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 five of a five-part series.
In 1964, Mohamed Boudiaf, the most “Moroccan” of Algeria’s politicians, made a prescient statement: “The existence of an emotionally charged atmosphere in which leaders and even the masses, who remain swayed by a sense of regional identity and nationalism, exchange insults with one another drives a wedge between people that will be hard to bridge.”
Fast-forward more than 50 years and his words, to our chagrin, continue to be borne out with each passing day. The conflict that North Africa’s brotherly enemies have maintained for decades is common knowledge and has bled into many other realms, from the ill-named Arab Maghreb Union, which hasn’t held a meeting in over a decade, to the African Union, the stage for heated discussions between Algiers and Rabat. Morocco only re-joined the institution in 2017, after 33 years of self-imposed exile.
This “very cold peace”, as diplomats from the region describe it, whose most absurd expression is the closure of a 1,600km-long border since 1994, is poisonous for the entire continent. But it cripples the Maghreb first and foremost.
Blinded by a Pavlovian dislike of each other, the political, business and intellectual elite of each country insist on perpetuating an anachronistic conflict. What’s worse, a crazy arms race has been unfolding since the start of this century, with Algeria turning to Russia for its military goods, while Western powers supply Morocco. Surely the massive sums these enemies are investing in their armed forces could be better spent elsewhere.
Jeune Afrique (JA) has often been a casualty of this deep-rooted animosity, like that between cats and dogs, this inextricable tangle of bile and bitterness. Especially when it comes to Algeria, as the country’s leaders made it clear that we had to pick a side. And so we faced a Gordian knot, one that prompted numerous crises. Banned for two decades in Algeria, from 1978 to 1998, JA came under attack again by the country’s authorities a little more than two years ago.
At the end of March 2018, our Algerian distributor was notified by the communications ministry – if it can be called that! – that it would have to stop importing JA along with other titles published by Jeune Afrique Media Group (The Africa Report) as well as those in its orbit, like La Revue, published by our chairman and chief executive officer, Béchir Ben Yahmed, and Afrique Magazine, owned by Zyad Limam.
Only around 100 copies of JA were allowed to circulate in Algeria, but these were meant for members of the government, the president’s office and various institutions who apparently couldn’t be deprived of their weekly reading of the magazine.
A backwards diktat
With a little, and even a lot, of digging around, as it is hard to get the least bit of information out of Algeria, we were able to pinpoint the reason behind this backwards diktat. In sum, JA was perceived as casting too negative a light on Algeria. And, of course, of going too soft on its Moroccan neighbour. The final straw was an interview with Morocco’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, published in JA in mid-May 2018.
To be sure, Bourita did not mince words on the topic of Algiers. But should that come as a surprise given the heightened tensions that currently dominate relations between the enemy brothers of the Maghreb?
What the Algerian government is omitting to say is that, besides the fact that we produce journalism with as much objectivity as possible, we have been striving for years to try to give a voice to the country’s leaders in our pages and to allow them to express their points of view.
We have made countless requests to interview various prime ministers, foreign ministers, officials from the Front de Libération Nationale party and executives of state-owned enterprises. All have gone unanswered. We were never able to get the slightest audio or video recording out of them.
Not so long ago, in spite of the tensions, prejudices, suspicions and fits of paranoia, certain communication channels were still open. I myself can attest to this, having spent many long hours discussing the situation with the likes of Larbi Belkheir, Ali Benflis, Ahmed Ouyahia, Abdelmalek Sellal, Abdelkader Messahel, Djamel Ould Abbes, Hachemi Djiar and others still.
These conversations did get a little heated sometimes, but at least they happened. Oftentimes, JA was criticised, more or less underhandedly, for its purported pro-Moroccan bias where the Western Sahara question is concerned.
In 2018, as the Abdelaziz Bouteflika era was nearing its end, the presidency, housed at El Mouradia Palace, punished JA once again. A few months after President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s election, when we asked the new administration to lift the ban on our titles, we were finally able, for the first time in a long time, to have a conversation with Algeria’s leaders.
We had the opportunity to speak to Belaïd Mohand Oussaïd, the president’s communications adviser, and to the communications minister, Amar Belhimer, a former journalist known for being open-minded. The new Algeria, a product of the Hirak protest movement and the fall of Bouteflika’s regime, showed signs of a return to normalcy.
But to our great surprise, during a more than hour-long discussion with Oussaïd, much of the debate still revolved around Morocco, the sworn enemy, its “colonialist” wishful thinking in Western Sahara, the duplicity of its leaders at the helm of a “kingdom of traffickers” and, well, you get the idea.
Needless to say, he didn’t fail to criticise us for our pro-Moroccan leanings or to urge us to wise up. Instead of the change the new administration had advertised – at the very least that of a change in mindset – we were confronted with the same old, obsessive song, yet another anti-Moroccan tirade reminiscent of someone having a Tourette’s syndrome-induced outburst.
Such talk is incomprehensible when Algeria has so many challenges to meet and better ways to use its time. It is also suicidal given that the overwhelming majority of the population wants the government to talk about the future, while Algerian leaders of all stripes insist on living in the past, preferring, the minute the opportunity presents itself, to cling to old grudges it still has against Morocco and France.
Some 57 years after Boudiaf’s prescient words, Algeria continues to sling insults at Morocco. This is a deeply heart-wrenching situation for the JA team, as we have so closely followed modern-day Algeria, a country like no other, ever since the war of independence.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options