Algeria clings to the past
As much as geography and history bring neighbours Morocco and Algeria together, they are just as divided by politics.
For more than three decades, relations between the two countries have ebbed and flowed, never settling. However, since the first half of the 1990s, the diplomatic crisis between the two countries has been unprecedentedly stable. In 1994, Algeria closed its side of the border and relations between Algiers and Rabat seemed to have frozen since.
Morocco has wanted to break the ice and restore ties. Since his coronation in 1999, Moroccan King Mohammed VI has not hesitated to send Algeria many messages of reconciliation.
King Mohammed VI realised that the border closure happened in a different era, one in which he was not head of state. He believed then and still says now that the 1990s and their legacy belong to the past and a new page must be opened with Algeria.
The Algerian regime, however, maintained a cold attitude towards the king’s initiatives as if nothing had changed. King Mohammed VI’s positions and actions towards Algeria stemmed from his principled position on the importance of activating the Maghreb Union and increasing regional cooperation.
In a speech marking the November 6 anniversary of the Green March, King Mohammed VI called on Algeria to establish a joint political mechanism to enable dialogue between the two countries, with the aim of opening the border and clearing the atmosphere.
After two weeks of stalling, Algeria, through its Foreign Ministry, called for a Maghreb summit “as soon as possible,” bringing together the foreign ministers of the five Maghreb countries — Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. This was an unexpected response on many levels.
The Moroccan initiative did not intend to create a push for dialogue between Algeria and Morocco in the context of the Maghreb Union for the obvious reason that this union has been dormant for years.
Last January, King Mohammed VI said at the 28th African Summit that “the flame of the Arab Maghreb Union has been extinguished,” adding that “the Maghreb dream, fought for by the generation of pioneers in the 1950s, is being betrayed today.”
This was an explicit message that Morocco was no longer interested in this union, especially since the king’s pronouncement was made at a meeting of the African Union, in which Morocco regained its seat after an absence of almost 40 years. This means Rabat has disengaged from the Maghreb Union and replaced it with the African Union. Morocco’s invitation to form a consultative mechanism with Algeria came out of an interest in normalising bilateral relations, without regard to the expired union.
Algeria’s call for a Maghreb summit seems like a forward escape from its responsibility in severing ties with Morocco. What complicates matters is that Algeria’s decision to close the border in 1994 was unilateral and not even proposed for discussion at a Maghreb Union summit.
During the few summits that occurred since then, the question of the closed border was never raised during multilateral discussions among the five Maghreb countries. The other three countries in the Maghreb Union are aware of the gravity of the crisis between Algeria and Morocco because of Algeria’s traditional pro-Polisario Front position in the question of Western Sahara.
The biggest problem standing between Morocco and Algeria might go beyond politics and take psychological dimensions. The complications in the relationship between both countries are not recent. They are deeply rooted in modern history.
This is what prompted King Mohammed VI to propose a joint mechanism to deal with the hanging issues and not just the opening of the border, as he has been doing for more than a decade.
Perhaps the existence in power of two different generations in the two countries may have contributed to the continuation of the rift, given the difference in political culture. While King Mohammed VI belongs to the generation of the 1970s and keen on breathing new life into bilateral relations with Algeria, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika belongs to the generation of the 1940s and is still steeped in a more traditional political culture.
We should not also forget that Bouteflika was one of the makers of the current political situation between Morocco and Algeria because he was minister of foreign affairs in former Algerian President Houari Boumediene’s government. That was the same period when the Polisario Front emerged and the Western Sahara crisis began.