Morocco and Algeria: The Rivaling Neighbors

A peek into the reasons behind the strained relationship between Algeria and Morocco.

The relationship between Algeria and Morocco could be described as co-existential. While profoundly intertwined due to deep-running cultural and historical ties – which render the dialects of Arabic spoken on each side of the border closer to each other than to the dialects spoken in the two countries’ capitals – Morocco and Algeria have led what one could describe as parallel histories, structured by mutual rivalry, and punctuated by occasional flare-ups and attempts at rapprochements. Since Algeria’s independence in 1962, the Algerian-Moroccan land border has been open for only ten years in total. In August 2024, the border will have been closed for three decades without interruption, considerably hampering human exchanges and mutual understanding between the two North African nations.

The origin of the structural competition pitting Algeria and Morocco can be traced back to France’s domination of the Central Maghreb. General Hubert Lyautey, the designer of Morocco’s Protectorate, thus conceived the latter as the exact opposite of the colonial system in place in Algeria. The French administration in Morocco largely rested on the traditional authority of tribal chieftains. On the contrary, Algeria, which before the French occupation consisted of a patchwork of authorities tributary to the Ottoman Sultanate, saw the establishment of a tight-knit bureaucracy comprising French civil servants. Algeria’s colonization started in 1830, whereas Morocco’s Protectorate only began in 1912.

The decolonization process took very different forms in Algeria and Morocco. The brutal, almost decade-long (1954-62) decolonization process in Algeria is to be opposed to a more conciliatory approach in Morocco. In the latter, while armed struggle leading to fierce repression from the French did take place, and the Moroccan Sultan was at some point exiled, he was nevertheless maintained as the Head of State after Independence. In Algeria, the revolutionary approach to decolonization, rendered necessary by the depth of French colonial entrenchment, led to the uprooting the authority as it had dominated the country, a massive exile of European settlers, and a staunch militarist, socialist, and Third-Worldist regime.

A structural power competition

In 1963, the two young States’ trajectories collided due to a dispute around their shared borders in what was referred to as the ‘Sand War.’ Armed conflict between Algeria and Morocco would erupt again in 1976 in Amgala, in the Moroccan Sahara (Western Sahara). In effect, in the early 1970s, Morocco’s claims on the Sahara became more vocal. The organization of the Green March in 1975 – whereby thousands of Moroccans, coordinated by the security apparatus, passed the border between Morocco’s internationally recognized borders and then Spanish-controlled Rio de Oro – foiled the attempted rapprochement between Algeria and Morocco. The latter had worked towards mending their ties in 1969 through an agreement signed in the Moroccan city of Ifran. From that time on, the ‘national cause’ – as the question of Western Sahara is referred to in Morocco – would become a massive stumbling block in any attempt at normalization between Morocco and Algeria, with the latter supporting the separatist Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro. The 1989 Marrakesh Treaty establishing the Arab Maghreb Union would soon collapse when, in 1994, Morocco accused Algerian nationals of committing a terror attack in Marrakesh, expelled all Algerian nationals from its territory, and closed the shared border. 

Since then, the rivalry between the two countries has been marked by two structural features: 

1) Overinvestment in security; 

2) A long-running mistrust between the two most populated countries of the Maghreb. 

The first is exemplified by the fact that Algeria and Morocco spent 4.8% and 3.9% of their GDP on military expenditures in 2022, respectively, while the global average stood at 2.2% that same year. In 2022, Algeria was the 26th biggest spender in military expenditure, at 9.1 billion USD, ranking above Indonesia (27th, 9.0 billion USD) and Mexico (28th, 8.5 billion USD).

The second feature has been epitomized by a phenomenon of recurring ebb-and-flow in relations between the two countries, with accusations leading to occasional peaks of tensions. 

A recent intensification of disputes

Nevertheless, the relationship between the two countries has experienced a dramatic evolution in the past years due to a plurality of factors. In 2019, widespread protests (the ‘hirak’) led to the dismissal of the late President Abdelaaziz Bouteflika. A few months after his dismissal, the head of the army, Ahmed Gaid Salah, died of a heart attack. Ensuing power struggles and vendettas within the powerful security apparatus would lead to an apparent weakening of the most powerful branches of power (the army, intelligence services, and presidency) and the election of a somewhat marginal figure within the Algerian political system: Abdelmajid Tebboune. 

During the same period, Morocco became increasingly assertive. The relative paralysis of the Algerian state during the last years of Bouteflika’s presidency was paralleled by increased activism by Morocco to score points in the recognition of its sovereignty on the Sahara. Four phases can be described here:

    1. From 2015 to 2016: The King performed a series of visits abroad; to major powers (Russia in 2016), Arab allies (Morocco-Gulf summit in 2016), and various African countries, including outside the Moroccan traditional system of alliances in the continent (e.g., RwandaTanzania in 2016, etc.);
    2. In 2017:  Morocco re-adhered to the African Union, which it had left in 1984 to protest the admission of the separatist Arab Democratic Sahrawi Republic (ADSR); the King performed a new tour across Africa (South Sudan, Zambia, Ghana, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire in 2017);
    3. From 2019 onwards: Opening of the first consulates of foreign countries in the Moroccan-Sahara (they now number 28 consulates from all continents);
    4. From November 2020 onwards: Morocco takes military control of the Guerguerat crossing towards Mauritania, thus reclaiming an area that was subject to frequent incursions from the Polisario; the Polisario Front then proclaimed the end of the ceasefire; 
    5. From December 2020 onwards: The recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara by the USA and parallel normalization of the ties between Israel and Morocco stimulated increased Moroccan diplomatic activity and assertiveness, thus leading to favorable positions expressed towards Morocco by a number of countries such as SpainJapanFrance, and Germany.

This Moroccan assertiveness has been met with varying responses from Algeria. 

First, Since August 2021, Morocco and Algeria have had no diplomatic relations due to Algeria’s decision to sever ties with Morocco. According to the Algerian government, the official reason for the diplomatic break between Algeria and Morocco is attributed to „hostile actions“ by Morocco. Algeria has accused Morocco of being behind the fires that various regions in Algeria have experienced. However, concrete evidence supporting these accusations has yet to be made public. Another incident that has irked Algeria regarding Moroccan diplomacy is the demonstration of solidarity with the Kabyle Movement by Omar Hilal, the Moroccan representative at the United Nations. Hilal stated that Algeria refuses to acknowledge the self-determination of the Kabyle people in Algeria. The Moroccan ambassador highlighted this point to illustrate what they perceive as Algeria playing a hypocritical role. While Algeria supports separatist movements, it refuses to address or engage in discussions regarding the Kabyle situation. It is worth noting that there is a separate movement in Kabylie called the „Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie,“ which is categorized as a terrorist movement by Algeria.

Second, Algeria’s military assertiveness spiked along the border areas, with maneuvers performed in 2021, 2022, and 2023. The chief of staff who succeeded Ahmed Gaid Salah, Said Chengriha, who used to head the 3rd military zone bordering Morocco, is considered by some as a staunch proponent of confrontation with Morocco and has publicly used harsh rhetoric against the neighboring Kingdom. In 2021, the Algerian military also prevented Moroccan farmers from entering the country.

Third, Algeria’s support to the Polisario seems to have increased, especially in the diplomatic arena. In recent years, the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, thus performed visits to AngolaKenyaSouth AfricaTunisia, and Uganda, with probable Algerian support. Brahim Ghali’s visit to Tunisia on the occasion of the 8thTokyo International Conference on Africa Development in August 2022 was particularly noticeable, as Tunisia had for decades attempted to maintain a neutral stance on that sensitive dossier.

Amidst the recurrent conflicts between Morocco and Algeria, King Mohamed VI has pursued reconciliation efforts. Following the rupture of diplomatic ties by Algeria, the King extended a gesture of reconciliation towards his neighboring nation in July 2023, albeit without success. The current state of affairs prompts reflection on the prospects of the Maghreb region. With one of its principal actors (Morocco and Algeria) frequently embroiled in turmoil and Tunisia grappling with sustained economic instability, compounded by Libya’s precarious political climate, the trajectory of the Maghreb remains shrouded in uncertainty.