Fighting over the Maghreb - Algeria vs. Morocco

Algerian-Moroccan relations have not improved since Morocco accused Algeria of being involved in the 1994 shooting of two tourists at a hotel in Marrakech. The antagonisms have only increased because of the media war between the two countries who use the unresolved Western Sahara border region as the main point of contention.
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Moroccan King, Mohammad VI -- Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and King Mohammad have not engaged in talks over the Western Sahara since March 2008.

ALGIERS, April 14, 2009 (MENASSAT) – If it were up to official Moroccan and Algerian media outlets, it would be years before the two countries inked a viable agreement about how to handle a longstanding border dispute in the Western Sahara.

Critics on both sides of the border say official media has been battling over the legitimacy of the Western Sahara since Morocco annexed the territory after former colonial power Spain left in the 1970's.

Algeria has suggested letting the independence-minded Polisario movement vote for its own independence, while Morocco has offered the inhabitants in the Western Sahara a form of autonomy under Moroccan rule.

Relations between the two countries have been at a standstill on the issue since 1994, when gunmen killed 2 Spanish tourists at a hotel in Marrakech, something Morocco blames Algeria for - charges the Algerian government flatly denies.

And the typical news coverage between the countries resembles the back and forth of a tennis match:

Official Algerian media recently reported setting up a diplomatic branch in the disputed area of the Western Sahara in an effort to open up negotiations with the separatist movement there, the Polisario Front.

The move preceded the April 9 re-election of Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to his third 5-year term, but Morocco lost its diplomatic cool on Monday (April 13) when it accused Algeria of sneaking some 1,400 pro-Polisario loyalists into Moroccan territory.

Moroccan papers quoted the foreign ministry of saying, "This incident is [in line with] repeated attempts by Algeria and Polisario aimed at scuttling UN efforts to relaunch the dynamic of [peace] negotiations" over the border region.

The official Moroccan press shot back that the Western Sahara is 100% Moroccan, adding that the (alleged) Algerian interference in Moroccan affairs is unacceptable.

Recent attempts at peace - 2008

Signs of progress between the two countries seemed to be heading in the right direction in early 2008, as the border was opened temporarily in 2008 in what Morocco said was its hope “to open a new page in the relationship between the two countries.”

But prevailing elements in the ruling elite of both countries conspired against the normalization of relations, something that was duly reflected in the media.

During a July 2008 speech to signify his 9th year of rule, Moroccan King, Mohammad VI, made a speech that was considered conciliatory to Algeria.

Accordingly, the official Moroccan newspapers described the king’s attempt to open the frontiers as a practical means of addressing the concerns of Algerians and Moroccans living on opposite sides of the border, leaving families separated since 1994.

But the official Algerian press would have none of it, focusing instead on the Moroccan king's “intentions.”

Algerian paper Al-Masa said the speech didn’t carry any new provisions for resolving the border issues, instead the paper characterized the Moroccan king's offering as being an offer from a desperate man.

The paper described the offer as coming at a time when Morocco's economy could benefit from the influx of Algerian tourists that would visit Morocco when the borders were open in years past.

French-speaking Algerian daily Al-Watan said the king's offer was just a means of glossing over the fact that Morocco had publicly blamed Algeria for having a hand in the 1994 hotel attack, and had deported an untold number of Algerians in the previous 14 years.

Al-Watan also suggested that the Moroccan king's 1998 peace offering was actually more of a threat because Morocco had refused several previous Algerian border dispute initiatives.

Algerian Al-Khabar daily used the king's speech to highlight Morocco's alleged criticism over Algeria's support over the Polisario's right to self-determination in the Western Sahara - without mentioning that Algeria funded and armed the pro-Algerian Polisario movement.

Moroccan newspapers like the pro-regime Aujourd'hui le Maroc said it was the Algerians that were a barrier to resolving the issue of the Saharan tribes, quoting Moroccan officials as saying Algeria's stance on the matter was contrary to the aspirations of the people of the Maghreb and detrimental to peace and development within the region.

With no real press coming from the disputed region, it is hard to know what the mood is on the ground in the Western Sahara.

Cross-border smuggling as a focus

Bringing the issue to the present, border issues have continued to dominate the press dialog between the two countries.

Although the Algerian-Moroccan frontier has been closed since 1994, the reality is that smuggling activities have continued unabated.

Predictably the press on both sides of the border have had very different takes on the issue.

Algerian newspapers like Al-Joumhouria wrote that “visiting Wajda (a Moroccan city on the frontiers) makes us think we are in Algeria, for most of the Algerian goods are present on all the shops’ shelves.”

Al-Joumhouria's columnist Souwarit Wassini suggested said that years of smuggling was having disastrous results on the economy. He specifically suggested that Algerian fuel smugglers were operating in Algerian border towns selling thousands of liters of fuel to Moroccan border towns.

“Any border resolution,” Wassini suggested recently, “would have no financial benefits for Algeria.”

Managing editor of Algerian weekly Al-Khabar Al-Ousboui  wrote a lengthy report in March about smuggling entitled “The fuel republic and the drugs kingdom.”

Even with a vibrant smuggling trade, he suggested that Algerians were only smuggling basic goods into Morocco, including food supplies and fuel, while accusing Moroccan smuggles of flooding Algeria with drugs.

Al-Khabar Al-Ousbui also linked the smuggling to an increase in the Algerian prison system - mostly because of drug related offenses.

As for the Moroccan press, pro-government dailies like Al-Sabah have characterized the smuggling as an international crisis requiring an international response. It likened the issue to the smuggling along the USA-Mexico border that has spiraled out of control in recent years.

Other Moroccan dailies have countered Algerian claims that Morocco is the only country benefiting from the illegal influx of basic goods.

Papers like the pro-regime Al-Alam cite the smuggling of produce like oranges and cranberries, as well as essential textile goods into Algeria via the disputed border region.

Moroccan press has also blamed Algeria and the Polisario of allowing Southern Saharan refugees into Morocco who are seeking refuge in Europe.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has suggested the U.N. Security Council press Western Sahara's independence movement and Morocco to resume negotiations on the future of the territory.

Four attempted mediation attempts have failed since 2007.