Hollow border back and forth covers weakness on both sides

After several months of grumbling from Mohamed VI of Morocco, Algeria set up 23 new guard posts on its border with Morocco. The excuse was to limit smuggling and other illegal activity, and it is unlikely that this constitutes as a serious effort to build up the military’s presence on the Moroccan border. For one thing, if the move were for anything other than defensive/law enforcement purposes, the troops would not have been moved to where they were, west of Tlemcen. There are already enough military positions near that segment of the border — for good reason — and a seriously beefed up position there would include placing anti-aircraft or surface to surface missile batteries in the east of the country (or moving ones already there). It is posturing, at very best. The King’s command that Algeria immediately re-open its border with Morocco is premised on trade and the economic implications of the borders’ closing, indeed, the head of the IMF has even appealed to the two countries to set aside their divisions in the name of the economic integration of North Africa. This is an argument that carries little weight with the Algerian ruling establishment, which as a rule carries a great deal of distrust towards Morocco, and likely covers less liberal motivations.

One must ask: Why is Morocco raising this issue, a divisive dead end to be sure, so aggressively? And why now? The world has seen a severe financial crisis in recent months, which has intensified since King Mohamed VI’s speech on the anniversary of the “Green March” in March. It is common for Morocco to amp up its rhetoric regarding its “territorial integrity”: This was the case during the 1960’s, when the Moroccan economy took a dip leading up to its antagonistic behavior towards the former Spanish regions now part of Morocco proper and the bits of Algeria to which it felt entitled. When economic and political pressure cause problems for the monarchy, it directs its attention towards the borders, hoping to rally the nation to the throne, as a means of defusing questions about the government’s country’s performance, the government’s internal policy and the demands made by certain interest groups. The Green March co-opted and muted the Moroccan communists, Islamists, nationalists, the poor and others by bringing on behavior that was nationalist whilst capable of being justified in Islamic terms, and offered hope (in the way of settlement and economic opportunity) to segments of the poor. It was an act of political genius in a time edging on political crisis. When the economy wobbles, Greater Morocco comes out, in one form or another. This may be a contributing factor in Mohamed VI’s demands that the border be opened, and his accusation that Algeria is seeking to “balkanize” North Africa by supporting the Polisario and opposing its autonomy plan for the Sahara.

It is interesting that a little over a generation (or two) ago, Algerian bombast was to be found all over the regional fora and airwaves. The Algerian leadership sought cover under the external threat, which it needed to unify the nation and construct the one-party’s identity in contrast to an imperious monarchical despot. The  deterioration of Algeria’s economy over the course of the Sahara War, during which Algeria aggressively backed the Polisario, made such rhetoric especially useful (though not necessarily successful over time, particularly after the death of Boumediene). The Moroccans rarely responded actively to such pronouncements: King Hassan thought it beneath him to respond to the prickly peasants cum revolutionaries in Algeria, whom he considered an inferior caste of leaders. This followed with Arab custom, especially in the Maghreb, whereby one is not expected to respond to his inferiors, at least not directly. It is an affront to one’s honor to engage in squabbles with his social, moral, political, or otherwise inferiors. Today, the fluff at the top of the Algerian government is made up of many of the same men who conducted Algeria’s campaign against Morocco’s foreign policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Bouteflika was Foreign Minister during the time of Boumediene’s bitter rivalry with King Hassan, and Yazid Zerhouni (now Interior Minister) served in his Foreign Ministry, as well as did several others in Bouteflika’s political clan (not blood clans, these kinds of clans). King Mohamed VI, not well regarded by these men, does not command the same effect that his father did. Where Hassan was austere and carried himself with a level of finesse not seen among most other Arab leaders at the time or since, his son is effete and princely. There are few veterans in the Algerian foreign policy establishment who take him nearly as seriously as they did his father. There is no serious upward movement in tensions as a result of the King’s comments and the bickering in the UN: It is a one sided conversation, so long as Algeria and the Polisario remain committed to independence and Morocco and its several allies remain committed to autonomy.

That the only major response on the Algerian side to Morocco’s comments over the last few months  has been from Zerhouni, who said flatly that “no one is allowed to accuse Algeria of trying to balkanize the Maghreb,” shows how disinterested the Algerians are in escalating tensions. The country’s political class is busy with its own dealings, as it has been since the beginning of the Civil War. There is no interest in Algeria, or Morocco, in initiating a war between the two countries. If Algeria were wanted to fight Morocco, it would open the border and allow GSPC/AQIM raids into Moroccan territory, and it has yet to do so. Conflict with Morocco does not bode well for a comfortably corrupt military leadership, which would be further de-legitimzed if it failed in combat.

This raises one more thought: With the Algerians caught up in bloody civil strife through the 1990’s, the Polisario lacking in the funds they once had, and the backing of the United States and France, why has Morocco not been able to consolidate the Moroccan claim to the Sahara internationally? Irresolvable irredenta, fronzen conflicts, and foreign enemies are of great use for leaders whose own circumstance puts their legitimacy or validity into question. Problems like those in the Western Sahara, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere would not continue to exist if they did not serve someone’s interest. The existence of the Sahara question serves the interests of both Algeria and Morocco on multiple levels. The conflict is so zero-sum that the Algerian solution shakes a pillar of the Moroccan monarchy’s tenure and that resolution in favor of Morocco holds the potential to cause great suffering for the Algerian ruling class. This does not mean that the matter will remain deadlocked: in the future it can mean that Morocco may become increasingly beligerent, and, as Algeria rearms and the political situation changes there, war becomes more likely as a means of consolidating the King’s position for the long term. And the Polisario may well welcome combat, if negotiations continue to fail in delivering results.

6 thoughts on “Hollow border back and forth covers weakness on both sides

  1. Great post Kal. Sheds some light on this conflict that does not look ending soon. Will complicate life more for the rest of us if these brothers at the top in both Algeria and Morocco do not find a way to give independence to Polisario, while both saving the face.

    Appreciated the rightfulness of these two statements:

    1. Conflict with Morocco does not bode well for a comfortably corrupt military leadership, which would be further de-legitimzed if it failed in combat.

    2. The conflict is so zero-sum that the Algerian solution shakes a pillar of the Moroccan monarchy’s tenure and that resolution in favor of Morocco holds the potential to cause great suffering for the Algerian ruling class. This does not mean that the matter will remain deadlocked: in the future it can mean that Morocco may become increasingly beligerent, and, as Algeria rearms and the political situation changes there, war becomes more likely as a means of consolidating the King’s position for the long term. And the Polisario may well welcome combat, if negotiations continue to fail in delivering results.

    But I got some problem with this third one talking about “the bits of Algeria to which it felt entitled” as the territory claimed by Morocco at the border with Algeria may just be theirs (see reports from the International Crisis Group -ICG – on Occidental Sahara). I may be wrong, but I have the tendency to go along with ICG “perception” rather than ours, whichever vrig we are coming from:

    3. This was the case during the 1960’s, when the Moroccan economy took a dip leading up to its antagonistic behavior towards the former Spanish regions now part of Morocco proper and the bits of Algeria to which it felt entitled.

    Bravo.

  2. Kal,
    Interesting piece and one that asks a lot of questions that I am also interested in. If I may venture somewhat of a response to the question of why Morocco was unable to consolidate the claim to the W. Sahara while Algeria was enduring its civil war. I think the answer is a mix of the following: the fact that the takeover of Western Sahara was basically a land grab and that US & French support (as powerful as they are) always jump through hoops to gloss over this fact. I for one am ambivalent about the argument that you hear from a number of Moroccans that the Green March simply preempted an Algerian grab or Algeria using Polisario as a proxy for their own interests in the region, but I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on that theory. I think the second reason is that King Hassan was also distracted to a great degree by his own set of domestic challenges in addition to the Western Sahara– including two separate coup attempts in the 70s and the hard work of constant suppression of domestic opposition (communists, democratizers, islamists, etc).

    I think that in many ways Mohammed VI may not be a political heavyweight in the way his father was but his softer power may make it easier for the US and French to finally push through the autonomy plan– precisely because he is a friendlier face for the West and this is crucial in the PR campaign to make the Moroccan claim palatable to the International Community.

    I know that this is anathema to Polisario but I fail to see what options they have. It appears to me that restarting the conflict is a no win situation for them– if the perception is that Polisario has restarted the violence then they will lose their greatest political advantage as the aggrieved party and it will surely hamper Algeria’s capacity to assist them if they are perceived as aggressors restarting the conflict. It seems likely that a status quo situation is likely to persist– but that this works in Morocco’s favor– as their claim seems much stronger (and growing stronger) as each year passes.

    Warmly,
    -C

  3. I do not agree with the Greater Morocco cliché – it was effectively never part of government policy after El Fassi left government (1963 if I’m not mistaken), and Hassan II spent the better part of the 60’s finding a way to rescind the non-recognition of Mauritania (it took place in 69). There were moments – la guerre des sables in 63, Amgala in 76 – where Morocco could have raised the stakes, and it didn’t – and neither has Algeria, to be fair. The Tindouf/Colomb Béchar was never seriously raised, and Hassan II didn’t object to the 1969 (or is it 1970) Ifrane treaty on borders. Each country has been wise enough never to let the dispute slide into open warfare. Btw, you could ask Mohamed Aliouah, a nutcase sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for atteinte à la sûreté extérieure de l’Etat 2 or 3 years ago when he announced the creation of the FLAM – Front de libération de l’Algérie marocaine (!) – he was freed after one year and taken into an asylum.

    I disagree with the supposition that the King is disinterested in a solution to the conflict – he is apparently much more keen on such a solution than was his father. Things have changes since the 70’s & 80’s: the most important being that the FAR (the army) had its political spine broken. Of course, one can not discard the eventuality of a Khalil Istambouli, but as a political force capable of régime change, the FAR is dead and buried. And keeping the army busy was widely seen as one good reason for Hassan II to keep the situation in the Sahara unresolved. Keeping the issue on hold does not provide Mohammed VI with the benefits such a solution provided his father, as the internal political scene is totally pacified – even Al adl wal ihsan would like nothing more than be legalised.

    I certainly think that the King – with good reason – thinks that he has much more to gain, not least economically, from a settled solution and open borders than from a statu quo, but he lacks the werewithal to affect the factors blocking such an agreement, at least as far they reside with the Algerian décideurs. A negotiated solution will probably have to wait for the first genuine post-Boumediene president.

  4. Very shallow “analysis” of the situation. And a bit conspiracy style. Algeria’s government is a void regime that tries to survive on the remnants of a long dead Pan-Arabist ideology. Combined with the fact that Algeria have no legitimacy to discuss the fate of WS, I think this is why Polisario has not succeeded in gaining more international support and time is just tearing out their credibility in the eyes of the international community. Neither Morocco or Algeria is using the Sahara disputed territories to make people forget about internal economic problems. The only party doing it out loud is the Polisario: Forcing 30,000 people to live in exile For 32 years while making them believe in a fabricated nationalist Claim that focuses on blaming Morocco for all the evils of the world. Meanwhile these 30,000 people are Living in refugee camps on Algerian soil in the middle of nowhere, relying on Charity from European countries, suffering poverty and lack of basic infrastructures since 1976. Just a few more years those people would be Algerian since the majority would have been born & raised in that country pushing the irony even further.

    One more thing, Hassan II was no brilliant intelligent leader as you seem to picture him on this article. Nor is the Algerian army protecting Morocco from armed Islamist groups, that is another particular issue you cannot just present that kind of assumption as if it were an obvious fact.

  5. yeah Mohammed is right, it’s quite ridiculous to say that the conflict serves the interest of both side (algeria/morocco).
    Moroccan are fed up with this conflict the close of the border cost us a lot, the main purpose of moroccan leader now is working for the economy of the country, since 2001 the results are astonishing but we need more to fight the poverty and social distress…
    in the other side the incompetent mafia that rules algeria have one major purpose : “to harm morocco”
    you must go and read what the algerian media write everyday about morocco, it’s quite astonishing.

    in this conflict what make feel the most sad are the population that live so poorly in tindouf, it’s a shame…. why don’t they return to morocco? they can there negociate white it to have more right. for god sake let these people have a decent life…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s