Football row brings bitter Algeria-Morocco rivalry to forefront

Moroccan national team withdrew from this month’s Algeria-hosted African Nations Championship.

The beautiful game is often able to unite the world, but when it comes to Algeria and Morocco, even football is failing to bridge the decades-long rivalry between the North African neighbours.

The latest controversy occurred this month when Morocco withdrew from the African Nations Championship, held in Algeria.

The Moroccans announced hours before the tournament began on January 13 that they would not be going because they had not been given permission to fly directly from Rabat to the Algerian city of Constantine and they refused to travel by an indirect route.

Moroccan aircraft have been banned from entering Algerian airspace since August 2021 after Algiers broke off relations with Rabat for what it called “hostile actions” against Algeria.

The decision occurred after forest fires engulfed the Kabylie region of Algeria, its government blamed “terrorist” groups and accused Morocco of supporting one of them.

Many Algerians have reacted to Morocco pulling out of the tournament with incredulity.

“The Moroccan government used their recent media exposure after the World Cup to leverage their way into opening the airspace,” Ahmed Zadi, an Algerian student, told Al Jazeera, referring to the regional and continental support for Morocco after its strong showing at the World Cup in Qatar.

“They didn’t make such claims in the [2022] Mediterranean Games previously as they flew in normally from Tunisia.” Zadi said, “so it is now more apparent that they are trying to sully our image”.

The tournament’s opening ceremony added more fuel to the fire when the grandson of South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, made a speech that was angrily received in Morocco. Mandla Mandela made reference to Western Sahara, where an Algeria-backed resistance movement has long called for the territory’s independence from Morocco.

Algeria-Morocco relations have been “in a very precarious position for a while”, said Intissar Fakir, senior fellow and director of the North Africa and Sahel Program at the Middle East Institute.

“But the break that happened in 2021 ushered in one of the most tense periods of this relationship that we have seen, probably since the border skirmishes of the 60s and late 70s,” Fakir said, referring to the 1963 Sand War and Algerian support for the Western Saharan armed struggle against Morocco.

More recently, two big developments have led to a rapid diplomatic deterioration between Algeria and Morocco, namely the recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara by the United States and Morocco’s normalisation of ties with Israel.

“From Algeria’s leadership’s perspective, it really brings a whole new factor of uncertainty to the military situation in North Africa,” Fakir said. “Algeria is one of the main supporters of the Palestinian cause in terms of sentiment, and then you have Morocco essentially going ahead and normalising the relationship in such a public and proud way that has really increased discomfort.”

Zine Labidine Ghebouli, a political analyst based in Algiers, agrees.

“The Western Sahara dossier is the bargaining chip that shapes tensions between Algiers and Rabat,” Ghebouli told Al Jazeera. “At the same time, the ongoing cold war [between the two] is about bigger issues.”

“Both Algiers and Rabat want to assume a leadership role for North Africa and are seeking to expand and strengthen their regional influence across North Africa, the Sahel and the Mediterranean,” Ghebouli said.

“This relates both to Rabat’s willingness to consolidate its diplomatic posture as an ally to the West and Algiers’ desire to mark its comeback as a powerful independent player,” he added.

According to Fakir, there has been tension in Morocco as it seeks to achieve a delicate balancing act: on one hand shrugging off concerns that the situation with Algeria could lead to military escalation while at the same time not wanting to show weakness.

“The way I see it is that there is no scenario in which this Moroccan leadership and this Algerian leadership can ever become great neighbours and friends,” Fakir said. “I think Algeria is happy to keep things where they are because … in the [current] geopolitical climate with [high] energy and gas prices and Europe being very patient, it’s working well for them.”

Algeria is benefitting from the high energy prices and has stepped up its exports of gas in particular to Italy and Spain following a reduction of supply from Russia.

‘Khawa, khawa’

Despite the political differences between Algeria and Morocco, close ties still exist between their people.

In fact, the saying “maghreb w djazair khawa khawa,” or “Morocco and Algeria are brothers,” remains common and implies that the issues between their governments is not representative of their people.

Yet that bond has been tested thoroughly through social media as animosity and vitriol from both sides has been growing to a fever pitch.

“I strongly believe the term ‘khawa khawa’ should always be respected and [be] the standard, but I think the whole of Algeria also has zero respect for any Moroccan who stands behind the normalisation of relations with Israel,” said an Algerian student named Zadi. “Seeing Moroccans raising Palestinian flags in Qatar [at the World Cup] made us regain faith in our neighbours.”

The animosity is part and parcel of the cold war that exists on all fronts between Algeria and Morocco. Even a football kit used by Algeria has caused tempers to run high in Morocco because of its perceived use of a Moroccan motif in the design.

“I think the historic bonds between the Algerian and Moroccan people are much stronger and much deeper [than can] be easily touched or scarred over the ongoing tensions or even with the attempts of some sides from both capitals to influence this relationship,” Ghebouli said.

While public sentiment is different from what is amplified on social media, the high-level dispute has found new ways to seep into the situation.

“I think a lot of Moroccans still welcome Algerians,” Fakir said. “They still think, ‘Yes, we’re all the same people.’ But you’ll also find plenty of mutual distrust and suspicion that is capitalised on by government discourse and propaganda.”

Any hopes for talks this year have been dashed so far with predictions that the tension between the two North African powerhouses will remain.

A moment to watch later in the year will be the renewal of the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, a UN mission established in 1991 to prepare for a referendum in which Western Saharans would vote on whether to integrate with Morocco or choose independence.

The referendum has never taken place and looks remote at the present time, but the UN Security Council will vote on whether to extend the mandate for the mission for another year beyond October 31.

Despite the animosity and sharp rhetoric from both capitals, military escalation does seem highly unlikely.

“We know historically that when one of these countries is facing a big destabilising event, the other country tends to back off,” Fakir said. “Ultimately, they don’t want to have an unstable neighbour. This is the irony of it.”

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