Algeria cold-shoulders Moroccan king’s reconciliation offer.

Ties between Morocco and Algeria have suffered because of long-standing political disagreements, including over the Western Sahara.
Sunday 18/11/2018
A fighter from the Polisario Front stands before a Sahrawi flag near Tindouf in Western Algeria. (AFP)
Obstacle. A fighter from the Polisario Front stands before a Sahrawi flag near Tindouf in Western Algeria. (AFP)

TUNIS - Algeria issued no official reply to Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s invitation for “direct and frank” talks, apparently refusing a potential rapprochement between the two estranged countries.

Ties between Morocco and Algeria have suffered because of long-standing political disagreements, including over the disputed Western Sahara territory.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI called for renewed dialogue between Algiers and Rabat, saying Morocco was ready to put their differences behind them.

“I should like to say today, in a very straightforward and responsible way, that Morocco stands ready for a direct and frank dialogue with our sister nation, Algeria, to settle the transient and objective differences impeding the development of relations between the two countries,” King Mohammed VI said November 6 in a speech marking the 43rd anniversary of the “Green March,” a mass demonstration in 1975 aimed at reclaiming the Western Sahara territory from Spain.

The Algerian government issued no reply to the king’s remarks but an “authoritative source” quoted by state friendly media dismissed it as a “non-event.”

“This offer is suspicious in its form as it is timed with (the) Green March and doubtful in its substance as it extends the willingness to make the Western Sahara issue a bilateral question,” the source said. “It is a non-event that does not deserve an official response.”

The Sahara issue has impeded much-needed development and economic progress in the region. The UN Economic Commission for Africa said trade among Maghreb countries accounts for 4.8% of their trade volume and less than 2% of the area’s combined GDP.

The World Bank has said that economic integration in the Maghreb would lead to a substantial rise and the GDP of all the countries involved.

Commentators and political institutions in the region, such as the Arab League and the Arab Maghreb Union, have been hopeful that King Mohammed VI’s initiative could begin an economic and diplomatic revival in the Maghreb.

Algerian commentators, however, were less optimistic, pointing out previous failed reconciliation bids and disagreements over the Western Sahara, a disputed territory bordering Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania that is largely controlled by Rabat.

Morocco maintains that the resource-rich territory is an integral part of its kingdom but Algeria has persistently antagonised Morocco by backing the Sahrawi nationalist Polisario Front.

“Rabat’s invite, which was ignored by Algiers, will be followed by a series of provocations by Morocco as the fateful encounter at the negotiations table in Geneva where Morocco is forced to sit against its will with the Polisario Front,” said Algerie Patriotique, a newspaper, which is widely seen as an un-official outlet of the Algerian Foreign Ministry.

“Algeria will be present during negotiations as a neighbouring country like Mauritania, without the obligation of negotiating on behalf of the Polisario Front,” it added.

Previous discussions between Morocco and the Polisario Front failed but hopes have been set on a UN-backed meeting scheduled for December 5.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who led the United Nations’ refugee agency for more than a decade, expressed concern for the thousands of Sahrawi refugees stranded in camps in Algeria’s southern desert for more than 40 years and has pushed for a political solution.

Guterres’s envoy to the Western Sahara, former German President Horst Kohler, who was a child refugee following the second world war, has also drawn attention to the refugees’ plight.

Still, Algeria is unlikely to cede ground on Western Sahara, a hot-button issue at home, especially ahead of presidential elections in April.

The last Algerian president to express willingness to negotiate with Morocco on the Sahrawis’ independence cause was Mohamed Boudiaf, who was assassinated by a presidential guard in June 1992.

Twenty-six years later, tensions are just as high.

Morocco has stated that “strategic understanding” is necessary to resolve the Western Sahara dispute and holds that the conflict has been used by Algerians to inflame tensions between the two countries.

A column in Algerie Patriotique, on the other hand, said that “innumerable appeasement approaches initiated by Algeria in the past” had “been sabotaged by Morocco.”

“A speech made to celebrate the occupation of Western Sahara is not what is going to prompt Algeria to turn tail and run,” it said.