Rare overtures between Morocco and Algeria
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.