Cold War In The Maghreb: Tensions Escalate Between Algeria And Morocco

On 22 September Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced the closure of Algerian airspace to all Moroccan civilian and military aircraft. This move comes nearly a month after Algeria severed diplomatic ties with Morocco on 24 August in retaliation for a Moroccan diplomat’s calls for greater self-determination in Algeria’s Kabylia region. The United States officially recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in December 2020, and the Moroccan state renewed repression of the Algerian-backed Sahrawi nationalist Polisario Front. Combined, these factors also stretched Algerian-Moroccan relations to breaking point, according to Al Jazeera.

Algerian official Amar Belani told Reuters that the “adoption of additional measures cannot be ruled out.” Algeria’s government could expel Moroccan immigrants if tensions persist, as international relations scholar Yahia Zoubir warned in The Conversation. In December 1975, Algerian President Houari Boumédiene set a troubling precedent when he ordered the deportation of approximately 350,000 Moroccan nationals in response to Morocco and Mauritania’s occupation of Western Sahara. Today, over 45,000 Moroccans (many of whom are undocumented) still live in Algeria. Plasterers, tradesmen, and university students fear they could also be expelled should this diplomatic rift spiral out of control, according to Middle East Eye.

To diffuse the crisis, Algiers should abandon its confrontational stance and opt for more conciliatory gestures to placate Rabat. Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ramtane Lamamra is a former African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security. He gained extensive experience in conflict resolution throughout his diplomatic career. Additionally, as the Institute for Security Studies stated, Lamamra is eminently qualified to broker a peaceful settlement with his Moroccan counterparts if superiors in the Algerian government allow him to do so.

The international community could also pressure Rabat to grant an independence referendum to the Sahrawi people. On the 29th of September, a European court cancelled the European Union’s trade and fishing deals with Morocco, since the inhabitants of Western Sahara never agreed to those accords. This may force Rabat to implement a referendum and finally put an end to the Western Saharan question that so poisoned Algerian-Moroccan relations for years.

Algeria and Morocco’s latest feud marks another episode in a four decade-long rivalry between two nations vying for supremacy over the Maghreb, according to political scientist Khadija Mohsen-Finan. Emboldened by the chronic discontent afflicting Algerian society, Morocco seeks to supplant its weakened neighbour as the major power in North Africa. To achieve this goal, Rabat is strengthening economic ties with Israel and plans to modernize the Royal Moroccan Army.

The RMA expanded its relationship with foreign militaries and defense contractors, particularly in the U.S. and other NATO member states over the past year, according to Defense News. Middle East Eye reports that Turkey dispatched drone shipments to Morocco earlier this month as well. Algiers reacted with concern to these developments, especially in light of the Pegasus spyware disclosures in July which found that Moroccan security forces hacked into the phones of thousands of Algerian politicians and military personnel. In response, Algeria is preparing to bolster its arsenal with Chinese weaponry, as noted in ObservAlgérie.

A simmering cold war is likely to provide a pretext for both regimes to harden internal security measures and justify further crackdowns on dissent. Amnesty International reported in July that Algerian authorities had already threatened or detained hundreds of activists and journalists since February. Police and judges are comparing peaceful protestors, who hope to revive the Hirak movement which ousted autocratic President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in 2019, to terrorists seeking to destabilize the country. Amnesty also uncovered evidence that Moroccan security forces are committing heinous crimes against Sahrawi activists, including harassment, beatings, and rape.

This sabre-rattling cannot lead to war. International organizations like the United Nations, EU, and African Union must pool their efforts and resources to entice Algiers and Rabat back to the negotiating table before it is too late.