After a few months of relative quiet, the past week has been one of heightened tensions between the Moroccan and Algerian governments. While rhetorical skirmishes are nothing unusual between the two capitals, this week’s events signal an alarming escalation that seems both unfortunate and predictable in its developments.
On Monday October 28, at the African Conference of Solidarity with Sahrawi people - held in the Nigerian capital, Abuja - a speech was read out on behalf of the Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, that called on the United Nations to support efforts aimed at setting-up an international mechanism to monitor “the massive and systematic human rights violations” by Morocco in the occupied territories of the Western Sahara.
The conference was held in the lead-up to a presentation to the Security Council by Christopher Ross, the UN General Secretary’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, of his findings on the Sahrawi question following a visit to the region from the 7 to 25 October. Ross’s report announced "a new phase in the negotiations based on discreet and separate bilateral exchanges with each of the parties”.
The Moroccan response to Bouteflika’s speech was swift and largely unencumbered by nuance. The intervention was seen by many, whether in the Moroccan media or in governmental circles, as an open and deliberate provocation. Some observers linked the intervention directly to Bouteflika’s current internal power struggle against rivals in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections. More significantly, Morocco's official MAP news agency accused Algeria both of seeking to “divert attention” from its own internal human rights abuses and of entertaining “hegemonic designs” over the region.
Morocco’s nationalist Istiqlal party, which had recently left the governing coalition, went even further, resurrecting long-dormant calls for Morocco to “recover territory in the southeast that Algeria took by force”. The party’s comments were, in turn, denounced as “unacceptable and irresponsible” by Algeria's Foreign Minister, Ramtane Lamamra, who nevertheless issued a call for “restraint”.
Lamamra’s plea, plainly, had fallen on deaf ears. On Friday, November 1, as Algeria marked the 59th anniversary since the launch of the war for independence, dozens of Moroccan protesters gathered at the Algerian consulate in Casablanca, chanting anti-Algerian and pro-monarchist slogans. One of the protesters climbed up the building and tore down the Algerian flag. A YouTube video of the incident caused widespread consternation across Algeria, both in the media as well as on social networks. A spokesman for the Algerian Foreign ministry, Amer Belani, was unambiguous as to where he thought the blame lay, declaring “This serious act would not have been possible without the unleashing of hatred and mudslinging by a Moroccan press and political class to inflame the population against Algeria.” On Sunday, the Moroccan ambassador, Abdallah Belkaziz, who had been recalled to Rabat on Wednesday for “consultations” over Bouteflika’s speech, was summoned to the Algerian Foreign Ministry, where he expressed his country’s “regrets” over Friday’s incident though without offering any official apologies. On Monday, he resumed his duties in Algiers.
Although Moroccan officials have already announced the arrest of the main perpetrator of the flag incident, Algerian authorities – which have dismissed the “isolated incident” thesis - reiterated their demand to be included in any investigation into the events. How the two sides can find a workable arrangement that doesn’t look like a climb-down by either party remains to be seen, but as things stand, the ingredients for further escalation are all too present.
Periodic sabre-rattling has been a feature of the Moroccan-Algerian conversation for decades, and can be traced back at least to the “Sand War” of 1963, fought over territorial claims to their southern border regions. Since then, the relationship has been further strained by Algeria’s support for the Sahrawi people’s quest for independence since Morocco annexed the territory in 1975. This week’s events mark the first renewal of hostilities since April, when Algeria supported a US-sponsored proposal to integrate human rights monitoring into the remit of the UN mission in the Western Sahara. The initiative was ultimately defeated in the face of vehement opposition by Morocco and its allies, with the passing of a UN resolution (UNSCR 2099) that did not explicitly add a Human Rights mandate to MINURSO’s remit. Indeed, many observers in Morocco interpreted Bouteflika’s Abuja’s speech as an attempt to bring the proposal back to the table.
Of course, while the unfolding row centres ostensibly on the question of Western Sahara, such crises invariably signal deeper rifts and ulterior motivations. For a start, both Algerian and Moroccan governments have come under increasing pressure over their human rights records in recent times, and many feel this latest round of diplomatic wrangling is mostly a convenient distraction that works to the advantage of both protagonists.
Whatever the circumstances and repercussions, intended or otherwise, of this episode, it undoubtedly presents a sad sight for most citizens in both countries. This is especially so coming as it does on the anniversary of the Algerian revolution, the launch document of which, the Proclamation of November 1,1954, not only announced to the world a “true revolutionary struggle at the side of the Moroccan and Tunisian brothers...” but listed as a key objective “the pursuit of North African unity…”.
Considering the virulence of the exchanges this past week, one might view prospects for such unity – still trumpeted loudly at intermittent summits and cultural festivals – as being rather bleak. And yet, the history of Moroccan-Algerian relations, both before independence and since, remains overwhelmingly one of noble solidarity and brotherhood. As a new generation of Algerians and Moroccans discards the old political rules, one feels entitled to hope that, across the region and beyond, brighter days lie ahead.