Algeria-Morocco relations are unique among Arab countries in that they seem to be perpetually on the brink of conflict. Since the establishment of the official Arab regional system after World War II, Arab-Arab conflicts have followed a model known as the "Pendolic model," in which conflicts oscillate over time. While conflicts may be calmed or settled under the influence of external factors, the underlying issues often remain unresolved and can resurface when new factors emerge. Despite this pattern, the relationship between Algeria and Morocco is exceptional in that the pendulum appears to be stuck. Tensions between the two countries have increased significantly in recent years, and it is worth noting that there has been little direct armed conflict between them within the Arab system.
This article aims to examine the dilemma of these relations, starting with an analysis of their past experiences since Algeria's independence. It will then attempt to explain the model underlying this conflict before considering whether a way out of this dilemma is possible.
Overall, the article suggests that the Algeria-Morocco dispute is a complex issue with deep historical roots that will require sustained efforts and meaningful dialogue to resolve.
Past Experience Model
Disagreement, tension, and military confrontation, and at best, diplomatic apathy have characterized Moroccan-Algerian relations since Algeria's independence in 1962. Paradoxically, Morocco played an essential role in supporting the Algerian Liberation Front (ALF), which led the struggle for independence from November 1, 1954. The ALF used Moroccan territory bordering Algeria as bases when necessary. However, border disputes arose between the two countries immediately after independence.
Morocco was dissatisfied with the demarcation of the border with Algeria that occurred during French occupation and accused France of favoring Algeria. As a result, it deployed its forces in an Algerian area immediately after independence. This was the background that led to the military clash between the two countries in October 1963. The dispute was later settled after efforts from both the Arab League and the former Organisation of African Unity, which led to the signing of a ceasefire agreement in February 1964. However, the roots of the problem were never resolved.
In the early 1970s, the issue resurfaced as another point of tension after the Spanish withdrawal, fueling the row between Morocco and Algeria. The two countries had significantly different views on the future of the Sahara. While Morocco considered the Sahara an integral part of its territory, and accordingly organized the so-called "Green March" in 1975, where nearly a third of a million Moroccans peacefully marched into the Sahara, Algeria saw the future of the Sahara as an issue of decolonization that must be resolved by applying the right to self-determination, a position that has been adopted by the UN.
The Polisario Front (PF), a rebel group seeking independence from Spain, was formed in May 1973 by Sahrawis. The Sahara war broke out between the PF and the Moroccan government soon after the withdrawal of Spanish forces, in accordance with the Madrid agreements that granted Morocco and Mauritania administrative control over the territory. However, Algeria and Libya supported the PF. In 1991, a ceasefire was reached and had been maintained until November 2020 when the Moroccan army entered a demilitarized zone. The PF considered the move a violation of the ceasefire and attacked the Moroccan army in retaliation. Nevertheless, the situation did not escalate into a wider conflict.
Thus, the Sahara conflict remains a persistent factor in the ongoing tensions between Algeria and Morocco. Their conflicting narratives over the region are marred by other issues. For instance, Algeria gives refuge to Sahrawis who reject the sovereignty of Morocco, which controls about 80% of the region. Morocco, on the other hand, accuses Algeria of meddling in the conflict with armed forces.
It is noted that the accession of the two countries to the Maghreb Union did not have a positive impact on settling their dispute. Rather, it was the reason for the complete stalemate that has hit the Union since 1995 at Morocco’s request.
In December 2020, a new factor was thrown into the mix as Morocco signed a cooperation agreement and established full diplomatic relations with Israel. This development was especially significant for Algeria-Morocco relations for two reasons.
First, former US President Donald Trump, who announced the Morocco-Israel agreement, in exchange recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the region. Algeria considered this development a major setback in the Sahara dispute.
Second, the Morocco-Israel agreement included a significant security dimension. Former Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Rabat and signed a framework agreement for security cooperation between the two sides aimed at addressing various security threats in the region. Under the agreement, Morocco could acquire high-tech Israeli security equipment.
In January 2023, Morocco and Israel, following a joint committee meeting in Rabat, decided to expand military cooperation to include reconnaissance, air defense, electronic warfare, and other research & development programs. The US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara and the rapidly growing relationship with Israel have been perceived as a security threat by Algeria.
After these recent developments, there have been signs of further deterioration in the relations between Algeria and Morocco. In July 2021, King Mohammed VI called for the resolution of differences and the opening of borders, but Algeria did not respond at the time. The following month, Algeria retaliated by severing ties with Morocco. In October of the same year, Algeria shut down the gas pipeline that transported gas to Spain via Morocco. The situation worsened in July 2022, with Morocco's ambassador to the UN explicitly declaring support for the right of the people of the Kabylie region to self-determination. This action completed the vicious cycle of conflicting policies between the two countries.
Analysis of past experiences indicates that disagreement, including direct and indirect military tensions, has been the dominant feature of Algeria-Morocco relations since Algeria gained independence. In fact, the brightest stage of these relations was the period preceding Algeria's independence. This analysis reveals three factors that have contributed to this state of affairs: two fundamental factors and one contributing factor, which can be outlined as follows:
1. Geopolitics and balance of power:
Algeria and Morocco are both significant players in a strategic region within the Arab world, and possess comparable capabilities and potential. They have similar populations (with around 46 million Algerians and 40 million Moroccans) and comparable GDPs (approximately US$163 billion in Algeria and $143 billion in Morocco in 2021). The Algerian army is the third largest in the Arab world, while the Moroccan army ranks fifth. These factors create a conducive environment for intense competition between the two countries for leadership in the Maghreb region, particularly given the ideological differences between their regimes. However, the Algeria-Morocco case is not unique within the Arab regional system, as there have been similar tensions in other countries, such as Syria and Iraq under the Baath Party in the '50s and '60s. These tensions never improved until the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Therefore, such cases of regional competition under a tight balance of power within the same Arab sub-regional system deserve further attention and study.
2. Evidence-based analysis:
While political analysis may sometimes be inaccurate, the analysis presented here is based on material and security factors that concern both Algeria and Morocco. From the outset, border disputes arose despite Morocco's explicit support for Algeria's independence. The conflict escalated to a direct military clash in 1963-64, an unprecedented situation except in the case of Iraq and Kuwait. The border dispute was almost resolved, but then the Sahara issue erupted in the mid-1970s. Morocco considers the region an integral part of its territorial integrity, while Algeria views it as a matter of decolonization and recognizes the region's right to self-determination. Recently, the situation has worsened, with Morocco's ambassador to the UN explicitly supporting the independence of Algerian tribes.
3. External factors:
Arab political dynamics and polarization in the '60s contributed to the conflict, although the breakthrough mediated by the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 1964 Arab summit would have minimized the conflict's implications. However, the division between the two sides persisted, and the tensions between Algeria, which aligned with the Soviet camp, and a West-backed Morocco were exacerbated by the Cold War. The political divide resurfaced with the Moroccan-Israeli agreement in 2020, which included security cooperation, and Trump's recognition of the Sahara as Moroccan territory, putting Algeria on the defensive.
What Can be Done?
Undoubtedly, the Algerian-Moroccan rift represents a source of weakness for the sub-regional system in the Maghreb, as evidenced by the paralysis that has plagued the Maghreb Union since the '90s, despite being founded in 1989. This has become a weakness for the Arab regional system as a whole in the face of current challenges. While a comprehensive Arab political understanding seems difficult to achieve in the current circumstances, reconciliation is both necessary and possible to address economic challenges, such as food security.
Indeed, in my view, the Algeria-Morocco fracture is the most complex inter-Arab issue for several reasons. Firstly, the core of the dispute lies in the matter of territorial integrity. Secondly, both countries have had limited cooperative experiences since Algeria's independence. I recall that during my time at the Institute for Arab Research and Studies of the Arab League, students of all Arab nationalities could discuss the most intricate of issues except for this particular case, as emotions and sensitivity often got in the way. Thirdly, years of persistent disagreement and harsh media campaigns have significantly diminished grassroots support for the normalization of relations. Fourthly, it appears that neither the Arab countries nor the Arab League have expressed much interest in this dispute. Not because it is unimportant, but because they recognize its complexity and the difficulty of resolving their differences.
Hence, resolving the Algerian-Moroccan dispute under the current circumstances seems elusive. However, it is still essential to attempt to mend relations while acknowledging the difficulties that come with such an undertaking. I suggest the following strategies:
1. One strategy to consider is creating friendly pressure to generate Arab interest in ending the rift. This can be done through the Arab League, the Arab Parliament, or the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union. A peaceful resolution of current disputes needs to be at the heart of the Arab political agenda, with benefits highlighted, especially in light of the remarkable shift in Arab regional policy. If differences cannot be mended immediately, at the very least, efforts must be made to prevent tensions from worsening.
2. Another strategy is to study the existing problems in the relations of the two countries, whether at the level of scientific research or political movements by relevant Arab institutions. The aim would be to find common ground and discuss possible solutions to disputes.
3. Finally, encouraging civil society actors on both sides to support the return of relations and present initiatives in this direction would be beneficial. At the very least, efforts should be made to avoid further escalation in the future.