Algeria and Morocco: What's driving the crisis between North Africa's powerhouses?
Less than a week after the Algerian High Security Council announced that it would “review” its relations with Rabat and intensify “security controls” along its border, Algeria has cut off diplomatic relations with Morocco.
Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra on Tuesday criticised Rabat for "never having ceased to carry out hostile, unfriendly and malicious actions against our country since the independence of Algeria” and described how the Moroccan security services are “waging a vile war against Algeria, its people and its leaders”.
The diplomatic head also blamed the kingdom’s leaders “for the successive crises which forced us to enter a tunnel without an exit".
In a statement released later the same day, the Moroccan Foreign Ministry expressed its regret over the “completely unjustified but expected" decision and rejected "the fallacious, even absurd, pretexts which underline it".
"The last time relations were broken off between the two countries was in 1976, this time by Morocco following Algeria's recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic"
The decision to rupture relations will come as no surprise to observers who have been closely following the deepening rift since late last year, which has escalated since July 2021 over a number of significant developments.
While the step undertaken by Algeria may not reflect the same severity of 1994 - when Algeria closed its land border with Morocco following the latter’s decision to impose visas on Algerian nationals following a terrorist attack - it appears to be the final nail in the coffin for hopes of a unified Maghreb and the revival of the long-defunct Arab Maghreb Union.
Tensions reach boiling point
The last time relations were broken off between the two countries was in 1976, this time by Morocco following Algeria's recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), self-proclaimed by the separatists of the Polisario Front. Relations were then restored in 1988.
While relations have soured to different degrees since 1994 around the disputed Western Sahara, Morocco officially normalising its diplomatic relations with Israel in December 2020 arguably set the course for the rupture.
At the time, then prime minister Abdelaziz Djerad blasted “the arrival of the Zionist entity" at its borders and the "foreign operations aimed at the destabilisation of Algeria" - a fear that has kept the North African country isolated diplomatically and overly suspicious of external entities.
“The Kingdom of Morocco has made its national territory a diplomatic franchise and a bridgehead to plan, organise and support a series of hostile and characterised actions against Algeria,” Lamamra said on Tuesday.
One of the main incidents that constituted the “hostile actions” accusations levelled against Morocco were comments made by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid during a visit to Morocco earlier this month, in which he expressed "concern about the role played by Algeria in the region”.
The comments were a reaction to Algeria’s campaign along with 13 states against the admission of Israel as an observer member of the African Union (AU), which Algeria saw as an affront to its sovereignty and its seasoned support for the Palestinian people.
However, one of the most severe affronts came in revelations in July that Rabat was one of the biggest users of the Israeli Pegasus spy software, targeting over 6,000 phones belonging to Algerian political leaders, soldiers, members of the intelligence services, senior officials, diplomats, and political activists.
"While relations have soured to different degrees since 1994 around Western Sahara, Morocco officially normalising its diplomatic relations with Israel arguably set the course for the rupture"
Morocco categorically denied the acquisition of the software and its use by its services for espionage purposes. But the damage was done, and comments made by the Moroccan ambassador to the UN angered Algeria enough to recall its ambassador and demand clarification from the kingdom.
As a reaction to Algiers’ calls for the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries to remain in solidarity with the Palestinian and Sahrawi people, Moroccan UN diplomat Omar Hilale declared his country’s support for the self-determination of the Kabyle people in Algeria and by extension the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK), which is labelled a terrorist organisation in Algeria.
The lack of official comment from Morocco following the incident, which Algeria saw as a “hostile campaign” orchestrated by Rabat, was taken by Algiers as confirmation that the political sentiments were not only shared by Hilale but by “the highest Moroccan authorities”.
Algeria's decision shortly after to return the same silence to King Mohammed VI’s request to open the borders and "to work in unison for the development of relations”, which was dismissed as disingenuous, was all the evidence needed to cement suspicions that relations would be severed not mended.
Regional dominance over unity
Whilst being one of the most significant developments in the seasoned rift between the neighbours, which spans all the way back to the Sand War in 1963, it is unlikely things will currently escalate into any form of military action which could prove devastating for the region.
Algiers confirmed on Tuesday that the consulates of the two countries will remain open and that the rupture will not affect Moroccans residing in Algeria and vice versa. However, if things were to escalate, a similar scenario to the 1970s, when they last broke off relations, could potentially see the expulsion of respective populations.
While a break in diplomatic relations does not necessarily entail the end of trade links, economic relations between Morocco and Algeria are not particularly significant enough to be impacted greatly by the fallout.
Intra-Maghreb trade relations barely exceed 4% of global trade, with imports between Morocco and Algeria secured indirectly through the ports of Marseille or Barcelona.
The main repercussions of the rupture rest on the possibility of the closure of the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which has linked Algeria to Europe since 1996 via Morocco.
The contract expires in October, and while Morocco has expressed its keenness to see the export route continue, Algeria has already hinted it may not extend it, leaving the decision to Sonatrach, the largest oil and gas company in Algeria and in Africa.
The loss of the contract would prove to be more of a blow for Morocco than Algeria who has developed the Medgaz pipeline which could then be used as the main alternative in delivering gas directly to Spain without the need to go through Morocco.
Geopolitically, the two neighbours will continue to accelerate their struggles for influence on the international scene and for regional leadership.
Since the election of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in 2019, Algeria has attempted to kickstart its diplomatic standing in international arenas, a status which was greatly hindered by previous president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s isolationist policies.
"Geopolitically, the two neighbours will continue to accelerate their struggles for influence on the international scene and for regional leadership"
As a result, both Rabat and Algiers will be seeking dominance in the strategic region of Africa - the volatile Sahel - where France will be ending its operations and withdrawing its troops by 2023.
It remains to be seen how this powerplay in light of severed relations will affect their respective partnerships in Europe, with Morocco already on shaky ground with Berlin and Madrid, and Algeria having failed to secure influential allies beyond economic partnerships and the fight against terrorism in the region.
There are also question marks over whether Algeria’s national football team will be able to play its World Cup 2022 qualifying matches in Morocco, and whether Algiers will still be able to host the next summit of the Arab League or if it will be held elsewhere on more “neutral” grounds after the fallout.
Saudi Arabia, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the Arab League have all called for “dialogue” to resolve the dispute, but with Arab mediation efforts at an all-time low, it is unlikely any true reconciliation efforts will be brokered while Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are at the helm of influence in the MENA region.
Yasmina Allouche is a freelance journalist and researcher working on the Maghreb with a special focus on Algeria.
Follow her on Twitter: @animsche