Rabat - A Saharan stand-off may become a US problem.
A nasty spat between Algeria and Morocco over the disputed
region of Western Sahara has boiled over anew, as Morocco recalled its
ambassador, angry protesters tore down an Algerian flag, and a Moroccan
magazine called for land grabs.
When Morocco's King Mohammed VI meets with President Barack
Obama during his visit to the US next week, the monarch will be looking for
greater US support as it feuds with regional rival Algeria. The two neighbours
are jockeying for position in a dispute that leaves little space for the co-operation
against al-Qaeda in North Africa that Washington and its allies want.
Morocco has long made gaining international recognition for
its 1975 annexation of the former Spanish territory on Africa's Atlantic coast
a top diplomatic priority. With Algeria backing the movement seeking
independence, the two countries have been at loggerheads for decades.
Last month, Morocco temporarily recalled its ambassador - a
major escalation that one former Algerian diplomat called an attempt to gain US
backing for its claim to Western Sahara.
"It was surprising and disproportionate,"
Abdelaziz Rahabi told The Associated Press, arguing the move was designed to
dominate the scheduled visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry this week that
has since been postponed.
The US priority in the region, however, has increasingly
focused on fighting terrorism, with al-Qaeda's North Africa branch morphing
into a Sahara-spanning organization with an elusive presence from the borders
of Morocco to Libya. With the two most powerful militaries in the region at
each other's throats, building any kind of regional co-operation - especially
to support weaker states like Niger, Mauritanian and Chad - has been
Howls of protest
Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for Western
Sahara, but the Polisario Front, the pro-independence nationalist movement,
insists that local people have the right to a referendum on the territory's
future as set out in a 1991 UN-brokered cease fire agreement that ended 15
years of fighting.
Algeria has backed the Polisario's claims and provides the
group with a haven. It says it is in support of the principle of
self-determination; Morocco says it is just a cynical ploy for regional
Morocco withdrew its ambassador on 30 October for four days
of consultation after Algeria reiterated its stance that a UN observer mission
in the region should include human rights monitoring. Morocco has been under
fire from human rights groups who say abuse is widespread, but it sees such a
move as a threat to its sovereignty.
The Moroccan press savaged Algeria as attempting to dominate
the whole region, with the weekly Maroc Hebdo, which often reflects the
official position, running a front page story on 1 November demanding the
return of several border towns it alleged had been "occupied" by
Algeria back to the 1960s.
Crowds gathered in front of Algerian diplomatic missions. In
Casablanca, a Moroccan man succeeded in scaling the consulate and tearing down
the Algerian flag despite the presence of local police.
Part of the problem for Morocco is that Algeria and the
Polisario Front have the force of international law on their side and so
Morocco has to struggle harder to explain its position.
It also has to deal with the fact that the Security Council
is increasingly considering the issue of human rights. In April, the US
ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, attempted to add human rights monitoring to
the UN mission there, provoking howls of protest from Morocco.
The proposal was eventually dropped but bruised relations
between the two countries.
"Human rights is slowly but surely becoming more
important in security council discussions," said Carne Ross, former head
of the Middle East section at Britain's UN mission and now part of a group that
advises the Polisario.
"When I was a diplomat at the security council 10-15
years ago people just didn't talk about human rights in general, and now they
do. And that's been a long term shift in how the security council talks and the
Moroccans do not come out well in it."
Mustapha Naimi, a Moroccan expert on the Sahara, explained
that Morocco faces an uphill struggle with international community to show them
that its autonomy proposal is really the best solution for the people rather
than a referendum for self-determination.
"It is the official position of the UN to this day, so
Morocco is on the defensive," he said. "To overcome this problem,
Morocco has to play all of its cards and come out very strong against
The latest dispute with Algeria is to prepare the way for
new Moroccan initiatives on the Western Sahara before the scheduled visit by
the country's king to the US he said, by highlighting the dispute, attempting
to discredit Algeria's role and then presenting new solutions.
"It will start with going to the Sahara, [the king]
will announce reforms and then take the plane to see Barack Obama to say, 'I am
credible and should be treated as such,'" he said.