Morocco and Algeria: new steps towards an old war

2 September, 2021

The Algerian army takes up positions in the mountains of Ain Defla against an Islamist guerrilla financed by Morocco. This support is part of the permanent subway war between Morocco and Algeria.
The Algerian army takes up positions in the mountains of Ain Defla against an Islamist guerrilla financed by Morocco. This support is part of the permanent subway war between Morocco and Algeria.

The signs of the end of the cold war between Morocco and Spain did not turn out to be such good news. The Moroccan overture involved more than just the dismissal of the Spanish foreign minister. Just a few days later, Algeria formally broke diplomatic relations with the Makhzen. With warlike rhetoric, Algerian diplomacy blamed Morocco for aggressions, threats and terrorist attacks. Since 1963, when the two countries went to war over Tindouf and Colomb Bechar, the situation has never been as tense as now. What are the bases of the imperialist conflict between Morocco and Algeria? What has triggered it now? Could there be another war?

Table of Contents

The escalation between Morocco and Algeria

The fires in Kabylia, for which Algeria blames Kabyle nationalist and Salafist sovereigntist groups supported by Morocco, have added to the list of grievances marking the escalation between Morocco and Algeria.
The fires in Kabylia, for which Algeria blames Kabyle nationalist and Salafist sovereigntist groups supported by Morocco, have added to the list of grievances marking the escalation between Morocco and Algeria.

The recognition of the Moroccan sovereignty of Western Sahara by the US in the final months of the Trump presidency decanted a new – and dangerous- situation in the imperialist balances in the Maghreb. Algeria was seriously weakened and Morocco went on the offensive to impose on African and European states the recognition of its annexation, whose coda was the pressure on Spain in Ceuta and the subsequent “cold war” with the governments of Madrid and Berlin.

Read also: Are we heading towards a new war in the Maghreb?, 17/11/2020

In addition, the rapprochement with Israel celebrated by the US, gave access to new military and cyber-espionage technologies to the Moroccan intelligence services and army. As it emerged in July, among these new tools was “Pegasus”, a software with which the Moroccan services spied on, among others, the entire Algerian leadership and military commanders. When the scandal broke, the Moroccan government denied any involvement, and the Algerian government said it was “deeply concerned.”

But the Makhzen was not going to relent in its pressure. During the visit by Yair Lapid, Israeli foreign minister, on the 12th, the politician showed “concerns about Algeria’s role in the region and its rapprochement with Iran.” It was a full-fledged attack on the credibility of Algerian diplomacy before the EU, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are distancing themselves from the annexation of the former Spanish desert provinces. Lapid further concluded by saying that “strategically, what we are creating here is a diplomatic axis of Israel, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which presents a pragmatic alternative to religious extremism”.

To place Algeria, whose military regime was consolidated in the war against the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist guerrillas supported precisely by Morocco and Iran, in the “Iranian axis” was more than insulting for the Algerian bourgeoisie. The hand of the Moroccan services was evident.

But the machinations of the Makhzen did not end there. The following days, during a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement on July 13-14 in New York, Morocco’s ambassador to the UN, Omar Hilale, made explicit Morocco’s support for Kabylia’s self-determination by issuing a note stating that…

The courageous Kabyle people deserve (…) to fully enjoy their right to self-determination

The Algerian response came on August 18. At an emergency meeting in the face of advancing fires in Kabylia, the Algerian High Security Council announced a “review” of relations with Morocco. According to the official communiqué:

The incessant hostile acts perpetrated by Morocco against Algeria have necessitated the revision of relations between the two countries and the intensification of security controls at the western borders

Algerian rulers had for days been pointing to the MAK (“Movement for Self-Determination of Kabylia”) as responsible for the fires. They argued that 50 simultaneous and hilltop outbreaks could not be of natural origin, moreover, that it took a good level of organization on the ground to do so.

It is obvious that the relationship between the MAK and the Moroccan intelligence services allowed the regime to try to redirect the anger created by the fires towards the external enemy and the Kabyle separatist forces… which does not mean that this is simply a set-up either. The Moroccan services have been pioneers of so-called “asymmetric warfare” and the use of all forms of terrorism – including environmental terrorism – since the 1950s.

The Algerian foreign minister announces the formal severance of relations with Morocco.
The Algerian foreign minister announces the formal severance of relations with Morocco.

Finally, on August 24, the rupture was formally consummated. The official communiqué announcing the severance of diplomatic relations listed the main moments of the Moroccan offensive:

The Kingdom of Morocco has made its national soil a rear base and spearhead for planning, organizing and supporting a series of serious and systematic attacks against Algeria.

The latest of these hostilities was represented in the false accusations and implicit threats made by the Israeli foreign minister during his official visit to Morocco, in the presence of his Moroccan counterpart, who was clearly the main instigator of such unwarranted statements. Here, it should be noted that since 1948, no member of an “Israeli government” has ever been heard to issue rulings or personally address aggressive messages from the territory of an Arab country against a neighboring Arab country […]. This phenomenon indicates extreme hostility and reckless impulsiveness without the slightest restraint or limitation.

In matters of regional security, for the Moroccan authorities to grant a foreign military presence in the Maghreb and incite its representative to make false and malicious statements against a neighboring country constitutes a dangerous and irresponsible act […. ]

These hostilities also include the Kingdom of Morocco’s prominent and documented cooperation with the terrorist organizations called MAK and Rashad [Moroccan-backed Islamist group], which were proven to be involved in the heinous crimes related to the massive fires recently witnessed in many provinces of the Republic, in addition to the torture and brutal killing of citizen Jamal Bin Ismail (may God have mercy on him).

For its part, the scandal, no less dangerous than its predecessor, related to the “Pegasus” program, revealed, beyond any doubt, the extensive spying operations to which Algerian citizens and officials were subjected by the Moroccan intelligence services, using this Israeli Technology […]

With regard to the commitment to organize a referendum of self-determination in Western Sahara, the Kingdom of Morocco has abandoned the official commitment made by King Hassan II and written in official documents of the Organizations of African Unity and the United Nations, while the current leaders of the Kingdom live under the illusion of imposing their dictates on the international community with regard to the so-called “autonomy” thesis.

And it saved until the very end the core of the regional imperialist conflict: the military defeat of the Polisario, an organization that has long been nothing more than an Algerian proxy is threatening to consolidate itself diplomatically. And Algeria – like Spain – while willing to agree on a way out, cannot allow Rabat to move a step further towards the construction of “Greater Morocco” which would pose an existential threat to the Algerian bourgeoisie.

After aborting systematically and in bad faith all international efforts under the auspices of the United Nations, the Kingdom of Morocco has destroyed any space of confidence in its promise and signature, while the rulers and representatives of the Kingdom pretend to support the efforts of the United Nations. […]

It is imperative to seek a solution that is acceptable to both parties, the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front, and that guarantees the right of the Saharawi people to freely decide their own destiny.

The origin of the imperialist conflict between Morocco and Algeria

The communiqué also lists different episodes of the confrontation between the two countries since 1963 and the “War of the Sands“. Morocco, which had been an independent state since 1956, supported the Algerian FLN in various ways until the achievement of independence…. only to then call for the revision of borders between the two states.

When the FLN gained independence from France, Morocco had already been preparing and forming monarchist groups in Tindouf, Bechar and even Tlemcen for years. The European chancelleries at the time understand it as an attempt to take over the manganese and iron mines discovered at the end of the French period in the Algerian desert.

They would think the same thing years later of the Green March and the phosphate mines in Rio de Oro. But the monarchy’s ambition went much deeper. The Greater Morocco map has served since the 1950s as a long-term roadmap for Moroccan imperialism, determined to become the great power of the Arab West.

That is why the “war of the sands” sets from the founding moment of the French decolonization the regional map of imperialist tensions. The Algerian bourgeoisie can only understand the Moroccan monarchist-nationalist project as an existential danger to be stopped and defeated. Hence its support for the Polisario since its foundation in 1973 and its early involvement in armed Canarian nationalism, abandoned only in favor of an economic and strategic alliance with Spain which remains today more vital than ever for the interests of Algiers.

The Green Deal and the awkward Spanish position

Gas pipelines linking Spain and Algeria
Gas pipelines linking Spain and Algeria

For once it seems that Moroccan diplomacy was hasty in its enthusiasm by opening a conflict with Spain that could only bring Algiers closer to Madrid – and through it to Brussels – if only in order to secure the supply of natural gas.

Algeria sells its natural gas to Spain through two pipelines. One, the MedGaz, exits through Kabylia to the sea and runs to Almeria. Another, the Maghreb Gas Pipeline crosses the Rif and exits through the Gibraltar strait.

The concession for the Moroccan section expires in October. Morocco calculated that this gave it an advantageous position vis-à-vis Spain in its push for a change of policy toward the Sahara.

Spain, in full strategic deployment of the Green Deal, is smashing new daily electricity price records, whose macroeconomic effect is beginning to be a rising trend of inflation. A shortage of natural gas this winter would multiply prices even further and produce, probably, an industrially and socially unsustainable situation.

Morocco expected Spain to give in. Among other things because the company that manages the alternative pipeline, the Medgaz, is Naturgy, 5% owned by Algerian state-owned Sonatrach and frozen for months in a never-ending takeover bid by an Australian equity fund that has pitted its current main shareholders (la Caixa) against its other partners pending the government’s final decision, which did not arrive until two weeks ago.

However, for once Spanish executives and politicians found nothing but convenience in Algiers The commitment to maintain total gas volumes and prices, now only through Medgaz, is a state commitment for Algeria.

Since Spain is energetically covered and the relationship with Algeria has been strengthened, Morocco could only bet on a diplomatic detente with Madrid, which is what it has done. But that doesn’t mean a return to a relationship without jitters. The fact that Saudi Arabia is contesting the World Tourism Organization (WTO) with Spain, threatening Madrid with the loss of its main headquarters of an international organization, would be unthinkable if it were not a personal favor from Salman to the Makhzen. Morocco wants to make it clear that by leaning on Algeria, Spain is alienating the new Arab-Israeli grand coalition.

The Algerian imperialist strategy

Combats between the Polisario and Morocco last November 13.
Combats between the Polisario and Morocco last November 13.

To understand what is to be expected from Algeria in this escalation, we need to go back to November 2020. Algeria then reinforced its support for the Malian government, increasingly at odds with the French and European military presence. Today, after the Afghan experience, it seems clear that the new phase of European intervention will start from a renegotiation of its relationship with the Sahelian governments and in particular with the Malian one.

Algeria hopes to gain from there a position of strength vis-à-vis the Europeans. Especially since the military regime has amended the Constitution to allow the Algerian army to take part in international interventions. Which changes the whole regional game, putting Egypt, the main North African power allied to Algeria, in a predicament.

The Egyptian government, which has cautiously observed the constitutional change in Algiers, is much more cautious than the Europeans and is trying to open a negotiation channel between the Algerian military and the Makhzen. It is true that the main goal of the constitutional change of the Algerian army is to intervene in all regional international missions that directly or indirectly affect the national borders, be it under the flags of the UN, the Arab League, the African Union… or whatever is necessary at any given moment.

But Egypt understands that the overall message is not only that Algeria wants to participate in any international force occupying Libya or the Sahel, but also that it opens the door to legally intervene in Western Sahara, at the request of the Polisario.

The strategy of Algiers is clear: to keep the conflict open at low cost in order to force a realignment of the European and US positions towards a negotiation involving it in the future of the Sahara. Egyptian concern permeates the press, but in Europe no one wants to think of the Algerian army leaving its borders to liberate Laayoune, which is the ultimate underlying threat.

Are we heading towards a new war in the Maghreb?, 17/11/2020

Thus Algiers’ primary reflex was to revive a corrupt and comatose Polisario Front in order to reopen the Sahara war on the cheap. Unsuccessfully.

What became clear in November is that even if the rejection of the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara is the Algerian war banner, the Polisario, however supported it may be from Algiers, no longer has the capacity to put the Makhzen in check. To begin with, it has no real mobilization capacity in a Sahara turned into a gigantic sweatshop exploiting thousands of workers with origins ranging from Senegal to the Rif. And militarily it has been irrelevant since at least 1990.

As the Rabat press made clear from the first moment: “In case there is any war, it will be against Algeria“.

The danger of war and the role of Egypt and the EU

Algerian troops deployed on the border between Morocco and Algeria.
Algerian troops deployed on the border between Morocco and Algeria.

Morocco is raising the stakes based on its belief that Algeria has no chance of heading for a new war without a minimum of international support that would be elusive to it. It basically takes for granted that a war over the Sahara would isolate the Algiers regime from both Europe and Egypt, which would be unwilling to break up the Arab-Israeli coalition over a distant territorial dispute.

The truth is that, in reality, Egypt does not give up the possibility of entering the war in Ethiopia and confronting forces sponsored by its Arab allies. From the beginning it bet on the Tigrayan rebellion as a way to defend its own interests in the Horn of Africa and in particular to prevent new fillings of the Renaissance Dam, which threaten to destroy its agricultural production.

The victory of Tigrayan forces over the Ethiopian government last July was largely a triumph of Egyptian diplomacy and clandestine aid over direct Emirati military intervention and Saudi financial support. Moreover, the subsequent attempts at negotiation disguised as mediation with both Arab powers do not seem to have led to anything… while in addition both both sides also compete in Syria. And let alone Israel and Palestine, where Egypt has a complex game of its own.

That is to say, the Egyptian position depends on balances in which Morocco has little to say. And the European one, as we have seen, is no longer the mere projection of the French one. Among other things because Rabat initiated on its own a cold war not only with Spain but also with Germany which has spread among the German leaders a narrative which leads them to be inhibited before any conflict which would “teach a lesson” to a Makhzen which they perceive as increasingly aggressive.

There are quite a few in Algiers who think that the severing of diplomatic relations is only a stop that will serve, in the end, for the negotiation of a new regional balance. Many in Rabat expect the same. The point is that in the Algerian military leadership, which makes its views transparent in the Arabic-language press in Algiers, the opinion is growing that this is not a crisis like any other.

Hence the constant reference to the “war of the sands”. The growing idea is that if Algeria is not able to contain Morocco now and accepts to let the Makhzen reconfigure regional relations, gaining weight in the Sahel and rejuvenating its link with Europe, Algeria will lose its ability to confront neighboring imperialism over the next decade, suffering an existential danger.

That’s why following the pulse of the strikes in both countries over the next few months is critical.In the end, the persuasiveness of the brutal nationalist bombardment of these weeks will be key. If Moroccan pressure continues as predictable, and the Algerian bourgeoisie sees more opportunities for its imperialist interests in war than in diplomacy, the only thing that can hold back both contenders is the fear of a workers’ uprising behind their own borders. The Jerada mass strike in Morocco and the wildcat strikes in Algeria are well present in the government and military calculations.