19 - 25 August 1999
Issue No. 443
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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On the mend in North AfricaBy Nasr El-Qaffas
Shortly before his death last month, King Hassan of Morocco was reportedly optimistic about the future of relations with Algeria. Press reports at the time spoke of final preparations for a meeting which was due to take place on the Moroccan-Algerian border between Hassan and Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika. Hassan's son and successor, King Mohamed VI, now has to finish what his seasoned father started.
Bouteflika has not missed an opportunity to confirm his good intentions towards Morocco and his desire to restore normal relations. Besides participating in King Hassan's funeral, Bouteflika had nothing but words of praise for the new Moroccan king. While meeting King Mohamed he recalled his rapport with the late monarch. "If he extended a hand to me, I would extend my arm," Bouteflika said. "And if he shook my hands, I would hug him; and if he allowed me to settle in one of his houses, I would put him in my heart."
The relationship between Hassan and Bouteflika germinated nearly 40 years ago when the Algerian president was a member of the resistance against French occupation. Bouteflika was appointed Algeria's foreign minister shortly after the 1962 Algerian Revolution and served in this post for 17 years, during which he was in close contact with Hassan until relations deteriorated between the two countries due to their dispute over the Western Sahara.
Although Hassan never got the chance to meet Bouteflika at the border, it is now certain that the king had already agreed on the guidelines which would allow the restoration of ties. Relations were severed between the two countries in 1994 after a group of suspected Islamist militants raided a hotel in Morocco. Moroccan authorities blamed Algeria for the attack and responded by closing down the border and forcing Algerians to obtain visas before entering Morocco. The fear that Algeria's militant violence would spill over into neighbouring Morocco has been one of the main reasons behind Rabat's reluctance to restore ties with Algiers.
Due to the positive reports on the near restoration of ties between the two countries, preparations are already under way on the border for this long-awaited move. Owners of hotels and restaurants repainted their buildings while customs authorities prepared to receive travellers.
For his part, King Mohamed has equally been forthcoming in affirming his good intentions towards Algeria. He sent Bouteflika a letter thanking him for his participation in King Hassan's funeral and promised to follow in his father's footsteps in seeking to revive the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) which includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania.
Algerian commentators also speak of the need to open a new chapter with Morocco. The first step would be to seek to calm Moroccan fears over Algeria's stand towards the Western Sahara. Bouteflika and other top Algerian officials have reiterated that they would accept the outcome of a UN-organised referendum in the disputed region to determine its future -- whether it will be part of Morocco or an independent state.
Analysts believe that restoring ties between the two neighbours will benefit both countries, especially their economies. Algeria's external debt is estimated at $30 billion compared to $20 billion in Moroccan debts. Maintaining good ties is also vital for both countries to benefit from trade partnership agreements with the United States. Washington has agreed to pay a total of $2.5 billion to Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia under this agreement. Algeria alone will get $1.5 billion while Morocco and Tunisia will receive the rest.
The fact that both King Mohamed and Bouteflika assumed their posts only recently is also another factor which is pushing both leaders to work on improving relations. It would be one of their first major achievements since taking office.
Restoring normal ties between Algeria and Morocco is also a key condition for reviving the AMU. The regional gathering was practically frozen following the Algerian-Moroccan row in 1994. Algerian press reports spoke of a possible meeting between AMU foreign ministers in October in order to prepare for a summit in November. A meeting among the five countries' parliamentarians, 30 from each country, is also due in November. Egypt is expected to attend as an observer.
An Algerian commentator said that there is now a serious political will to restore ties with Morocco. "The desire for that is also necessitated by economic needs. This should make us optimistic about the future."