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.