The late Moroccan King Hassan II, renowned for his historical expertise, used to say that Morocco, which is envied for its strategic location, has been in fact isolated for centuries.
The northern portal to Europe has been blocked ever since the fall of Andalusia, which was followed by continuous wars on the borders of the two enemies. The occupation of the cities of Ceuta and Melilla still constitutes an obstacle hindering the normalization of relations between Morocco and Spain as well as impeding the Moroccan kingdom from benefiting from its European portal.
As for the southern gateway to Africa, this has been closed since the French colonial presence on the southern bank of the Senegal River in the 17th century, which in fact had halted dynamic communication with Saharan countries and its extensions in the desert region of West Africa (Shanqeet, now known as Mauritania, as well as the Sudan).
As for the eastern portal, it had been blocked since the disintegration of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties. Such status was further rooted after the Turkish dominance of Algeria, which led to the rupture between the two twin countries and afterwards, a channel of communication began in Algeria with the colonial French.
Undoubtedly, resistance movements in the two countries merged in the late 1940s and have adopted an ambitious integrative project that was embodied in the statement of the Conference of Tangier in 1958 in which the Tunisian Constitution Party had participated.
When Morocco gained its independence in 1956, it had become the launch base of Algerian resistance.
King Mohammed V had refused French proposals, which aimed at conciliating with colonial authorities on borders between the two countries, to withdraw from some areas that Morocco believed were usurped from it.
This dilemma of borders has been a hotbed of tension in relations between the two countries after the independence of Algeria (1962). Tension reached its utmost in 1963 when the tragic war broke out leaving deep wounds in hearts that had not yet healed. I asked the former Algerian president, Ahmed Ben Bella, about this event after thirty years and the background of these painful confrontations. He replied saying that he himself is still confused by this event though he was inclined to say that various external parties were the ones that pushed the two brotherly countries into this terrible trap.
The renowned late Moroccan journalist, Mohamed Bahi, may his soul rest in peace, was an eyewitness of the war by virtue of his strong affiliation to the Algerian leadership. He commented on this war saying that confrontation was an expression of a slow coup within the Algerian nationalist movement itself which led to the domination of the eastern wing that is hostile to Morocco versus the other movement that was closer in terms of Morocco during a severe stage of the Arab Cold War (between the revolutionary camp led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the conservative camp, of which Morocco was one of its centers).
In the early 1970s, it was clear that relations between the two countries had witnessed a state of qualitative improvement, especially after settling the Moroccan-Mauritanian ordeal, which was one of the pending sources of conflict between the two parties. This new climate allowed for a leap forwards in the Maghreb integration project, of which the 1969 Nouadhibou summit was one of its most important landmarks.
However, the fundamental source of conflict was the stance towards the Sahara issue, which the United Nations put to negotiations between the Spanish colonial power and the two countries that contested for control over this territory, namely Mauritania and Morocco. This had re-launched the state of congestion between Algeria and Morocco after which it reached a phase of estrangement and was on the brink of armed confrontation once again.
It seems that President Boumedienne had supported the Moroccan and Mauritanian positions towards distributing the desert; nevertheless he later adopted the demands of the Polisario Front for independence.
This support had rapidly shifted into complete military sponsorship. Thus, Algeria had become a key player in a severe regional conflict, the first victim of which was the regime of former President Moktar Ould Daddah at a time when direct military confrontation erupted between Morocco and Algeria.
In his memoirs that were published in 2003, President Ould Daddah stated that the Algerian position towards the Saharan conflict was a pattern of violent protest against the Moroccan government’s delay of ratifying the agreement on the borders which was initially agreed upon between King Hassan II and President Boumeddiene. In spite of the armed conflict, many Algerian and Moroccan sources confirmed that channels of communication between the two leaders were renewed before President Boumeddiene left office at the end of 1978. The two leaders were supposed to meet in Geneva of the same year; however Boumeddiene’s health condition had deteriorated. According to the statement of one Algerian political figure that was close to the late President, a pattern of reconciliation between the two countries had been crystallized and it was expected that it would lead to a preliminary view of consensus on the issue of the Sahara.
Although the relationship was resumed in the era of President Chadli Bendjedid once again, which allowed the announcement of [the establishment of the] Arab Maghreb Union and the end of armed conflict in the desert and the course of a referendum on self-rule to be initiated, years of turmoil and discord that Algeria witnessed in the 1990s did not provide the appropriate conditions for the normalization of Algerian-Moroccan relations.
It was expected that bilateral relations would witness a boost after the assumption of President Bouteflika to power as he has been one of the closest Algerian politicians to Morocco where he lived during his youth and where he practiced his struggle. Nevertheless the apparent discrepancy between the parties with regards to resolving the Sahara dispute has stood in the way of a relationship of integration and harmony.
I asked a prominent Moroccan political figure about how he would explain the continuing rifts between Morocco and Algeria despite the potential of integration and cohesion between the two countries. He answered mockingly saying, “We have experienced more conflict than convergence.” He added, “Years of distance might have created a complex that psychologists, not political scientists, could resolve.”