Rabat - The diplomatic ruckus between Morocco and Algeria
over human rights in Western Sahara has revived the historic animosity between
North Africa's arch rivals, as regional changes challenge a decades-old status
Analysts say key factors explaining the rising tensions
between the neighbouring countries, whose differences are rooted in the Western
Sahara conflict, include chronic instability in the Sahel region, and a
possible leadership change in Algeria next year.
"There are reasons of geostrategic and commercial
change in North Africa, not to mention generational change, which suggests
progress has to happen on Western Sahara," Jon Marks, Maghreb expert with
the Chatham House think-tank, told AFP.
"But at the moment, when it comes to the political
responses of Morocco and Algeria, both regimes ... revert to those old default
positions and ideas that were forged in the 1970s."
Just days afer Rabat briefly recalled its ambassador to
Algiers and amid a slew of barbed exchanges, King Mohammed VI on Wednesday
blasted Algeria over its criticism of Morocco's human rights record in the
Morocco would not be lectured to, "particularly by
those who systematically trample on human rights," he said in an annual
televised speech to commemorate the so-called Green March of 1975, when his
father Hassan II sent tens of thousands of settlers to lay claim to the desert
His comments followed a speech by Algeria's ailing President
Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Nigeria last week, in which he hit out at the
"massive and systematic human rights violations that take place inside the
occupied territories to suppress the peaceful struggle" of the Sahrawi
people for independence.
Is there a crisis of confidence?
He said international monitoring of the human rights
situation was needed "now more than ever".
Algeria itself has historically supported the
pro-independence Polisario Front, which rejects Morocco's proposal of broad
autonomy for the region.
The Algerian leader was referring to US efforts at the UN
Security Council earlier this year to give the UN peacekeeping force for the
Western Sahara unprecedented human rights monitoring powers, a bid that failed
in the face of intense Moroccan lobbying.
Morocco's monarch made veiled criticism of the US move in
his speech on Wednesday, which came less than a week before a visit to Rabat by
US Secretary of State John Kerry on a tour that will also take him to Algiers.
"Is there a crisis of confidence between Morocco and
certain decision-makers in its strategic partners on the human rights
issue?" he asked.
Diplomatic sources say a recent US State Department report
detailing the kingdom's harsh repression of pro-independence activists in
Western Sahara has compounded Rabat's fears that the US proposal will reappear
when the UN peacekeeping force's mandate next comes up for renewal in 2014.
Morocco felt it lost a valuable ally when Kerry replaced
Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, according to the same sources.
Struggle for influence among African states
In the regional context, the growing tensions between
Morocco and Algeria reflect a struggle for influence among fellow African
Morocco has been kept out of pan-African politics for 30
years by its decision to leave the Organisation of African Unity, the African
Union's precursor, after the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic became a member.
There are clear signs that it is now seeking to revive its
King Mohammed flew to Bamako in September for the
inauguration of the new President of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, while the
surge in militancy across the Saharan region has provided Rabat with the
pretext for hosting a security conference for the Sahel and Maghreb countries
But Algeria's attendance remains uncertain, pointing to a
key problem in tackling the region's security woes, which made headlines last
weekend with the execution of two French journalists in northern Mali.
"There needs to be a more joined up international
response to the whole Sahel crisis, which will necessarily involve the two
strategic coherent players in the region, Morocco and Algeria," said
Chatham House's Jon Marks.
"And for that to happen, you need to get a handle on
the Western Sahara."