Algeria turns ‘deaf ear’ to border dispute

Morocco wants the border reopened for economic reasons, but the issue remains a low priority for Algeria, experts say.

The border between Morocco and Algeria is one of the longest closed frontiers in the world [Reuters]

Marsa Ben M’hdi, Algeria – The Algeria-Morocco frontier has remained closed for the past 20 years because of political friction, with locals on each side of the border eagerly awaiting a resolution.

To the west lies Saida beach in Morocco; to the east is Marsa Ben M’hdi, also known as “Port-say”, a small city on the Mediterranean coast in Algeria. Only a small sandbank separates thousands of Moroccan-Algerian families living in the borderland.

“Every week, I used to visit my aunt and my cousins, who reside in Saida. Since 1994, I have not seen them a single time,” Hamouda, a former Algerian policeman who did not provide a last name, told Al Jazeera.

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The border between Morocco and Algeria, which runs for about 1,600km, is one of the longest closed frontiers in the world. Algeria shut its land border with Morocco in 1994 after Rabat imposed visa regulations on Algerian visitors in the wake of a terrorist attack on the Atlas Asni Hotel in Marrakech. At the time, Morocco suspected Algiers was behind the bombing.

“Rabat expected Algiers to slap visa requirements on Moroccans, but the kingdom could not imagine that Algeria would also retaliate by closing the border crossings,” Abdelaziz Rahabi, who served as the Algerian ambassador in Spain at the time, told Al Jazeera. “Algeria reacted firmly as the country was going through a rough patch. Actually, 1994 was one of the bloodiest years of the black decade [when a civil war raged between the government and armed groups].” 

Since then, checkpoints, on both sides of the border, have been closed and controls tightened. The two countries marked the 20th anniversary of the closure of their common border this year by building a barbed-wire fence, starting from the beach, under the pretext of fighting both terrorism and trafficking. “It is expected to separate the entire frontier,” a young guard, posted in Marsa Ben M’hdi beach, told Al Jazeera in an interview last month. So far, the fence stretches about 40km along the border.

In Morocco, this is a burning topic but in Algeria, this is really not the top priority.

by - Amel Boubekeur, international security expert

As a consequence of the closure, families separated by the frontier must fly to the neighbouring country to visit their loved ones, although some manage to reunite on the parallel roads leading to the coast alongside the border. Hamid, who did not want to provide a last name and whose mother was recently planning to fly to see her sister in Morocco for the first time since 1993, described the journey as a “long and expensive trip”. 

Signs of a thaw between Algeria and Morocco initially appeared years ago, after King Mohamed VI’s accession to the throne in Morocco and the election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika as Algeria’s president in 1999. In the summer of 2004, Morocco decided that Algerian travellers would no longer need a visa to enter Morocco.

A year later, in 2005, Algeria returned the favour. But the two countries stopped engaging in dialogue soon after, when Morocco’s King Mohammed VI announced, at the last minute, that the visit of then-Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia was “inappropriate.” 

As a result, what was first a temporary measure in 1994 has become the status quo. Now in his fourth term and at the age of 77, an ailing Bouteflika has consistently refused to reopen the border. 

“In Morocco, this is a burning topic but in Algeria, this is really not the top priority. So, the Bouteflika administration turns a deaf ear to Morocco’s persistent calls for the reopening of the border,” Amel Boubekeur, a non-resident fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Al Jazeera. Some Moroccans believe that the powerful State Intelligence Service (DRS) prevents Bouteflika from reopening the border, she added. 

The row over the Western Sahara has further strained diplomatic relations between the two countries. Morocco has asserted control over this desert region against demands for independence made by the Polisario movement, whose claims Algeria supports. And given recent security threats along Algeria’s Libyan border, Africa’s largest country is unlikely to reopen its Moroccan border, experts say.

“Morocco keeps pushing to reopen the border with its wealthier neighbour because, unlike Algeria, it has no gas or oil of its own,” Rahabi said. “The closure of the land border impacts Morocco’s economy more, mainly in potential tourist and trade flows.”

Algerian-Moroccan political deadlock also deeply impedes economic integration in the Maghreb, which is among the least economically integrated regions in the world. The Arab Maghreb Union, a regional organisation created in 1989 to foster economic and political union, has failed to encourage trade in North Africa in large part because of this deadlock, said Hichem Sakhi, a member of the 20th February Movement, a liberal grassroots organisation calling for free movement of all Maghreb people.

“The development of Morocco and Algeria depends on economic cooperation between these two countries,” said Sakhi, who dreams of being able to drive to Algeria. According to World Bank data, the per-capita GDP in Algeria and Morocco would have nearly doubled between 2005 and 2015 had meaningful regional integration been promoted. 

“In the wake of globalisation, it is time for reunification, not division,” Abdelmoumen Fersaoui, an Algerian social activist and a member of the Maghreb Social Forum, told Al Jazeera. 

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Meanwhile, the border region remains the territory of smugglers. Perched on the far western edge of Algeria, about 600km west of the capital Algiers, Maghnia, the main city in the oriental region of Maroc, is the capital of smugglers. Here, the cafeterias are full of bootleggers.

“Their phones never stop ringing,” said Massi, 22, who works in a pizzeria.

“Clothing, food, medicine – every product is 10 times cheaper here than in Morocco,” local resident Mohamed, 35, told Al Jazeera. “The most valuable commodity is petrol.”

While petitions calling for the reopening of the border are regularly posted online, local resident Tarik Nesh-Nash believes that sport may also help to restore relations between Algeria and Morocco. Inspired by a similar venture in the US state of Arizona, Nesh-Nash, who lives in Tangier, is helping to organise a cross-border volleyball game this month.

“We would love to bring together people from each side,” he said. “The border was closed during almost my entire life. The situation must change.”

Source: Al Jazeera