Cold war under the scorching sun: How a new conflict is brewing in Africa
Dubbed North Africa’s new ‘Cold War’, the tensions between Morocco and neighboring Algeria threaten to escalate and the consequences of this have a lot more to do with Western meddling in the affairs of the two countries than meets the eye.
In August 2021, Algeria’s foreign minister, Ramdane Lamamra, announced that Algiers was severing all diplomatic ties with Rabat. “The Moroccan kingdom has never stopped its hostile actions against Algeria,” he stated at a press conference at the time. Algeria justified its move further by citing examples, such as Morocco using the Israeli Pegasus spyware against Algerian officials, supporting terrorists groups, failing to uphold bilateral commitments, the normalisation of ties with Israel, and refusing to engage diplomatically on the Western Sahara issue. Rabat has denied most of the charges laid out against it by the Algerian government.
Tensions again escalated on October 31, when Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced the end of their gas supply contract with Rabat. This led to a reported shortage of gas in both Morocco and also Spain, which had previously received gas supplies through the Gazoduc Maghreb Europe (GME) pipeline, despite claims made by Moroccan officials that the move would have little impact. The following day, alleged drone strikes carried out by Morocco directly targeted clearly marked Algerian trucks near the Mauritanian border with the disputed Western Sahara region. The“barbaric attack,” as described by Ennahar, Algeria’s national broadcaster, killed 3 Algerians and generated a large outpour of rage from the Algerian government.
Although many of the accusations made against Morocco by Algeria have been strongly denied, they nonetheless have a real impact on public perception of the two sides. An example of such allegations is an announcement on October 13 in which Algerian state-media claimed that the “General Directorate of National Security managed to thwart a conspiracy plot that dates back to 2014” [sic]. To blame for the attack, according to the authorities, was “the Zionist entity [Israel]” and a “North African country,” broadly interpreted to have meant Morocco.
What’s interesting here is that the conflict between Morocco and Algeria has not just been limited to affecting Rabat and Algiers alone, but has also implicated several other players; notably France, Israel, Spain, and the Polisario Front that represents the national liberation movement for the Sahrawi people.
To get to know more about this conflict, I spoke to Zine Labidine Ghebouli, an analyst and researcher who specializes in the political and security dynamics of Algeria. Ghebouli says that the ‘Cold War of North Africa’ “has already erupted,” claiming that this war will manifest itself in three main ways; the battle for regional supremacy, a propaganda war, and the persecution of dissenting voices. He said that “first you are going to have them [Algeria and Morocco] seeking regional supremacy, through the arms race that we have been seeing for nearly a decade now, but also through the diplomatic race. Morocco obviously normalized relations with Israel so it’s expanding its diplomatic influence. Algeria, on the other hand, is trying to devise diplomatic efforts and we have seen the visits of Foreign Minister Ramdane Lamamra to the Gulf and also to many African countries … so that’s the first way that will make either Algiers or Rabat as the leading regional power.”
On the second point of escalation, he states that “you have the war of propaganda,” which “we have been seeing from the official Algerian authorities. Obviously, there are some pro-Moroccan websites that also spread disinformation about Algeria, but so far that hasn’t been the stance of the official Moroccan authorities. On the other hand, Algeria mobilized both the official and unofficial media platforms to target Rabat and social issues in Morocco, economic issues, [and] political issues and we’ve seen a lot of propaganda recently.”
Zine Ghebouli then said, on the third way the war will manifest itself, “you have the judicial prosecution of activists, journalists of Algerian origins who may be perceived by Algiers as assets to the Moroccan authorities, we’ve seen with the designation of both the MAK and Rashad movements [alleged Separatist groups] as terrorist organisations … mainly with the MAK that it is [being accused of being] in contact with the Moroccan authorities to impose a security approach and this will continue, that anyone who is in contact with the Moroccan authorities will be designated as an enemy and will be treated as such.”
On February 20, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the Moroccan capital to protest rising fuel prices and an economic crisis they blame on the authorities. Similarly, Algeria witnessed a sharp economic decline, which has been going on “since last summer, because Algeria banned the imports of several products, so that led to a scarcity of foods in supermarkets … During the new year, the problem has been exacerbated by the economy of Algeria,” Ghebouli says.
When asked whether he believes that the economic issues will exacerbate tensions, Zine said that “to the Algerian side the socio-economic issues are perceived as a conspiracy against Algeria, by some regional powers and that even includes Morocco implicitly,” going on to say that it’s possible that economic decline “could be perceived as an attack against Algeria.”
“In that sense, the more socio-economic issues we see in Algeria and also Morocco, the more tense the situation will be, because both governments will likely try to divert the attention from these socio-economic grievances to another, what’s considered to them as an important issue, which is the security tensions. Basically, the idea is, the more we delve into the socio-economic issues, the more the tensions will increase, diplomatically and militarily.”
I then asked whether the signing of the Abraham Accords, or the normalization deal between Rabat and Tel Aviv, had been a factor in the recent escalation or if this is an overreach. He replied:
“When it comes to the normalization of Rabat with Tel Aviv, I think that was the last straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to the Algerian perception, whether popularly or officially, of the Moroccan authorities. Before this normalization, Algiers was considering that all issues with Morocco could be resolved at the table of discussions, or negotiations, however, now I am afraid with the normalization that was the tip of escalation as perceived by the Algerian authorities because they consider that Morocco is taking Israel’s support with its war with Algeria. In that sense, I think that more normalization will lead to more escalation with Algeria."
“Algiers at this point does not consider Morocco as an independent state, they consider them as a tool for what they call the Zionist project in North Africa and Algiers feels especially targeted by the normalization move, and some opinions, whether in the military institutions in Algeria or in the political scene, they do consider that it is not Algeria that is targeting Israel or Morocco, but that Israel has put Algeria on its target list and so their problem now is not with Morocco, their main problem is with Israel and has always been with Israel.”
Whilst Rabat and Algiers have been in the crosshairs, tensions between Algeria and its former colonialist occupier France have also been brewing. Despite French President Emmanuel Macron condemning colonialism as a “crime against humanity” in 2017, last year Macron called into question Algeria’s very legitimacy as a nation prior to French colonialism. He also accused Algeria’s military establishment of fomenting “hatred towards France” and re-writing history, refusing to apologize for the devastating French occupation of Algerian lands. As a result, Algeria withdrew its ambassador to Paris. In October, the Algerian authorities also closed their airspace to the French military.
I asked Zine Ghebouli whether he believes that the recent international condemnation of human rights abuses committed in Algeria have directly resulted from the deterioration in ties between Algiers and Paris. Ghebouli says “some reports have alluded that the new approach of the international community, vis-a-vis Algeria, is the consequence or collateral damage of the tensions with Morocco and France … I believe that there has been some engagement from some French NGOs and political actors in putting more pressure on the Algerian government when it comes to human rights conditions in Algeria and also when it comes to socio-economic reforms and foreign policy.”
He noted that “the International scrutiny was lacking throughout the past few years, especially since the beginning of the protest movement in 2019. I think the international community did not want to intervene, it did not want to be there or assist [the protests] in any way, because of fear of the reaction of the Algerian authorities and also because of the post-colonial skepticism and paranoia of the Algerian society at large.”
Yet, according to Ghebouli, “The international community has reached a consensus or at least a conclusion at this point, seeing the geo-political context, seeing the emerging tensions between the two countries, seeing also the situation in the Sahel [North Africa] and the instability across the region. I think the international community today considers that giving a green pass to the Algerian authorities on everything and anything does not serve the purpose of stability in the region.”
For Morocco, one of the primary concerns they have with Algeria is its consistent support for the Polisario Front, which operates in the Western Sahara area, which Morocco controls the large majority of. Frente Polisario, or the Polisario Front, is considered by Rabat as a terrorist organization and a security threat. Algiers sees it, however, as a national liberation movement and hosts its government in exile. The issue of the fight over Western Sahara is that it’s considered both an occupied territory belonging to the native Sahrawi people by Polisario and an integral part of Morocco by the Kingdom’s authorities in Rabat. The United Nations considers the territory disputed and the issue is important here, as one of the guarantees made by America’s Trump administration, as part of the Israeli normalization package, was US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
The Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara in 1975 led to a devastating war, ending with a ceasefire agreement in 1991, which held for the best part of 30 years, until November 13, 2020, when Polisario declared the ceasefire over. Roughly one month later, Rabat would normalize ties with Israel.
I spoke with Dr. Sidi Omar, the Polisario Front’s ambassador to the United Nations, on their ongoing conflict with the Moroccan government. He said the following, when asked about some of the costs on the Sahrawi people of the ongoing conflict between the two sides:
“Human rights activists in particular are daily subjected to all sorts of violence and unspeakable atrocities without the world knowing about their plight. This is because of the media blackout imposed on Occupied Western Sahara that remains encircled by the 2700 kilometer-long Moroccan wall of shame, which is the second longest wall and the greatest military barrier in the world. The Moroccan occupying authorities have also been engaged in a large-scale scorched policy in Occupied Western Sahara. The policy, which is organized and implemented by the occupying security forces, includes destruction of houses and livelihoods, vandalism of properties, and the killing of livestock with the declared objective of uprooting Sahrawis from their homes and lands, which are given to Moroccan settlers. On the battlefield, the Moroccan forces have been using all types of weapons, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to callously kill not only Sahrawi civilians but also civilians and nationals of neighboring countries while in transit through the Sahrawi Liberated Territories [Western Saharan territories held by Polisario].”
Ambassador Omar blamed Morocco’s expansionist aspirations, when asked about the recent deterioration in ties between Rabat and Algiers, and said that since the conflict between the two sides, “We [the Sahrawi people] are being subjected to a new Moroccan aggression, which is a continuation of the same expansionist policy pursued by Morocco, whose aim is to annihilate our people and seize our land.”
“In addition to the continued illegal occupation of parts of Western Sahara, Morocco’s expansionism and aggressiveness show the extent to which the Moroccan regime owes its own survival to territorial conquest as a tool to divert attention from its deep-rooted domestic legitimacy crisis. Morocco’s expansionism is therefore the root cause of the enduring tension in North Africa and the main obstacle to the achievement of a united, prosperous, and inclusive Maghreb that brings together all its nations and peoples,” Omar stated.
Polisario’s Sidi Omar also claimed that Israeli weapons are being used to kill civilians in Western Sahara, stating: “As for the consequences of Morocco’s ‘normalization’ deal with Israel, we have already seen an increase of military cooperation between the two countries, especially in the light of the ongoing war of aggression unleashed by Morocco on our people since November 2020. Israeli-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been frequently used by Moroccan forces to kill not only Sahrawi civilians but also civilians and nationals of neighboring countries.”
Dr. Omar also voiced frustration over the normalization deal between Israel and Morocco, adding that “it is also well known that, as a quid pro quo for the deal, the outgoing US president, Donald Trump, made a proclamation declaring [the] United States’ recognition of ‘Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara’ and the intention to open an American consulate in the Sahrawi occupied city of Dajla (Dakhla). Obviously, this unilateral proclamation violates basic principles of international law, distances itself from the traditional US policy regarding Western Sahara and breaks a longstanding position on the right of self-determination of the Sahrawi people. It also infringes on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the SADR [Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic] and hampers the UN and AU efforts to achieve a peaceful solution to the question of Western Sahara. Consequently, the proclamation is null and void and has no effect whatsoever.”
Morocco continues to tighten its ties with Tel Aviv, purchasing Israel’s Barak MX air defense systems and recently striking a deal with Israel to boost economic ties. Israeli Economy Minister Orna Barbivai signed a trade and investment cooperation agreement with her Moroccan counterpart on February 21, hoping to boost trade to 500 million dollars annually. Israel’s NewMed Energy company “is looking into the energy market in Morocco. Specifically natural gas exploration opportunities,” according to its chief executive, Yossi Abu. All making it clear that the relationship between the two countries is not going anywhere anytime soon.
A major issue, of course, is how this tightening relationship will end up faring in the long run and whether it serves regional security or not. Certainly from the Algerian government's point of view, normalization serves the very opposite goal and its opposition to Morocco based upon this may well complicate the standing of Algiers in the West.
Another issue that has to be analyzed is how Morocco ended up here. It is clear that the deal it signed with Israel came with certain gifts, but it has also become clear that it may have come with certain pressures too, principally from the United Arab Emirates and the United States. In February 2020, the UAE signed a $2 billion investment in facilities in Mauritania. Rabat was enraged by the investment in its southern neighbors’ port facilities at Nouadhibou. It believed that this investment by Abu Dhabi would pose a threat to its own Dakhla Port and Tangier Med projects. In March of that year, Morocco withdrew its ambassador to the UAE, sparking a feud that was followed by many accusations of Emirati pressure tactics being used against Rabat, one of which was an accusation that the UAE were backing its arch-enemy, the Polisario Front, however there is no evidence to support this claim.
Suddenly, for reasons publicly unknown, the UAE decided to perform a one hundred and eighty degree shift and became the first ever Arab country to open a consulate in the Moroccan controlled Western Sahara, in October of 2020. Then, less than a month later, the Polisario Front declared the end of their ceasefire with Rabat. The normalization deals announcement came the following month and with it the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, breaking from the international consensus. This information at the very least suggests that Morocco perhaps did not go so willingly into the normalization agreements and had external pressure applied upon it in order to pressure Rabat into the move. It is not an absolute that the above stated reasons are the sole motivators, but it is likely that they played a role to some degree.
As was the case during the Cold War itself, since Morocco was on the side of the West, whereas Algeria sided with the East. We now see renewed efforts by the Algerian government to align themselves with Global South liberation causes and, equally, Algiers currently maintains a friendly relationship with Russia. Interestingly, Algeria also set up a meeting in order to discuss the future of the Palestinian liberation movement and invited all key political parties, including the likes of Hamas, the PFLP, the DFLP, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. As Algeria aligns itself further with the Palestinian people in their fight for statehood, so too does the Polisario Front.
In response to the question of whether Polisario is seeking greater ties with Palestinians in their struggle for self determination, Polisario’s ambassador told me that, “Efforts are ongoing to reinforce and diversify ties between the two peoples as they continue their national liberation struggles for freedom and peace.” He also added that, “The struggles waged by peoples under foreign occupation are morally and politically connected because they defend fundamental human and peoples’ rights.”
All of this seems to indicate a clear alignment on a pro- and anti-Western axis when it comes to Algeria and Morocco, but whether this feud between the two and the war over Western Sahara will escalate, or simmer down through diplomacy, is very much an open question. The answer to this question may ultimately prove whether Israel’s presence in North Africa is toxic, or rather, in benefit of regional security as both Rabat and Tel Aviv claim.