Morocco-Algeria: Diplomatic Tension Escalates

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Tension has been rising between Morocco and Algeria, over, yet again the disputed Western Sahara territory. This escalation seemed to have started following statements made by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika during a speech made on his behalf by his Justice Minister, where he insisted on “the establishment of an international mechanism to monitor human rights in the Western Sahara.” This particular statement led the Moroccan government to recall its ambassador for consultation, and in Casablanca, the Algerian consulate was attacked by an angry mob.

But the reality is that tension has been brewing for some time. Lobby groups operating on behalf of Morocco on one hand, and the Polisario Front, on the other, have been particularly active promoting their positions in the United States, in particular. Although the Western Sahara conflict is not known from the American public, the media has been recently leaning slightly toward the Polisario Front. On the Moroccan side, efforts have been consistent when it comes to highlighting the “Growing Threat Posed by Polisario-run Camps near Tindouf.” Using a security narrative that includes Al Qaeda has been a consistent tactic to raise the risk of having an independent Sahara. Given Algeria’s support to the Polisario, there have also been efforts to link Algeria to the Jihadist threats in the region, a narrative that typically works relatively well in the American context.

However, these tactics may not be so fruitful or efficient in light of the latest PR gains made by the Polisario Front and the American position on the Western Sahara issue. Op-Eds either in favor of the Polisario and/or criticizing Morocco have multiplied lately from the likes of conservative commentator David Keene of the Washington Times, to the editorial board of centrist the Washington Post.

And so this escalated war of PR is now migrating into the diplomatic front. And it all re-started with appointments of new Foreign Ministers in the two countries. In early October, Morocco ousted the Islamist Saad Eddine Othmani as its Foreign Minister, replacing him by the RNI party leader Salaheddine Mezouar, who is also very close to the monarchy. Mr. Mezouar is often considered as a man of action, who has already negotiated trade deals with the United States and is seen to be in a good position to sell the Moroccan case to the US. Algeria also had its cabinet reshuffle that saw the appointment of Ramtane Lamamra. As Morocco deploys the efficient Mezouar on the diplomatic front, Algeria puts in front of him a veteran diplomat who worked as ambassador of his country in Washington DC during the Bush era, and led the office of Peace and Security at the African Union where he also had strong collaborative ties with the US government and its military on African affairs. The showdown between the two is likely to be intense, and unless the West plays a mediating role, we should expect more tension going forward.

Why are we Still Stuck with this Old Regional Conflict?

Obviously this latest diplomatic crisis is erupting just as US Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to visit the region. All key stakeholders in the Western Sahara crisis want his attention, and the Moroccans are likely to be more vocal given that Mr. Kerry has not endorsed the Moroccan approach, the way Hillary Clinton did. Some Analysts speculate that with this new wave of tension, John Kerry may be more focused on helping reduce tension than engage Morocco on the issue of human rights monitoring.

But the Algerians have clearly been a source of annoyance to the Moroccans. The Western Sahara has always been a topic of cohesion and unification among most Moroccan political parties. Even when they don’t agree on domestic issues, democracy, the role of the monarchy, and the economy, most of the Moroccans seem to be unified about the Western Sahara as being an integral part of territorial sovereignty. But for many Sahraouis, such position is not justified because the territory that used to be controlled by Spain ought to be independent. It was on May 10, 1973 that the Polisario Front was formed in Zouerate, in neighboring Mauritania to fight the Spanish colonization of the Western Sahara. With Morocco claiming sovereignty over the territory after the departure of Spain, it became a point of contention with Algeria, which led an African effort to block Morocco from taking over the Western Sahara. For Algeria, and indeed for many Africa countries, including South Africa, an African territory cannot go from one “colonialist to another.” That position has been used perpetually and is not likely to change.

And so, regardless of who is right or wrong, we are stuck in a perpetual conflict that risks escalating further given the latest diplomatic moves in Rabat and Algiers. No one in this conflict is willing to accept an inch of compromise, and Western powers do not have an immediate interest in forcing a change. Surely Al Qaeda’s presence and vast mineral wealth could be strong justification for an effective Western mediation, but no one is in a hurry to help bring to an end Africa’s longest conflict.