Is Tunisia abandoning Morocco for Algeria?

Power balances in North Africa are changing. The latest indication that Algeria’s star is rising – alongside 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 apparently designed to ruffle feathers in Morocco.

The Polisario Front, with the backing of Algeria, has been fighting for independence for the disputed territory of 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-bearing Moroccans marched through the desert on Rabat’s “Green March” and essentially forced Spain to surrender it. 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 ever since.

For decades, Tunisia watched, maintaining its neutral stance as the two sides struggled for dominance. However, by appearing to have unilaterally invited Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario and president of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, to a conference he was holding in tandem with Japan, this neutrality is called into question. Moreover, for many observers, the invitation confirmed what many suspected: that Tunisia is increasingly drawing closer to Algeria, potentially to the detriment of its historically close ties with Morocco, while Rabat’s relations with Japan, with which Tunis has nascent relations, are cast in doubt.

Power balances in North Africa are changing. The latest indication that Algeria’s star is rising – alongside 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 apparently designed to ruffle feathers in Morocco.

The Polisario Front, with the backing of Algeria, has been fighting for independence for the disputed territory of 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-bearing Moroccans marched through the desert on Rabat’s “Green March” and essentially forced Spain to surrender it. 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 ever since.

For decades, Tunisia watched, maintaining its neutral stance as the two sides struggled for dominance. However, by appearing to have unilaterally invited Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario and president of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, to a conference he was holding in tandem with Japan, this neutrality is called into question. Moreover, for many observers, the invitation confirmed what many suspected: that Tunisia is increasingly drawing closer to Algeria, potentially to the detriment of its historically close ties with Morocco, while Rabat’s relations with Japan, with which Tunis has nascent relations, are cast in doubt.

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

His presence seemed to surprise many, especially Morocco, which quickly issued furious missives from the “hurtcaused to the Moroccan people by the action of Tunis. The ambassadors were withdrawn by both countries while Moroccan newspapers denounced Tunisia’s shortcomings.

Saied and his foreign ministry said they were surprised at the reaction, citing a circular from the African Union, who extended the invitation to all the leaders, including Ghali. A statement was issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reaffirming the total neutrality accordance with international law, stating: “This position will not change until the parties concerned have found a peaceful solution acceptable to all.

Saied’s ultimate goal remains a matter of speculation. However, with Algeria proving to be a key energy supplier during Tunisia’s seemingly endless economic crisis while lending vocal support for the legitimacy of the presidentthe growing influence of Algiers was probably prominent in Saied’s thoughts.

Although Morocco’s sensitivity about 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 on territory with the former Trump administration as well as allowing access to the country’s medical facilities has led to diplomatic rifts with Germany and Spain, with the latter also being dragged in a spy scandal.

Speaking just before the conference, King Mohammed VI of Morocco used a television address sending what he said was a clear message to the world, telling viewers: “The Sahara issue is the prism through which Morocco sees its international environment.”

As recently as December 2020, Morocco’s position appeared secure. Washington had agreed to formally recognize Rabat’s claim to 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 a form of semi-autonomous government in the region, a movement resisted by the Saharawi people, who insisted on a referendum determine the fate of the region.

However, with soaring gas prices in Europe, Algeria, the third largest country in Europe gas supplier (after Russia and Norway) and main funder of the Polisario Front, is also experiencing a diplomatic renaissance. European politicians and regional eminences are all experiencing a renewed interest in Algiers, including Tunisia’s Saied. His July visit allowed the reopening of land borders, closed two years before to contain the spread of COVID-19, allowing Algerian families to travel to Tunisia and supporting Tunisia’s ill-fated tourism industry. Tunis also depends on Algeria for its own gas, buying it at a reduced price, as well as receive income for the transport of Algerian gas across its territory, to Sicily and then to the rest of Europe.

“The war in Ukraine and its impacts on Europe in terms of gas supply reposition Algeria as an important player in the western Mediterranean,” said Raouf Farrah, principal analyst at Global initiative Told Foreign Police. “Rabat is more concerned about this than about its ability to obtain gas supplies at competitive prices following the closure of the [Gazoduc Maghreb Europe] gas pipeline, which supplied Spain via Morocco.

The plight of Sahrawis is one of the longest refugee crises in the world. Since 1975, thousands of Saharawis have taken refuge in the Algerian desert, waiting for the opportunity to return home. The Polisario’s violent campaign against Rabat ended in 1991 with a United Nations-brokered ceasefire, providing for a restless peace. However, even that seems uncertain, with clashes between the Polisario Front and Morocco increasing in the past two years.

Meanwhile, the UN estimates that about 90,000 “vulnerable refugeesare sheltering in the desert, relying on international aid only for their daily food and shelter. The relocation of refugees has proven to be a daunting problem for all parties involved, with political and economic issues all acting as a brake on progress.

Although some infrastructure exists, refugees running a state in exile, Bahia Awah, a Sahrawi writer and poet, said Foreign Police– from what he described as his exile in Spain – this life remained difficult. “Weather conditions are particularly adverse in this part of southern Algeria, where summer temperatures can reach over 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit), claiming casualties among the elderly, children and women. pregnant”.

While Algeria’s influence may have been bolstered for now, what difference that will make in a dispute the US government weighed in dramatically at the end of the Trump administration remains unclear. For Jonathan Hill, a historian at King’s College London, the fate of Western Sahara and the Sahrawis has evolved, over the decades, from a pragmatic problem to an unshakable political position and, as such, risks becoming insoluble.

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

The life of the Tunisian kingpin is uncertain. However, the fact that Tunis made this pivot speaks directly to the new order that is currently taking shape in the region, whether the Sahrawis benefit from it or not.

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