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A new diplomatic crisis has arisen between Algeria and Morocco. And even though it’s not very serious, it is still somewhat significant. On 19 June, Algiers decided to recall – with immediate effect – Abelmahid Abdaoui, the ambassador in Rabat. The Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et de la Communauté Nationale à l’Étranger (Ministry of the Foreign Affairs and of the National Community Abroad) also issued a statement declaring the country may take further action. He did not provide any additional details.
This is not the first time that an ambassador has been recalled. In October 2017, Morocco ordered Hassan Abdelkhalek, its diplomatic representative in Algeria, to return home, following remarks made by Abdelkader Messahel – the former head of Algerian diplomacy – during a business forum in Algiers.
The Messahel precedent
Referring to Moroccan investments in Africa, Messahel had said: “Moroccan banks are laundering hash money. African heads of state have told me so.” He also stated that Royal Air Maroc (RAM) “does not only transport passengers”, but this is a barely disguised attempt to accuse the Moroccan state-owned company of being involved in drug trafficking.
The Moroccan authorities were so angered by this comment that the RAM asked three lawyers to study the possibility of filing a complaint before the French justice system against Messahel. But ultimately, the procedure did not lead anywhere. One month later, the Moroccan ambassador returned to his post in Algiers and tension between the two countries remained as high as ever.
The hostility between Algiers and Rabat has only increased over this past month, after it was revealed that the Moroccan services tapped the phones of senior Algerian civilian and military leaders between 2017 and 2019. According to the investigation led by a consortium of international media, Rabat used the Pegasus spyware – developed by the Israeli company NSO – to spy or attempt to spy on some 6,000 Algerian phone numbers.
Among the targeted officials were members of the Bouteflika family; former army chief of staff Ahmed Gaïd Salah and his successor Saïd Chengriha; Wassini Bouazza, former head of the internal intelligence services; former prime minister Nouredine Bédoui and Ramtane Lamamra.
Still the Sahara
69-year-old Lamamra, who was appointed minister of foreign affairs on 8 July, is in charge of resolving the crisis with his country’s western neighbour, while 70-year-old Omar Hilale, Morocco’s permanent representative to the UN, is at the origin of it.
In July, Hilale distributed a note to the non-aligned countries stating that “Kabyle people deserve, more than any other, to fully enjoy their right to self-determination.” This served as a direct response to Lamamra who, upon taking office, had reiterated Algeria’s position on the Sahara issue by supporting the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination, under the auspices of the UN.
This conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which began in 1975, continues to poison relations between the two countries, to the point that normalisation will not be possible unless a definitive settlement is reached. And to say that their respective positions on this issue are as clear-cut as they are irreconcilable would be an understatement.
Rabat views the Sahara as Morrocan territory. As such, they feel that the only possible solution would be to grant the Saharawi people autonomy, not independence. Moreover, the kingdom views Algeria as a third actor in the conflict, due to its unconditional support of the Polisario.
For its part, Algiers sees the Saharawi issue as a matter of decolonisation that must be settled within the framework of a referendum organised with the UN’s support.
Today, more than ever, Hilale and Lamamra are responsible for defending their countries’ respective interests. The two men are seasoned diplomats, who both have a grasp on the complexities of the Sahrawi issue.
Duel of hardened professionals
Hilale – who was an ambassador to Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand – knows Algeria well, as he also served in the Moroccan embassy during his long career. As the kingdom’s permanent representative in Geneva for several years, he crossed swords with Algerian diplomats on many occasions, notably on the Sahara issue.
This native of Agadir, who is renowned for his intransigence and nicknamed the ‘Pitbull’, never missed an opportunity to spar with Lamamra when the latter was head of Algerian diplomacy.
Reappointing Lamamra to the position of foreign affairs minister, after a two-year hiatus, is part of Algeria’s plan to redeploy a diplomatic apparatus hit by years of inertia, regain power at the regional level and recover some of the influence that it had on the continent prior to former president Bouteflika’s resignation. Lamamra has been chosen to carry out this ambitious programme due to his vast experience as a diplomat, his extensive knowledge of Africa and his friendship with several of its heads of state.
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