Algeria and Morocco: “knife brothers” on the brink of war

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

A specter of war roams the Maghreb; however, this is not an evanescent and distant specter given that, for some time now, relations between Morocco and Algeria have reached their lowest point and risk spilling over into an all-out war whose effects could be potentially catastrophic .

With a decision announced on October 31, 2021 and which became executive the following day (November 1), the president of the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria, Abdelmajid Tebboune, manifested to the world his country's firm decision to cease any export of natural gas directed to Spain through the MEG (Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline) which also crosses the Kingdom of Morocco, promising at the same time that the supply contracts in place by the Algerian state with Spain and the rest of Europe will in any case be met by using the distribution capacity of the Medgaz, Galsi and Trans-Mediterranean gas pipelines. The double objective therefore appears clear: on the one hand, to reassure the traditional European partners, without whose strong currency the fragile Algerian economy would have been bankrupt for some time, and to punish Morocco, guilty according to the Algiers authorities of having committed a series of acts aimed at obtaining the destabilization of Algeria.

But what are the immediate and remote reasons for this crisis? And what is at stake in this duel that risks seeing many victims and no victors? We will find out now.

The territories belonging to the modern states of Morocco and Algeria were literally forged in the modern era by the fire of French colonialism. While Morocco, then the sultanate ruled by the Alawid dynasty since 1666, entered the French orbit as a protectorate only in 1912 against the background of a series of international agreements, the history of Algeria was much more bloody. In 1830 the French colonial troops led by the formations of what soon became the "Foreign Legion", landed around the cities of Algiers and Oran and over the next 4 years of relentless struggle they took control of the coastal strip of what would become known to all as "Algeria". During those events it is estimated that as many as 1.000.000 of the approximately 3.000.000 Arab-Berber inhabitants native to the area were killed by French troops.

French colonial rule lasted 132 years, from 1830 to 1962, and despite a certain positive cultural and institutional legacy (with 70% of the population fluent in French, Algeria is now the second French-speaking country in the world), it was characterized for the most part by the systematic looting and exploitation of both the territory and the native population which was by the absolute majority cut off from any economic and administrative management of the territory. It is estimated that over the entire time span mentioned above, French colonial policies have overall caused the death of 10.000.000 Algerians, in what was in effect one of the worst genocides in history.

In 1957 Morocco gained independence (photo) through a series of negotiations between the local political leadership and the French government. These negotiations allowed the country to separate from its cumbersome "colonial protector" without excessive trauma, and indeed allowed the French state and the Moroccan elites to create a real strategic partnership at both an economic and geopolitical level that still lasts today.

On this occasion too, the Algerian case was totally different. The North African giant in fact only gained independence after a savage war for independence (which was also a civil war, given that about half of the Algerian population actually sided with France) which had a very high cost. Here it is necessary to meditate on some figures that will come in handy later:

  • 1.500.000 were the Algerians who were killed by the French armed forces during the war;
  • 50.000 were the Algerians (called "harki") who were killed during the war while fighting in the ranks of the French armed forces and another 150.000 were massacred, often with medieval fury, in the final showdown that took place immediately after the war;
  • 500.000 were the Algerians who had to find refuge as "war refugees" in neighboring Morocco and Tunisia while 2.000.000 became "internal refugees" after their villages were systematically razed to the ground during the fighting that opposed the armed forces French and the Algerian FLN;
  • in the months immediately following the end of the hostilities 1.400.000 "Pieds-Noirs" of European origin, 200.000 Algerian Jews and 90.000 "harki" and members of their families were forced to leave the country in one of the greatest exodus in modern history.

The final result of all these mournful events was that, on 5 July 1962, when the newly established Algerian "Government of National Unity" finally proclaimed the independence of the country, Algeria found itself with a population of 9.000.000 inhabitants. against the 11.000.000 it had in 1954, when the conflict began. In fact, despite the fact that during the war the total fertility rate of local Muslim women remained high and in the months between the end of hostilities (March 1962) and the proclamation of independence (July 1962), all 500.000 "refugees from war ”had returned to the country, this had not proved sufficient to bridge the total demographic shock caused by the war losses and subsequent purges and expulsions. Not only that, the winners of the FLN found themselves managing a country completely in pieces and in the worst misery. The words of then Prime Minister and President Ahmed Ben Bella: "In the whole country we had only 2 architects, less than 100 doctors and 500 university students between Algiers and Paris". No less effective were the words of Sid Ahmed Ghozali who, fresh from graduating from the prestigious École del Ponts ParisTech, had to undertake the task, at the age of 25, of organizing the creation of Sonatrach, the future national hydrocarbon giant, which he then directed for the next 15 years: "We had inherited a country of 9 million beggars".

Last but not least, although France had finally accepted the inevitability of Algeria's independence, it continued to cast its cumbersome shadow over the North African country by perpetuating the presence of the French navy at the Mers El Kébir base (which was to be evacuated). only in 1967), possession of the Reggane and In Ekker nuclear ranges in the deep Algerian Sahara (where France continued to carry out nuclear tests until 1966) and almost complete control of the banking system and oil resources (by way of example, it will suffice to remember that, in 1963, the newly formed Sonatrach, mentioned above, held only 4,5% of the exploration perimeters against the 67,5% held by the French companies!).

It is clear that, analyzing all these facts on the ground, it is easy to understand how the political leadership of the newborn Algerian state was not in the least inclined to make further compromises to the downside in matters of territorial sovereignty and national security. And it is precisely on this very slippery plane that relations between Morocco and Algeria began to deteriorate immediately, however, to understand it better it is first necessary to take a step back.

Starting from 1795, France and Morocco fought no less than 9 wars which all ended (with the exception of the first) with the defeat of the Moroccan forces. Particularly heavy was the defeat during the war of 1844 which was followed by the signing of the so-called “Treaty of Tangier” by which Morocco recognized the Algerian territories as part of France. The next one treatise of Lalla Maghnia it also forced the sultanate to accept a revision of the borders in favor of French interests resulting in the transfer from Morocco to the Algerian departments of France of a whole series of provinces located in the vast area between Figuig and Tindouf.

At both the elite and popular levels, Moroccans have never accepted the new status quo and have actively sought to change it, both through the outbreak of new conflicts and through diplomatic action. During the Algerian War of Independence, the Moroccan government supported the war efforts of the Algerian FLN and refused to enter into negotiations with the French authorities for a redefinition of the borders for its own benefit. The "rationale" of Moroccan behavior is explained by the following reasons:

  • first: the geopolitical goal of expelling France from the Maghreb was considered by the Rabat leadership as strategic and far more important than all the rest;
  • second: the Moroccan authorities believed that by actively helping the FLN, they would obtain important political levers which they could subsequently use to their advantage once the conflict was over.

In 1962, with Algerian independence by now, Morocco stepped forward in order to obtain the geopolitical credits it thought it had accrued against its old / new neighbor not realizing that, after the carnage of the Algerian War of Independence , for all the reasons indicated in the paragraphs above, the leadership of Algiers was not in the least willing to come to terms.

The diplomatic relations between the two countries soon broke down and resulted in the so-called "War of the Sands", which lasted between 25 September 1963 and 20 February 1964, and during which the Algerians (thanks to the decisive military support provided from Cuba) managed to block the Moroccan attack and protect their territorial integrity. What could have been a fruitful collaboration transformed from that moment into open hostility that the following sixty years did not manage to scratch and which, on the contrary, saw an even pejorative turn as further events accumulated, making it grow. hatred and lack of mutual trust.

Furthermore, the different ideological paths that the two countries have taken have not helped. While Morocco from the institutional point of view has essentially remained an absolute, conservative and reactionary monarchy like the other monarchies of the Arab world, Algeria has become a revolutionary and non-aligned country dominated by an ideology marked by the coexistence of a ' ancient Islamist soul and a confused "Arab socialism". Therefore, despite the fact that the two countries share a common basic Arab-Berber culture, they are separated by a substantially unbridgeable ideological gap.

A further sore point to add to the overall photograph is the never completely dormant expansionist push relative to the "Greater Morocco". For those who have never heard of it, the ideology of "Greater Morocco" was formulated by a group of Moroccan intellectuals led by Muhammad Allal al-Fassi, a distinguished politician, writer, poet and Islamic scholar, co-founder of the nationalist party , conservative and monarchist "Istiqlal" (translatable as Independence Party) and would propagate the need for Morocco to regain possession in whole or in part of the African territories of the medieval Almoravid Empire. In its updated version, this expansionist idea would provide that the "Greater Morocco" includes not only the territories of today's Morocco and Western Sahara, but also the Spanish territories of Ceuta, Melilla and the Canary Islands, the Portuguese island of Madeira, the entire territory of Mauritania and a considerable portion of both Mali and Algeria. It should be further specified that the portion of Algerian land claimed by the ideology of "Greater Morocco" is much larger than the Moroccan provinces ceded at the time by the sultanate on the basis of the treaties of Tangier and Lalla Maghnia.

Although the ideology of "Greater Morocco" has never become "state policy" of the Alawid kingdom, nevertheless neither the Istiqlal party, nor the other political groups that over the years have claimed to want to inspire it have never publicly repudiated it. Furthermore, at different times, intellectuals, journalists, Islamic religious leaders and various other subjects of all kinds have repeatedly referred to it to mobilize the masses.

Then in 1975, another event brought the two countries to the brink of war again. Following the disengagement of Spain from the territories of Western Sahara (a large area consisting of the colonial possessions of "Río de Oro" and "Seguia El Hamra"), Morocco invaded it, first taking possession of it jointly with Mauritania and then (starting from 1979) retaining its exclusive domain. The Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara provoked both the violent reaction of the local population sahrawi which, led by the POLISARIO Front, militarily opposed the Moroccan action, which a further tightening of relations with Algeria which responded by first expelling the vibrant Moroccan community residing there (about 350.000 people) accused of being the "fifth column ”of the enemy at home and then went on to directly support the POLISARIO Front, welcoming its headquarters in the town of Tindouf, supplying armaments and training the militiamen both for guerrilla warfare and conventional operations.

Although in September 1991 the Moroccan authorities and the POLISARIO Front had reached an agreement for a ceasefire, the conflict did not lead to a lasting peace but rather turned into a so-called "frozen conflict" given that Morocco, for the whole a number of reasons, has consciously made the decision not to comply with the clauses of the peace agreement of its own pertinence. Needless to say, the fact that the Western Sahara issue remained an "open wound" certainly did not help improve relations between the two neighbors.

During the bloody “Algerian Civil War”, Algiers accused Rabat of secretly supporting Islamic insurgent groups by letting both men and weapons pass across the border. Morocco replied by accusing Algeria of fomenting the protests that have marked the country's domestic political scene on several occasions since 2011 and of continuing to support the POLISARIO Front in its "provocative actions". Subsequently, the hand of the Moroccan authorities was brought up even when the authorities and the Algerian security forces in recent years have increasingly had to deal with the discontent of the inhabitants of the areas with a greater Berber cultural imprint, such as Kabylia. This region, for decades at the center of massive anti-government demonstrations and intolerant of the diktats from the central government, has been particularly affected since August 2021 by a series of violent fires that have caused the death of at least 90 people, including all of which 33 military.

Although the government's official position is that soldiers died after being trapped in the wings of a fire while bringing aid to the civilian population, persistent and disturbing rumors from the ever-flourishing undergrowth of conspiracy theories claim that they were in fact killed in the course of a series of armed clashes with local rebels. In any case, whatever the truth, Algiers accused the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie (Mouvement pour l'Autodétermination de la Kabylie - MAK) of having deliberately set fire to the Mediterranean forest in order to create an ungovernable situation. Needless to say, according to Algiers, Morocco would once again be behind the MAK. This was the reason that prompted Algeria to break all diplomatic relations with its western neighbor, which promptly happened on August 24th.

But the events that probably formed the real "Rubicon" from which there is no going back took place in the diplomatic field. As mentioned above, at the time of full recovery of state sovereignty, Morocco managed to establish a lasting strategic partnership with France. This has meant that the two countries have over time been able to collaborate on different geopolitical chessboards, obtaining mutual benefits. It is not difficult to understand how this privileged partnership has repeatedly exacerbated Algeria's geopolitical anxieties, bringing to mind the sad memories of the colonial period.

Not only that, since the 70s, Morocco has also managed to build a solid relationship with the United States of America, becoming its de facto "gendarme" in the Maghreb area. The tactical and then strategic harmony between Washington and Rabat grew progressively and inexorably until it reached its apotheosis during the Trump presidency, when with a stroke of the sponge and in contempt of all international laws, the American government recognized the territories of Western Sahara as an integral part of the Kingdom of Morocco, thus legitimizing its policy of unilateral annexation. Long before this recognition, American and Algerian foreign policies were based on mutual suspicion (in the 90s the USA even threatened Algeria with bombing the El Salam nuclear reactor, near Birine, 250 kilometers away. south of Algiers, if the authorities of the country had not clarified its purpose and characteristics). However, after the signing of the strategic partnership agreements between Washington and Rabat and the recognition by the former of the unilateral annexation of Western Sahara by the latter, alarm sirens began to ring for Algiers.

The drops that finally broke the camel's back were the signature of theStandardization Agreement between Morocco and Israel with the consequent announcement that Morocco intends to proceed with the massive purchase of Israeli-produced weapons such as anti-missile systems Iron Dome e Barak 8, and the confirmation that the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces have recently strengthened their line of combat drones thanks to the arrival of the infamous Bayraktar tb2 of Turkish manufacture. If we consider the fact that relations between Algeria and Turkey are certainly not idyllic, while with Israel one can easily speak of a "war not fought" (not only Algiers and Jerusalem have no diplomatic relations but Algeria also belongs to the so-called "Refusal Front "Which brings together all the Arab states that refuse to have relations with the Jewish state), it is easy to understand how nowadays Morocco has substantially managed to forge profitable relations with all four states that are seen by Algiers as potential sources of threat and for this fact, and for all that has been said since the first line of this analysis, Rabat has now become an existential threat for Algiers, so much so that it must be "turned off" at all costs; if necessary "manu militare".

We must now ask ourselves: given the deterioration of the geopolitical situation, do the two countries really have the weapons to make war? The answer in this case is: yes.

We will not go into a detailed analysis of the military capabilities of the two contenders now, however, by way of example, it will be enough to remember that, between 2005 and 2015, Morocco spent the beauty of 48 billion dollars on its defense budget while the Algeria even spent 58. In 2020, Morocco announced the approval of a five-year plan worth an additional $ 20 billion in brand new weapons, despite the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis. It is needless to say that Algeria did not allow itself to be intimidated and indeed took the Moroccan challenge head on.

In the light of what has been said so far, it is evident that the situation in the western Maghreb area is heating up at an alarming rate and the European chancelleries should devote much more than a distracted attention to the events in that area. Beyond the importance of the geographical area at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea in which the contenders are located and the vital energy infrastructures on which various European countries depend, first of all Italy, a now not so much hypothetical Moroccan-Algerian conflict it would have potentially devastating consequences on the European Union also due to the wave of refugees that predictably would pour onto our coasts and the by no means remote possibility that the opposing Moroccan and Algerian diasporas could transform the outskirts of the great European metropolises into authentic battlefields; natural extensions of the front line in African land.

So let's prepare for the worst, hoping it won't happen.

Photo: web / Agence Siwel / Canal Algérie