Tensions surrounding Western Sahara issue and border conflict, and historical ideological and political disputes between Rabat and Algiers over regional hegemony may severely affect the regional security of the Maghreb.
The history of these tensions date back to the post-French colonial period, although both peoples experienced the struggle for liberation and resistance to colonialism. In fact, Morocco turned into a major backer of the Algerian liberation movement after it gained independence in the mid-fifties, following the Algerians' entry into the violent liberation revolution against French colonialism. It ended by gaining independence in 1962, after more than 130 years under French colonialism.
Immediately after that, the conflict between the two countries erupted into a military confrontation, known as the Sands War in 1963, resulting from the sharp dispute over the border areas that Algeria refused to give up in favor of Morocco. Conversely, the latter claimed France had seized these territories from the Moroccan Sultanate during its occupation of Algeria.
This war had severe repercussions on bilateral diplomatic relations, and it still poses an obstacle that complicates overcoming the historical crisis between Rabat and Algiers. Moreover, the crisis deepened following the emergence of the Western Sahara issue in the 1970s of the last century, when Morocco tightened its control over the Sahara after the Accords with Spain, justifying its annexation operation by its legitimate and historical rights in these territories.
At the same time, Algeria rejected the Moroccan move and responded by supporting and arming the Polisario Front as armed militias to fight fiercely the Moroccan forces. Their confrontations are still ongoing after their recent aggravation.
The issue of Western Sahara has become one of the most prominent contentious issues and has increased the dispute between the two rivals. Each party seeks to achieve essential goals in this conflict that has been raging for more than four decades.
From the Moroccan regime's perspective, Western Sahara is an issue of national sovereignty, as its loss weakens Morocco as a regional power in favor of Algeria. In fact, it is a region rich in natural resources, holding the largest global reserves of phosphates. This also includes considerable fishing resources that provide tens of thousands of jobs for Moroccans. Therefore, the Moroccan state considers this region a solid addition to the national economy that cannot be waived. Hence, this explains the Moroccans tightening their grip on the region militarily, economically, and diplomatically. Assuming that the conflict is resolved in their favor, this will undoubtedly strengthen the Kingdom's regional position against its adversary, which means a crucial shift in the balance of power in the Maghreb region.
As for Algeria, the official story justifies the adoption and support of the Polisario Front and its demand for independence for reasons related mainly to the people's right to self-determination and the ideology of national liberation from colonialism. Nevertheless, the Algerian regime aims to besiege its Moroccan foe and undermine its regional influence, thus achieving regional hegemony. Hence, Algeria, which continues to classify itself as the hegemon and regional power in the Maghreb, plans to support Polisario militias to isolate Morocco from the rest of the African continent and weaken it as much as possible. For this reason, the establishment of a "pawn" state in the Sahara would ensure the success of this strategy.
This fierce competition between the two countries has severe implications for Maghreb regional security, as the two rivals have embarked on a frantic arms race in recent years, becoming the most significant arms buyers on the African continent. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute 2020 report, Morocco and Algeria account for nearly 56% of all African arms sales. While Morocco spent nearly $18 billion on arms between 2016 and 2020, Algerian military investments exceeded $40 billion for the same period. This represents 145 billion dollars annually and about 4,000 dollars as an average GDP per capita for the Algerian economy, while for the Moroccan economy, it is around 120 billion dollars of total GDP and nearly 3000 dollars as an average GDP per capita income.
In this vein, this rivalry over regional hegemony has dramatically raised the military spending budget. In turn, it has exacerbated the two countries' economic situation, as the two rivals are already suffering from weak economic growth and low gross domestic product. Moreover, poverty and unemployment, illegal immigration, crime, and drug smuggling rates remain significantly high, explaining continued protests and demonstrations against government policies. Therefore, the policy of marginalizing investment in vital sectors contributing to economic growth and improving the social status of citizens, such as education, health, and industry sector, in return for the focus on maximizing military capabilities as a top priority of the government agenda, has resulted mainly in an increase in security threats and the creation of a state of instability in the Maghreb.
Consequently, all these factors fuel antagonism between the two parties over regional leadership have prompted at lack of security cooperation. Therefore, it has hindered the possibility of achieving regional integration and building a joint security policy and failed to shape a stable regional security system. In addition, this mistrust between the two leading powers in the region has hindered cooperation in collective security. It is still an obstacle to establishing the Maghreb Union as a regional organization similar to the European Union. Moreover, the two central states have disrupted the coherence of the sub-regional system and hindered any intention to realize a regional integration through the AMU project.
Analyzing the dynamics of the Maghreb security system through studying the relations and interactions among the region's units confirms that the Moroccan-Algerian rivalry has turned the Maghreb regional security into a bipolar system.
Furthermore, the bipolar system in the Maghreb has produced fragile states revolving in the orbit of the region's two rivals. Libya, which was the third regional power, was weakened dramatically after the fall of the Gaddafi regime which led to chaos and a failed state. Similarly, Tunisia is a country that has, since the collapse of the dictatorial regime of Ben Ali, been in a state of political instability and a stifling economic crisis that has made it dependent on debts and financial aid. Meanwhile, Mauritania is an unstable country; it lacks economic capabilities, which affects its security and military capabilities, pushing it to adopt political neutrality in the regional rivalry and the Western Sahara issue.
Morocco and Algeria behave as rational actors in the Maghreb who seek to preserve their national security, ensure their survival, and become regional hegemons. Therefore, their security policies are based on an offensive approach that seeks to maximize their security and military capabilities to achieve the status of the hegemonor . However, survival is a prerequisite for the security policies of Morocco and Algeria, where the invasion of the other and the expansion by occupying its territory constitute the main threat they must counter.
The study of the Maghreb region through an offensive realism view necessitates dismantling the region's dynamics. For example, the pattern of enmity has a significant impact on the relations and interactions among the units of the Maghreb states. These variables are based mainly on historical backgrounds that produce enmity between the RSC's units. In more precise terms, these patterns are influenced by factors of history, culture, religion, ethnicity, and geography, as indicated by Barry Buzan. Therefore, it can either unite states through cooperation in the case of amity; otherwise, it can lead to conflict and hostility among states in the case of enmity.
As was previously stated, the Algerian-Moroccan rivalry over regional hegemony, based on the historical dispute over borders and the issue of Western Sahara, has produced lack of trust and cooperation between them. Thus, this lack of security cooperation to counter the multiple security threats. The enmity between them hampers regional integration and pushes each party to maximize its power and make alliances with external actors in the race for the balance of power and distribution of power in the region. In short, it makes the Maghreb central states each other's security dilemma and potential threats.
Morocco and Algeria build their security policies based on the maximization of their powers as much as they can; as J. Mearsheimer (1994-1995) said: " the reason is straightforward: the greater the military advantage they hold over the other state, the more secure it is."
The territorial expansion represents the primary aim for both powers. Both forces adhere to the guiding principles of what realist writers such as Glaser refer to as "greedy" states. This implies they are acting as governments whose expansionist zeal is not motivated by security concerns but rather by a desire to enhance their relative power. For Morocco, realizing the ultimate geopolitical aim expressed in the notion of the "Great Maghreb" would allow it to rule the majority of the Maghreb, as the de facto dominant regional power based on its historical legitimacy as an old empire. In addition, Morocco would function as a "reviewing" power, calling the status quo into question, including Algeria's sovereignty over provinces such as Bechar and Tindouf, which Morocco considers its own.
The ramifications of hostility among the Maghreb rivals are related to geographical proximity, which has created a form of non-confidence in the inter-relations between the states and insecurity in their regional system, compounded by security competition and fierce armament to realize regional hegemony. In addition, the principle of Adjacency refers to the impact of a unity's security situation on the wider regional security of the rest of the regional units. In that case, the Libyan crisis is a real example of one where the civil War and chaos caused serious security repercussions on the security of the rest of the countries in the regional system.
Thus, addressing the issue of the Maghreb regional system and identifying its components and the most critical roles they can play in contrast to other sub-regional systems will contribute to identifying the primary entrances to the penetration of foreign powers in the Maghreb. It is noted that the interests of penetrated powers, whether political or economic, have a connection to the region or particular relations with one of the allies in the region. This explains the continuous process of intervention in the region, whether to protect foreign interests by securing energy supplies or maximizing economic gains, as in the case of Libya, when great powers such as France, Russia, Turkey, the US, and NATO intervened to overthrow the Gaddafi regime and protect their interests in Libyan oil and gas resources.
In addition, the penetration of the Maghreb region by the major powers has increased since the Cold War, when the United States and France intervened to support Morocco. In contrast, the Soviet Union and its allies supported Algeria and the Polisario in the conflict over the Sahara. Penetration in the Maghreb may be through an invitation from one of the regional system's countries to intervene to balance the power of another country in the region. In that case, Israel penetrated the Maghreb regional security complex last year by normalizing diplomatic relations with Morocco. This move resulted from several bilateral security and military agreements aimed primarily at strengthening the Israeli presence in this region and bolstering Morocco's military capabilities to ensure the balance of power with Algeria. The latter considered this penetration a threat to its national security and carried out a sharp diplomatic escalation against its rival, including economic sanctions, severing diplomatic relations, and a threat to declare war which would destabilize regional security.
It is noticeable that the units of the regional security system under analysis failed to achieve regional integration due to the exacerbation of the bilateral rivalry between Morocco and Algeria. This stands in stark contrast with the European regional security complex, whose countries succeeded in ensuring pure regional integration, specifically Germany and France, the two great powers of the EU, transcended the historical conflict between them. As a result, their democratic governments established a common security policy to counter regional security threats in the European sphere.
The failure of the Maghreb states in the regional security system can be summed up in the lack of democracy and the continuation of authoritarian elites ruling these countries. By the policy of distracting people through active disputes and continuous tensions, they fail to establish a policy of joint security cooperation and to solve economic and political problems by countering corruption and consolidating democratic rule and the rule of law.
Walid Blila is a graduate of the History Studies bachelor program and the Diplomacy and International Relations master program.