how a new conflict is brewing in Africa — Analysis

Dubbed North Africa’s new ‘Cold War’, the tensions between Morocco and neighboring Algeria threaten to escalate and the consequences of this have a lot more to do with Western meddling in the affairs of the two countries than meets the eye. 

In August 2021, Algeria’s foreign minister, Ramdane Lamamra, announced that Algiers was severing all diplomatic ties with Rabat. “The Moroccan kingdom has never stopped its hostile actions against Algeria,”At the press conference, he said that. Algeria justified its action further, citing several examples including Morocco using Israeli Pegasus spyware on Algerian officials. They also supported terrorist groups and failed to honour bilateral commitments. Most of the accusations levelled against Rabat by the Algerian government have been denied.

Tensions rose again on October 31 when Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune ended their gas supply agreement with Rabat. This led to a reported shortage of gas in both Morocco and also Spain, which had previously received gas supplies through the Gazoduc Maghreb Europe (GME) pipeline, despite claims made by Moroccan officials that the move would have little impact. A day later, drone strikes were alleged to have been carried out in Morocco against Algerian vehicles clearly identified near the Mauritanian border. This is the“barbaric attack,” as described by Ennahar, Algeria’s national broadcaster, killed 3 Algerians and generated a large outpour of rage from the Algerian government. 

Although most of the allegations against Morocco made by Algeria are strongly denied, these accusations still have an impact on the public’s perception of both sides. A recent announcement by Algerian media on October 13th, in which the state claimed that they had received a report denying these allegations. “General Directorate of National Security managed to thwart a conspiracy plot that dates back to 2014” [sic]. The authorities claim that the culprit for the attack was “the Zionist entity [Israel]” and a “North African country,”It can be broadly understood to mean Morocco.

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What’s interesting here is that the conflict between Morocco and Algeria has not just been limited to affecting Rabat and Algiers alone, but has also implicated several other players; notably France, Israel, Spain, and the Polisario Front that represents the national liberation movement for the Sahrawi people. 

Zine Labidine to find out more information about this conflict. She is an analyst and researcher who specialises in security and political dynamics of Algeria. Ghebouli says that the ‘Cold War of North Africa’ “has already erupted,”He stated that war will be manifested in three ways, including the battle for regional supremacy, the propaganda war and persecution of any dissenting voices. He stated that “first you are going to have them [Algeria and Morocco]Regional supremacy is sought through an arms race, which we’ve been witnessing for almost a decade, and also via the diplomatic race. Morocco obviously normalized relations with Israel so it’s expanding its diplomatic influence. Algeria, on the other hand, is trying to devise diplomatic efforts and we have seen the visits of Foreign Minister Ramdane Lamamra to the Gulf and also to many African countries … so that’s the first way that will make either Algiers or Rabat as the leading regional power.” 

His second point on escalation is that he says: “you have the war of propaganda,”Which “we have been seeing from the official Algerian authorities. Obviously, there are some pro-Moroccan websites that also spread disinformation about Algeria, but so far that hasn’t been the stance of the official Moroccan authorities. Algeria, on the other hand, mobilized the media outlets, both official and informal, to attack Rabat, social and economic problems in Morocco. [and] political issues and we’ve seen a lot of propaganda recently.” 

Zine Ghebouli said then, “On the third way, war will manifest itself.” “you have the judicial prosecution of activists, journalists of Algerian origins who may be perceived by Algiers as assets to the Moroccan authorities, we’ve seen with the designation of both the MAK and Rashad movements [alleged Separatist groups] as terrorist organisations … mainly with the MAK that it is [being accused of being] in contact with the Moroccan authorities to impose a security approach and this will continue, that anyone who is in contact with the Moroccan authorities will be designated as an enemy and will be treated as such.”

On February 20th, thousands protested rising fuel costs and the economic crisis in Morocco. Similar events took place in Algeria, where there was a severe economic slump that has continued for several years. “since last summer, because Algeria banned the imports of several products, so that led to a scarcity of foods in supermarkets … During the new year, the problem has been exacerbated by the economy of Algeria,” Ghebouli says. 

Zine responded that he does not believe that economic concerns will increase tensions. “to the Algerian side the socio-economic issues are perceived as a conspiracy against Algeria, by some regional powers and that even includes Morocco implicitly,” going on to say that it’s possible that economic decline “could be perceived as an attack against Algeria.” 

“In that sense, the more socio-economic issues we see in Algeria and also Morocco, the more tense the situation will be, because both governments will likely try to divert the attention from these socio-economic grievances to another, what’s considered to them as an important issue, which is the security tensions. Basically, the idea is, the more we delve into the socio-economic issues, the more the tensions will increase, diplomatically and militarily.”

Then I asked him if the Abraham Accords or normalization agreement between Rabat, Tel Aviv had played a role in recent escalation, and he replied: He responded:

“When it comes to the normalization of Rabat with Tel Aviv, I think that was the last straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to the Algerian perception, whether popularly or officially, of the Moroccan authorities. Before this normalization, Algiers was considering that all issues with Morocco could be resolved at the table of discussions, or negotiations, however, now I am afraid with the normalization that was the tip of escalation as perceived by the Algerian authorities because they consider that Morocco is taking Israel’s support with its war with Algeria. So, more normalization with Algeria will result in more conflict.

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“Algiers at this point does not consider Morocco as an independent state, they consider them as a tool for what they call the Zionist project in North Africa and Algiers feels especially targeted by the normalization move, and some opinions, whether in the military institutions in Algeria or in the political scene, they do consider that it is not Algeria that is targeting Israel or Morocco, but that Israel has put Algeria on its target list and so their problem now is not with Morocco, their main problem is with Israel and has always been with Israel.”

While Algiers and Rabat have been at the forefront of attention, tensions have been building between Algerian ex-colonial occupier France and Algeria. Despite French President Emmanuel Macron calling colonialism a “sin” “crime against humanity” in 2017, last year Macron called into question Algeria’s very legitimacy as a nation prior to French colonialism. He also accused Algeria’s military establishment of fomenting “France hate” and re-writing history, refusing to apologize for the devastating French occupation of Algerian lands. Algeria had to withdraw its ambassador from Paris. The French military was also denied airspace by the Algerian authorities in October.

ZineGhebouli asked me whether the international condemnation recently issued against Algeria for human rights violations committed in Algeria is directly due to the weakening of ties between Paris and Algiers. Ghebouli says “some reports have alluded that the new approach of the international community, vis-a-vis Algeria, is the consequence or collateral damage of the tensions with Morocco and France … I believe that there has been some engagement from some French NGOs and political actors in putting more pressure on the Algerian government when it comes to human rights conditions in Algeria and also when it comes to socio-economic reforms and foreign policy.” 

He pointed out that “the International scrutiny was lacking throughout the past few years, especially since the beginning of the protest movement in 2019. “The international community didn’t want to interfere, and it certainly did not wish to assist. [the protests] in any way, because of fear of the reaction of the Algerian authorities and also because of the post-colonial skepticism and paranoia of the Algerian society at large.”

Ghebouli says that it is possible to get a job as a teacher. “The international community has reached a consensus or at least a conclusion at this point, seeing the geo-political context, seeing the emerging tensions between the two countries, seeing also the situation in the Sahel [North Africa]The instability in the region. I think the international community today considers that giving a green pass to the Algerian authorities on everything and anything does not serve the purpose of stability in the region.”

Morocco’s primary concern with Algeria is their support of the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, where Morocco has the majority. Rabat considers Frente Polisario (or the Polisario Front) a terrorist group and security risk. Algiers views it however as a National Liberation Movement and has its government exiled. The issue of the fight over Western Sahara is that it’s considered both an occupied territory belonging to the native Sahrawi people by Polisario and an integral part of Morocco by the Kingdom’s authorities in Rabat. The United Nations considers the territory disputed and the issue is important here, as one of the guarantees made by America’s Trump administration, as part of the Israeli normalization package, was US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

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In 1975, Morocco annexed Western Sahara to its territory. This led to a terrible war that ended in 1991 with a ceasefire. It lasted for 30 years until Polisario announced the end of the ceasefire on November 13. 2020. Rabat would restore normal relations with Israel just one month later.

I spoke with Dr. Sidi Omar, the Polisario Front’s ambassador to the United Nations, on their ongoing conflict with the Moroccan government. When I asked him about the financial costs to the Sahrawi people from the conflict between the two camps, he said: 

“Human rights activists in particular are daily subjected to all sorts of violence and unspeakable atrocities without the world knowing about their plight. The Occupied Western Sahara remains enclosed by the Moroccan wall of shame (2700 km long), which is both the longest and most militarily formidable wall in the world. Moroccan occupying forces have been involved in an extensive scorched policy in Occupied Western Sahara. This strategy, organized and executed by the Moroccan occupying authorities, involves the destruction and vandalism to houses, properties and livestock. The declared goal is to uproot the Sahrawis and their lands and homes which have been given over to Moroccan settlers. The Moroccan troops used all kinds of weapons on the battlefield to kill Sahrawi civilians as well as civilians from neighboring countries. They were also using UAVs while transiting through the Sahrawi Liberated Territories. [Western Saharan territories held by Polisario].”

Ambassador Omar blamed Morocco’s expansionist aspirations, when asked about the recent deterioration in ties between Rabat and Algiers, and said that since the conflict between the two sides, “We [the Sahrawi people] are being subjected to a new Moroccan aggression, which is a continuation of the same expansionist policy pursued by Morocco, whose aim is to annihilate our people and seize our land.”

“In addition to the continued illegal occupation of parts of Western Sahara, Morocco’s expansionism and aggressiveness show the extent to which the Moroccan regime owes its own survival to territorial conquest as a tool to divert attention from its deep-rooted domestic legitimacy crisis. Morocco’s expansionism is therefore the root cause of the enduring tension in North Africa and the main obstacle to the achievement of a united, prosperous, and inclusive Maghreb that brings together all its nations and peoples,”Omar declared.

Polisario’s Sidi Omar also claimed that Israeli weapons are being used to kill civilians in Western Sahara, stating: “As for the consequences of Morocco’s ‘normalization’ deal with Israel, we have already seen an increase of military cooperation between the two countries, especially in the light of the ongoing war of aggression unleashed by Morocco on our people since November 2020. Israeli-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been frequently used by Moroccan forces to kill not only Sahrawi civilians but also civilians and nationals of neighboring countries.”

Dr. Omar expressed frustration at the Israel-Morocco normalization agreement, and added that “it is also well known that, as a quid pro quo for the deal, the outgoing US president, Donald Trump, made a proclamation declaring [the] United States’ recognition of ‘Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara’ and the intention to open an American consulate in the Sahrawi occupied city of Dajla (Dakhla). This unilateral proclamation is clearly against international law. It disengages from US traditional policy on Western Sahara, and it breaks with a longstanding US position regarding the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination. The SADR’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are also affected. [Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic]This hinders UN and AU efforts for a peaceful solution in the Western Sahara issue. Consequently, the proclamation is null and void and has no effect whatsoever.”

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Morocco continues to tighten its ties with Tel Aviv, purchasing Israel’s Barak MX air defense systems and recently striking a deal with Israel to boost economic ties. Orna Barivai, Israeli Economy Minister, signed on February 21 a Trade and Investment Cooperation Agreement with her Moroccan counterpart. The aim is to increase trade to 500 Million Dollars annually. Israel’s NewMed Energy company “is looking into the energy market in Morocco. Specifically natural gas exploration opportunities,” according to its chief executive, Yossi Abu. It is clear from all of this that there will be no change in the relationship between these two countries.

The main issue is, obviously, how the tightening of relations will fare in the long-term and whether or not it serves regional security. From the Algerian government’s perspective, normalization is the exact opposite of what they want and the opposition it has to Morocco may make Algiers less prominent in the West.

It is also important to analyze how Morocco came here. Although it’s clear that Israel signed the agreement with Morocco, there are also some repercussions. These include pressures from the United Arab Emirates, and America. The UAE made a $2B investment in Mauritania facilities in February 2020. Rabat was enraged by the investment in its southern neighbors’ port facilities at Nouadhibou. The UAE’s investment in the Nouadhibou port facilities was viewed as threatening to Rabat’s Tangier Med and Dakhla Port projects. The UAE recalled Morocco’s ambassador in March that year. This sparked a feud. There were many allegations of Emirati pressure tactics used against Rabat. One was the accusation that the UAE was supporting its arch-enemy the Polisario Front. However, there are no proof to this.

The UAE opened a consulate at the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara in October 2020. Within a matter of months, the Polisario Front announced the termination of the ceasefire with Rabat. Following the normalization agreements announcement, the US recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This was a break from international consensus. These facts suggest that Morocco may not have agreed to normalization and was subjected to external pressure in order for Rabat. While it is unlikely that all the reasons mentioned above were responsible for the decision, it is probable that some of them played an important role.

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Like during the Cold War, Morocco sided with East, while Algeria was against West. The Algerian government is making renewed efforts to support the Global South’s liberation cause. Algiers also maintains friendly relations with Russia. Interestingly, Algeria held a meeting for discussion on the future of Palestinian liberation movements and invited key parties such as Hamas, PFLP, DFLP, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Polisario Front also joins the Palestinian struggle for statehood as Algeria is aligned. 

In response to the question of whether Polisario is seeking greater ties with Palestinians in their struggle for self determination, Polisario’s ambassador told me that, “Efforts are ongoing to reinforce and diversify ties between the two peoples as they continue their national liberation struggles for freedom and peace.”He further stated that. “The struggles waged by peoples under foreign occupation are morally and politically connected because they defend fundamental human and peoples’ rights.”

This all seems to point to a strong alignment between a pro and anti-Western alliance when it comes Algeria and Morocco. But, whether the feud between them and the conflict over Western Sahara and the war on Western Sahara will intensify, or slow down via diplomacy is still open to question. The answer to this question may ultimately prove whether Israel’s presence in North Africa is toxic, or rather, in benefit of regional security as both Rabat and Tel Aviv claim.



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