Algeria-Morocco relations continue to sour to ‘point of no return’

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Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has stated that relations between Algeria and Morocco have reached “the point of no return,” reflecting the continuing strained relationship between the two North African countries.

This comes after the two countries broke off diplomatic relations in August 2021. In an interview with Al Jazeera on March 22, Tebboune placed the blame on Morocco for the current state of affairs.

Beginning dispute

The main point of contention between the two nations is the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which has been a subject of dispute for decades. The Polisario movement, an armed group backed by Algeria, is seeking independence for Western Sahara, while Morocco claims the territory as its own. The Polisario began its campaign for independence in the 1970s and has continued to demand a referendum on the basis of a 1991 agreement that included a ceasefire.

Differences on Israel

Algeria’s foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, announced the severing of diplomatic relations with Morocco in August 2021, following increasing tensions over the dispute. In addition to their differences over Western Sahara, Algeria and Morocco have diverged in their position towards Israel. Algeria does not recognize Israel, while Morocco and Israel agreed to normalize relations in a deal brokered by the United States in December 2020.

As part of the agreement, former US President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Since then, Morocco has demanded that Israel take that step before Rabat opens an embassy in Tel Aviv. In the interview with Al Jazeera, Tebboune emphasized Algeria’s support for Palestine and described the issue as akin to a domestic issue.

Spain in the mix

Tebboune also criticized Spain for being biased towards Morocco in the Western Sahara dispute, stating that the Spanish government had forgotten its role as a former colonial power in the region and that it still bore responsibility for resolving the issue. Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975 when Morocco took control of the vast desert territory on Africa’s Atlantic coast. This move has not been recognized internationally. Morocco left the African Union in 1984 in protest against the organization’s recognition of the Polisario and only rejoined in 2016.

Spain has maintained a neutral position on the issue for decades, but in March last year, Madrid backed a 2007 proposal by Morocco to offer Western Sahara autonomy under its sovereignty, describing it as the “most serious, realistic and credible basis” to end the long-running conflict.

Algeria responded by recalling its ambassador from Madrid in protest and then suspended a two-decades-old friendship treaty with Spain a few months later.

The deterioration of relations between Algeria and Morocco has significant implications for the stability of the region. The two countries are the largest economies in North Africa, and their rivalry has impacted the political and economic landscape of the entire region.

Tensions have been on the rise since the summer of 2021, with both sides accusing the other of interfering in their internal affairs. There have been reports of skirmishes along the border, with both sides accusing the other of violating their sovereignty.

Efforts to ease tension

Despite the increasingly hostile rhetoric from both sides, there have been some efforts to ease tensions. In January 2022, the African Union appointed former Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz as its special envoy to the Western Sahara conflict. Aziz’s appointment was seen as a positive step towards resolving the long-standing dispute. However, it remains to be seen whether his efforts will be successful, given the entrenched positions of both sides.

In the meantime, the situation on the ground in Western Sahara remains tense. The Polisario has accused Morocco of human rights abuses in the region, including the mistreatment of prisoners and the use of torture. The Moroccan government has denied these accusations and has accused the Polisario of being involved in drug trafficking.

In addition to the Western Sahara dispute and differences over Israel, the Algerian-Moroccan rivalry has been exacerbated by a number of other issues in recent years. These include allegations of espionage, a dispute over air space, and a boycott of Algerian goods by Moroccan supermarkets.

Despite these tensions, many experts believe that the two countries would benefit from improved relations. The Algerian-Moroccan border has been closed since 1994, and the lack of trade and cooperation between the two countries has hurt both economies.

The two countries are also key players in the region, and improved cooperation could help to resolve other issues, such as the ongoing conflict in Libya.

In recent months, there have been some signs of a possible rapprochement between Algeria and Morocco.

In January 2023, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said that his country was open to dialogue with Morocco, and that the two sides had already made some progress in their talks.

However, President Tebboune’s latest comments suggest that a full reconciliation between the two countries may still be some way off.

It remains to be seen whether Algeria and Morocco can put aside their differences and work together for the benefit of both countries and the wider region.

Mo Nasser

Mo Nasser is a renowned Middle East expert and journalist who has covered the region for many years. He is known for his in-depth analysis and reporting on political, economic, and social issues in the Middle East. Mo has written for various international publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera, among others.

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