Rare overtures between Morocco and Algeria

Sunday 04/09/2016
Moroccan King Mohammed VI

LONDON - Algerian President Ab­delaziz Bouteflika and Moroccan King Moham­med VI have exchanged rare cordial messages, sparking speculation the rival Maghreb powers may begin to ease decades of tension in the face of a resurgent jihadist threat.

Relations between Algeria and Morocco have been tense since Al­gerian independence in 1962. The neighbours fought a brief border war a year later, but it is the issue of Morocco’s 1975 annexation of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara that has dogged relations between the two for more than four decades.

Algeria backs claims for inde­pendence for the mostly desert territory while Morocco says it has sovereignty. Morocco closed the border with Algeria in 1994 fearing the spillover of Islamist violence and Algeria has refused to open it again.

The public overtures between the two began with the Algerian president, who expressed “Algeria’s eagerness to work with Morocco towards strengthening bilateral re­lations for progress, development and prosperity”.

In reply, King Mohammed VI re­minded both countries of their soli­darity in the fight against colonial power France in the 1950s and early 1960s.

“We need today this very spirit of solidarity with Algeria due to the current circumstances through which the Arab peoples and the Maghreb region live to face the challenges of development and common security threats,” King Mohammed VI said in his address marking the anniversary of the Rev­olution of the King and the People.

Hundreds of militants from Mo­rocco and Algeria have travelled to Syria and Libya to join Islamic State (ISIS) forces there and if they return they could pose a major threat to security.

The messages between King Mo­hammed VI and Bouteflika could mark the beginning of the end to the strained ties between Algeria and Morocco, observers said.

“President Bouteflika and King Mohammed VI exchanged ‘very elegant’ messages that were seen as unusual for observers of rela­tions between Algeria and Morocco. Some analysts read from the ab­sence of the Western Sahara issue in the speech of the king a willing­ness of Morocco to mend ties with Algeria,” said Algeria’s el Khabar daily in a commentary.

Khalid Chiate, a professor of in­ternational relations at Moham­med I University of Oujda in Mo­rocco, told Al-Arab newspaper that the king’s message highlighted the need for Moroccan-Algerian ties to return to normal.

“The reference to the ties be­tween the two peoples is a remind­er to politicians, particularly Alge­rians, that they cannot circumvent the future,” said Chiate.

With Algeria facing possible in­stability due to uncertainty over who will succeed the ailing 79-year-old Bouteflika, there is an added in­centive to normalise relations.

“If anything happens in Algeria, it could seriously affect Morocco in one way or another,” said Ali Ba­haijoub, director of the Centre for Euro-Mediterranean and African Studies in London.

The opening of the land border between the two countries would be an important step towards nor­malisation, analysts said.