Will Algeria’s new president upend the political-military establishment’s and “open a new chapter” in diplomatic relations with Morocco?
Rabat – Some of the most recurrently asked questions regarding the direction that post-Bouteflika Algeria would take have had to do with diplomatic relations with Morocco, with some observers asking whether the country’s next president would be willing to put behind decades of mistrust and hostility and usher a new age in the icy diplomatic relations with Rabat.
The query was made particularly pertinent when, on December 13, Abdelmadjid Tebboune emerged victorious from the recently held Algerian presidential elections. It was tempting, given the man’s documented animus towards Morocco, to know whether, as Algeria’s president-elect, he would accept the “good neighbors” and “brotherhood” hand Morocco’s King has repeatedly extended in the past months.
Just hours after the results, Tebounne gave some insights as to what his attitude might be towards Morocco.
“I am extremely sensitive when it comes to national sovereignty. I forgive no one for interfering with or harming our sovereignty,” said Tebboune. Sensing this was a bit vague, he went on to point to Morocco by name. But he added a note of reserve, playing down his earlier bellicose tone and vaguely suggesting that Rabat may not be the existential enemy he was referring to. “I know Moroccans very well. I know that people there love Algeria and Algerians. They are nice people.”
But what about the central, though unarticulated, question about the fate of the Algeria-Morocco borders? Here, Tebboune was more recognizable. He provided an answer that, although slightly dovish compared to the hostility some other presidential candidates showed towards Morocco in the buildup to the December 12 elections, echoed what he had said weeks earlier during his presidential campaign.
On the campaign trail, Tebboune requested a formal apology from Morocco for being the first to close the borders in retaliation to the 1994 terrorist attack in Marrakech. As president-elect, however, Tebboune was now more circonspect, subtle. “There have been events that have caused the borders to close. In my opinion, the main cause of the conflict must be removed and everything else will follow.” The message was the same, but the tone here was more accommodating.
The main message—was one intended?—was therefore confusing here.
Tebboune had gone from shrugging off the hostility to declaring Moroccans “nice” and Algeria-loving, to finally accusing Rabat—though diplomatically—of causing the diplomatic tension in the first place.
At the very least, the sheer confusion of clues—the impossibility of taking one core message from Tebboune’s December 13 speech—had an element of hope to it. The doubt and ambiguity Tebboune evinced on December 13 was the exact antithesis of his earlier rigid ferocity when it came to anything Morocco-related.
As Prime Minister under Bouteflika, Tebboune symbolized the typical Morocco-bashing senior Algerian official, wholeheartedly considering Rabat as an existential threat to Algeria’s stability and regional aspirations. And then there was that meandering and ambiguity as president-elect, inviting the suggestion that Algeria-Morocco ties may experience a relative degree of warmth under Tebboune.
But those who were mildly encouraged by Tebboune’s ambiguous December 13 speech were also mildly disappointed by his apparently unblinking assuredness days later when speaking about Morocco as an existential threat to Algeria. Even more dismaying, as far as Rabat is concerned, was Tebboune’s insistence that “the question of Western Sahara is a matter of decolonization.”
What changed? Or rather, what could have caused such noticeable change in Tebboune’s rhetoric in two speeches given within a week of each other?
There can be two answers. The first one would contend that, on December 13, Tebboune, still in a celebratory mood just hours after his resounding victory in the first round, made remarks that did not exactly reflect his take on the complicated question of Algeria-Morocco relations. His joy had gotten the better of him, making him slightly oblivious to how the Algerian establishment views Morocco.
The second explanation, more pertinent, is that, in subsequent meetings, the Algerian deep state, the true brokers of power pulling the strings from behind the scenes, might have reminded Tebboune of the boundaries and red lines when it comes to issues as crucial as Morocco-Algeria ties. This was the impregnable “psychological barrier” of which Samir Bennis rightly spoke in the wake of the short-lived euphoria that followed the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The argument, that Bouteflika’s fall was but “a symbolic victory,” posits that there will be no historical overtures in the Morocco-Algeria chapter so long as Algerian presidents remain figureheads whose central mission consists in securing the relevance and longevity of a deep state that continues to look at Morocco from viscerally hostile lenses.
In Bouteflika’s footsteps
Bouteflika’s development from a moderate Foreign Affairs Minister initially receptive of Rabat’s Western Sahara position to a Morocco-bashing president gives considerable credence to the argument that longevity in the highest echelons of power in Algeria requires catering to the mood and demands of the military establishment.
Tebboune’s December 19 speech is to a large degree reminiscent of Bouteflika’s first presidential speech in 1999. As a way of reassuring the military establishment, Bouteflika had fumed at Morocco for the “hogra,” or humiliation, it inflicted on a newly independent Algeria in the 1963 Sand War. He promised revenge.
Over the months since Bouteflika resigned, one frequently deployed argument against those with high expectations about post-Bouteflika Algeria has been the charge that, as it has done in the six decades since independence, the army would pick another pliable, figurehead president to salvage whatever is salvageable from the political-military establishment.
Key to the longevity of the Algerian establishment, Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck wrote in a 2018 paper, has been the cunning strategy of “limiting change through change.”
She argued: “Major decision makers in Algeria have crafted, renewed, and refined strategies to sustain the system and their roles in it. The country’s next presidential election, scheduled for 2019, is not likely to constitute a turning point. Whoever is elected—whether Bouteflika secures a fifth term or someone else takes office—will be chosen by the military political elite and will be purely a product of this system.”
Despite the pertinence of arguments that present the Algerian political establishment as wedded to fixed dogmas, the socio-political context that led to the unsuspected end of Bouteflika’s two-decade presidency offers some ground for a more nuanced analysis of the Algerian ancient regime’s resilience.
In recent months, the Algerian political and military establishment, seemingly inoculated against progress, groomed to resist change, has tried–and considerably succeeded– to stifle the people’s demand for radical change. In the meantime, President Tebboune, trying to style himself as not exactly the figurehead many expect him to be, has spoken of his vision of “a new Algeria.” Even if Tebboune’s “new Algeria” is not exactly the new Algeria that many Algerians have asked for, there is perceptible apprehension in the corridors of power in Algiers.
With the forced departure of Bouteflika came the suggestion that the country may be marching towards a point where, ultimately, the establishment’s traditional politics and diplomacy of exhaustion will not be as effective as it used to be. “But while the regime has shown considerable resilience and adaptability, the system it has created is not invulnerable and will continuously be tested by social change in Algeria,” Ghanem-Yazbeck concluded in her exploration of the Algerian establishment’s longevity.
Over the years, most Algerians have called for the opening of borders with Morocco. Most recently, there has been an avalanche of “let’s open our borders” and “we are brothers” calls in both countries.
Activists and iconic cultural personalities on both sides have portrayed the continuing hostility between the two countries as anachronistic and not reflective of the “shared aspirations” and cultural similarities binding both people. Morocco has wholeheartedly embraced this message of change, with King Mohammed VI repeatedly calling for “a frank dialogue” to solve the issues between the two countries. In his congratulatory message to Tebboune, the Moroccan King reiterated his call, urging the new Algerian president to “open a new chapter in our two countries’ relations.”
Between embrace and skepticism
But President Tebboune’s moment of nationalist convulsion on December 19 has already convinced a number of Moroccan observers that Tebboune’s Algeria will be a continuation of Bouteflika’s. That, fundamentally, nothing new–or encouraging–should be expected from Algiers regarding its icy relations with Rabat.
This argument, already sound and pertinent in its own right, was rendered even more cogent as Said Chengriha, who has a history of Morocco-bashing statements, recently replaced the late General Gaid Salah as chief-of-staff of the Algerian army. Bouteflika and General Salah may have gone, but the people who have filled their seats will exactly behave as they would were they still around, some commentators have said.
Contributing to the cogency of this argument is the visceral hatred lens through which Algeria’s military-industrial complex still continues to perceive Morocco, even as Rabat seeks to settle the two countries’ decades of mutual distrust. Besides their fundamental disagreements, Western Sahara being the most obvious example, there is also the fact that, some have construed, continued enmity with Morocco offers a much-needed distraction for the Algerian establishment.
Having an existential threat–real or imagined–acts as an effective mechanism to rally people around “national security” or stability. It is galvanizing, morale-boosting, even–and especially– in moments of dire domestic crises. It births and sustains a certain rancor and hard nationalism-inspired political environment that provides easy explanations for the most complex issues facing a country, or very complex explanations for the simplest political failures of the governing elite. This offers fertile ground for a kind of programmatic defense of the comfort and stability that only the establishment is supposedly able to provide or guarantee.
Viewed through this lens, then, as it stands “between radical change and superficial reform,” Tebboune’s presidency is mostly expected to deliver the latter. Still, some rather marginal voices expect Tebboune to gradually make notable changes. But, the counterargument seems to rejoinder, how do you challenge the status quo when you are its poster child? Or when, as many Algerian and foreign observers have suggested, the status quo picked you as president in the first place? How, in other words, does one upend a system on which hinges one’s very existence and survival?
The questions are tough ones, and they lead to the natural conclusion that Tebboune’s presidency is an extension of Bouteflika’s. The tone and message of such a conclusion is familiar stuff in narratives around Morocco-Algeria relations. But this conclusion should be resisted for the time being.
If Tebboune really means business with his “new Algeria” ambitions, his presidency can at least be a tale of constant drifting between accommodation and surrender. In the first case scenario, he would subtly act to change some old, entrenched practices without being unnecessarily defiant or rebellious with regards to the political-military establishment. In the second case, he would, like Bouteflika before him, completely surrender to the demands and mood of the deep-state, losing in the process any moderate views he may have had about the “historic” hostility with Morocco.
Whether Tebboune espouses an incontrovertibly vitriolic rhetoric towards Morocco (to pander to the deep state) or embraces the working pragmatism that some things do really need to change between the two neighbors remains to be seen in his first two years as president.
After all, the encroachment of a history of overt hostility and diplomatic tensions is not all there is to Morocco-Algeria relations. Even when tensions rose recently around the Western Sahara question, there were encouraging instances of a possible rapprochement.
Algeria supported Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup, arguing it was supporting the dream of a “brother” country to host Africa’s second World Cup. In the ensuing months, activists and politicians in both countries began speaking of an eventual joint Maghrebi bid.
“After losing the 2026 FIFA World Cup battle, Morocco should now know that our true friends and allies are first and foremost our neighbors,” a Moroccan columnist wrote in the aftermath of the Morocco 2026 fever. “We share a history, a culture, and so many other beautiful things. Maghreb United? Yes, definitely, for sports and brotherhood can mend what politics have for so long broken.”
During the 2014 World Cup, where Algeria impressed and was only marginally defeated by Germany, who went on to lift the trophy, Moroccans rooted for the Algerian national team, singing, in the process, songs of brotherhood and hymns of “ Maghrebi unity” and “let’s open our borders.” Algerians returned the favor at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. With Algeria out of contention, Algerian fans sang and rooted for Morocco’s Atlas Lions.
Most recently, after Morocco underperformed at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Moroccans turned to the Algerian national team. “1, 2, 3 Viva Algerie” became commonplace in Moroccan cafes, with Atlas Lions fans saying that an Algerian victory would be Morocco’s–symplocally at least.
Such displays of solidarity are not nothing for the de-intoxication of the political (or diplomatic) climate between the two countries. Of course, the point is not that all these publicly expressed sentiments of “sister nations” and sports-facilitated fraternal bonding will miraculously help mend decades of enmity.
The point is that these do help in the long process of change in rhetoric and attitude that a “historic” rapprochement would entail. “This will not happen overnight,” a Moroccan professor of international relations recently told me on condition of anonymity. He added, however, “Sports can be a very good starting point, as a shared organization of the World Cup would necessitate open borders.”
More broadly, meanwhile, even among those who expect the Algerian deep state to have Beddoune committed to the country’s traditional boundaries in diplomacy and domestic policies, there is an unarticulated agreement with the notion that, theoretically at least, Beddoune’s Algeria is not quite Bouteflika’s.
The idea is that mentalities have evolved, and the old trick of distracting and delaying social change by pointing to an existential threat from outside in order to galvanize and rally may not work on the new generation of Algerians more in tune with changes happening elsewhere and demanding that the ruling elite delivers beyond its old, and no longer sufficient, promise of national security and stability.
When asked whether the death of General Gaid Salah would change anything of substance in the military’s grip on political power in Algeria, Franco-Algerian political essayist Slimane Zeghidour appeared to say, “Not quite. Not exactly.” But he hastened to add that there are winds of change beneath what appears like an intractable, impenetrable status quo. There is, he argued, a new generation of Algerian officers who see things differently both on the domestic and diplomatic fronts.
Whether or not a prospective Algiers-Rabat rapprochement hinges on a generational change in Algeria, there have been encouraging headwinds in recent months. Amar Saadani, a former secretary-general of Algeria’s ruling party, recently surprised the Algerian establishment when he said that “Western Sahara is Moroccan and nothing else.”
In his bombshell statement, Saadani called, among other things, for mending the ties between Algiers and Rabat. He even went as far as bravely suggesting that Algeria ends its financial and logistic support for the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara conflict.
Algeria, of course, distanced itself from Saadani’s comments. But the very fact that a former FLN leader could come out with such Morocco-friendly rhetoric was enough to suggest that settling the “historical enmity” between Rabat and Algiers is not as hopeless as it would appear.
Solving the hurdle at hand, one Algerian senior diplomat has been quoted as saying, requires skilled Moroccan and Algerian diplomats to gradually settle some of the unresolved business.
When Algiers insists on receiving an apology from Rabat for being the first to close its borders in the aftermath of the Marrakech terrorist attack in 1994, the diplomat argued, Algerian diplomats do not exactly have in mind a literal or formal apology. Would a perception of sincere contrition in Morocco’s repeated calls for “a new chapter” suffice? Yes, the Algerian diplomat appeared to suggest.
With Morocco’s new, “proactive” diplomacy’s insistent appeals to “genuine” and “constructive dialogue,” it is not that unthinkable to expect such a move from Rabat as a further guarantee of its good faith. The question, then, remains how President Tebboune would welcome such a development. In any case, such an event would test the sincerity of Tebboune’s position when he said that things would go back to normal once “the main cause of the conflict” is “removed.”
Now consider the Groundhog Day analogy. At its most basic, there was a perceptible degree of historical resonance to Tebboune’s December 19 speech. Appearing both sceptical and welcoming of Morocco’s dialogue offer, Tebboune’s ambiguity offered a picture of firmness and flexibility. Confronted with the dull monotony and tired repetitiveness of human existence, Roger Ebert suggested in his celebrated review of the film Groundhog Day, “the good news is that we can learn to be better people.”
Like individuals going through an existential crisis, countries–and political regimes–in a similar situation can–or have to–reassess some of their traditional positions in order to confront the promises and uncertainties of the future–and the present.
Groundhog Day’s great lesson, as Ryan Gilbey put it, is that the secret to ending a repetitive cycle of sameness and predictability always lies within the self. As strange or as out of place as this suggestion may appear, the insight applies to Tebboune’s Algeria, especially as the Algerian establishment now faces its biggest legitimacy crisis.
Crisis “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” the Italian Antonio Gramsci notably wrote. In the context of the legitimacy crisis the Algerian regime is facing, as well as the bumpy road ahead in its ties with Morocco, it can be said that with Tebboune’s presidency has merged a new version of the old question about Morocco-Algeria relations: Will the dying alternatives exemplified by the hawkish establishment preempt the much-needed generational change, new alternatives?
Answers, at least positive or encouraging ones, are not forthcoming. But that shouldn’t mean that one should expect the worst.