No end in sight to the 46-year diplomatic stalemate between Morocco and Algeria

Dr Mokhtar Ghambou, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco and Permanent Representative to UNEP & UN-Habitat. [Kennedy Mureithi, Standard]

Morocco and Algeria have had frosty relations for more than 40 years, and their border has been closed since 1994. Algeria severed ties with Morocco in late August over what it termed hostile actions from the Kingdom. Algeria’s Ambassador to Kenya Selma Haddadi in an interview with The Standard accused Morocco of constantly trying to destabilise her country. We spoke to Morocco’s Ambassador to Kenya Mokhtar Ghambou about the diplomatic spat.

Following comments by Morocco’s permanent representative in New York about Algeria’s Kabyle region, Ms Haddadi accused your country of targeting Algeria’s national unity and its territorial integrity. What is your country’s position?

Our permanent representative at the UN, Omar Hilale, mentioned the Kabyle region when responding to the Algerian UN Permanent Representative, who described the Moroccan Sahara as an “occupied territory” or “the last colony in Africa.” The Algerian diplomat used this insulting language at a non-aligned movement event on July 14 to discuss the global impact of Coronavirus. Separatism is a red line in our foreign policy, whether it manifests in Algeria or elsewhere. How can one dare accuse Morocco of destabilising Algeria when the latter continues to fund, arm, and host the separatist Polisario Front? Unlike Algeria, Morocco fully respects the African Union Charter of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. Ambassador Hilale simply meant to remind his Algerian colleague that “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” as goes one of the African proverbs. His hypothetical statement implies that Algeria’s territorial integrity is not much more sacred than that of Morocco.

Algeria claims Morocco is not serious about normalising relations. What is your take?

How can Morocco be more serious than incessantly calling upon Algeria to open the borders closed since 1994 so that the two countries can work together to strengthen their bilateral relations and fulfill the peoples’ promising dream of Maghreb unity? A fresh call was most recently made by the highest authority in Morocco, His Majesty King Mohammed VI. Devoting a large section of his Throne Day speech on July 31 to the Moroccan-Algerian crisis, His Majesty reassured the Algerian president that Morocco was ready to turn the page and have a brotherly dialogue with Algeria without any conditions. He said Morocco would never seek to destabilise Algeria, our twin brother, because what affects them affects us, and what befalls them harms us. However, instead of grasping His Majesty’s speech as an opportunity for reconciliation, the Algerian government shockingly responded a few weeks later by taking a unilateral decision to severe the diplomatic ties with Morocco and ban the Algerian airspace to Moroccan aircraft. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs was wise enough to avoid reciprocating and indulging in the Algerian hostility game by stating in a communique that Morocco would continue to support the Algerian people regardless of their government’s reckless moves.

Algeria says two terrorist organisations, Rashad and MAK, are behind the summer fires in Algeria and that the two groups have been supported by Morocco. Is this true?

It is embarrassing that an ambassador who serves as her country’s permanent representative to the UNEP in Nairobi makes these allegations. My sister Ambassador Selma Haddadi does not seem to value UNEP’s reports about the impact of climate change and global warming. Like all diplomats in Nairobi, she must be well informed about UNEP reports warning about wild summer fires breaking out in the Mediterranean region, such as Italy, Turkey, Israel, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of which Algeria is a member, has clearly stated that continuous global warming is a direct cause of disastrous climatic consequences such as wildfires. Morocco has developed the most advanced centre in the region to monitor wildfires and we invited many African partners to share our experience. My sister should advise her government to invest in infrastructure to face such climatic challenges instead of claiming that the fires in Kabyle region are an exception and a criminal act by Morocco and Israel. Why did she forget to add that her government rejected Morocco’s offer to send two planes to help put off the fires in Eastern Algeria? Algeria’s unfounded accusations, which are too repetitive and tedious to make sense of, are turning into an entertaining joke in North African and European media. Must Morocco be blamed for anything that goes wrong with Algeria!

What is your comment on Algeria’s closing its airspace and severing ties with Morocco?

Algeria’s closing of airspace has more political than economic implications for Morocco. After sealing its land borders in 1994, Algeria closed its airspace to establish more barriers between Morocco and other members of the Maghreb Arab Union, such as Tunisia and Libya. The move does not just shatter the mobility dreams of the North African people, but also goes against the AU’s determination to boost economic regional integration. At a time fuel supply is becoming a serious global challenge, Algeria also plans to stop the pipeline supplying its natural gas to Spain and Portugal through Moroccan territory. Waging an economic war is certainly not the best option for Algeria to catch up with Morocco, whose economic development is estimated to be ahead of the oil-based economy for at least 30 years.

Your country has been accused of trying to destabilise Algeria because they support the fight for self-determination for Western Sahara.

Many are puzzled by the question on why Algeria is obsessed with the self-determination of a Moroccan Sahrawi population, which has never doubted its historical, political, and cultural attachment to its Morocco. Moreover, there is no better form of self-determination than elections. As the international observers stated in their reports on Moroccan local, regional, and legislative elections of last September. The highest rate of participation was scored in Western Sahara (up to 65 per cent) compared with the other Moroccan regions. The problem of the so-called Western Sahara looks real on paper, one written and diffused by the Algerian military, not on the ground. Kenyans are welcome to visit Morocco and see the remarkable economic progress enjoyed by our southern provinces since their liberation from Spain in 1975. Algeria cares about the Sahrawis only, as long as they serve its political and military agenda. As for the Sahrawis, it kept on its southern territory and presents to the outside world as “Sahrawi refugees”. They are actually Moroccan hostages totally deprived of their basic rights such as freedom of speech and movement. Thousands of them were brutally tortured or killed by the Polisario militias while attempting to cross the border to join their families in the Moroccan Sahara. Nonetheless, Algeria denies any responsibility for the camps’ horrific conditions and rejects UN resolutions calling for direct negotiations with Morocco. Obviously, Algeria’s claim of neutrality will be persuasive when it stops misleading its African partners with a fake cause and when it is ready to let the UN do its job of fixing the Sahara dispute peacefully. 

Algeria says closing its airspace and severing ties was a form of de-escalating the diplomatic dispute. Do you agree?

This is a bit insulting to our intelligence. The terms Algeria uses to evaluate the current situation speak for themselves. You don’t de-escalate a dispute by closing airspace and unilaterally severing the diplomatic ties, nor by repeatedly turning down Morocco’s offers of dialogue and bilateral cooperation. Does Algeria’s recent similar decision to close airspace on France apply to the same rule — de-escalation? The Algerian government will have a very difficult time convincing its own people why it unilaterally chose to severe ties with a brotherly country, which has been, throughout modern history, a leading supporter of the Algerian anti-colonial revolution and liberation. My country will continue to call upon Algeria to change its self-subversive strategy if it truly desires to de-escalate the tense situation it caused. 

Do you think a third force is involved in making sure the relations are not normalised and to what end?

If there is a third party responsible for a 46-year stalemate in Moroccan-Algerian diplomatic relations, it is none other than the one created and armed by the Algerian government; the Polisario Front. Yet, Algerian diplomacy continues to live in a state of denial, preferring instead to implicate other forces in its dispute with Morocco. To take a recent example that my Algerian colleague deliberately ignored, Algeria has accused Israel of conspiring with Morocco to undermine its stability. Trying to arouse the Arab nationalist sentiment, Algeria officially condemns Morocco’s sovereign decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel, where one million Israelis of Moroccan origin live. For the same reason, Algeria was openly against Israel’s candidacy to obtain the Observer status at the African Union, which both Morocco and Kenya support. Besides Morocco, their Foreign minister went as far as attacking the Chair of the AU Commission for his support of Israeli candidacy.

What is your country doing to improve relations with Algeria?

Look, His Majesty’s hand is still generously extended if Algeria feels ready to convert its hostility into a serious political will to resume relations with Morocco and work together to revive the promising economic block of the Maghreb Arab Union. Morocco has always proven to be self-restrained despite Algerian multiple provocations. I remember in the mid-1970s Algeria expulsed 350,000 Moroccans on the day of Eid al-Adha, the most sacred religious holiday in the Islamic world, forced to leave behind their children and their Algerian spouses. Even those who fought for the Algerian revolution were not spared. Morocco did not reciprocate because we consider the Algerian people a component of our common destiny.

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