by Adnan Nasser
This article was produced in collaboration with More Perspectives, a non-profit that supports emerging writers from underrepresented groups.
Algeria has announced it severed diplomatic relations with its western neighbor Morocco due to its “hostile actions” according to a statement from Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamea. He went on to point to history as an indicator that Morocco has never ceased its hostile behavior against his nation and accused its leaders of fomenting conflict rather than integration in the Maghreb and North Africa. This may not come as a shock to those who follow the historical trajectory of Algerian-Moroccan relations— one that is filled with belligerence and violence, especially over the disputed region of Western Sahara, which both nations claim as their own.
But the crisis about who controls the Sahara territory has gone on for decades. Why the sudden decision to cease all ties? In recent months, tensions have increased between the two North African adversaries. On August 4th, Algeria suffered terrible forest fires in its Kabylia region—which extends along the Mediterranean coastline east of the capital Algiers—resulting in the deaths of 90 people including 33 soldiers. The Algerian authorities have received criticism for not adequately preparing for the fires. In response, Algerian officials claimed most of the flames were of “criminal” origin. Algeria did not hold the Moroccan government directly responsible for the fires, but it does accuse Rabat of backing separatist rebels believed to be responsible for the conflagration.. A group called the Movement for Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK) is a classified as a terrorist organization by the Algerian government and was accused of lynching a man wrongly found guilty of starting the fire.
Algiers declared that Rabat’s alleged support for the group reached a climax when its envoy at the United Nations, Omar Hilale, expressed support for Western Sahara’s right of self-determination. For Algeria, this was a step too far, and thus required a tough response. At the time, Algeria’s foreign ministry said Morocco “publicly and explicitly supports an alleged right to self-determination of the Kabyle people.” Consequently, it ordered an intensification of security controls on its borders with Morocco. Although this can be interpreted as threatening, Morocco is not the only one who is arming and abetting insurgent organizations.
Since the early 1970s, Morocco has battled a guerrilla army called the Polisario Front. In 1975, Algeria had started unconditionally supporting the group by shipping weapons, training personnel, and providing monetary aid. This is another source of animosity between the warring nations and why the borders have been sealed shut since 1994.
Algeria’s Foreign Minister Lamamra said consular assistance to the citizens of both countries would not be affected. But this crisis is not only being inflamed by fires in Algerian forests or support for revolutionary forces. Recent changes in regional ties have given Morocco a boost of confidence and created anxiety for Algeria.
In December of 2020, Morocco and the State of Israel officially normalized relations with each other. This included an official opening of trade, tourism, and possible military cooperation . The United States under President Trump helped arrange the peace deal, and as a reward to Morocco for normalizing relations with the Arab world’s historic enemy, took its side on the Sahara territory dispute. Another charge Algiers uses to defend its abrupt termination of diplomatic ties with Morocco is its alleged use of the Israeli spyware program Pegasus to surveille its officials. The Foreign Ministry of Morocco categorically denied this allegation, declaring it “absurd.” Regardless of the authenticity of the accusation, this rift in relations between the two North African nations has caught the attention of others in the greater region.
Saudi Arabia, alongside the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), have called for the crisis to be resolved through “dialogue.” Libya, Algeria’s eastern neighbor, said it deeply regrets the deterioration of relations and emphasized restraint. Will the current collapse in relations lead both nations to the brink of a new war? It is unlikely, but it certainly doesn’t help in the search for a diplomatic solution to a decades-long conflict with a territorial dispute at its roots. The last time the two countries fought a war was in 1963, dubbed the Sand War. The fighting did not change anything on the ground, except for leaving hundreds of bodies to bury. In the post-war era, both governments pledged to solve their territorial disputes peacefully. As time goes on, the historic grievances between the two nations remain unaddressed, leaving dangerous options on the table—including war. What are the immediate steps that can be taken to mitigate any further belligerent actions on either side?
First, Algeria and Morocco must cease all assistance to guerrilla forces that threaten the civilians and the sovereignty of their countries. Second, surveillance of Algerian officials must stop at once if it is discovered that Morocco is indeed using Israeli spyware technology to collect such information. . Third, Algeria should accept Moroccan King Mohamed VI’s invitation from earlier in July for talks in Rabat. All concerns should be dealt with through direct negotiations, not more violence. And finally, the talks should take place in a public forum setting mediated by the Arab League and the United Nations. Let peace come now, so war doesn’t arrive later.