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Morocco seeks to settle issues with Algeria via direct talks

As Morocco’s king offers to hold direct talks with Algeria, we take a look at the issues that keep the two countries at odds — contentious border issues dating back to French colonisation and the territory of Western Sahara

Morocco has reaffirmed its call to Algeria —  which has yet to respond to Rabat’s invitation earlier this month —  to address both countries’ decades-long political issues through bilateral talks.

Morocco and Algeria, neighbours in northwestern Africa, have long had bitter divisions over contentious border issues and the unsettled status of the Western Sahara, a disputed region where the Polisario Front, a secessionist political group backed by Algeria, pursues a UN-approved right to self-determination. 

Their political issues can be traced back to the 1960s, when Algeria attained independence from France and the contentious Moroccan-Algerian border was drawn.

However, things further escalated in 1994 when Morocco imposed a visa requirement on Algerian citizens to enter the country following an armed attack in Marrakech, a Moroccan city. Algeria responded by closing its border, which is one of the world’s longest borders, to Morocco.

The barrier continues to impact their economic growth and separate families.

In order to revive relations between the two countries, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI recently extended one of his warmest reconciliatory statements toward Algeria to date since the 1994 attack.

In his invitation for talks, the king described Algeria as a “sister nation,” expressing his readiness “for a direct and frank dialogue.” 

Morocco’s call for bilateral talks with Algeria coincide with a new UN initiative to break the Western Sahara deadlock between the Polisario Front and Rabat. The UN has also invited Mauritania and Algeria in the Sahara talks scheduled for December.

Here is a breakdown of the main problems which impede a settlement between the two countries.

Border disputes

While Morocco had supported the Algerian independence movement against France in the 1950s and 1960s, a colonialist legacy of border problems has left its mark.

Under French occupation, Algeria was a colony —  a part of metropolitan France —   and Morocco held the less-empowered status of a protectorate. Rabat claims the French favoured Algeria and sliced off some Moroccan territory, giving it to Algiers illegally.

In the decade after 1962, border issues pitted the two militaries against each other on more than one occasion. In 1972, the countries reached a final border agreement.

But with the emergence of the Western Sahara issue following the departure of Spain — another European colonialist power — from the region in 1975, ties between Algeria and Morocco deteriorated.

Western Sahara

Since the end of Spanish occupation in the Western Sahara, the region has been contested territory between Morocco and the Polisario Front. The Front fought against Spanish occupation until 1975; parts of the Western Sahara were annexed by Morocco and Mauritania in 1976.

The Front has clashed on occasion with both Morocco and Mauritania forces, with Algerian support. Mauritania left the Western Sahara in 1979, but Morocco continues to maintain its presence there. Rabat has direct control over much of the region after building a 2,700-kilometre-long wall in the Sahara in the 1980s. There are UN-monitored buffer zones west of the wall.

In 1976, the Front declared an independent state in the Sahara, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which is not recognised internationally. A UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991 mostly brought clashes between the Front and Morocco to an end.

From the very beginning of the conflict between Morocco and the Front, Algeria has openly supported the latter.

Algeria sees the Sahara dispute as a “decolonisation issue” and finds “a duty of solidarity with the Sahrawi people for the exercise of their legitimate rights.”

But Rabat regards the Sahara as part of Moroccan territory, calling the region its southern provinces.

And even though the country has appealed for direct talks with Algeria, the king has reiterated Morocco has not changed its position regarding the Sahara dispute.

“No stone is being left unturned in the pursuit of progress in our southern provinces under the new development model. The aim is to make sure the Moroccan Sahara can once again play its historical role as an effective link between Morocco and its sub-Saharan African roots, be it from the geographical or historical perspective,” King Mohammed VI said during his call for reconciliation.

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