigates as well as new SU-34 and SU-35 jets. The military hardware that Morocco and Algeria have acquired exceeds what they need to secure their respective hinterlands. The aim is solely to outmatch the other. By the same token every resource spent on buying weapons of destruction is money not spent on building roads, railways, schools and hospitals. Every part of the country that becomes a conflict zone is rendered inoperable for industrial parks and farming grounds. By all accounts, one can argue that the arms race between Algeria and Morocco is not only costly but self-destructive. In recent years the turmoil in Libya, the jihadists in the Sahel, the slump in oil prices, and COVID restrictions have weighed heavily on the resources of both Morocco and Algeria. Only military spending has continued to grow that has lead to tensions in both countries.
Meanwhile, in Algiers the aging oligarchy that runs the country has been wrestling with a determined protest movement since early 2019. With the very recent death of ex-President Abdulaziz Bouteflika, who reigned over 20 years, resigned from office and the following elections have featured less and less popular participation and many Algerians feel that their government remains corrupt and unresponsive. Years of budgetary austerity have reduced public services in Algeria which has led to the current protests and the advent of the Kabila secessionist movement. The Kabila region in northwest Algeria is fiercely proud of its Berber heritage and it has existed either as an independent or autonomous entity at many points in history.
The fortunes of the Kabila movement have ebbed and flowed over the years. There have been moments of violent skirmishes and there have been moments of peaceful reconciliation. Now it seems like the Algerian government and elements of the Kabila movement are headed in a more violent direction. In early August of 2021 tens of thousands of hectares of forests were devastated when a blistering heat wave triggered wildfire across northern Algeria. Critics say that the Algerian government failed to prepare for the blazes however Algiers claims that most of the fires were artificially ignited and has pointed the finger at the Kabila-based organizations. Already several Kabila groups have been designated as terrorist bodies, but the situation could be even worse than the official story. It is speculative at this point, but the fact that more than 30 Algerian soldiers have died putting out wildfires may indicate that little firefights between Kabila separatists and Algerian troops have already taken place. Either way, in mid-August Algeria accused Morocco of being complicit in the wildfires and physically aiding Kabila separatists.
Morocco has indeed been vocal about Kabila both in the past and recently, but whether Moroccan support has gone beyond words is unclear. It’s possible that Morocco would see support for Kabila as fair retaliation for Algerian intervention in Western Sahara.
Whatever is true Algeria has decided to cut diplomatic relations with Morocco over what it calls as hostile actions. Now by and large half a century of back and forth conflict has deeply wounded Algeria and Morocco. Both have missed opportunities to lead and prosper. Together Algeria and Morocco have a population close to the size of Germany. Algerian crude oil and natural gases stand out, but both countries are abundantly rich in strategic natural resources. Economic growth and development was sacrificed to feed the self-destructive rivalry. The standards of living could have been so much higher had the two found ways to cooperate. Based on data from the International Monetary Fund Morocco and Algeria are among the world’s poorest countries ranking 125th and 109th respectively. Algeria performs better in most metrics, but only slightly so and that lead is evaporating as lower for longer oil prices wreak havoc on the country’s services.
The rivalry between Morocco and Algeria has gone on for so long that disagreements have become a permanent source of political propaganda. By refusing to normalize relations, commercial contracts are often times outsourced to far away powers, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and France. Local economic life is held back as nearly all physical infrastructures in both countries are oriented towards the coast and towards exports. Much of Africa does very little trading within and Algeria and Morocco are perhaps the countries most capable of breaking out of this trap. This was just as true 60 years ago as it is today but it has never happened. Nearly all aspects of cooperation have failed and what little avenue of collaboration remains is at risk of further closure. Now Algerian lawmakers are considering closing the airspace with Morocco and shutting down an Algerian pipeline that runs across Morocco’s territory. Meanwhile the number of troops and vehicles at the shared border is set to increase.
On July 2021, a row broke out after Morocco accused Algeria of hypocrisy by calling for Western Sahara’s self-determination, but refusing to consider it in the case of Kabylia; a large Berber-inhabited area in the north of Algeria that seen a growing independence movement. Indeed, just a few months earlier, Algeria had designated the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia, MAK, a terrorist organization. Furious at this interference in its internal affairs, and arguing that the two cases were very different, Algeria recalled its ambassador from Morocco in protest. Additionally, tensions have also grown following revelations about the widespread use of Israeli-made Pegasus surveillance software by various governments to spy on internal and external targets. In its announcement that it was breaking off relations, Algeria accused Morocco of having used the technology against its officials. So, just how serious is the situation? By all accounts, relations between Morocco and Algeria now appear to be at their lowest point in over 50 years. Given that both countries remain highly militarized and heavily armed, fielding the second and third largest armed forces in Africa after Egypt, this surely gives rise for concern. That said, any talk of conflict between Morocco and Algeria needs to be treated with caution. For a start, Morocco appears to have little wish to provoke a military confrontation.
Indeed, at the end of July, before relations were cut, the Moroccan king explicitly called for an easing of tensions between the two countries, including the opening of the border. Moreover, following Algeria’s announcement that it was ending diplomatic relation, Morocco was quick to deny what it called “absurd” accusations and made a deliberate attempt to sound conciliatory. Given that Morocco also seems to be gaining on the diplomatic front, it would seem to have little reason to want to escalate the situation. Of course, the renewed attacks by Polisario are an issue. But there seems to be little indication that this is a serious problem for Rabat, especially given the fortified sand wall it has built in Western Sahara to keep out Polisario forces.
In this sense, the real concern would seem to lie with Algeria. Here the picture is rather more worrying given that there is no doubt that it is on the back foot, both politically and diplomatically. Its influence is clearly not what it once was, especially in a wider African context.
Quite apart from the fact that Morocco seems to be gaining ground in encouraging African states to support its position on Western Sahara, the recent decision by the African Union to admit Israel as an observer, despite strong opposition from Algiers, will also have signaled a sense that it’s becoming more marginalized. Also, the fact it will certainly have endorsed the recent renewed attacks by Polisario or Morocco is a worrying sign that things are becoming more militarized. That said, there are also grounds for cautious optimism.
It’s also important to note that throughout the long history of the Western Sahara dispute, Algeria has always made sure that it’s never been directly involved in fighting. And there’s little indication that this has changed. But perhaps the greatest hope that it too is hoping to keep things in the realm of politics comes with the detail in its announcement that it was breaking off diplomatic relations. Rather than the full and complete break off all ties with Morocco, it noted that it would retain a consular presence. Such small things can send big messages. But all this also needs to be understood in terms of continuing political instability in Algeria. After two years of protests, there’s a sense that the Algerian decision is designed to appeal to a domestic audience, especially as it cracks down on dissent. Needless to say, this adds an unwelcome element to the situation. While the government may not want to see an escalation of tensions, one could argue that it has now backed itself into a corner. It may not want war, but there is little more it can now do diplomatically. Again, this contributes to concerns about the recent announcement. Algeria’s decision to break off diplomatic relations with neighboring Morocco marks a serious new deterioration in relations between these two North African states.
Long strained over a range of issues, not least of all the Western Sahara, ties have become increasingly tense since the end of 2020.The question is what happens now? While it may simply herald another step in a long-standing cold war between the two countries, there will obviously be fears that the two may be edging closer to armed conflict – especially if, as some fear, Algeria sees no further room for maneuver. In this sense, while it’s important to stress that there is little sign that either side wants to see an armed confrontation, there’s nevertheless the sense that things could yet head in that direction.
None of these measures will seriously harm the existing power balance, but they serve as a reminder that the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria is an old wound. The list of grievances is long and it includes colonial demarcation, irredentist claims, political ideology and an arms race for regional influence. Though both Algeria and Morocco have made attempts to move away from the past, however, some old wounds never truly heal and bleed again at the slightest incident in the predicament of these two North African states.