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Algeria and Morocco's paradoxical support for independence movements
Are Morocco and Algeria using independence movements in a geopolitical joust for more power in the region? Polisario in Western Sahara has long enjoyed Algerian support, and now the Riffian movement is following suit. Conversely, Morocco supports the Kabylian cause in Algeria. ‘It is paradoxical for a country to support independence movements in a neighbouring country but fight them at home.’
Western Sahara is a highly contested territory that has strongly influenced Moroccan and North African politics for decades. It is located on the north-west coast of Africa, north of Mauritania and south of Morocco. The latter still controls 80% of the area today.
For Morocco, Western Sahara has great symbolic and economic value. ‘The issue is the lens through which Morocco looks at the world’, King Mohammed VI said as recently as August, on the occasion of the 69th anniversary of the Revolution of the King and the People.
The Polisario independence movement has been fighting for the region’s independence since 1973. In 2007, Morocco proposed a plan to grant Western Sahara a far-reaching form of autonomy. But that plan was rejected by the independence movement. The kingdom would still retain control over foreign policy and defence.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975. After Spain withdrew, a Polisario guerrilla campaign arose against the Moroccan and Mauritanian presence in the area. Mauritania soon withdrew and signed a peace agreement with the independence movement.
Morocco, on the other hand, maintained that the area was Moroccan. But the Polisario, and its supporters, who did not identify themselves as Moroccan, continued to deny Morocco’s legitimacy over the area.
But Morocco cannot count on support everywhere and certainly not from neighbouring Algeria.
In 1991, a ceasefire agreement was reached between Morocco and the Polisario. The UN wanted to organise a referendum in which residents of Western Sahara could express their views on self-determination, but this still did not take place. Since 2007, Morocco has therefore been focusing on its autonomy plan.
In October, Antwerp mayor and N-VA president Bart De Wever announced that he considers the Moroccan autonomy plan a realistic solution. He did so following a working visit to Morocco where cooperation on the economy and security was discussed.
That same month, Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib also announced during a working visit that Belgium supports the autonomy plan. In doing so, Belgium follows other European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.
But Morocco cannot count on support everywhere and certainly not from neighbouring Algeria. It is no secret that there have been frustrations between the two countries for years. Algeria also openly supports the Polisario in the process.
‘That support dates back to 1975’, explains Khadija Mohsen-Finan, political scientist and author of the book Sahara occidental: Les enjeux d’un conflit régional (Western Sahara: the stakes of a regional conflict, TN). ‘The motivation for that support is essentially political. It wants to weaken Morocco.’
This is because both countries want to strengthen their grip on the region. Unlike Morocco, Algeria has no access to the Atlantic Ocean, which Western Sahara can offer. There is also a lot of phosphate to mine, one of the main synthetic fertilisers, which is important for agricultural production. A Moroccan state-owned company now mines and exports it.
That Algeria supports the Polisario weakens the Moroccan state’s position, and they know it in Rabat. So Morocco is doing the same by openly supporting an Algerian independence movement.
The Mouvement pour l’autonomie de la Kabylie (MAK, or Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia, TN) saw the light of day in 2001, and seeks an independent Kabylia in northeastern Algeria. The movement was founded by Ferhat Mehenni, a former singer who made the underrepresentation of the Amazigh Kabylian identity the spearhead of his activism. He saw that the identity, culture and language of the original inhabitants were not given enough space by the Algerian state. And this was compounded by great socio-economic dissatisfaction among this population.
Initially, the MAK sought only autonomy, but meanwhile the movement dreams of independence. Moroccan support for the Kabylian cause began in 2015. Moroccan diplomat Omar Rabi then called at the UN to grant Kabylia self-determination rights.
‘It is paradoxical: supporting independence movements in a neighbouring country, while they are not tolerated at home and are fought by all means.’
That position was reiterated in 2021 by Moroccan UN ambassador Omar Hilale at a meeting of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation. ‘More than anyone else, the people of Kabylia have the right to self-determination’, he affirmed.
Paolo De Mas calls this a striking paradox. ‘Supporting independence movements in a neighbouring country, while separatist and independence movements are not tolerated at home and are fought by all means.’ De Mas is a Morocco expert and former director of the Netherlands Institute in Morocco (NIMAR).
For Morocco, there is now the added risk that Algeria will support not only the Polisario but also Riffian independence movement. This is already happening in Algerian media and on social media.
Self-determination for Kabylia
Not long after Hilale’s statements at the UN in 2021, the Algerian Supreme Security Council indicated that relations between the two countries were in need of revision, due to ‘Morocco’s hostile actions against Algeria.’ That Security Council is a consultative body between the Algerian president, army and security forces.
‘In the struggle for regional hegemony, Morocco and Algeria are using all means, including propaganda, indoctrination and fake news.’
Algeria also accused Morocco and the MAK of starting fierce forest fires in Kabylia, although without any evidence. It also called the normalisation of relations between Morocco and Israel in 2020 problematic. Economically and militarily, the two countries now cooperate, while Algeria has strong solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
The issue is also heating up tempers this year. ‘You demand self-determination and the decolonisation of Western Sahara, but forget to end the colonisation of Kabylians, who have been living under Algerian occupation since as far back as 1962’, Moroccan UN ambassador Hilale said.
De Mas: ‘In the struggle for regional hegemony, Morocco and Algeria are using all means, including propaganda, indoctrination and fake news. Algerian support for the Polisario is countered by Morocco’s public support for the Kabylian movement in Algeria. Morocco repays Algeria with its own coin.’
Ferhat Mehenni, the MAK leader living in France, welcomes Moroccan support for the Kabylian cause. ‘Morocco can help us by opening a Kabylia diplomatic representation in Rabat’, he indicated in an interview with news site L’observateur.
Mehenni is also interfering on the Western Sahara issue. For instance, he thinks the Moroccan autonomy plan is more sensible than the Algerian stance. ‘That is a political strategy’, says Tashfin Essaguiar, an Amsterdam-based political science student, who closely follows political developments in North Africa related to Amazigh groups, as well as tensions between Morocco and Algeria. ‘Recognising Western Sahara as part of Morocco and thus taking a pro-Moroccan position is a strategic win-win situation for both sides.’
Moroccan support for the MAK, as a response to Algeria’s long-term support for the Polisario, may agitate Algeria psychologically. ‘Because of this Moroccan support, the MAK is high on the Algerian political agenda’, Essaguiar said. ‘And that makes it more difficult for MAK sympathisers in Algeria to promote the MAK in Kabylian regions.’
Support for the Riffian cause is also increasingly emerging. Polisario leader Brahim Ghali, for instance, spoke out clearly in an interview with television station Alhurra. ‘Let the Moroccan regime be generous and grant autonomy to the Rif’, he said.
Algeria classified the MAK as a terrorist organisation in 2021. Morocco did not yet make any official statements on the Riffian movements, such as The National Assembly of the Rif (NAR) or the Stichting Riffijns Republikeinse Congres (RRC, or the Riffian Republican Congress Foundation, TN).
NAR was founded in 2018 with coordinator Moussa Fathi living in Belgium. It aims to defend the human rights of Riffians worldwide, but does not officially seek an independent Riffian republic. However, many members and sympathisers are republican. In 2019, the RRC emerged in the Netherlands; unlike the NAR, the RRC focuses on the foundation of a Riffian republic.
‘Probably the government in Rabat does not yet see Riffian republicanism as a significant danger due to its amateurism, its small following and the movement’s lack of support and lack of growth’, Essaguiar says. But, he also stresses, that does not mean there is free rein for Riffian activists.
‘Riffians and Kabylians are merely disposable instruments in a higher-level geopolitical joust.’
De Mas considers it unlikely that support for independence movements could cause an escalation between Algeria and Morocco. ‘Propagandistic lip service’, he now calls it. But, he also nuances, ‘actual financial aid to separatist movements may well cause escalation again.’
Moreover, there is a big difference between Algerian support for the Polisario and Riffian movements. ‘Refugee camps in Tindouf (a town in Algeria, on the border with Western Sahara, ed.) are supported by Algeria. The support to the Rif is rather in words.’
With regards to accepting support from external players, Riffians and Kabylians should think carefully, stresses De Mas. ‘They are merely disposable instruments in a higher-level geopolitical joust.’
He also warns of the problems foreign support can create. ‘Secessionist movements are regarded in both countries as the ultimate high treason against which the government uses all means. Foreign support can be an additional pretext to strike down a movement and sentence leaders to severe punishments.’