Algeria and Morocco: an opportunity missed?

Summary: change at the top in Algeria has not led to better relations with Morocco.

We are again grateful to Greg Shapland for the posting below. He is a writer on politics, security and resources in the MENA region. He was Head of Research Analysts in the FCO from 2010-13 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

There have been striking changes at the top in Algeria in the last 10 months. In April 2019, following sustained popular protests organised by Hirak (“the movement”), President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned, at the urging of Gaid Salah, the Chief of Staff of the armed forces. Bouteflika, president since 1999, and token leader of the National Liberation Front (FLN) was in very poor health and had been largely incapable of performing his functions as the country’s head of state following a serious stroke in 2013.

After an extended period of preparation and two postponements (during which the protests continued), presidential elections took place on 12 December. Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a veteran FLN politician, was elected president, although there was a great deal of criticism of le pouvoir (the Algerian “establishment”) for only allowing five candidates – all closely associated with the regime – to stand.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune at the Berlin Conference on Libya on 19 January

There was change at the top of the armed forces, too, when General Salah –  who had held the position of Chief of Staff since 2004 – died suddenly on 23 December. He was succeeded as Chief of Staff (on an interim basis) by Maj. Gen. Said Chengriha, another stalwart of the regime: like Salah, he had fought in the war of independence from the French.

A few days after Tebboune’s election (but before his inauguration), Morocco’s King Mohammed VI sent Tebboune a message of congratulations. In that message, the King re-iterated his invitation to open a new page in relations with Algeria, “based on mutual confidence and constructive dialogue”. On 19 December, in his inaugural address as president, Tebboune appeared to go some way towards accepting the King’s offer. While describing the position of the Western Sahara (which Morocco has occupied for the past 45 years and insists is an integral part of the country) as a question of “decolonisation”, Tebboune declared that it was in the hands of the UN and “should not poison relations with our Moroccan brothers”.

Any hope for a better relationship that the two leaders’ words may have engendered was, however, short-lived: normal hostilities quickly resumed. In late December, Morocco withdrew from an international table-tennis competition in Algeria because the logo used at the competition depicted the Western Sahara as the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and not as part of Morocco.  A month later, Morocco was forced to abandon its plan to hold the 2020 African Cup of Nations futsal (indoor football) finals in Laâyoune, the capital of Western Sahara when it was opposed by Algeria and South Africa.

In a press conference with the national media on 24 January, Tebboune condemned the intention of four African countries to open consulates in Laâyoune, a move that served to reinforce Morocco’s claim to the region.  Tebboune reminded the journalists present that the SADR was a founder member of the African Union and accused the African countries concerned of stabbing it in the back. He also expressed his nostalgia for the days of the great African leaders such as Nasser, Nkrumah and – pointedly – Mohammed V, grandfather of the present King of Morocco.

These beggar-my-neighbour gestures may seem petty and inconsequential. In fact, they have serious consequences in terms of preventing any move towards mutually beneficial cooperation in every aspect of bilateral relations, including fundamental matters such as trade and security. The border between the two countries has been closed since 1994, after Morocco accused Algeria of complicity in a terrorist incident in Marrakech. In 2012, a conference sponsored by the FCO concluded that “Regional economic integration is a pivotal factor to encourage local and foreign direct investment.” Neither Algeria nor Morocco has shown any real will to act on this conclusion.  For its part, Morocco has chosen instead to encourage its companies, particularly those in the financial sector, to pursue economic opportunities in West and Sub-Saharan Africa – where they have had a good deal of success.

In security, cooperation between Algiers and Rabat could contribute to the stabilisation of Libya and Mali and to counter-terrorism efforts across the region. But both governments have chosen to ignore the other’s initiatives. While insisting on its own right to be involved in recent mediation efforts between the warring parties in Libya, Algeria has done nothing to include Morocco in a situation on which they share basic positions of principle and in which Moroccan support might have been useful.

More obviously concerning is the arms race between the two countries. Algeria is recently reported to have bought fighter jets from Russia while Morocco has been buying a range of military equipment from the US and France. Moreover, Morocco has been seeking to develop its own military-industrial sector.

According to SIPRI (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), the two Maghrebi neighbours were the largest arms importers in Africa in 2018. Algeria spent, in that year, a sum equivalent to 5.3% of its GDP; the equivalent figure for Morocco was 3.1%. (The UK spent 1.8%, the US 3.2%.)  The 2019 figures for both Algeria and Morocco will probably be higher, given the scale of the purchases made last year.

If the changes at the top in Algeria did indeed provide an opening to establish a constructive and cooperative relationship with Morocco, that opportunity seems to have been missed by both countries. In truth, however, there may not have been a real opportunity to seize upon. The new office-holders in Algeria are as much a part of the old regime as Bouteflika and Gaid Salah were. They have tried to defuse popular discontent with limited releases of those detained during the protests and will try to fob off (and exhaust) the Hirak with promises of a revision of the Constitution, while the locus of real power remains where it was before.

The Moroccan regime may prefer it that way: while fundamental change in Algeria might create a genuine opportunity for better bilateral relations, it could also potentially encourage reform-minded protest in Morocco. As L’Humanite put it: “Is (the Moroccan government) afraid of contagion from the Algerian Hirak?” Better, perhaps, the pouvoir you know.

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