By Vish Sakthivel*
(FPRI) — This past Sunday, Morocco made a surprise move by sending a delegation to the African Union (AU)—the transnational union charged with encouraging African nations’ solidarity and the politico-economic integration of the full continent. Leaving the organization over 30 years ago, it has been the only non-member nation in Africa. King Mohammed VI of Morocco, in his official request to be reinstated in a letter to the AU chairperson affirmed, “The time has come for Morocco to find its organic place within the African Union.” Ahead of this request the small North African kingdom is also attempting a measured rapprochement with its regional rival, Algeria. The results remain to be seen, and should be watched.
RETURN TO THE AFRICAN UNION?
Morocco left the AU in protest in 1984 after the supranational body recognized the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD, as it is known by its French acronym). RASD controls part of the Western Sahara east of the disputed region’s dividing wall (the berm). Morocco has laid claim to the Western Sahara since 1975, while RASD (with Algeria’s backing) aims to end the Morocco presence (which many call an occupation) in the disputed region. Morocco would like to rejoin the AU on the condition that the RASD’s membership is suspended.
As a supporter of the RASD, and a champion of the Saharawi cause on the African stage, it took Algeria a few days to conjure a response. Yesterday morning, Algeria’s Minister for Maghreb Affairs, the AU and the Arab League, Abdelkader Messahel stated emphatically: “A nation can not apply for membership in the AU with conditions […] of the suspension of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.” Algeria has long been a behemoth in the AU, particularly in the area of military and security cooperation, and has had a good deal of de facto veto power. It has had an outsized role in security across the Sahel (as well as being an economic giant) and most recently played an important brokering role in the Malian conflict.
This rapprochement moreover comes at an interesting time, where Morocco’s relations with the EU have been recently strained due to some member states’ reticence to trade with Morocco in goods originating from the disputed Western Sahara. In turn, Morocco’s diplomatic hardball has not produced the more pro-Morocco approach to that territory that it had hoped on the part of the European body. However, these gestures to the AU should certainly not be seen as a “pivot” away from the EU, for Morocco will always rely on good relations with its allies across the Mediterranean. Instead, it is another instance of Morocco playing all of its potential cards and working every possible ally.
And after decades on the African periphery, Morocco’s request is far from sudden. Mohammed VI has made engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa more of a priority during his reign, unlike his father who focused heavily on the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli peace process. Morocco has been striving for clout for years, as Algeria has traditionally been the major power in North and West Africa. The kingdom has long been trying to gain a foothold particularly in the Sahel through highly publicized imam-trainings, the expansion of banks, resource extraction, etc. In Mali for instance, Morocco is one of its biggest African investors (through expansion of its Attijariwafa Bank and Maroc Telecom), and is rapidly developing portfolios in agriculture, mines, and energy.
This gradual boost in diplomatic engagement with African countries has underscored religious-cultural links (emphasizing their common Maliki school, as well as the Sufi networks, both of which are held up by the kingdom as not only a regionally binding force but a counterweight to extremism), and bolstered economic ties. These overtures are in part to prove its counter-terror mettle to Western interests (this week it has sent a delegation to an anti-ISIS meeting in Washington), but also as a bid to win over African countries on the question of the Western Sahara. The AU’s policy toward the territory has long been steered by ideals enshrined in its charter regarding the full and complete decolonization of those African territories under external occupation. Sahelian countries in particular have long sympathized with the plight of the Saharawis and their tiny nation. Morocco meanwhile maintains that the Western Sahara constituted an integral part of Greater Morocco prior to its division by colonial powers. Despite making this case for years, the kingdom has realized it will not make any further headway with this crowd if it persisted with its “chaise vide” policy of abstaining from the union.
These soft efforts upon which Morocco embarked while absent from the AU may have worked. In support of Morocco’s bid to rejoin, 28 of the 54—just over half—African member states have requested RASD’s suspension from the AU in order to revisit the issue under newer circumstances (Some key signatories include Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cape Verde, Comoros, Congo, Ivory coast, Djibouti, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea and Liberia.)
A THAW IN MOROCCO-ALGERIA RELATIONS?
A significant hurdle for Morocco is that the AU’s most powerful members remain steadfast —at least officially—against change in status of the Western Sahara. Morocco’s perennial adversary on the issue, Algeria, has been at the forefront of this opposition. Nonetheless, a recent Moroccan initiative to improve relations appears to be making headway, conveniently timed just ahead of Morocco’s potential return to the AU.
In a bilateral context, Morocco’s Delegate to the Foreign Affairs Minister, Nasser Bourita met with Algerian PM Abdelmalek Sellal. Meanwhile, Yassine Mansouri, the head of the intelligence apparatus, the General Directorate of Studies and Documentation (DGED), convened with Major General Othman Tartag, the head of Algeria’s intelligence agency, the Security Services Department (DSS; formerly DRS). Adding gravitas to the event, Mansouri is one of the members of the king’s innermost circle and childhood classmate. While the content of their talks remain undisclosed, it is no coincidence the meeting with Algeria occurred just before Morocco’s plans unfurled. Indeed while Morocco is slowly improving its standing, it wouldn’t wish to further antagonize one of the AU’s most powerful players in the process.
Algerian government sources say the talks focused on security matters, and the threat of ISIS to Africa, as well as convenient alliances between extremist groups and smugglers. This past Sunday, Algeria announced that it had reached an agreement with Morocco to engage in better security cooperation, counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing.
Algerian authorities alerted Morocco that many Moroccans made it to Libya by crossing Algerian land, and were sent back home on flights. Therefore beyond its aspirations to the AU, Morocco is rightly concerned about the return of its nearly 3,000 nationals who have become ISIS combatants (primarily in Syria and Libya) and hopes to cooperate with battle-tested Algeria on security and intelligence exchanges, and tap into their military expertise.
These steps are smart and pragmatic moves that seem to reverse the previously emotional tenor of relations between the neighbors. The trip to Algeria gives the Moroccan efforts a veneer of friendship and goodwill, and the outreach to the AU could position Morocco to better promote its interests on the continent’s stage, countervailing the traditional South African-Algerian-Nigerian control of the union—an axis which supports RASD’s claims to the Western Sahara. It thus remains to be seen whether the triumvirate will be able to curb support for the measure to meet Morocco’s conditionality of RASD’s suspension from the AU.
Thus in spite of a possible thaw in relations, acrimony and suspicions linger. Algerians are framing the olive branch as Morocco’s diplomatic defeat as illustrated in its coverage in the normally ideologically diverse Algerian press. Even diplomat Abdelaziz Rahabi has told the Algerian press that Morocco’s return to the AU “would be a victory for the Saharawi cause” because it would be “an indirect recognition of the RASD and the Western Sahara as a state” according to the diplomat. However, as stated above, Morocco has in fact urged the AU to rethink its position on the Western Sahara, a “pre-condition” that Algeria has vocally denounced. If Morocco’s bid is successful, Algeria may well respond by seeking membership in CEN-SAD (Community of Sahel-Saharan States), the trade-focused AU sub-body de facto headed by Morocco which it does not presently participate.
U.S. FOREIGN POLICY INTERESTS
Both Algeria and Morocco provide important strategic benefits to the U.S. on various fronts, and therefore it should continue its policy of dual engagement. Algeria is a strong, tested counterterror partner whereas the fruits of Morocco’s high-publicized “soft” counter-terrorism efforts are yet to be seen. At the same time, however, Morocco expresses willingness and openness to cooperation and fosters engagement with the U.S. that goes beyond military partnership—as evidenced by extensive educational and cultural exchanges. Algeria, on the other hand, appears stuck in a cold-war state of mind with more of a “you need us more than we need you” attitude toward the United States and West generally. (Indeed the North African giant is soul-searching regarding its long-held foreign policy values of non-intervention, which has bordered on bunker state behavior.)
Meanwhile, the U.S. has long taken a backseat on the Western Sahara, tacitly backing Morocco’s claims, while also nodding to Algeria and RASD’s objections about self-determination and human rights. Events are still unfolding, and what will result is still a moving target. Nevertheless, it will benefit policymakers to remain apprised of developments on this front, for it will influence how the U.S. engages Algeria and Morocco bilaterally, as well as the AU and Sahel.
About the author:
* Vish Sakthivel is a Robert A. Fox fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, focusing on North Africa. She is also a doctoral candidate in Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University, where she is writing her dissertation on Islamist politics in Algeria and Morocco. Her research is based primarily on ethnographies and is supplemented by archival consultation. She is also a nonresident adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) responsible for coverage of North Africa, and is the author of the WINEP monograph, “Al-Adl wal-Ihsan: Inside Morocco’s Islamist Challenge.” She has lived in Algeria, Morocco, and the United Kingdom. Her work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, World Politics Review, Al Monitor, the Oxford University Press Islamic Encyclopedia, among other outlets. She is proficient at various levels in Maghreb Arabic dialects, Standard Arabic, Tamil, and French.
This article was published by FPRI