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Much has been made recently about the possibility of reopening the shared MoroccanAlgeria border, with a tentative date of may 2012 being cited by several sources, with more gloomy outlooks being forecast in some corners of the Arab world. Last week counterparts Saadeddine Othmani and Murad al-Madlasi, the Moroccan and Algerian ministers of foreign affairs, respectively, met with each other in a diplomatic overture not seen between the two countries since 2003. While expectations for such a move have ebbed and ﬂowed ever since King Mohammed VI took power in 1999, momentum seems to be building at this crucial time in state-level maneuvering in the wake of the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist political parties throughout North Africa. If the step to reopen the border is taken, it would uncork a longdormant economic potential in addition to serving as a landmark achievement of cooperation between the two countries.
On the economic side of the equation latent material gains have gone unrealized as a result of the border closings, costing each country billions of dollars as measured in potential industry, energy expenditures and tourism. An al-Akhbar English article estimated that Morocco misses out on $2 billion in revenue annually from Algerian tourism alone resulting from the border closure, a ﬁgure which was surely higher before the 2004 decision to lift visa restrictions on Algerians. With Tunisia still in a transitional phase after the fall of Ben Ali, Morocco is poised to “host an additional 1.5 to 2 million tourists from Algeria annually ... a shot in the arm for tourism... [which could] revive a number of projects in the east of the country, which were damaged by the earlier decision to close the border.”
The border closure has long stymied efforts to conduct even modest trade between the two countries. Algeria and Morocco claim the “lowest level of cross border trade of any two countries in the world,” and the intransigence of the problem has contributed to a very weak Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), with intra-Union trade amounting to 2% of the total trade conducted with the rest of the world. In the ﬁeld of energy production and consumption Morocco and Algeria consume 61.8% of the region’s energy as of 2006, but only Algeria is able to produce oil or natural gas, with the capacity to produce the latter at a rate more than that 5.5 times higher than Libya, Morocco’s largest trading partner in that sector. As a result of more open trade in these ﬁelds, the gains to be made in the eastern regions of the Morocco anchored around urban centers Oujda and Figuig, by many measures one of the least developed in the country where remittances provide much of the income, could have considerable effects on a situation in dire need of boost. Likewise, such a move would position Algeria to considerably strengthen the efﬁcacy of AMU efforts to promote regional trade to its own beneﬁt.
Beyond the material gains to be had for each country, there is the real possibility of making history by brokering the ﬁrst real border agreement between the two states without the input of outside actors. Most reports of the border dispute read as does this al-Arabiya article:
“In 1994, Morocco accused Algerian authorities of planning a hotel bombing that killed two Spanish tourists in the city of Marrakesh. Soon thereafter, Moroccan authorities placed visa
requirement on Algerians wishing to travel to Morocco. Algeria responded by slapping visa requirement on Moroccans and moved to close the borders with its neighboring kingdom.”
While this is an accurate accounting of the events which led to the 1994 border closings, it omits signiﬁcant aspects of the history of the border between the two countries. The borders between historical Moroccan and Algerian state actors was infrequently the subject of debate before the arrival of the French in Algeria in 1830. After the communication with the Moroccan Sultan Abderrahmane in 1842 in which he deemed the delineation of frontiers “unnecessary” (Heggoy, p. 18), the French in Algiers came to terms with the Cheriﬁan authorities in the Treaty of Lalla-Marnia in 1845, which established a border from the Mediterranean 163 km inland to the peak of Teniet al-Sessi (Reyner, p. 316); this was to be the “ﬁrst and last” agreement between the French and Moroccan authorities concerning frontiers and thereafter the French rarely pursued the demarcation of borders in the rest of their colonial holdings in Africa (Heggoy, p. 318-9). A 1902 extension of the Lalla-Mernia called the Varnier Line lengthened the treaty line south to Figuig and drew a loosely deﬁned border from that point to the south-west near modern Tindouf, an arrangement which informs the border to this day. The borders were solidiﬁed with Moroccan authorities’ agreement to become a protectorate in 1912 and a series of Franco-Spanish conventions in 1904 and 1912, while a 1934 proposal by Colonel Trinquet to move the line south-east, thus incorporating Algerian territory into Morocco, was rejected by authorities in Paris.
Independence by the two states complicated matters further. The post-Protectorate Moroccan borders were drawn at the Varnier Line. Despite Algerian attempts, Mohammed V refused to negotiate with France on the matter of borders from the period of 1956-62, preferring instead to negotiate with an independent Algerian state (Wild, p. 21). During that time the irredentist push from members of the Istiqlal Party, most notably Alla al-Fassi and his brother Mohammed, for the expansion of the Moroccan state to its “historical frontiers”, which included the land exchange proposed by Trinquet, increased (Wild, p. 22). When Algeria won independence president Ahmed Ben Bella fought back against these expansionist policies deeming it, “necessary under the UN Charter for [all nations to] abandon expansionist ideas.” (Wild, p. 23). The situation deteriorated in the fall of 1963, resulting in the short lived Sand War in October of that year. Attempts to mediate the dispute from Habib Bourguiba in Tunis and Gamal Abd al-Naser were rebuffed on successive days, but the Emperor Haile Sellaise and Modibo Keïta were successful in convening a meeting in Bamako October 29-30, in which current Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteﬂika participated. While the effort was successful in establishing a brief cease-ﬁre, military action continued thereafter. No solution on the state-level was reached until 1972, whereupon a basis for the border was agreed upon. The agreement was ratiﬁed by both the Algerian and Moroccan governments, but a border was never demarcated. Tensions were once again fanned after Moroccan claims to the Western Sahara in 1975 and remained strained thereafter, with the 1994 border closing serving as the low point.
The possibility of a border reopening between Algeria and Morocco, then, is an almost unprecedented opportunity in the bi-lateral relations between the two in modern times. On a concrete level, the neighbors will be able to address economic issues which have long-stemmed from border issues, including those prior to the border closing of 1994. The opportunities also extend to a wider ﬁeld, perhaps encouraging greater integration in the Maghreb and across North Africa for trade and political coordination. On another plane, the opportunity to enact the ﬁrst
ever successful border agreement without the involvement of foreign entities between the two states also looms. Increased cooperation being pushed by the serendipitously named Moroccan Party for Justice and Development and ascendant Algerian Front for Justice and Development opens new horizons for the two countries despite still persistent questions regarding the Western Sahara and terrorism. Opening the border, though, could be the ﬁrst in a series of momentous, region-deﬁning shifts in the short term. Citations: - Patricia Berko Wild. “The Organization of African Unity and the Algerian-Moroccan Border Conﬂict: A Study of New Machinery for Peacekeeping and for the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes among African States,” International Organization , Vol. 20, No. 1 (Winter, 1966), pp. 18-36. - Andrew Heggoy. “Colonial Origins of the Algerian-Moroccan Border Conﬂict of October 1963,” African Studies Review, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Apr., 1970), pp. 17-22. - Anthony S. Reyner. “Morocco's International Boundaries: A Factual Background,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Sep., 1963), pp. 313-326.