Sahara: Tunisia faced with the Algerian-Moroccan rivalry

For fear of a quarrel with its Algerian neighbour or a clash with Rabat, Tunisia maintains a “positive neutrality” in the Western Sahara question which has pitted Algeria against Morocco since the mid-seventies and constitutes one of the chief stumbling blocks in the process of regional integration symbolised by the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU).

Tunis, March 2015. Sahrawis in the march of the World Social Forum.

“Positive neutrality” is the way Tunisian diplomats define their country’s steadfast position regarding the controversy between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara question. A position it is often difficult to maintain insofar as the two neighbours and “Brother States” try now and again to enlist Tunisia’s support regarding this issue which has been poisoning inter-State relations in the Maghreb since the mid-seventies. In fact the question of the status and future of the Sahara constitutes one of the major stumbling blocks in the process of regional integration symbolised by the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). This was created in 1989—it also includes Libya and Mauritania—but remains an empty shell because of the intensity of the Algerian-Moroccan rivalry.

“Early in the seventies, when Habib Bouguiba was still president of Tunisia, he saw the Sahara problem coming,” says a Tunisian official who was embarking on his diplomatic career at the time and is still in activity. “We knew that Spain’s unilateral departure from the territory was going to create serious tensions between Algeria and Morocco. Bourguiba tried to take the bull by the horns and broached the subject of Boumediene, attempting to convince him to accept the idea that Morocco should be allowed to recover the Sahara. In vain. After that, our priority was to keep Tunisia from being too severely penalised by that affair.”

An Ostensible Neutrality

In 1976, when there was a brief armed skirmish between the two countries, Tunis officially declared its neutrality and offered to broker a peaceful settlement of the Sahrawi question under the auspices of the UN and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Emissaries were sent to Algiers and Rabat, but nothing much came of it. Nonetheless, by multiplying such conciliating initiatives, Tunis was adopting a strategy which has often proven its worth in inter-Arab matters: offering to mediate between two belligerents conveys the idea that you are not taking sides.

Because at the time, Tunisia was faced with serious problems. By cancelling the Tunisian-Libyan union signed in 1974, it ran the risk of incurring Qaddafi’s wrath and economic reprisals. Diplomatic relations were severed between the two countries (they were not restored until 1977), and Tunisian counterintelligence was worried about Libyan propaganda aimed at the population of the Southern districts. So there was no way Tunis was going to quarrel with its Algerian neighbour or trigger a crisis with Rabat. Moreover, Tunis had no wish to repeat what occurred in 1960 when Tunisia recognised Mauritania, going so far as to sponsor the young country’s membership application for the UN, a stance which angered Morocco, claiming as it did sovereignty over that “province.” The falling out between Tunis and Rabat lasted until 1968 and it was not until 1969 that Morocco finally recognised Mauritanian independence.

Concerning that period, most of the accounts obtained from Tunisian diplomats in activity at the time confirm two main facts. First, that Tunis would have preferred a quick solution with a rapid integration of the Sahara into Morocco, and a special status for the Sahrawi. But this opinion was never to determine the official Tunisian policy of complete neutrality, which has meant that Tunisia has never recognised the Polisario Front. Such a gesture would have been interpreted as hostile by the Moroccans.

In the same way—and this is a permanent feature of Tunisian-Moroccan relations—Tunisian officials have always refrained from visiting the disputed territory. In February 2016, Prime Minister Habib Essid cancelled a trip to Morocco to avoid attending a conference held in the disputed city of Dakhla. A few weeks later, the same Essid drew the wrath of the Palace for having used the expression “Western Sahara” at a press conference in Tunis. We must remember that the Moroccan party always refers to a “Moroccan Sahara,” refusing to call it simply the Sahara, and considers the expression “Western Sahara” to be an implicit denial of Moroccan sovereignty over that territory.

Algerian Fatalism

The other salient factor spotlighted in our various interviews is that over time Algerian efforts to get Tunis to side with it in this matter have gradually dwindled. Whereas Houari Boumedienne never forgave Habib Bourguiba for not coming out in support of the Polisario Front, his successors took a more pragmatic approach. All through the eighties and nineties they made allowances for Tunisia’s position and acted with greater discretion. In 1993 when Algeria and Tunisia negotiated the final demarcation of their borders, Algeria’s many territorial concessions were not coupled with any demands concerning the Tunisian position on the Sahara.

Algiers will regard the status quo as acceptable so long as Tunis maintains its “positive neutrality.” Even the recent rapprochement between the two countries due to their common struggle against the armed groups active in the border regions has changed nothing in this respect, as a minister in the present Tunisian government confirms: “The Algerians have made no attempts to make us change our position, which is just as well. That would have placed us in a very uncomfortable situation. Tunisia needs Algerian support in our fight against terrorism. Nor can we alienate the Moroccans, who are increasingly present in our economy.”

On the Algerian side, there is a certain realism tinged with fatalism as to the possibility of changing the game.

In 2010, US diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks confirmed, if there were any need of it, Tunisia’s reticence with regard to the Algerian position on the Sahara. On February 29, 2008, President El-Abidine Ben Ali granted an audience to David Welch, under-secretary of State in charge of the Near East and the Maghreb. In a letter to Washington dated March 3, he informed his superiors that Tunisia laid all the blame for the stalemate in the process of Maghrebin integration squarely on the Algerians, since he believed they were incapable of accepting the idea that there would never be an independent Saharan state.

Ben Ali also claimed to have tried to put together a regional summit on the question, but that the Algerian party had turned down the invitation, considering that there was nothing more to be said on the matter.

Avoiding The Sore Point

Nonetheless, time and again, Tunisia is accused of taking sides with one or the other antagonist. And yet the official position of strict neutrality tends to be adopted by all Tunisian political parties, including the left. Of course the latter, due to its anti-imperialist commitment, does not rule out contact with the Polisario nor even organising actions of solidarity in favour of the Sahrawi people, even if they have sometimes had to pay a price for it. In March 2015, the World Social Forum organised in Tunis was disrupted by clashes between Algerian and Moroccan delegates over the Sahara. Insults, brawls, broken chairs, the representatives on both sides, Algerian and Moroccan—called “governmental” by the independent activists, more inclined to peaceful dialogue—obliged their Tunisian counterparts to come down off the fence and most of them sided with the Sahrawis.

After that, the representatives of the Tunisian civil society had learned a lesson. Their country, which has gained freedom of speech and initiative, has become the ideal venue for colloquiums and conferences of every sort, especially Maghrebin. This dynamism requires one important precaution, however: convincing Algerian and Moroccan participants to steer clear of the sore point. . .