Rabat – If anything has stood out from the recent avalanche of alarming reports for Algeria-Morocco ties, it is that Morocco is Algeria’s favorite punching bag.
“I have the honor to inform you that the kingdom of Morocco is adopting a new strategy,” Algeria’s foreign affairs minister Sabir Boukadoum wrote earlier this month in a letter to the Algerian minister for higher education.
Underlining Boukadoum’s “administrative notice” was a visceral condemnation of the adoption of an undivided Moroccan map by a number of international actors. In its insatiable desire to subjugate and dominate, Boukadoum wrote, Morocco is putting together the final touches of its “expansionist” plans. Morocco’s “map diplomacy” should be opposed and crushed, he concluded.
But for all its vehemence, Boukadoum’s letter was almost friendly when compared to what other Algerian officials have said of Morocco in the past few weeks. After all, launching into hissing tirades when talking about Morocco has become a rite of passage for representatives of the Algerian regime.
Since its independence in 1962, we are told, Algeria has unflaggingly stood up to Morocco for the rights and dignity of the “Sahrawi people.” Now, however, the stakes are supposedly higher: The world, or rather North Africa, is counting on a righteous and brave Algeria to thwart the corrosive influence, and “zionist” plots, of Morocco and its new Israeli friends.
“Algeria is undoubtedly Israel’s primary target,” Algerian ambassador Noureddine Djoudi wrote in February, presenting the recent Morocco-Israel rapprochement as an indirect declaration of war on Algeria. Unable to directly confront Algeria, he appeared to suggest, Israel and the Makhzen are resorting to infiltrating the country, intoxicating its public debates by sponsoring disingenuous protests for democracy.
“All is set to destroy Algeria, the Maghreb’s last bastion of the defense of oppressed peoples.” In Djoudi’s myopic world, the Algerian Hirak is most probably a Moroccan-Israeli attempt to discredit and eventually depose an impeccably democratic regime.
Enough is enough
Diversion and third-worldist grandstanding have long been two of the strongest suits of the Algerian regime. Algiers’ notorious obsession with Morocco is a key part of the country’s toolkit.
In this sense, Djoudi’s priggish nostalgio-triumphalism can be categorized among recent events that seem to have carried the longstanding Algiers-Rabat regional rivalry to unusual heights.
Implied in the hubristic assertions and undisguised contempt for Morocco is the abiding conviction, assiduously cultivated among those who set the tone of Algeria’s public discourse, that Morocco is the natural ally of all the forces conspiring against the greatness of Algeria.
But even as this clearly shows that Morocco is a fixed star in Algeria officials’ strategic firmament, the eternal villain to dispose of, Djoudi’s overheated imagination of the Makhzen’s “fourth generation war” against Algeria was by no means the apogee of the widening rift between Algiers and Rabat.
It was, if anything, only one of the many opening salvos in what seems to be a new phase of the digital warfare between the two neighbors.
The other, much more noted opening shots in this new information war took place when an Algerian television channel known to be in the good graces of Algeria’s military establishment unleashed unprecedented opprobrium on an institution Moroccans consider sacred.
When Echourouk presented Morocco’s King in effigy as part of a comedic television show, Moroccans saw in the outlet’s unvarnished attempt to ridicule Morocco’s monarch, pictured as a muppet-like puppet, the ultimate act of provocation.
While Moroccans have grown accustomed to the Algerian regime’s relentless Morocco-bashing and the Algerian media’s bad-faith coverage of their country, Echourouk’s audacity was just too much.
Within hours of the airing of the television show, “the King is a red line” was furiously trending on Moroccan social media. In the melee, there have been suggestions that Rabat should consider responding in kind to Algeria’s “intolerable” and “sacrilegious” provocations.
For the first group populating this camp, Morocco ought to give Algeria a taste of its own medicine by intervening in Algerian internal matters in support of movements of political dissent, including those harboring separatist aspirations.
The second, more measured cohort, contends that Rabat should just sever ties with Algeria and put an end to a decades-long pretense of diplomatic relations with a neighbor that revels in anti-Moroccan sentiments. To be sure, recent developments have lent rather solid credence to the thesis that cutting ties with Algeria is a long overdue decision for Rabat.
But while Moroccans’ frustration with Algiers’ relentless Morocco-bashing is warranted, there is a valid argument to be made that the demand for a sand-in-the-line riposte now prevailing in many Moroccan circles may only, somewhat weirdly, give the Algerian regime an uncanny sense of mission accomplished.
Social psychologists have long established that haters, or bullies, can seldom be reasoned with. They find their very merriment and raison d’etre is, quite simply, in hating or bullying.
They delight in negativity and revel in viciously pointing out the defects — sometimes real but mostly imagined — of others. Their attitude may spring from pure jealousy or simply from a deep-seated frustration with the object of hatred, which or whom they often hold responsible for their own underachievement or misery.
It wouldn’t be particularly audacious to suggest that such a dynamic might be at play in Algiers’ and Rabat’s decades-long friend-foe saga.
For one thing, the festival of hyperboles, pseudo-facts, and cooked data one often encounters on Algerian outlets’ coverage of Morocco and the Sahara issue gives the impression of a country stuck in a quagmire of its own making and now frantically looking for an emotional balm or any cheap rallying cry.
And so, the caricature of the Moroccan King was a new but unsurprising development. It was an instance of dressing up the usual sabotage, finger-pointing game in its Sunday best. But it could also be the harbinger of a new chapter of suspicion in the already strained relationship between Algiers and Rabat.
Despite decades of tempestuous relations, Moroccan officials and Moroccan newspapers generally speak about Algeria with familial courtesy, if at times with a touch of irony.
To be or not to be
Not responding to Algerian officials’ “provocations” or never meddling in Algerian affairs has long been a driving policy of Morocco’s diplomatic corps. A case in point was when the Moroccan government took issue with former Foreign Affairs Minister Salaheddine Mezouar for “irresponsible” comments in support of the anti-regime sentiments that had just started to mount in Algeria.
But with Moroccans now blazing with indignation and uttering a collective snort of annoyance at the “unforgivable” depiction of their King, the sense is that Moroccan diplomats and other senior officials may no longer feel they need to prolong the cycle of courtesy and decency they have long espoused when it comes to Algeria.
Or that Moroccan commentators may feel the urge to be more aggressive in the way they cover Algeria. Ultimately, however, responding in kind — going as low as Algerian officials and news outlets have — may provide the Algerian regime with what it seems to be craving the most amid an interminable series of intertwined crises: The opportunity to divert public attention and outrage from government ineptitude toward an imagined existential foreign threat.
There is ample indication that the Morocco understands this and prepares to act accordingly, unless obliged otherwise. In a more alarming development, Algeria has just issued a somber ultimatum ordering farmers in Eastern Morocco to evacuate their domains in Al Araj, near the Morocco-Algerian border, by March 18.
Morocco is yet to respond to what many have already construed as another blatant act of provocation aimed at taking the limelight off the Algerian regime’s ongoing troubles. Faced with a sea of criticism at home and a shrinking relevance on the diplomatic front, Algiers is betting on loud whispers of self-importance to shift Algerians’ focus from the anti-establishment protests to a territorial dispute with Morocco.
History as usual
As it happens, there is an expectation that Morocco will most probably opt for dialogue and avoid yielding to the temptations of Algiers’ distracting noises of paranoia and resentment as foreign policy.
“But we know that our soldiers, who always prefer restraint, will not use violence or weapons so as not to give in to provocations that could lead to escalation, even though they have ample means to intervene effectively,” Omar Anane, one of the Moroccan farmers Algeria has ordered to leave their domains at the Morocco-Algeria border, has said of Moroccan troops’ attitude.
The central, original question remains, however: Until when will Morocco resist the temptation of an open war with Algeria despite a series of apparent provocations? Or, more pertinently, will Morocco feel obligated to act militarily should Algiers refuse a dialogue offer?
With things unfolding in slow motion, one is unmistakably reminded of Raymond Aron’s felicitous description of the Cold War as a condition of “impossible peace and improbable war.” For better or ill, Algiers and Rabat share one point of convergence: They are both reluctant to risk the irreparable damage that could come from an open confrontation between two of Africa’s mightiest armies.
The whole episode bears a curious echo to Arnold J. Toynbee’s “history as usual” notion. Because very few, if any, in Algiers and Rabat want to cause a devastating regional war, a back-and-forth tit-for-tat without an open confrontation is set to dictate Algeria-Morocco relations for many years to come.
And so, even as it stands in a rocky place, outclassed on the diplomatic front and anxious to survive the ongoing onslaught on its legitimacy, the Algerian regime gets to act as though it ran the show. Morocco, meanwhile, gets to ignore the anodyne and futile agitations of Algiers as long as they do not pose an immediate threat to the status quo neither side is satisfied with but which both are content enough to preserve.