Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Morocco, Algeria and the Cold War | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Peacekeepers with the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara consult a map as they drive through vast desert areas in Smara, in the Moroccan Occupied Territories of Western Sahara.
(UN Photo/Martine Perret)

The recent tension between Algeria and Morocco is nothing unusual and not the first of its kind. For more than three decades the Sahara issue, which dates back to 1975, has been a serious problem, a source of tension and deep political sensitivity between the two countries that are central to the Maghreb region.

However, the problem with this new tension lies in the fact that it has come about at a time when the Maghreb is passing through dangerous circumstances. These are indications of not only deterioration, but also real threats and challenges. It is striking that despite the intensity of world events, the Moroccan–Algerian tension occupies an important position within the circle of events and the world’s problems. The recent escalation of what one might call an adaptation of the “Cold War” between Algeria and Morocco and its return to a pattern of tension can be attributed to Algeria’s call during the Abuja Conference in October 2013 to expand the powers of the UN’s Mission in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) in order to monitor human rights.

This Algerian request set in motion the war of words, as well as diplomacy and media wars that are ongoing. Looking at this fact in particular, we understand why different escalations over the past three months have all revolved around the issue of human rights in the sense that Morocco responded to Algeria’s call, which was pregnant with accusations of human rights violations in the Sahara, with the very same accusation on two separate occasions. On the first occasion, Morocco protested against Algeria’s deportation of Syrian refugees to Morocco, considering it a breach of human rights.

The second occasion occurred when King Mohammed VI delivered a speech on the 38th anniversary of the Green March in which he accused Algeria of systematically violating human rights. From what we understand, it is Morocco’s radical and structural rejection of Algeria’s one-upmanship and its attempt to return the accusation and to provide a basis for it through some Algerian practices and by placing them within a context of human rights violations. In other words, we are facing a kind of attempt to implicate the enemy using the same accusation but through different mechanisms, by drawing attention to the level of the validity and credibility of the accusation itself.

Morocco’s strong reaction to Algeria’s call to increase MINURSO’s powers to monitor the human rights situation in the Sahel region can be explained not only by the Sahel issue–which is the central and fundamental cause of deteriorating relations between the two countries, because this crisis represents the thorn in the side of Maghreb integration–but also by the importance that is placed on the issue of human rights and the sensitivity of such allegations and the implications and possible side effects they could have on international power relations. For example, the EU considers Morocco a distinct trade partner, and Morocco also has a strong relationship with the United States. Morocco invests in diplomacy and is proud of its 2011 constitutional reforms, and for many years it has been working on building an international image that has been encouraging and positive. This has allowed it to reduce the implications of the significant deterioration that the rest of the Arab Maghreb states have come to know, and at times it has benefited from it, especially in the fields of tourism and foreign investment.

In the same speech, King Mohammed VI implicitly accused Algeria, saying the direct cause of the unfair treatment of Morocco regarding the issue of the Sahel could be attributed to the money and benefits offered by “opponents” in an attempt to buy the voices and positions of some organizations hostile to Morocco.

Therefore, we can understand why the recent tension occurred and led to a complex diplomatic constriction that draws parallels to the borders between Morocco and Algeria, which have remained closed for 20 years.

The Sahel issue has gone on for longer than it should and has wasted many UN proposals. This prevents the Maghreb Union from carrying out real work despite the heavy economic losses that this entails for the region. It has also become a weak point in confronting terrorism, in the sense that the strength of the Arab Maghreb is dispersed and fragmented at a critical and historical moment for Tunisia, and even more so for Libya.

It is a grave mistake to believe that the breakdown of the security situation in Libya and the lack of clarity of the situation in Tunisia will not affect Algeria and Morocco. For that reason, the need for a political and security union within the Maghreb has become more than just a necessity. In light of the continuing lack of awareness of this fact demonstrated by Algeria and Morocco, the monster of terrorism will impact everyone.

The current situation shows that the Arab Maghreb needs a strong Morocco and a strong Algeria. The fear is not about which of the Maghreb states is in a position of strength; rather, the fear lies in the terrorists investing in a state of ongoing fragmentation in the Maghreb and the lack of awareness regarding the new realities in the region.

The time has come for Algeria to become Morocco’s helping hand and not its enemy, because Algeria’s strength depends on Morocco’s strength, and the strength of the Arab Maghreb as a whole depends on both Algeria and Morocco.