Straight in the eye

Sahrawis are robbed of their agency by a zero sum game for influence between two regional rivals Morocco and Algeria.

Dakhla refugee camp in southern Algeria. Image credit Nick Brooks via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I am struck every time I meet a Moroccan. They are sympathetic, relatively easygoing, and extremely diplomatic (I can’t emphasize this last one enough). As a matter of fact, I am now convinced, as an Algerian, that we have a lot more in common than people care to admit. Unfortunately, the picture online could not be any more different.

Debates about the origin of a certain dish, music genre, or even work of art quickly degenerate into name-calling and insults (see here for the latest example). Before you know it, the issue of the Western Sahara comes up—and more often than not, it ends any semblance of civil debate.

So what is it about Western Sahara—a region that Rabat claims to be an integral part of its territory and whose right to self-determination Algiers has championed since colonial Spain relinquished control of it in 1975—that provokes so much tension, if not outright bellicosity, between two peoples that are nearly identical?

The crux of the problem lies in colonialism—or at least its legacy. France colonized Algeria in 1830 and turned Morocco into a protectorate almost a century later, in 1912.

Prior to colonialism, notions of a nation-state, sovereignty, and fixed borders were not as rigid in the imaginations of these two peoples. (This is not to dismiss the existence of a boundary that delineated the territories of these two “countries.”) Gradually, however, with the introduction of European thought in colonial territories—and, more importantly, at the outset of the anti-colonial struggle—such ideas could no longer be ignored. And beginning with the Algerian War of Independence in 1954, talk of borders became unavoidable.

Depending on who you ask, Algeria—which benefited greatly from the Moroccan kingdom’s support during its anti-colonial struggle—either did or did not give in to Morocco’s demands by agreeing to the transfer of a small chunk of Tindouf and Bechar provinces once the war ended.

The Algerians claim that, on the contrary, no such talks ever took place. Those generous enough to give Rabat’s claims any credence might agree that Algeria’s wartime leaders hinted at the possibility of negotiations—but no more.

It’s worth noting that Algeria’s wartime leaders were of the view that colonial borders should be left untouched. This was to avoid further bloodshed, which sounds noble but was probably also informed by the fact that Algeria’s leaders were about to inherit what was then the continent’s second-biggest country by area (it has become the biggest since Sudan split in 2011).

Fast forward to the autumn of 1963: an impatient Morocco—under the leadership of King Hassan II, unsatisfied with the pace of talks (or lack thereof)—declares war on Algeria.

Immediately, Algerians cry treachery. Morocco, they say, waited until the French were defeated—and the Algerians exhausted—to come and take what is not theirs. It’s not uncommon to hear Algerian officials claim to this day that the king had started the war to prop up his embattled credentials.

In any event, Morocco’s attempted land grab did not succeed, partially because Algeria, a staunch supporter of the nonaligned movement, had succeeded in mobilizing international support and direct Egyptian and Cuban military intervention.

And though the war had ended, and Morocco agreed to recognize modern Algeria as the latter’s leaders saw fit, the event would have a longstanding impact on bilateral ties.

Relations between Algeria and Morocco waxed and waned between 1963 and 1975. They were not exactly allies, but to call them enemies would have been a bit of a stretch. In fact, as the two most populous countries in North Africa (save for Egypt), they even flirted with the idea of creating a union of Maghreb states—what later came to be known as the now-defunct Arab Maghreb Union (which is, to be sure, a very problematic name).

But in 1975, a single event would again ignite tensions and have a colossal impact on Algerian-Moroccan relations: Spain’s decision to end its occupation of the Western Sahara.

King Hassan II promptly organized a Green March that saw some 350,000 Moroccans peacefully enter the territory and claim what they said was rightly theirs.

In Algiers, this was seen as unequivocal confirmation of Morocco’s expansionist ambitions. Algeria’s experienced diplomatic corps quickly began working on ways to advance the Sahrawi cause for independence, succeeding initially in getting neighboring Mauritania to relinquish its claim over the territory.

This was a way for Algiers to throw a rock in Morocco’s shoe, as it were: to irritate it and keep it busy with an issue that, in all likelihood, Algerian officials themselves did not anticipate would take this long to resolve.

The fact that many African countries were in favor of the right to self-determination, the cause célèbre at the time, did not serve Morocco’s interests. In fact, Rabat left the Organization of African Unity (the African Union’s predecessor) in protest after the latter admitted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic into its fold in 1982.

There is no telling where things are headed as of now.

Morocco, which had previously agreed to a UN-sponsored referendum to allow for the Sahrawi people to determine their own fate, has backtracked in recent years.

Algeria’s public stance has not changed much. It continues to push for a referendum while careful not to allow for a conflict to erupt. Former US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara—in exchange for the latter’s normalization of ties with Israel—has hardly impacted Algiers’ posture.

If anything, it seems to have emboldened it. In August 2021, Algiers cut relations with Rabat over a spying scandal and Moroccan support for a negligible Algerian separatist movement.

Algeria went a step further a couple of months later, announcing that it would stop selling gas to Morocco, a loss of revenue that Algerian officials did not mind foregoing.

The truth is, both countries stand to gain a great deal more if they cooperate and look the truth straight in the eyes: the Western Sahara can no longer stand in the way of their political and economic flourishing.

This, of course, says nothing about the sorry state that the Sahrawis find themselves in. Not only are they robbed of their agency in international fora, but their legitimate grievances—though officially recognized by the United Nations—are cast aside as the two regional rivals and their international backers battle out a dispute that both view as a zero-sum game.

Further Reading