Prospects for Maghreb mediation appear poor
Rarely in international relations do two states with relatively homogenous ethnicities, religious beliefs and cultural similarities have such tumultuous interactions as Morocco and Algeria. It had been hoped in some quarters that the global economic challenges of the last two years would facilitate a rapprochement of sorts, with the need for regional trade and cooperation outweighing the short-term gain of political escalation — this, however, has not been the case.
With the borders between the two countries closed, Algeria’s airspace out of bounds to Morocco, and after the two sides exchanged barbs at the UN last week, there is a role for a third party to mediate to avert a conflict that would be unnecessary and ill-timed. Mediation at the regional level would be the most immediate diplomatic solution, but relations across the Maghreb, though not at their worst, are hardly cordial.
Morocco has sought to support conflict resolution in Libya by hosting a succession of talks, but Libya’s war-torn reality is a world away from its recent past as a major African power broker. Tunisia’s constitutional troubles, coupled with its own issues with Algiers, also preclude it from taking a leading role. In these circumstances, the Maghreb Union is very much as “moribund” as King Mohammed VI of Morocco described it in 2006.
The African Union, which Rabat only rejoined in 2017 after decades of being the only country on the continent to not participate, remains limited in its scope. Nigeria and South Africa are obstinately opposed to Morocco making good on its historical claims and are the key antagonists to the AU having any sort of positive role.
The growing recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara at the international level following the US government’s decision to open a consulate there is causing a further regional rift. Just last week, the Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra spoke of the “inalienable self-determination” of the territory. His Moroccan counterpart hit out at the “perpetuation of an invented regional conflict.”
At the Arab level, there was hope that the recent meeting the Algerian foreign minister had with his counterpart in a Gulf state would precipitate a break in the impasse. However, Algeria’s envoy for the Western Sahara and the Maghreb Amar Belani stated that “the decision to break diplomatic relations with Morocco is non-negotiable,” and “will not be subject to any discussion.”
There is a role for a third party to avert a Morocco-Algeria conflict that would be unnecessary and ill-timed.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Belani’s comments reiterated the stance of Lamamra at last month’s Arab League foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo. He stated that the severance of ties was a “sovereign, final and irreversible decision,” underlining that any resolution at the Arab League level is currently impossible for Algiers.
There is, however, a role for France in mediation — a role that it not only could play, but should. France’s arbitrary territorial decisions during Algeria’s colonization and Morocco’s protectorate are the single most significant factor in the poor relations the two countries have today. When the French Protectorate of Morocco came to an end, several key territorial questions were left unanswered as France waged its now infamous war to keep Algeria under its thumb. It was Paris that created the border that separated two peoples who had for centuries shared the same fate and were ruled by the same sultan.
Rabat has stated unequivocally that it is committed to remaining a good neighbor and friend for the Algerian people, despite recent political divergences. This is also what the Arab League would like. And cooperation remains the aspiration of people on both sides of the border. It is in the interests of regional and international parties that a more conciliatory and engaging tone is adopted.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid