The Algerian-Moroccan Border: The Limits of Maghrebi Unity
By: Yassine Temlali
Published Wednesday, July 11, 2012
If there is any need for evidence that Algerian and Moroccan officials do not really believe in Maghrebi unity, the Algerian-Moroccan land border, closed since 1994, is sufficient.
Count the 14 years that it was closed from 1975 to 1989 – during the armed conflict between the Moroccan army and the Polisario Front, whose demands of self-determination for the Western Sahara were supported by Algeria – and that makes 32 years of closed borders since Algeria rid itself of French colonial rule 50 years ago.
During those 32 years, the borders opened just once, on 20 February 2009, for a British convoy sent in solidarity with the residents of the Gaza Strip.
Internationally speaking, it is an unusual case, for there has been no war to speak of between the two countries.
Quite the contrary, they are bound by a pact of “brotherhood” and “friendship” represented by the Marrakesh Agreement which founded the Arab Maghrebi Union (17 February 1989), the third article of which promotes “freedom of transport of people, goods, services, and capital” between the five North African states (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania).
For the record, it was Algeria that closed the borders in 1994 along with a decision requiring Moroccan visitors to Algeria to obtain a visa.
This was an extreme response to the Moroccan authorities’ similar visa stipulation. This came following their accusation that Algerian intelligence had a role in the attack on the Atlas Hotel in Marrakech on 24 August 1994, which was later proven false.
Algerians and Moroccans became hopeful after a proposal by the Moroccan government in 2004 to eliminate visa requirements for Algerians, with Algeria suggesting the same in 2005.
Hopes soon evaporated into thin air in the heat of the “historical conflict” between the two states over the fate of the Western Sahara.
The promises to open the land borders were revived in 2011 in what has been deemed a move to divert attention to foreign policy in order to prevent the spread of the Arab revolutions into Algeria and Morocco.
However, these promises have not yet materialized. This attempt to back out of promises of unity is substituting a populist dream – the elimination of borders inherited from the colonial era – with a capitalist one which seeks to “build an economic corridor” between the two countries permitting the transfer of goods, but not people.
This “corridor” proposal was formulated in Algeria in January 2011 by the “Group for Thought and Defense of the Institution.” In one sense, it represented a middle ground between the status quo and the other extreme of lifting all barriers to the movement of goods and people between the two countries.
However, many fear that the normalization of Algerian-Moroccan relations will stop at this temporary solution and the complete opening of the borders will be postponed for many more years.
Algerian officials are reluctant to take such a decision for fear of tipping the trade balance in favor of Morocco. Likewise, they believe that the party that would be hurt the most by the stopping of commercial and tourist traffic between the two countries would be the poor eastern part of Morocco and not western Algeria, which benefits from oil revenues no matter what.
Upsetting the balance of trade between these two countries is not a huge risk considering the clear edge Algeria currently holds thanks to its petroleum exports.
Moreover, some industrial sectors in Algeria such as food processing, building materials, and the like would benefit from access to the Moroccan market, which is almost as large as the Algerian market in terms of population.
As for western Algeria being less affected than eastern Morocco, this is a temporary condition that will inevitably be offset by diminishing returns on oil.
Will the Algerian authorities ever be convinced that lifting trade and travel barriers with Morocco will facilitate the diversification of its exports to its neighbors and other countries?
Will they see that reviving Moroccan tourism will be good for Algeria’s services sector by forcing it to make improvements and expand its investments, paving a way to the famed “post-oil age” in Algeria?
According to an article on the Moroccan website Maghreb Emergent published on July 3, there are two things that might convince Algeria of just that.
The first is the end of the era of “financial security” that Algeria experienced from the outset of the 21st century, due to lower oil prices.
The second comes in the form of the “five rights” that Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki is trying to give to all inhabitants of the Maghreb. Among them is the right to vote in local elections, travel to Tunisia, and take up residence, work, and invest freely there.
It will be hard for the Algerian authorities to justify blocking human and commercial movement with Morocco if Algerians become completely free to travel, work, and reside in Tunisia.
And so we continue to wait for the border between the two neighboring countries to open – a barrier that did not even exist throughout thousands of years of history and did not close since being drawn in 1845 until after the launch of a program to build unity in North Africa.
Meanwhile, someone traveling from the city of Maghnia in western Algeria to Oujda on the other side of the border has no choice but go 180km east to Wahrane, board a plane bound for Casablanca 500km away in Morocco, and then cut back 400km east to reach their final destination.
Of course, Oujda would be just a half-hour drive from Maghnia if “Maghrebi unity” were truly something more than an illusion amidst the reality of nationalist tensions that continue to prevail.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
Yassine Temlali is an Algerian writer.