Sahara, Mali, and Libya: What to Expect from the Algerian President Tebboune?

by Irina Tsukerman and Anis El Okbani

Observers will have their eyes riveted on the foreign policy decisions that the Algerian president will take. 

Three elements in particular will be examined: the Sahrawi, Libyan, and Malian files. 

Of secondary importance, and also closely watched, are his economic decisions affecting the movement of currency through the Algerian bank branches in Africa. The shadow of Morocco and its King looms over these important developments. 

Algeria is determined to steal the limelight from Morocco. 

The excerpts published here are not the “minutes of the Tebboune trial, featuring Hassan II, Fahd of Saudi Arabia and Boumediene”, but selected excerpts from the remarks made in the last televised interview with the Algerian president, selected to allow a better understanding of several messages sent to King Mohammed VI. These excerpts will be the subject of an argument before the 75th UN Assembly by the Algerian President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, in New York. 

According to our sources at the UN, a high-level Moroccan delegation, including in particular Mohamed Yassine Mansouri, head of the Moroccan secret services, close to King Mohammed VI, and renowned for his discretion and his presence behind the scenes of all Morocco’s strategic issues, is expected to attend. 

Yassine, who is very active in the Malian field, is also the architect of the inter-Libyan dialogue and the meeting organized in Bouznika, from September 6 to 10, 2020. 

Tebboune has a secure email address, in case he decides to send a message to King Mohammed VI. The rest of the messenging and exchanges would be traditional communication within the UN. The proceedings of the General Assembly are expected to continue the notorious lethargic style of UN activity dealing with such predictable topics as Morocco’s energy strategy, as an example. 

Serious and strategic issues and discussions have other homes in New York and are conducted by other “unofficial” lobbyists, including and above all, the “Moroccan Jewish lobby”, mobilized in defense of the territorial integrity of Morocco. 

Edifying extracts from Tebboune: 

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, during his interview on September 20, 2020, recalled before insisting that for his country, “the Sahara issue is a matter of decolonization” and that  “Hassan II agreed that the Sahara is a matter of decolonization.”  Remarkably, he made no allusion to an important decision: Algerian President Tebboune wants to withdraw the Sahara dossier from the military. 

Until now, the Algerian leaders have been hostages of the military and did not have the power to define their foreign policy, according to our sources, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has decided to create the Algerian Agency for International Cooperation (AACI), which would be headed by a colonel who made a career in the secret service, Mohamed Chafik Mesbah. 

The presidential initiative has two objectives, to remove the control of the country’s foreign policy from the army and its intelligence service, as well as to create the conditions for the conflict in the Sahara and the political and strategic crisis in the Maghreb region to once again become the  prerogative of the Presidency. 

The Saharan question: From colony status to the Moroccan autonomy project 

The Saharan conflict is among the oldest conflicts in the world. Overcoming it is only possible through the political will of the Algerian authorities. Without Algerian obstructionism, this problem would not have existed. But Morocco is also responsible, because it did not understand nor could manage this file. The factors of the impasse arise from three series of causes: the conflicting relations, against a background of competition for leadership between the two protagonists, Morocco – Algeria, the role of the great powers, especially France and Spain, as well as regional and international organizations, including the UN. Is there a way for Morocco to extricate itself from the prospects of never-ending conflict or stagnation? The answer is yes. 

There are options: We believe that the autonomy plan proposed by the Moroccan Kingdom is the most realistic option. However, its credibility and success depend on factors related to the history of decolonization of countries in the region, and especially that of Algeria and Mauritania. The trust factor remains important. 

Tebboune says “We said that the Libyan crisis is ours and that no dialogue will take place without us and I repeat it” and “We will impose ourselves to participate in a solution in Libya. We are neighbors, with more than 1000 kilometers of borders. So we have an opinion on what is happening in Libya and whatever the solution, they must include us. Otherwise, we will assume our responsibilities.” 

For the Malian crisis, where Morocco is trying painfully to remain present, President Tebboune reiterates Algeria’s determination to impose itself as the sole mediator, unlike the Libyan dossier where Morocco has succeeded, in what turned out to be a nice media/PR stunt, in bringing together parliamentarians from the two Libyan rival camps around the same table, and playing the role of facilitator. The talks resulted in “important compromises”, but a short-lived operation on the ground. 

For Tebboune, “The solution of the Malian crisis will be 90% Algerian and we affirm that the solution to the problem of northern Mali will not go beyond the framework of the Algiers Accord (note: signed on May 15 and June 20, 2015). The Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs will soon be visiting this country to follow this issue closely, he announced. So let it be written! 

A new course for Morocco 

The environment has changed. Morocco is in the process of modifying its strategy on the Sahara: Return to the African Union, evacuation of the disputed area of Guerguerat, rapprochement with the new Secretary General of the UN are now the options on the table being actively discussed and considered.. Legitimization of the separatists?! Ban Ki-Moon mismanaged the Sahara issue. With the arrival of Antonio Guterres, will the UN finally move the file forward? Mohammed Abdelaziz, who led the Polisario Front since 1976, died on May 31, 2016. Can this start the momentum leading to the head of the independence movement changing the movement’s strategy? 

 The answer is “no.” His successor, Brahim Ghali, defends the hardline of the separatist movement. Aminatou Haidar now has her new marching orders. 

Aminatou, known for her peaceful activism in support of SADR’s causes, has been ostracized from Ghali’s close circles since 2018 when Ghali was under the influence of more aggressive activists who eschewed peaceful resistance. 

 According to our sources, Brahim Ghali, the new Polisario leader, will express regrets for his mistake in having humiliated and marginalized Aminatou! This is a first such admission that deserves to be studied due to its groundbreaking nature. Without the intervention of the Moroccan police authorities and despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Aminatou gathered her followers on Sunday, September 20 in a house in Laayoune, capital of the Moroccan Sahara, to form her new association “The Sahrawi Authority Against Moroccan Occupation”. 

This move brought together an assembly of 32 people, including an executive board of 6 members, and handed the presidency of the association to Aminatou Haidar. As a reminder, on September 2, this independence activist from the internal ranks announced the dissolution of the Collective of Sahrawi Defenders of Human Rights (CODESA). That, however, is not the crux of the issue. What if we explained the Sahara issue to the international community outside of diplomatic canons, UN jargon, and the sanitized language of politicians? Beyond the Algerian position and its sidekick the Polisario, Morocco has a historically and legally well-founded case. But the problem is elsewhere. It is precisely this “elsewhere” that we have tried to explain in our forthcoming book on Moroccan diplomacy.