Maghreb region is experiencing turmoil these days. This time around however, the problem is neither the security concerns in Libya nor it is the national reconciliation dialogue crisis in Tunisia; it’s about deterioration of Morocco-Algeria ties. Differences over Western Sahara region, located in the South of Morocco, serve as a barometer of stability in the relations between Algiers and Rabat. Moreover, it is a cornerstone of all the antagonist alliances and the strife on the African continent.
Therefore, while Morocco rallies supporters of the thesis that disputed Western Sahara are the Moroccan lands, Algeria conversely displays a “defiant posture” and is thought to be endorsing the Polisario Front that demands separation from Morocco, citing right of the people for self-determination.
General outlines and internal texture of Morocco-Algeria tensions
Indeed, tensions between the two, stemming from the Western Sahara issue are not new. It dates back to the mid 1970s. The problem emanated from two core reasons at the time. It had to do with internal political stability issues in the countries of Maghreb and the critical changes imposed by the foreign powers with respect to the politics of these countries, the Middle East and the Mediterranean in general. Africa factor is seen as gradually gaining prominence in the context of resurgence experienced in the Western Sahara region, in the wake of 9/11 events, especially in the areas referred to as “Coast and Sahara”.
The new aspect that led to the crisis of Morocco-Algeria relations is the political transition phase that came into agenda in Algeria. Moroccan analysts believe that the motive behind the tensions between the countries is Algeria’s attempt to distract the public opinion from the fourth consecutive nomination of the incumbent head of state Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s candidature. According to the Moroccan experts, re-nomination of Bouteflika has to be viewed as an ongoing crisis within the ruling elite, taking into account that his fragile health precludes the execution of duties and he remains to be a mere political figure incapable of challenging the military.
Algerian experts are rejecting such a claim and accuse Morocco of human rights violations in the Western Sahara and demand recognition of the right of self-determination for the people of that region. Some dub Morocco as “invader of the Western Sahara lands” and insist that Morocco withdraws from there.
Mali crisis – relation with Morocco-Algeria tension
Another factor in the enduring crisis between Morocco and Algeria is the process entailed by the crisis in the Republic of Mali. Despite that, one way or another, Morocco and Algeria endorsed the French military intervention into Mali aimed at confronting armed and terrorist groups in the North; both countries had strategic viewpoints of their own.
Algeria, on one hand, is concerned with the potential growth of the Moroccan influence on its southern frontier, and on the other, is troubled with the area of activity of the terrorist groups reaching Mali’s oil-rich regions bordering southern Algeria.
Morocco in the meantime, attributes its concerns to the altercations in the northern Mali, government’s endorsement of the Polisario Front, based in the southern Algerian province of Tindouf, and possible penetration of the terrorist groups into its territory. This situation is deemed by Rabat as a threat to its “moral security” as Morocco dismisses any denomination other than Sunni or Maliki.
Therefore, during his visit to Mali this September, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI signed a deal with the Republic of Mali regarding the deployment 500 person strong Malian religious personnel with the purpose of enlightening the state institutions in their fight against the remnants of radicalism and Salafi fundamentalism in Morocco. Efforts are likely to focus on Morocco’s Fez province that is viewed as a prominent African center of Sufism. According to unofficial estimates, it also serves as the center of Tijaniyyah Tariqa (order) that is believed to have over 400 million disciples.
Morocco-Algeria tensions emanating from the Western Sahara issue and the Mali crisis has reached its climax during the October 28, 2013 African Union’s Summit, held in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja. In his written address sent to the delegates, Algeria’s head of state urged for pressure upon Morocco for the “violations of human rights committed throughout the occupied Western Sahara lands”. Morocco responded by recalling its ambassador to Algeria for further consultations.
Is there any change to the position of the U.S. leadership on the Western Sahara issue?
There appears to be an uncertainty within the U.S. leadership on the Morocco-Algeria crisis, as some reports released in the U.S. on the issue are largely critical of human rights abuses by Morocco. John Kerry has also recently canceled scheduled visit to Morocco.
America’s general position on the issue and endorsement of “reaching a negotiable solution acceptable by all the parties” were among the comforting aspects for Morocco. Moreover, the U.S., albeit not vocally, had highlighted “significance of Morocco’s proposals regarding the granting of autonomy to the Western Sahara region”.
There are various estimates as to what led to this uncertainty in the U.S. position. UN Special Envoy Dennis Ross’ influence on the U.S position is one of them. Morocco revoked Ross’s mandate citing “breach of neutrality” following his anti-Rabat accusations. Nevertheless, owing to some pressure, Ross was able to carry on with his duties.
Others associate the U.S. position with the appointment of John Kerry as the Secretary of State; Kerry is known for his sensitive posture towards the human rights issue. Detailed analysis of the American position on the issue reveals that on the State Department level, Democrats are inclined to regard it from the angle of human rights and the right for self-determination.
Exception can be made notwithstanding. For example, during the tenure of Hillary Clinton, State Department displayed relatively reserved position on the issue, owing to some special relationship with Morocco. Even a Moroccan association had even been established in the U.S. to endorse H. Clinton’s candidature once she announced her presidential aspirations.
Republicans on the other hand, view Western Sahara issue and Morocco-Algeria relations from the broader perspective and opt to weigh in on the topic geopolitically. This approach is supported both by the National Security Council and the Defense Department.
Above mentioned comments to some extent clarify the uncertainty towards the tensions in the Maghreb region, stemming from the Morocco-Algeria crisis over the Western Sahara issue. Indeed, until now, America’s leadership has showed no signs of big changes in the position on the Western Sahara. Upcoming U.S. visit of Morocco’s King, aimed at conducting of exchange of views, and connection between the U.S. position on the Western Sahara crisis and some delicate processes emerging in the U.S. policy in the Mediterranean and the Middle East have to be taken into account here.