Algeria needs a political overhaul before the country’s leaders will warm up to Morocco.
Rabat – After the latest escalation in the diplomatic rift between Morocco and Algeria, Morocco World News (MWN) welcomed three experts on the issue to discuss the future of the “cold war” between the neighboring countries.
MWN moderator Madeleine Handaji began the live show discussion, streamed Saturday, June 1 on Facebook, by providing a brief overview of the history of Morocco-Algeria relations. Her first question related to Algeria’s recent accusation of Morocco’s Consul in Oran Aherdane Boutahar being a member of the Moroccan “intelligence community” — and working as a spy.
“Algeria is facing an existential threat right now,” said political analyst Hassan Masiky. Since securing independence, Algeria has “used Morocco, among other countries, to try to distract from its socio-economic failures.”
Dr. Amal Cavender, a Middle East and North Africa studies specialist who instructs at George Washington University, said Algeria’s actions show how the regime is trying to deflect from the most important issues facing the country, such as the Hirak movement, the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic turmoil.
She said the allegations of spying are beyond political—they aim to divide the Moroccan and Algerian people.
Dr. Samir Bennis, a Washington-based senior political adviser and editor-in-chief at MWN, said Algeria has always favored such distraction tactics while Morocco uses foreign policy and diplomacy to expand its political and economic influence.
“Meanwhile, in Algeria, you have a military elite whose legitimacy has been eroding over the years and is being regarded by the Algerian public as the main cause for the social and economic problems they have been facing,” Bennis explained.
“Algerians are aware their economy is at a disadvantage with regard to Morocco,” he continued. “Algerians are aware their economy, which has relied on revenues from hydrocarbons, is weak, is not diversified, and the private sector is not as strong as Morocco.”
If Morocco and Algeria were to open up trade as a stepping stone to develop bilateral relations, Moroccan products would flood Algeria’s market, leaving Algeria with a relative disadvantage. This is one of the reasons pushing Algeria to continue its hostile remarks towards Morocco, Bennis said.
Why does Algeria continue to refuse Rabat’s overtures of friendship?
The panelists went on to discuss relations between Rabat and Algiers after years of Morocco’s appeals for diplomacy seem to have fallen on deaf ears, exploring why Algeria continues to refuse its neighbor’s overtures of friendship.
Cavender suggested that while King Mohammed VI’s calls for friendship “may not be as sincere as they seem,” the Algerian government insists on blocking diplomacy. It does so by accusing Morocco of trafficking drugs into Algeria and by refusing to back down from its support for the Polisario Front or accept its own role in the conflict.
Masiky, meanwhile, believes the King’s messages of friendship and calls for the turning of a new page are more for the Algerian people than for the regime.
The pillars of leadership in Algeria have not changed since the country’s independence from France. “King Mohammed VI knows that, Moroccans know that, the world knows that,” he said.
“Nothing has changed in Algeria, so we don’t expect a change in the relationship with Morocco.” The King’s repeated extensions of an olive branch serve to let the regime know Morocco is open to diplomacy should Algerian leadership have a change of heart, but also show the Algerian people that Morocco means well.
What motivates Algeria to back Polisario in the Western Sahara dispute?
Western Sahara also became a focus of the discussion, with the experts analyzing Algeria’s motives for backing the Polisario Front and supporting the self-styled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s independence claims in the region. Algeria actively influences the conflict but insists on maintaining an “observer” status in the Western Sahara question, an issue the panelists also discussed.
Algeria’s political and psychological motivation to support Polisario dates back to the Sand War of October 1963, said Bennis. The conflict had a psychological impact on the Algerian regime and triggered political animosity between the two countries.
Bennis pointed out that while Algeria claims impartiality to the conflict, it is the only country that blatantly funds and arms the Polisario Front and continuously appeals to the European Parliament to act against Morocco.
“In Europe, Algeria is known for being the only country in the world that is providing support to the Polisario and every year tries to lobby members of the European Parliament to adopt resolutions that go against Morocco,” he explained.
“In the US, Algeria has over the past 45 years spent over $50 million in lobbying against the Moroccan stance on the conflict and its efforts to find a mutually acceptable political solution,” the analyst continued.
For example, “Foley Hoag, the law firm that has been working on behalf of the Algerian government for the past two decades, between April of last year and last March had 45 meetings and interactions with members of Congress, the Senate, and the House [of Representatives], and members of the US administration,” he said.
“Forty-five meetings were focused exclusively on ‘human rights’ and ‘self-determination,’ and we know Algeria has been advocating the principle of self-determination in the conflict of the Sahara.
We understand that all the lobbying Algeria has been deploying in Washington has been focused only on this topic,” he stressed.
Bennis asked what other country in the world has been spending its taxpayers’ money to lobby for Polisario in Washington and Europe. The UN Security Council is beginning to accept Morocco’s plea that Algeria play a more tangible role in the Western Sahara issue, he added.
Cavender emphasized that while Polisario continues to claim to represent the Sahrawi people, the Sahrawis themselves and former Polisario members reject this representation. She added that Polisario’s humanitarian infractions in the Tindouf refugee camps are becoming more apparent than ever before, especially to international actors such as the EU and the US.
Going off Cavender’s point, Masiky stressed that Morocco should have contested Polisario’s claims of representing Sahrawis from day one. He also said Morocco did not push hard enough to have Algeria recognized as its major opponent in the conflict.
“The Western Sahara conflict is a conflict between Morocco and Algeria over their borders. That should have been the line Morocco had all along,” he argued, rather than framing the issue as a Morocco-versus-Polisario dispute. “Morocco failed at fighting this perception and trying to change this narrative.”
Is there an end in sight for Algeria’s cold war with Morocco?
Regarding the future of the “cold war” between Morocco and Algeria, the panelists agreed that Algeria needs a political overhaul before the country’s leaders will warm up to Morocco.
Masiky said that stoking the Sahara issue is in the best interest of Algeria’s current leadership: “A resolution, one way or the other, is not to the benefit of the Algerian regime.”
Cavender is hopeful there will be an end to the “cold war,” but such an end will not have an easy path. Algeria’s “stubborn position” and refusal to engage in dialogue with Morocco is stalling a resolution, she said.
“Algeria needs first the success of the Algerian people. The hate towards Morocco and what it represents is not ingrained in the people—it is ingrained in the military representation of Algeria.” She stressed the need for political appeasement to social unrest, economic reform, a “clean-up” of the elite, and open borders with Morocco.
Masiky agreed on the economic, social, and cultural benefits of open borders with Morocco and stressed the need for investment in youth and a government that better represents hope for the future. He referred to Algeria’s recognition of Morocco’s Autonomy Plan as a “golden egg” that will provide a smooth exit from the conflict. The political analyst recognized that such a reform will not come easily, but expressed hope that the two neighboring countries will warm up to each other in this lifetime.
Bennis, however, holds little hope for the future of Rabat-Algiers rapprochement. “I believe that as long as the same military elite rule [Algeria] and control the levers of state power, there is no chance for any improvement in relations for the two countries.”
MWN is set to live-stream regular discussions on our Facebook page to glean insight from a diverse array of guest speakers and share analyses of relevant topics with our audience. Tune in Saturday, June 27, to join our next conversation.