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Are Morocco and Algeria on the brink of war?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Algeria – Morocco: crisis loading

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Wednesday, 3 March 2021 22:49

The Polisario Front soldiers drive a pick-up truck mounted with an anti-aircraft weapon during sunset in Bir Lahlou, Western Sahara, 9 September 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Hostilities between Morocco and Algeria have taken on a new dimension in recent months, especially over the Western Sahara question. Could the situation descend into a full-blown conflict? The Africa Report takes an in-depth look at the forces involved.

This is part one of a five-part series.

Though relations between the “brotherly countries” have never been without bumps in the road, Morocco and Algeria’s chilly ties have given way to open hostility over the past few months. The main culprit? The Western Sahara conflict.

Progress on the issue has been at a standstill ever since Morocco and the Polisario Front signed a cease-fire agreement in 1991, but Rabat recently scored a few diplomatic wins, such as the United States’ move to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the territory in late 2020.

Moroccan activism, Algerian tension

The Moroccan kingdom’s proactive approach to diplomacy within African institutions has led, in a little over a year, several African countries to open consulates in Western Sahara. In doing so, they have effectively pledged their support to Morocco.

And in a deal brokered by the US, the kingdom agreed to resume diplomatic relations with Israel, a long-standing taboo for Algeria – which also happens to be the Polisario Front’s main backer. These developments were all it took for both countries’ media outlets to launch into virulent and often insulting smear campaigns against the opposing side.

In Algiers, Morocco’s latest moves have been a clear source of tension at a time when Algeria’s once highly influential diplomatic corps is starting to pick up the pieces after 20 years of stagnation under former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime.

Even within the African Union, Algeria’s virtual monopoly on the Peace and Security Council, which previously gave the country a platform where it could discuss the Sahrawi question whenever the pan-African institution convened, is a thing of the past.

With the breakdown of the status quo, the nearly 50-year-old antagonism between the countries is now playing out on the military front. After Moroccan forces carried out an operation to drive Sahrawi separatists out of the Guerguerat crossing point in mid-November, as the rebel group had blocked access to the area, Sahrawi fighters are once again saying a war has erupted between Rabat and the Polisario.

Not a week goes by without a new report of an attack on Morocco’s defensive wall. Though Algeria’s official press service, Algérie Presse Service, routinely picks up these stories, they are a perplexing mix of fact and fiction.

Old antagonism

It is plain to see that neither Morocco nor Algeria want a full-blown conflict, as it would have disastrous consequences. But history shows that countries do not always have complete control over the scale of their own aggression, as seemingly minor escalations have quickly degenerated in the past.

And it does not help that Algiers embarked on an anything but brotherly arms race some 15 years ago that spurred Rabat to do the same, with Algeria buying up Russian-made military gear and Morocco turning to Western weapons suppliers. Nor is it particularly helpful that the careers of Moroccan and Algerian security officials, some of whom were recently appointed, are built around the Sahrawi question and thus a sense of antagonism towards the opposing side.

The Africa Report takes stock of the forces at play and the risk of confrontation between the two North African giants.

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