Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Is Tunisia Abandoning Morocco for Algeria?

President Kais Saied’s government is turning away from Rabat, warming up to Algiers, and inviting Polisario Front leaders to Tunis.

By , a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.
Western Sahara's Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali (C) attends the opening session of the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Tunisia's capital Tunis on Aug. 27.
Western Sahara's Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali (C) attends the opening session of the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Tunisia's capital Tunis on Aug. 27.
Western Sahara's Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali (C) attends the opening session of the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Tunisia's capital Tunis on Aug. 27. FETHI BELAID/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Power balances in North Africa are shifting. The latest indication that Algeria’s star is rising—along with European demand for its natural gas—as Moroccan influence wanes was all but confirmed by Tunisia’s decision to include the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement the Polisario Front in an investment conference, a move seemingly designed to ruffle feathers in Morocco.

The Polisario Front, with Algerian support, has been fighting to secure independence for the disputed territory of the Western Sahara since 1973, a move fiercely contested by Morocco since it claimed the territory in dramatic fashion two years later, when some 350,000 flag-carrying Moroccans crossed the desert in Rabat’s “Green March” and essentially forced Spain to hand it over. Fleeing the Moroccan advance, the local population, the Sahrawis, headed for Algeria, eventually settling in a cluster of refugee camps near Tindouf, where they have remained since.

For decades, Tunisia has looked on, maintaining its neutral stance as both sides jockeyed for dominance. However, by appearing to have unilaterally invited Brahim Ghali, the Polisario leader and president of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, to a conference it was holding in tandem with Japan, that neutrality has come into question. Moreover, for many observers, the invitation confirmed what many suspected: that Tunisia is growing increasingly close to Algeria, potentially at the expense of its historically close ties with Morocco, while Rabat’s relations with Japan, which Tunis enjoys a burgeoning relationship with, are cast into doubt.

Power balances in North Africa are shifting. The latest indication that Algeria’s star is rising—along with European demand for its natural gas—as Moroccan influence wanes was all but confirmed by Tunisia’s decision to include the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement the Polisario Front in an investment conference, a move seemingly designed to ruffle feathers in Morocco.

The Polisario Front, with Algerian support, has been fighting to secure independence for the disputed territory of the Western Sahara since 1973, a move fiercely contested by Morocco since it claimed the territory in dramatic fashion two years later, when some 350,000 flag-carrying Moroccans crossed the desert in Rabat’s “Green March” and essentially forced Spain to hand it over. Fleeing the Moroccan advance, the local population, the Sahrawis, headed for Algeria, eventually settling in a cluster of refugee camps near Tindouf, where they have remained since.

For decades, Tunisia has looked on, maintaining its neutral stance as both sides jockeyed for dominance. However, by appearing to have unilaterally invited Brahim Ghali, the Polisario leader and president of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, to a conference it was holding in tandem with Japan, that neutrality has come into question. Moreover, for many observers, the invitation confirmed what many suspected: that Tunisia is growing increasingly close to Algeria, potentially at the expense of its historically close ties with Morocco, while Rabat’s relations with Japan, which Tunis enjoys a burgeoning relationship with, are cast into doubt.

The details of the invitation are opaque at best. The conference, the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, was staged in Tunisia, where Ghali flew in to be met, as with other leaders, off the plane by Tunisian President Kais Saied.

Although Morocco’s sensitivity on the subject of the Western Sahara may seem surprising, the fate of the territory has become a central pillar of the kingdom’s worldview.

His presence appeared to take many by surprise, not least Morocco, which swiftly issued furious missives of the “hurt” caused to the Moroccan people by Tunis’s action. Ambassadors were withdrawn by both countries while Morocco’s newspapers denounced Tunisia’s shortcomings.

Saied and his foreign ministry claimed surprise at the reaction, citing a circular from the African Union, which extended the invitation to all leaders, including Ghali. A statement was issued by the foreign ministry, reaffirming the country’s total neutrality in line with international law, stating, “This position will not change until the concerned parties find a peaceful solution acceptable to all.”

Saied’s ultimate goal remains a matter for speculation. However, with Algeria proving a key energy supplier during Tunisia’s seemingly endless economic crisis while lending vocal support to the president’s legitimacy, Algiers’ rising clout was likely prominent in Saied’s thoughts.

Although Morocco’s sensitivity on the subject of the Western Sahara may seem surprising, the fate of the territory has become a central pillar of the kingdom’s worldview. Criticism of Rabat’s deal over the territory with the former Trump administration as well as allowing access to the country’s medical facilities have led to diplomatic breakdowns with Germany and Spain, with the latter also getting dragged into a spying scandal.

Speaking just before the conference, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI used a televised address to send what he said was a clear message to the world, telling viewers, “The Sahara issue is the prism through which Morocco views its international environment.”

As recently as December 2020, Morocco’s position appeared assured. Washington had agreed to formally recognize Rabat’s claim to the Western Sahara in return for a corresponding nod to Israel. Spain and Germany, both former critics of the kingdom’s relations with the Sahrawis, had reconciled with the kingdom, supporting Rabat’s plan to establish some form of semi-autonomous government within the region, a move resisted by the Sahrawi people, who insisted on a referendum to determine the area’s fate.

However, with European gas prices soaring, Algeria—Europe’s third-largest gas supplier (after Russia and Norway) and the Polisario Front’s chief backer—is also enjoying a diplomatic renaissance. European politicians and regional power brokers are all enjoying a renewed interest in Algiers, with Tunisia’s Saied among them. His July visit secured the reopening of land borders, closed two years earlier to contain the spread of COVID-19, allowing Algerian families to travel into Tunisia and support Tunisia’s ill-fated tourism industry. Tunis also relies on Algeria for its own gas, buying it at a discounted price, as well as receiving revenue for the transport of Algerian gas across its territory, bound for Sicily and then the rest of Europe.

“The war in Ukraine and its impacts on Europe in terms of gas supplies reposition Algeria as an important player in the western Mediterranean,” Raouf Farrah, a senior analyst with Global Initiative told Foreign Policy. “Rabat is more worried about this than its ability to obtain gas supplies at competitive prices following the closure of the [Gazoduc Maghreb Europe] pipeline, which used to supply Spain via Morocco.”

The plight of the Sahrawis is one of the world’s longest-standing refugee crises. Since 1975, thousands of Sahrawis have been sheltering in the Algerian desert, waiting for the opportunity to return home. The violent campaign fought by Polisario against Rabat was brought to an approximate end in 1991 with a United Nations-brokered cease-fire, providing for a fractious peace. However, even that appears uncertain, with clashes between the Polisario Front and Morocco increasing over the last two years.

With Algiers proving a key energy supplier during Tunisia’s economic crisis while lending vocal support to the president’s legitimacy, Algeria’s rising clout was likely prominent in Saied’s thoughtsMeanwhile, the U.N. estimates that around 90,000 “vulnerable refugees” are sheltering in the desert, relying on international aid just for their daily food and shelter. Relocating the refugees has proven a fraught problem for all concerned, with political and economic problems all serving as a break on progress.

Although some infrastructure exists, with the refugees operating a state in exile, Bahia Awah, a Sahrawi writer and poet, told Foreign Policy—from what he described as his exile in Spain—that life remained difficult. “Weather conditions are especially adverse in this part of southern Algeria, where temperatures in summer can reach up to more than of 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit), which causes casualties among the elderly, children, and pregnant women.”

While Algeria’s clout may have been boosted for now, how much difference that will make to a dispute the U.S. government weighed in on in dramatic fashion at the end of the Trump administration remains unclear. For Jonathan Hill, a historian from King’s College London, the fate of the Western Sahara and the Sahrawis has, over the decades, morphed from a pragmatic problem to an unswerving policy position and, as such, risks becoming intractable.

“The problem really is one of leadership,” he said. “In 1976, at the time of the Green March, there was a practical problem that everyone recognized needed a solution. However, with both Algeria and Morocco having relatively static leaderships, where there is little change in personnel, the dispute was allowed to rumble on to the point where the Sahrawis fate really has become a matter of faith.”

How long Tunisia’s pivot may endure is uncertain. However, the fact that Tunis made that pivot at all speaks directly to the new order now taking shape within the region—whether the Sahrawis benefit from that or not.

Simon Speakman Cordall is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia. Twitter: @IgnitionUK

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