A Brief History and Analysis of Modern Links – Defense Security Monitor

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by Nicholas Dawson, Forecast International.

Algeria & Morocco. Image: Mangostar, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In recent months, North African neighbors, Algeria and Morocco, have suffered a virtual breakdown in diplomatic relations. Algeria has continually accused Morocco of trying to undermine the Algerian government while causing forest fires in Algeria aimed at harming its agricultural economy. Morocco denied the accusations and replied that Algeria was trying to stir up trouble in the Western Sahara region by supporting and funding the Polisario Front, a rebel group claiming that Western Sahara is not Moroccan territory but rather an independent country. The rivalry between the two countries is not new, it dates back to the time of their occupation by the French forces. As relations between the two countries hit rock bottom again, this piece briefly explores the history of their rivalry as well as what happened to bring about the recent breakdown in diplomatic relations between the two nations.

Both countries were under the control of France until the 20e century. Morocco also had Spanish influence, as the Spanish occupied the southern region known as Western Sahara. In 1956, Morocco obtained freedom, Spain remaining in Western Sahara until 1976. Algeria, for its part, obtained liberation in 1962 after a long and bloody civil war. During the Algerian War of Independence, the Algerian rebels received funds from Morocco as well as shelters, weapons and medicine. After Algeria’s independence, Morocco and Algeria almost immediately found themselves embroiled in a dispute over the territory, particularly Western Sahara and the Algerian-Moroccan borders. Thus would begin the war of the sands of 1963 between the two countries. Morocco had early success against the weakened Algerian guerrilla force, but thanks to international assistance from Cuba, Algeria was able to push back the Moroccans. Before two major military operations could be executed by the countries in accordance with their respective plans, the international community succeeded in getting the two countries to sign a peace treaty in 1964, affirming the borders previously established in favor of Algeria. It was not until 1972 that Morocco abandoned its claims on Algerian territory, although Morocco later decided not to ratify an extension of the initial agreement in 1989. The war of the sands was the start of the rivalry. intense between the Moroccan monarchy and the Algerian government.

In addition to internal tensions between Algeria and Morocco, there had also been tensions between the two on the international stage. Algeria found itself aligning itself with the Soviet Union, with Morocco being backed by a pro-Western camp. This help from their respective foreign benefactors led to ideological differences between the countries, which was first noticed by international observers during the Algerian War of Independence. The Algerian government was inherently revolutionary, inspired by the USSR and socialist movements on the road to liberation. This is one of the main reasons why Cuba would be a crucial ally of Algeria during the war of the sands. In contrast, the United States would aid Morocco during the War of the Sands in the hope that Algerian ideology would be damaged or extinguished following a Moroccan victory.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Algeria was helping fund the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, which was formed after the Spaniards left the region in 1975. Morocco considered this region to be part of its territory – and still does. The group had engaged in multiple skirmishes with the Moroccans over time, especially after Mauritania abandoned its claims on the region. Morocco was trying to overcome the resistance of the Polisario in order to take control of Western Sahara. Thus the war in Western Sahara will take place from 1976 to 1991, Algeria constantly helping the resistance front and severing relations with Morocco. Algeria would go so far as to expel 45,000 Moroccans from Algeria while accepting pro-Sahrawi refugees. Because Algeria’s economy was stronger at the time than Morocco’s, Morocco had serious concerns given that Algeria was able to deploy a larger force of tanks, navy and air force, which would give it a distinctive advantage in the event of a conflict between the two countries.

A brief civil war in Algeria in the 1990s further heightened tensions as the Islamic group known as the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) launched an uprising after the Algerian military instigated a coup. State following an Islamist victory in the elections. Algerians claimed Morocco was funding the group, and Morocco blamed Algeria for the bomb explosion in Marrakech. The situation would lead to an international intervention to stop the massacre of civilians by the GIA, and finally the GIA was destroyed and Algeria destabilized during the 2000s. Morocco would keep the borders closed with its neighbor.

Recently, relations between Algeria and Morocco have broken down again. The Polisario Front resumed its activities and turned out to be still financed by Algeria. To make matters worse, it was discovered in July 2021 that Morocco was using new spyware known as Pegasus, made by the NSO Group in conjunction with the Israel Defense Industry. Morocco used Pegasus to spy on Algerian politicians and civil society activists. It is estimated that more than 6,000 phones have been affected by the spyware, as has the phone of French President Emmanuel Macron. Additionally, in December 2020, Morocco reached an agreement with the United States under which it would normalize relations with Israel while the United States would recognize Western Sahara as Moroccan territory. Not only was Algeria furious with the Western Sahara decision, it was also hostile to Israel given that it is part of the Arab League boycott of Israel. Algeria has repeatedly blamed Morocco for plots against it, going so far as to accuse Morocco of supporting the movement that started the forest fires and of trying to destabilize the government. The movement is known as the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia, and it has been trying to gain independence from Algeria since 2013. Recently, it was classified as a terrorist organization by Algeria. Algeria believes that Morocco and Israel funded the efforts of the liberation movement that led to the forest fires. Whether or not they are true, these accusations have persisted since the Arab Spring of 2011. These events led to the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries on August 24, 2021. Although Morocco has attempted to renew diplomatic relations with the Algeria with the support of Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, Algeria continued to thwart the situation by going so far as to stop supplying gas to Morocco and recall its ambassador.

Both countries are heavy spenders on defense and security. In Forecast International’s analysis of the African defense market for 2021, Algeria and Morocco are ranked 1st and 2sd, respectively, in total defense spending for all of Africa (not counting Egypt, which FI covers in its analysis of the Middle East). Put in perspective, Algerian defense spending represents nearly 27% of defense spending for all of Africa. By comparison, Morocco accounts for nearly 13.5% of all defense spending in Africa. These two alone account for over two-fifths of all defense spending on the continent. FI forecasts also indicate that the two countries will continue to increase their defense budgets, a practice that was the norm until 2020 and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Algeria has traditionally had a better economy and a larger military arsenal than Morocco, a situation dating back to the war in Western Sahara. Equipment from Algeria is mainly purchased from Russia, while that from Morocco is mainly sourced from Western countries. Continued increases in defense spending show that the arms race between the two continues. Even with a disadvantage in terms of military size, Morocco has consistently fought the Polisario Front and has been able to find success in its operations thanks to effective drone strikes.

The North African region itself is in turmoil due to the various political events of the past decade. Libya, which was traditionally an ally of Morocco, is still going through a civil war that has lasted for a decade after the murder of its former leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi. The international community has attempted to bring East and West Libya closer together again, as there are currently two governments claiming legitimacy, but these efforts have not been successful, despite a possible election at the end of the year. Meanwhile, Tunisia, traditionally ally of Algeria and part of an agreement between the two countries and Mauritania, is going through a constitutional crisis as Tunisian President Kais Saied tries to reform the government after a takeover in July. As their regional allies go through turbulent times and face the threat of potential terrorist attacks from Al-Shabaab and other extremist groups, Algeria and Morocco are under massive pressure.

With these situations, the two rivals are unlikely to enter a heated conflict unless a drastic event occurs to upset the balance of power in the region. History has shown that throughout their relationship, Algeria and Morocco would eventually reopen and attempt to stabilize their relationship. For example, the two countries abolished visas for each other in 2004 and 2006, which made travel easier. Both countries want to be regional powers and regional hegemony, and the outbreak of conflict would hamper their goal of being seen as key international players. For now, we can expect a continuing stalemate between them, with a small chance of conflict.

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