timep single page

A Maghreb United in Discord

Amid the recurring pattern of authoritarian regression and rising costs of living, the Maghreb’s leaders might soon find that from Casablanca to Oran to Sfax—and all the places in between—the region’s people are too united in their rejection of the status quo. 

Little has brought together the Maghreb’s leaders more than a shared penchant for discord. For decades, generations of Maghrebi leaders have come and gone but the fissures of friction remain. At the heart of the lines along which alliance and animosity have been drawn has been the tension between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Saharan conflict. Over the course of the past year, Tunisia has inched closer toward Algeria in staking out a position, after towing a neutral line for some time. Between Morocco’s soft power moves likely to continue with more success, particularly following its historic World Cup performance, to the abysmal voter turnout in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections, and Algeria’s diplomatic posturing through its natural gas resources as demand rises amid decreasing temperatures, the prospects of a harmonious Maghreb veer further away from reach. Ultimately, the permanent state of strife that mars the Maghreb continues to benefit the autocratic leadership in the region and remains far-removed from the immediate priorities, sentiments, and aspirations of the people.

Over the past decade, the people of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia have alternated in expressing their dissatisfaction with leadership. Tunisians with the ouster of Ben Ali in 2011, Moroccans with the February 20 Movement the same year, Algerians with the Hirak in 2019, and countless mobilizations both before and since. Soaring youth unemployment and political repression continues to fuel emigration: youth unemployment in Algeria inched to nearly 32 percent this year, exceeded 38 percent in Tunisia, and grew past 27 percent in Morocco. More than ever, the Maghreb’s leaders have found in one another a convenient scapegoat to deflect accountability in response to domestic dissent. Their shared crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders, which figured prominently in their Universal Periodic Review a few weeks ago, speaks to the common thread of repression authorities deploy to silence critical voices. Meanwhile, the interests of foreign powers actively stoke the flames of a region whose people continue to yearn for dignity, stability, and some semblance of normalcy.

Amid soaring gas prices and in an attempt to secure natural gas resources outside of Russia, Western leaders have been lining up in a sequence of official visits to Algiers, signaling a geopolitical break from precedent, as Zahra Rahmouni noted for TIMEP earlier this year. The most recent of these high profile official visits was that of French president Emmanuel Macron in the summer of 2022, just a few months after his reelection. In a rare move toward reconciliation where the wounds of a bloody war for independence remain unhealed, Macron and Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune issued a joint statement: “We have a common past, we have a painful past, […] but we want to build a future together,” read a part of the statement. At the same time that Macron was on an official visit to Algeria, Tunisian president Kais Saied officially received Brahim Ghali, the head of the Polisario Front, which is actively seeking Western Saharan independence. Immediately, Morocco recalled its ambassador to Tunisia, calling Saied’s invitation of Ghali “a grave and unprecedented act that deeply hurts the feelings of the Moroccan people.” 

For decades, Tunisia has largely towed a neutral line vis-à-vis Morocco and Algeria’s never-ending rivalry. Former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki experienced a preview of this rivalry firsthand in 2020 when he accused the Algerian government of holding Western Saharan refugees “hostage as political pawns” to which Algerian pundits lambasted as a “hateful campaign against Algeria.” One former Algerian official stated that “the sandals of Saharawis are more honorable than Marzouki’s face.” Kais Saied’s welcoming of Ghali just as Algeria was hosting Macron, however, signaled a shift in the Maghreb’s dynamics—one that began with Saied’s power-consolidating measures in 2021, which many have criticized as a coup. Saied’s suspension of parliament and dissolution of the constitution drew worldwide and national condemnation. As he faced widespread uproar for his moves, Algerian President Tebboune was among the first heads of state to pay Saied an official visit, effectively expressing his stamp of approval during a time when the Tunisian leader needed it most. 

Tunisian author Saber Mansouri described the shift as the latest iteration of Tunisia being condemned to choose between Algeria and Morocco, arguing that “for the time being, which will not last for long, Tunisia has chosen the older sister, Algeria.” One Morocco-leaning publication characterized Tunisia as a “vassal state of Algeria.” Since then, Tunisian and Algerian leadership have deepened their relations with a series of public gestures that appear to be taunting Morocco. Earlier this year, Tunisia and Algeria agreed to open their shared border, which had been closed since 2020 in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed since 1994. In late November of this year, Algeria and Tunisia jointly held talks on Libya—for years Morocco has been posturing as the peace broker for the competing Libyan factions, beginning with mediating the now-defunct Skhirat Agreement in 2015. A few days ago, Algerian activist Slimane Bouhafs was jailed after he was “mysteriously returned” from Tunisia, where he had refugee status. Rights groups have expressed concerns that Tunisian-based Algerian human rights defender Zakaria Hannache risks facing a similar fate. Algeria and Tunisia have also signed a series of agreements aimed at “enhancing cooperation,” including a memorandum of understanding to support tech startups. Tunisia also announced that Algeria had granted it “priority in sourcing gas.”

Just months before Tunisia and Algeria cozied up to one another, leaving Morocco out in the cold, Morocco hosted Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez for a reconciliatory visit. The visit came a few weeks after Spain announced that it officially supports Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara—a diplomatic move that prompted Algeria to recall its ambassador to Spain. For over a year, Spain found itself caught in the crosshairs of Moroccan and Algerian tension, which entailed a successive wave of diplomatic maneuverings in the following order: Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali seeks medical treatment in Spain, Morocco eases border restrictions allowing thousands of migrants to cross into Spain (many of whom were unaccompanied minors), Algeria breaks diplomatic ties with Morocco, Spain extradites an Algerian whistleblower that had been in exile, Algeria reroutes its gas supplies to Spain to exclude Morocco, Spain begins exporting gas to Morocco, Algeria threatens to end its energy deal with Spain.

Just as Algeria was settling into the spotlight thanks to its gas resources, Morocco’s historic World Cup performance shifted global and regional attention, much to the chagrin of Algerian leadership. Social media users circulated images and clips of Algerian state media covering Morocco’s victory over Spain and Portugal in the passive voice, which cartoonist Damien Glez satirized in a depiction of an Algerian news anchor stating, “The qualification to the quarter final of an African team that is not Cameroon, not Ghana, not Senegal, not Tunisia…” In a sudden move, the director of Algeria’s public television, Chabane Lounakel, was sacked with no official explanation. Pro-Moroccan state news outlets reported, however, that it was due to the coverage of Morocco’s victory over Portugal. Pro-Moroccan news outlets were also abuzz with reports that Algerian authorities arrested a number of Algerian soldiers in uniform for posting a video on TikTok congratulating Morocco’s win against Portugal. According to those reports, the Algerian soldiers face up to 10 years in prison and will face a military tribunal for “using social media from the barracks.” In the meantime, a crowd of Algerians gathered along the closed border with Morocco to celebrate with Moroccans gathered just a few meters away. 

Prospects for a path toward reconciliation remain grim despite public attempts to prove otherwise. In a speech this past summer, King Mohammed VI of Morocco expressed his openness to restoring ties with Algeria. A few months later, Algerian President Tebboune formally invited King Mohammed VI to attend the Arab League Summit in Algiers. Tebboune neither directly or publicly responded to Mohammed VI’s gesture, nor did Mohammed VI make an appearance at the summit. Even King Abdullah II of Jordan’s visit to Algiers early December 2022 with the explicit aim of reconciling Algeria and Morocco was met with a silent ambivalence, in which neither side has reacted publicly. During the recent U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC, Morocco Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch gathered with President Joe Biden and other African heads of state for a photo-op in which they could be seen watching Morocco take on France in the World Cup semi-final. Notably absent from the photo but present at the summit was Tunisian President Saied, in what Tunisian journalist Imed Bahri dubbed a “missed opportunity for easing tensions.” 

Between closed borders and the looming cloud of an unresolved conflict, the Maghreb may appear to be more divided than ever. Beneath the surface, however, there remains one point that brings together the three countries’ leaders: a Maghreb united in disunity. Amid the recurring pattern of authoritarian regression and rising costs of living, the Maghreb’s leaders might soon find that from Casablanca to Oran to Sfax—and all the places in between—the region’s people are too united in their rejection of the status quo. 

Samia Errazzouki is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on press freedom in North Africa, with a special emphasis on the situation of women journalists.


Egypt’s security services control the country’s traditional media outlets, including TV channels, newspapers, and artistic productions,…

Perhaps no issue underscores children living in northwest Syria’s precarious existence more than the deprivation of…

January 30, 2024
Six More Years: Where is Egypt Going Next? 
January 22, 2024