Algeria-Morocco: “The two countries no longer spoke to each other anyway”

It is the culmination of a summer of tension. Tuesday, August 24, Algeria announced the severance of its diplomatic relations with its Moroccan neighbor, accusing the kingdom of “hostile actions” towards Algiers. If relations between the countries had been bad for many years, especially because of deep disagreements over the fate of Western Sahara, a statement by the Moroccan ambassador to the United Nations in mid-July made the situation worse. The event, relatively rare, nonetheless remains symbolic between two nations which no longer shared much, recalls Luis Martinez, specialist in the Maghreb and the Middle East, director of research at CERI-Sciences Po, and author of ” North Africa after the Arab revolts “(Sciences-Po Press, 2020).

L’Express: Despite the existing disputes between the two countries, was a diplomatic rupture foreseeable between Algeria and Morocco?

Luis Martinez: No, she was even unpredictable. If Algeria tends to isolate itself much more than to spread itself, as we can see on issues related to the Sahel, to the situation in the Middle East, it is not a country that regularly breaks relations with another because he’s angry. The last time was in 1993 with Iran, accused at the time of supporting Algerian Islamist movements. The situation recovered seven years later. What happened this week with Morocco was therefore not predictable. But this is the unfortunate consequence of a series of events which led Algiers to make this choice at a lower cost. There was indeed already much left with Morocco. The border has been closed since 1994 and the two countries trade very little humanely, economically. We cannot therefore speak of real trauma.

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What has the most weight in the decision taken by Algeria? The recent Kabyle question?

Yes. In any case, this is the main reason seen from Algiers. On July 13 and 14, a virtual meeting of member countries of the Non-Aligned Movement took place at the United Nations. The Algerian ambassador put on the table the question of Western Sahara, which was not on the agenda. The Moroccan ambassador, Omar Hilale, retorted and recalled his country’s position on this subject. But a few days later, Morocco wrote a note of a page and a half further developing its point of view. Inside, three small lines have particularly attracted attention: the ambassador – and this is a historic first – said to consider, support the self-determination of Kabylia, an Algerian region claimed so far by a minority , the MAK [Mouvement pour l’autodétermination de la Kabylie, illégale en Algérie, NDLR]. This is the tipping point. Morocco was then accused of all evils during the summer. Everything has passed: the question of Western Sahara, the normalization of Rabat’s relations with Israel, the responsibility for the deadly fires which take place on its territory, and even the drug trafficking … Until the diplomatic rupture on Tuesday. The accumulation of these disputes has played a role, to be sure. But without the three little lines of July, relations would have remained as they were with Morocco, which did not officially contradict the words of its ambassador.

Why is this subject around the autonomy of Kabylia so important for Algiers?

Morocco quite simply touches the territorial integrity of Algeria, its internal affairs. If the two countries have been fighting for a long time over the fate of Western Sahara, the region does not formally belong to either of the two nations [le Sahara occidental est classé comme un territoire non-autonome selon l’ONU. Il est revendiqué par le Maroc, qui en contrôle une large partie, et le Front Polisario, soutenu par l’Algérie]. This is not the case with Kabylia, which does belong to Algeria. By way of comparison, it is as if Algeria had supported the revolts in the Rif region, in northern Morocco, in 2016. Unthinkable. On the Algiers side, the words of the neighboring ambassador suggest that Morocco now wishes to weigh the Kabyle risk against the Saharawi risk.

Is there a risk of military conflict?

Absolutely not. Now that the break is said, it is total indifference. When Rabat severed its relations with Algiers in 1976 (at the time on the Saharan question) there was no fight either. I repeat, this break does not have major consequences for trade between the two countries. It’s rather symbolic, between two countries certainly neighbors but which no longer spoke to each other anyway.

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Is it possible to go back? Can France have a role in a possible de-escalation?

This is what we expect to see: what is really the Moroccan line on Kabylia in Algeria? Will the ambassador’s words reappear in the next Moroccan official documents? The situation could, in this case, escalate a little more. Regarding the role of France, there is nothing to expect. These are two countries with which she does not want to have the slightest problem. Morocco is its most reliable partner on the continent and in the Mediterranean. But France has also been seeking for years to build a dispassionate relationship with Algeria. In this context, Paris strives never to clash with the position of Algiers. Getting involved could finally potentially create tensions between Algerian and Moroccan communities in France. This is not the goal.


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