Morocco-Algeria tensions heat up

Morocco-Algeria tensions heat up
A recent hacking scandal has seen tensions between the two North African rivals spike. And as long as the Western Sahara issue is alive, any collaboration between the two to stabilise the wider region is a long way off.
5 min read
20 Dec, 2014
Mezouar has had to respond to embarrassing leaks from his foreign ministry (Anadolu)
Some days ago, on 11 December, Morocco’s foreign minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, found himself in the embarrassing position of having to explain how it was that confidential documents from his ministry had leaked onto the internet and Twitter.

Mezouar had been called to testify to the foreign affairs and defence committee of the Chamber of Deputies, Morocco’s lower parliamentary house, in response to a growing scandal of leaked official documents that started three months ago, apparently caused by a mysterious hacker, calling himself ‘Chris Coleman24’. The Twitter account was
     Morocco, as one of the oldest states, considers it is the logical hegemon for the Maghreb; Algeria touts its revolutionary legitimacy
discontinued immediately after the minister’s statement but then re-emerged under a different name.

The leaked documents have not only involved Mezouar’s own ministry; they have also included evidence of Morocco’s extensive lobbying attempts in the United States through the Moroccan-American Centre, documents from Morocco’s external intelligence service, the Direction Générale des Études et de la Documentation (DGED) and, according to some sources including the Moroccan news magazine, Telquel, falsified documents as well.

Amongst the forgeries are said to be a letter between Mezouar and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, and correspondence between the minister and MacKinsey, the American consultants, where his daughter is alleged to be employed, over a corrupt contract. The DGED is accused of secret contacts with Israeli intelligence services.

The wider implications

In his own defence, the minister, who had been roundly attacked for the leaks by Ali el-Yazghi, a leading member of a major opposition party, the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP), claimed that the source of the leaks had been Algerian security services and that he would provide more evidence of this in the weeks to come.

Providentially, a week later, a group of Moroccan hackers, the ‘Hawks Morocco Sahara’, announced that they had unmasked the original whistleblower as Mohammed Mahmoud Mbaret. Mbaret is an Algerian intelligence agent active in Europe who was also linked to Algeria’s former single political party, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the Paris office of the official Algerian news agency, Algérie Presse Service (APS) and the Western Saharan national liberation movement that Algeria espouses, the Polisario Front.

The link with the Sahara issue has long been clear and has led to repeated Moroccan accusations that the Algerian security services must be involved in an attempt to embarrass its neighbour. The claims were given credence by a well-known French journalist, Jean-Marc Manach, who was told by the whistleblower in a twitter exchange that his purpose was to “destabilise Morocco”. In other words, the minister’s discomfort really reflects the poor relations between two states vying for dominance in North Africa and that revolves around Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara and Algeria’s patronage of the Polisario Front since 1975.

The Algerian press, of course, has pleaded the country’s innocence of any involvement in the affair, recalling that, whenever Morocco is embarrassed, it tends to blame its eastern neighbour. According to al-Khabar, a leading daily, Morocco’s King Hassan tried to blame the Algerian security services in 1994 for the closure of the border between the two countries, on the grounds that Algeria had been the source of a terrorist group which had killed tourists in Marrakesh. That accusation proved to be false, the newspaper said on 13 December, as would this one.

Decades-old tension

In fact, tensions of this kind go back to 1963, just after Algerian independence, when the two countries fought a short and inconclusive border war, itself the consequence of France’s delineation of the boundary between them during its colonial occupation of both states. And, in reality, the real reason for these tensions is that neither state can tolerate the other as a regional power. Morocco, as one of the oldest states in Africa – and, indeed, the Middle East after Egypt – considers it is the logical hegemon for the Maghreb; Algeria, on the other hand, looks to its revolutionary legitimacy gained through its costly eight-year struggle against France, its geopolitical position and its oil wealth.

The issue has wider ramifications, too, particularly as far as the Western Sahara issue is concerned. That has become the latest symbol of this regional contest, as the current king, Mohammed VI, made clear in a speech on the 12 November anniversary of Morocco’s ‘recovery’ of the territory. Ever since 1974, Morocco has insisted that the region is an integral part of its own territory, a claim contested not only by Algeria but by the African Union and the United Nations. Since September 1991, a United Nations-sponsored truce has prevented armed conflict and a monitoring force, MINURSO, has sought to organise a referendum for self-determination amongst the population there and in refugee camps across the border with Algeria – so far to no avail, for Morocco will only accept the referendum if it confirms its claim.

In recent years, however, the local population in the Western Sahara has increasingly resented its indeterminate status whilst the Security Council is in despair over the intractable nature of the dispute, especially after mounting insecurity and instability in the Sahara and Sahel in the wake of the Arab revolutions in 2011. The United States and Europe, ever mindful of new terrorist arenas and intensifying migration northwards from sub-Saharan Africa, would like to see the Western Sahara dispute solved so Algeria and Morocco can collaborate and focus on these critical concerns.

But, if Moroccan hacking suspicions prove correct, such collaboration is still a long way off. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.