« A climate of cold war has taken hold in the Maghreb

The intensification of the rivalry between Algeria and Morocco, particularly over the Western Sahara, is politically and economically paralysing all the countries of North Africa, according to political scientist Khadija Mohsen-Finan, in an interview with Le Monde.

Interview by Frédéric Bobin

Khadija Mohsen-Finan, a political scientist specialising in the Maghreb, teaches at the University of Paris-I. She is the author of, among others, Tunisia, learning democracy 2011-2021 (Nouveau Monde, 2021), and Dissidents du Maghreb (Belin, 2018), co-authored with Pierre Vermeren.

In the Maghreb, the divide between Morocco and Algeria is deepening. Where are the lines of force?

The strategic landscape in the region has evolved over the last two years. If we look at it through the prism of the rivalry between Algeria and Morocco, we can say that it has reversed. When the Donald Trump administration [2017-2021] recognised, in December 2020, the « Moroccanity » of Western Sahara in exchange for the normalisation of relations between Rabat and Tel Aviv, Morocco saw a boulevard opening up before it. It had the support of two major sponsors: the United States and Israel. And, in its eyes, the European states could only follow suit in accepting its claims on the Western Sahara. But the war in Ukraine changed the situation.

To what extent?

Algeria has emphasised its ability to supply energy to a Europe that lacks it, while at the same time seeking a greater presence in Africa. The Algerian-Moroccan conflict has thus been extended to Africa, particularly in the field of energy, with competition between two gas pipeline projects [trans-Saharan, one passing through Algeria, the other through Morocco] linking Nigeria to Europe. Moreover, since the withdrawal of French troops from Mali [in August], France has sought to rely on Algeria in the Sahel and in Mali. And there, Algeria is playing the same game as Morocco, i.e. it is trying to make itself indispensable by emphasising its capacity to negotiate, to trade, to be a bridge between Africa, North Africa and Europe.

Algeria seemed to be in the midst of a strategic fade at the end of the Bouteflika era (1999-2019). Has it recovered?

There is a change. We are facing a new Algeria that has repositioned itself. The 2020 revision of the Constitution now authorises the army to operate, albeit under conditions, outside its borders. And since the war in Ukraine and the search for alternatives to Russian gas, the member countries of the European Union have behaved differently towards Algeria. France itself is taking a fresh look at it. The successive visits of Emmanuel Macron in August and Elisabeth Borne in October illustrate this new consideration for Algeria.