The border between Morocco and Algeria was closed in 1994 following an Islamist militant attack in Marrakesh that Morocco blamed on the Algerian secret services. However the media war continues between the two neighboring countries. In fact, a war of words had been launched long ago, since the two states are, practically, in a state of cold war. Algeria provides shelter and support to the Polisario, a political organization that has waged armed insurrection against Morocco to claim the southern provinces, a stretch of the Sahara that runs along the Atlantic coast from Tan-Tan to Mauritania.
The United Nations has been trying to negotiate a settlement and sponsor direct talks between the two main parties for two decades, but there has been no breakthrough so far. Moroccans are convinced that without Algerian support, the situation would have been resolved long ago. And so Algeria, once supported in its war of independence from the French by Moroccans, has turned into Morocco’s main antagonist on the global stage. Undoubtedly, the Algerian persistent support to the Polisario has poisoned relationships between the the two countries.
The August 1994 attack on a Hotel in Marrakech, which left two Spanish tourists dead, was followed by a new salvo of accusations, resulting in the closing of the border that has held to date. The UMA has survived but mostly at the technical level, prodded along by the European Union’s Barcelona Process or Euro-Med dialog, which began in 1995.
Almost like clockwork, the Western Sahara conflict has managed to undermine the revival of the UMA every year, though the prospects for a summit seemed particularly good in early 2005. Morocco had dropped its visa requirement for Algerians and at the preceding Arab League summit in Algiers, Bouteflika and Mohammed VI had met privately. As a warm gesture, King Mohammed decided to extend his stay in Algeria past the meetings. Yet the UMA summit, set for May 2005 in Tripoli, never materialized.
A “private” letter, from President Bouteflika to Polisario?s leader Mohammed Abdelaziz, on the occasion of Polisario?s thirty-second anniversary celebrations, declared Algeria?s unwavering support for Western Saharan independence at the upcoming UMA summit. Upon its publication by Polisario, Morocco predictably backed out. Where Western Sahara was once just the elephant in the room, it is now central to the UMA?s continuing failure.
King Mohammed’s first visit to Algeria was qulified as an honest attempt to normalize relations, to give a new impetus to Moroccan Algerian bilateral relations and to renew economic development that will benefit the whole region. That new attitude had a further aim: Morocco’s new policy towards Algeria might profit the co-operation of all North Africa and offer economic prosperity to the populations of the Maghreb. So, Morocco was honestly hoping to revive its relations with Algeria and together rebuild the new Maghreb.
To that end, a series of visits of senior Moroccan officials and businessmen to Algeria took place always in an attempt to open a serious dialogue and venues for cooperation between the two countries. Other countries in the region were looking forward for that rapprochement and hoped that the Algerians finally would respond positively to the Moroccan persistent and honest call to reopen the borders and put their hands together for a close and prosperous economic cooperation that would benefit not only the Moroccans and the Algerians, but the whole region. Unfortunately, the Algerians under the pretext for being fearful for the stability of their frontiers keep them closed and refuse to see the benefits of open borders between the two nations.
If we pause for a second and look at other bordering countries in the world who have challenging problems in terms of human trafficking, drugs, etc., have they closed their borders? Has the United States closed its frontiers with Mexico in an attempt to stop illegal immigration and drug smuggling? Have southern European countries such as Spain, Italy or Greece, just to name these few, closed their borders with southern Mediterranean countries to stop illegal immigration of Sub Saharans? The answer is no.
The Americans have worked on the improvement of their security borders, so did the Europeans. None of them have ever thought of closing borders because that goes against one of the basic principles of human rights and that is of freedom of movement, not to mention economic opportunities with bordering countries.
So, if the Algerian decide, one day, to reopen their borders, they can work jointly with Moroccans on the security borders to put an end to Sub Saharan illegal immigrants who unfortunately cross in thousands into Morocco through the Algerian borders to reach the European Eldorado. But the most important is a joint cooperation between the two countries to fight Al Qaeda groups that represent a serious threat to the whole region. The Algerian decision and stubbornness to keep the borders with Morocco closed can be interpreted only as an unfortunate political act that the Algerians, here I’m talking about the people, are the first ones to suffer from.
I strongly believe that the post Arab Spring generation in both Morocco and Algeria -and even in the rest of the Maghreb region- do not deserve to live in the least integrated region. With all the natural resources, renewable energies, skillful human resources and a majority young and dynamic population, the Maghreb could easily become one of the world’s economic pillars. Algeria should reconsider its position towards Morocco and join the political euphoria that is currently prevailing in the region. It will certainly gain more and the Maghrebis will see an integrated and prosperous region.
Said Temsamani, Senior Fellow at the Meridian International Center and former Senior Political Advisor, US Embassy, Morocco. Member of the National Press Club, Washington DC.