Algeria announced on 24 August that it was officially severing ties with neighbouring Morocco “starting today”, after months of tensions between the two countries. Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra made the announcement during a press conference on Tuesday evening. “It has been proven that the (Moroccan) kingdom has not ceased its unfriendly, low and hostile manoeuvres against Algeria for a day since independence,” Lamamra said, accusing Moroccan leaders of bearing “responsibility for the successive crises that have drawn us into a tunnel without an exit”.
The two countries have long been at odds over a host of issues, notably the fate of Western Sahara. The border between Algeria and Morocco has been closed since 1994. “One feels that as long as the Western Sahara issue isn’t resolved, it will remain a factor of instability for the region,” an Algerian analyst told the news site Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity. Morocco claims full sovereignty over the territory, while Algeria backs the Polisario Front’s demands for a referendum on self-determination under the auspices of the United Nations.
Rabat’s re-establishment of ties with Israel late last year – as part of then-US President Donald Trump’s push for normalisation in the region – was accompanied by US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, reigniting tensions with Algiers. Algeria has long been one of the most outspoken countries in North Africa in support of Palestinians, and news that Morocco had formalised diplomatic relations with Israel sparked anger from Algerian officials and citizens alike.
In July, Algiers recalled its ambassador to Morocco after the Moroccan envoy to the United Nations called at a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement for “the right of self-determination for the people living in the Kabylia region”, in reference to Algeria’s Tamazight-speaking minority, suggesting Algeria should not deny such a move while backing self-determination for Western Sahara. Last week, Algeria’s High Security Council, headed by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, decided to “review” relations with Morocco in the wake of the Moroccans’ comments on Kabylia. “Moroccans have touched on the two biggest taboos of Algeria: national unity and the politics vis-a-vis Israel,” MEE quoted an unnamed diplomatic source. “They’ve hit where it hurts, multiple times.”
Matters deteriorated further in July after the consortium of journalists created by Forbidden Stories about Pegasus spyware sold by Israel’s NSO Group revealed that Rabat was “one of the biggest users of the spyware, to the detriment of the Algerian authorities”. Algiers has also levied accusations against Rabat of being implicated in deadly fires that have ravaged northern Algeria in recent weeks.
The issue between Algeria and Morocco is a cocktail of historical disagreements made complex by proxy actors. Both countries are historical allies of France as a result of colonial rule with Algeria as a French colony and Morocco as a protectorate state. The dispute between both countries appears to have started after Morocco attempted to claim territory that it said was part of the country before French occupation, which triggered the 1963 Sand War, left hundreds dead, and a strained relationship between the two North African countries.
The immediate cause of the end of diplomatic ties between both countries seems to be Morocco’s stand on Kabylia, calling for its right to self-determination, an affront Algeria considers capable of undermining its national integrity and unity. Another reason, which Algeria has dubbed political, is Morocco’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, a move not unconnected to its diplomatic ties with the US, which recognises Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. More broadly, both countries (who share a 1,427 km border) have been embroiled in the conflict in Western Sahara, an area bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and northwest, by Morocco on the north, by Algeria for a few miles in the northeast, and by Mauritania on the east and south.
The conflict in the area is between the Polisario Front and Morocco, one that has lasted several decades with no end in sight. The estimated cost of a resolution appears to be unattractive given that it would be to the detriment of one party. For Morocco, any settlement that leaves Western Sahara out of its control could have devastating consequences for a monarchy that has continued to use the crisis as a powerful tool for national unity. For the Polisario as a political organization, an unfavourable settlement would require it to compromise with the Sahrawi notables who have made their peace long ago with Morocco.
On the other hand, for Algeria, it would mean a loss of leverage in relations with Morocco. The conflict also seems to attract other foreign actors such as Spain, the Arab League, African consulates, the European Union and the United States. The diplomatic brawl between Algeria and Morocco needs to be taken seriously by the African Union, as the region requires a lot more stability following the collapse of Libya.
An unstable Northern Africa would have implications for the Sahel region in terms of its fight against Islamist insurgencies. In addition, if the crisis in Western Sahara is to escalate beyond its current state, it is likely going to trigger a refugee crisis for the European Union.