Friday, November 21, 2008

Neighbors and Rivals

A post about a subject I know very little about... but I'm intrigued, so here goes.

Ilyas and I have been talking a fair amount about the Western Sahara, and by means of this topic, that of the relationship between Algeria and Morocco has come up. I know very little about Algeria, and therefore cannot say too much about its connection to Morocco with any authority, but I’m picking up on a very interesting and complicated dynamic.

Until the seventies or so, the relationship between Algeria and Morocco was actually very amicable. The countries share a heritage and many elements of culture, of course – together they constitute the territory of North Africa’s indigenous Berber tribes. Many tribes in fact span an area that crosses the current border between the two countries. The two countries also share a history of colonization by the French, and helped each other in their struggles for independence.

But after the seventies, the relationship between Algeria and Morocco soured completely – so much so that the border between the two has been hermetically closed since 1994. The main problem right now: Morocco and Algeria are on opposite sides of the Western Sahara-conflict. Morocco, of course, claims the area as part of its sovereign territory. Algeria, on the other hand, supports Polisario – the Saharan freedom movement – financially, politically, as well as militarily.

But this is not an explanation for the souring of the rapport between Morocco and Algeria. Why, if relations were good and Algeria had no claims of its own to the Sahara, did Algeria contest Morocco’s claims to the territory in the first place?

I don’t know if there is a clear answer to that question, and I am certainly not in a position to venture any guesses. But from what Ilyas has told me, and from the few comparative studies on Morocco and Algeria that I’ve read, I get the sense that the negativity now has a lot to do with psychological issues – to a sense of competition or resentment, almost, on the part of Algeria. The thing is that Morocco, as a country, has a strong sense of identity. For all its internal heterogeneity, despite its own struggles, Morocco knows who it is. It has a history to be proud of, and a cultural heritage that is uniquely its own. Algeria does not have this – it seems a little lost, a little void of a sense of self. And it seems as though it resents Morocco for its clarity of identity.

This difference has a lot to do with the countries’ histories of colonialism. Basically, Algeria was colonized much more intensively and destructively than Morocco ever was. France arrived in Algeria much earlier than in Morocco, and left much later. And before the French ever arrived, Algeria had already been occupied by the Ottomans. Not so with Morocco, whose Berber tribes had been able to keep the Turks at bay.

France colonized Algeria in the traditional sense of the word. The country was gutted and re-paved; turned forcibly into a French province, a French back yard. Due in part to the struggles this conventional colonial policy had encountered in Algeria, the French dealt with Morocco very differently. Intrigued by what they saw as a certain pristine Oriental tradition, untouched even by an Ottoman version of modernity, the French pursued their interest in modernization in a new way: rather than replace Moroccan infrastructure it was simply improved and aided by a new French system built by its side. This is why all Moroccan cities consist of a traditional medina – left alone by the colonizer – as well as a “ville nouvelle” – the garrison towns constructed to house the French and their administration. This is also why the currently ruling dynasty (the Alaouites) have reigned continually since the 1600s – even during this period of French rule, the Sultan remained head of state in name, if not in practice. Morocco became a ‘Protectorate’, rather than a colony.

The result of a much shorter and much milder colonial period is that Morocco has been able to maintain its sense of identity, as well as a generally positive relationship with its former colonizer. Not so much for Algeria, which to this day struggles to define itself and its connection to France – and seemingly also its connection to Morocco.

Most of Algeria’s political rulers are actually Moroccan in origin. President Boutflika’s family, for instance, comes from Oujda. Some were even born and raised in Morocco, before they were asked to join the Algerian government. Though I am not sure why Algeria imported Moroccans to rule the country, I wonder if this happened because upon independence, Algeria was left with nothing but an empty French infrastructure. Morocco had always kept its own system of administration during the Protectorate period, and so when the French left, there were Moroccans with know-how to take over. Perhaps this was not the case with Algeria. Perhaps there were no Algerians with knowledge of government, and rather than ask their former colonizers for help, they turned to their neighbors?

But if most Algerian rulers are Moroccan, the question of why the relationship between the two is so sour becomes even more complicated. Why do these Moroccans insist on closing the borders and on thwarting Morocco’s claims to the Western Sahara? Why do they thus seemingly turn their backs on a society in which they had always had a good position? Is it power? Did these Moroccans see an opportunity for dominance and wealth that they would never have reached in Morocco? And has Moroccan sovereign power suddenly become a threat to them? Is that why they avoid any possibility of amicability between the two? Or is there something else? I think I need to read up a little on Algerian history…

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