Algeria at a Crossroads: Borders and Security in North Africa by George Bajalia

This article was originally published on and has been reprinted here with permission.

The militarization of border crossings throughout North Africa and the Sahel has intensified recently, as a result of security concerns over weapons smuggling, terrorist networks, and armed violence in Libya. Algeria’s border lies at the center of many of these developments.

As of May 2014, Algeria has closed 6,385 km (3,967 miles) of its borders with Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Libya, and placed its border crossings under military control. Algeria’s southern border with the Sahara is also incredibly vast and difficult to monitor. It has long been a major crossing for thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa traveling through Agadez, Niger to the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset.

It is in response to the decades of illegal smuggling and international calls to eliminate terrorist networks operating out of this relatively ungoverned “no-man’s land” that the Algerian government has now increased patrols and militarization of this border region. According to sources cited by Al-Monitor, “the army banned access to the desert corridors in the southeastern border region without a prior security permit. These measures will further tighten the noose around the neck of terrorist groups in desert pathways….these strict instructions will eliminate terrorism in the Algerian Sahara.” To the east, Algeria must manage a vast border with Libya, which has been nearly overtaken by armed militias that threaten to spill over into Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt.

In light of these various threats to regional security, it is tempting to view the Algerian government’s actions as a direct consequence of militant activity. But, Algeria’s recent border closures represent more of a continuation, rather than a rupture, in its regional policies.

Algeria’s total closure of nearly all its borders (only the Tunisian frontier remains open) is a concerted effort to maintain and secure its economic and political relations with EU and NAFTA countries, at the expense of potential trade and, perhaps, long-term partnerships, with neighboring states. From the perspective of the Algerian government, this isolationist stance functions as a potential buffer against the uncertainty surrounding it.

It also parallels Algeria’s continuing border closure with its neighbor to the west, Morocco. Since 1994, Algeria’s border with Morocco has been officially closed. The Algerian government has historically had frosty relations with Morocco over issues ranging from drug smuggling to territorial conflict over the Western Sahara. The question of borders and territory represents a key area of contestation between Morocco and Algeria. An inability to cooperate on political matters not only plagues the two countries, but also rules out any hope for bilateral or regional economic integration through the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), a regional institution founded by the leaders of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania in 1989, which sought to coordinate economic, political, and security issues through greater coordination between the five states of the greater Maghreb.

Monitoring the 1,559 km (969 miles)—or 1,601 km including the Western Sahara—borderline between the two countries has been difficult for the two regional rivals.

The recent border closures, and their intended consequences, are not isolated events. Rather, they are reflective of the Algerian government’s standing policies on dealing with the preexisting networks of trade, formal and informal, and trafficking that run through the country.

These three particular nodes of pressure give important context to Algeria’s recent border closures, and reveal the disconnect between the regime’s historical aims and the day-to-day circumstances of the Algerian people.

Point of Pressure 1: the Moroccan-Algerian Rivalry and the Western Sahara

The source of Moroccan-Algerian tension is often attributed to the Western Sahara conflict. After Spain left the territory in 1975, a dispute arose between two groups in the area. An indigenous movement known as the Polisario Front—which is fighting for independence and a referendum for self-determination—and the Moroccan government—which claims to have historical ties with the land—have clashed over the territory. The Moroccan government has proposed a regional autonomy plan for the Western Sahara, while Algeria has consistently backed the Polisario and supported a referendum for self-determination in the region.

But disputes between Algeria and Morocco pre-date the Western Sahara question, which became a regional preoccupation only in the 1970’s. While this conflict is an important obstacle to improving relations between the two countries and increasing the likelihood of regional economic integration—currently next to nonexistent—Yahia H. Zoubir, Professor of International Relations and Director of Research in Geopolitics at Euromed Management, argues that:

“Algerian-Moroccan relations have always been at odds, the existence since 1989 of the Arab Maghrib Union (UMA) notwithstanding. In fact, the UMA has not been operational due precisely to tensions between the two countries. Strained relations derive from a historical and post-colonial evolution – dominated by power politics – of which Western Sahara is only one, albeit major, aspect. Thus, a definitive resolution of the Western Sahara conflict will not necessarily mean a definitive ending of the distrust that exists between the two neighbours.”[1]

Following independence, Morocco and Algeria went to war over a border dispute that was left unresolved by France. The border war of 1963 was bloody and ended with a cease-fire in 1964 brokered by the Organization of African Unity (OAU). It was not until 1972, however, that the Moroccan-Algerian border was officially demarcated by a bilateral treaty. Algeria immediately signed the convention, which dealt with both border and economic cooperation, but Morocco did not officially recognize the agreement until 1989.

In 1988, diplomatic relations between the two countries were reestablished. 1989 marked the founding of the UMA. A UN brokered cease-fire in the Western Sahara finally took hold in 1991. Against this backdrop, the beginning of the 1990s was a hopeful time for regional relations and potential economic integration in the Maghreb.

Then, in August 1994, the Moroccan-Algerian border was officially closed, as a result of a“guerrilla attack” at the Atlas Asni Hotel in Marrakech, which Moroccan authorities believed Algeria had supported. After the incident, the Moroccan government deported thousands of Algerian tourists and official residents and applied new visa regulations to Algerians traveling to the country. In response, Algeria closed the border. Despite periods of warming relations between the two countries, the border has remained shut ever since.

The border closure implicates many issues, including the management of migration flows to Europe from sub-Saharan and North Africa, the existence of vast illegal drug smuggling as a result of Morocco’s approximately 57,000 hectares of cannabis production, and the increasing rise of armed terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). There are also concerns that, if the border was re-opened, Morocco would use it to pressure Algeria into withdrawing its support for the Polisario Movement.

While both countries have officially stated their desire to open borders and increase regional integration, the larger impact of such a move remains unclear, since the Arab Maghreb Union has not officially convened since 1994. Morocco and Algeria’s formal trade continues to be with EU countries, and “Trade within the AMU (UMA) quintet accounts for a paltry 2% of what the region conducts with the whole of the rest of the world.”

Point of Pressure 2: Formal and Informal Trade

Algeria’s formal trade networks virtually ignore its North African neighbors. According to data compiled by the MIT Observatory of Economic Complexity, Algerian exports of crude petroleum and petroleum gas make up 82% of its net exports. Refined petroleum (14%), and coal tar oil (1.2%) increase Algeria’s total mined exports to 97.2%, with the remainder of exports split among chemical exports and agricultural products. Most of these exports go to Italy (15%), the United States (15%), Spain (12%), France (7.5%), and Canada (7.4%). Algeria’s imports come from many of these same countries, in addition to China and Germany.

Like Algeria, Morocco’s import and export patterns also do not include its fellow North African countries. Only 1.3% of Morocco’s exports go to Algeria and 1.5% of Algeria’s exports go to Morocco. But forgoing regional trade relations comes with high opportunity costs. Over three billion dollars in Moroccan imports (8.45%) consist of crude petroleum, which comes primarily from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Russia. With further instability in Iraq and potential economic sanctions on Russia, Algeria’s crude petroleum exports could find a home in its old rival.

Informally, smugglers on both sides of the Moroccan-Algerian border have a much friendlier relationship. There are no official statistics on how much hashish is exported by Moroccan traders via Algeria, nor how much medication and gasoline enter Morocco from Algeria. In 2013, however, The Guardian claimed the illicit gasoline trade generated income for 3,000 to 5,000 families in Morocco’s eastern province.

Algeria’s border crackdowns will surely have an impact on these long-standing informal trade relations. Measures taken by Morocco along the border will also have a negative effect on these networks. All in all, it is hard to tell which will have greater ramifications for these economic forces, Morocco’s proposed 450km long wall along the border or Algeria’s envisioned 700km long trench.

Point of Pressure 3: Migration

One of the primary routes into Europe from North Africa begins in the Nigerien city of Agadez, continues through southern Algeria, and goes up toward the coast. From there, many migrants follow the road west toward Maghnia, Algeria, and cross from Maghnia directly into Morocco, near the city of Oujda.

EU pressure to stop the flow of migrants from North Africa into Europe, combined with a seeming lack of cooperation between Algeria and Morocco, have resulted in more and more migrants being shuffled back and forth between the two countries with an alarming disregard for human rights.

On its eastern border, Algeria is dealing with a stream of migrants and refugees from Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Eastern Africa. As a result of these increased pressures, the Algerian government has pursued what appear to be contradictory policies. In mid-August, Algeria announced it would open portions of the border with Libya to facilitate the return of refugees from Egypt. Just a few days later, the government arrested 300 Syrians heading for the same Libyan border. It remains to be seen how these policies will play out.

Public Response

While Algeria’s borders continue to be the subject of domestic political debate, it is important not to conflate this conversation with popular consensus on the issue. Despite the closed borders, Algerians are able to travel to neighboring countries via air or by entering through another country. In August, the Algerian paper L’Expressionreported that the top four tourism destinations for Algerians were Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, and Spain. Both Royal Air Maroc and Air Algiers offer regular flights between Algiers and Casablanca, though the cost is often prohibitive for residents looking to see family just across the border. The price of air travel, coupled with the time the journey requires, drives many families to make other arrangements.

One group of Algerian and Moroccan youth is following the example of residents of Naco, Mexico and Naco, United States, and arranging a cross-border volleyball match in October. Their aim is to draw attention to the individuals and families impacted by two decades of closed borders, and inspire dialogue focused on these affected people, instead of government political posturing.

Colonialisms’ Continuing Legacy

Ultimately, it is impossible to separate North Africa’s current borders from the recent history of European colonialism. While lines drawn on a map by colonial cartographers mean very little to the region’s social fabric or the lives of residents on either side of these borders, they have a strong impact on both. In the period following independence, Algeria and Morocco embarked upon parallel, but ultimately divergent, paths toward post-independence reformation. Morocco embraced its favored status with NATO and its member countries as a “model” for slow-paced reform after King Mohammed VI’s muchlauded constitutional reforms in 2011. Although many have criticized these reforms as strictly cosmetic, others have declared the measures as appropriate and reflective of Morocco’s history as a kingdom invested in tolerance and civil society.

At least rhetorically, Algeria has been a bastion of support for resistance and anti-imperialist movements. In contrast to its neighbor, Algeria pursued a largely socialist system until economic problems and political pressure caused it to accept IMF loans and economic restructuring in 1989. The country’s traumatic experience during the Black Decade of the 1990s, a period of great bloodshed fueled by armed conflict between government forces and militant Islamist groups, has remained in the backdrop, as the government watches instability in neighboring Libya and Mali unfold.

All in all, Algeria’s border closures are a function of its isolationist stance vis-à-vis regional neighbors, as well as the government’s efforts to keep out any potentially destabilizing external forces. This issue is not just about regional and domestic security for Algerian authorities, but also inherently connected to regime survival.



[1]Yahia H. Zoubir (2000) Algerian‐Moroccan relations and their impact on Maghribi integration, The Journal of North African Studies, 5:3, 43-74, DOI: 10.1080/13629380008718403

by George Bajalia

This piece was originally published by Signs of Seeing.

Video link:

North Africa and Southern Europe are divided by a sea, a wide sea, yes, but a sea that for many centuries was little more than a river. Families lived on either side, and still do. Now, however, their movements are governed by national and international bodies with whom they have little relation. Along the eastern edge of Morocco, along the border between Morocco and Algeria, the discrepancy between colonially imposed borders and the people who they separate is pronounced. On the Moroccan side, people wait with knapsacks to unload the cut-rate cigarettes and medicines smuggled in from Algeria. Just outside of Saidia, people stop on the side of the road to wave across a ditch. In Saidia proper, poles and rope demarcate the border on the beach, and military keep watch to make sure that no one crosses in international waters.

In this video, I document a journey down to Figuig to Saidia, and back to Tangier. Taking the ferry from Tangier to Algericas, I crossed from Moroccan waters, into international waters, and into Spanish territory all within 45 minutes. I spent the majority of that time looking back towards Tangier, a white city on a hill, a city I had called home for nearly two years. Just a few short days earlier, I had crossed from Nador into Melilla, a Spanish enclave nestled on Morocco’s coast. A few days later, I would be crossing from La Linéa de Concepcion, Spain into Gibraltar, United Kingdom, and flying out from Gibraltar to London. At the outset of this journey, 2 continents, 3 countries, I spent my time on the ferry looking back. As I looked around me, however, I saw that I was one of the few people gazing back. Most people on the boat, whether business regulars or first time travelers to Spain, were looking forwards. They were looking out to the next step, snapping photos and recording videos of what was to come.

During my time in Tangier, I looked out across the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain and tried to understand how my friends who grew up gazing out across this sea possibly felt about my own travels. I was embarrassed about the privilege I held just by nature of my birth. Tangier was, for me, a nodal point; a point from which I was able to see the world, take ferries to planes to trains to buses and arrive again, safely at the intersection of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. During these years, marked by coming and going from a city with porous borders and a strong informal economy, I came to realize that the passport I carry is the most valuable thing I have, and it doesn’t even belong to me. Driving from Figuig, in the southeast corner of Morocco, to Saidia, in its northeast corner, I carried it in my front pocket. I entertained some fantasy that I would be able to cross the border at some point, as long I had those helpful papers. It was a fantasy and nothing more. And I understood a little bit. Still no answers, but I’m closer to asking the right questions.

Dispatch from Figuig by George Bajalia

Recently, I received a grant from the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to pursue research and begin the writing of the new play I’m working on with F7ali F7alek producer Tom Casserly. Tom and I have started a new project, Borderline Theatre Project, to produce and develop new work through transnational artistic collaboration.

Borderline Theatre Project adapts classic stories from traditions across the world to speak to new cultural contexts, from canonical American tales to North African oral histories. By seeking out and spreading the seeds of these stories in a contemporary context, we move beyond existing cultural stereotypes to engage in meaningful conversation. By promoting genuine transnational collaboration, BTP re-imagines the traditional borders that form our nations and shares the new stories of our peoples.

Currently, we are developing The Magic Carpet, a story of a closed bored, open smuggling routes, and magic carpet. The carpet is not magic because it flies, or because it holds the key to an Arabian nights style fantasy, however, it’s magic because of the story it tells; a story of forbidden love. When bombs exploded in Marrakech, in April 1994 the Kingdom of Morocco closed the border with neighboring Algeria. The long-standing issue of Sahara territories, a conflict that dates back to the Spanish decolonization project of the 1970s, and Algeria’s alleged support of the “Polisario Independence Movement” culminated in the rapid militarization of the Moroccan-Algerian border. The border town of Oujda, the economic hub of north-west Morocco, went from being a well-to-do border town where Algerians came to purchase goods not available at home to a notorious smugglers’ den of cheap smuggled gasoline, human trafficking, and cut-rate Algerian cigarettes.

Our story begins deep in the heart of this den, where petrol fumes mix with burning rubbage and spicy Algerian harissa is poured over french fries like ketchup. It’s 2012 and the border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed for nearly 20 years. Khadija is leaning over a handloom when her niece, Yasmine, arrives and announces her intention to join a cross-country cycling trip that hopes to defy the closure. She wants to see her father’s country, though she harbors a secret ambition that she will find her father on the other side. Khadija asks the teenager to sit down and begins to tell her a story. It’s the story of love, and of tragic loss; it’s the story of her family…

We will be launching our project website very soon. Until then, I’ll be posting photos, videos, and thoughts about the piece. Right now, Tom and I are in Figuig, Morocco, right on the Algerian border. Tom flew into Casablanca on Saturday, and together we drove down to Errachidia, where we spent the night. Some 1000km after we started, we finally arrived in the desert oasis of Figuig. Along the way we met with weavers in Talsint, a village in the High Atlas Mountains. We took a couple of off-road turns, and after crossing a dried up oasis river dam, we found the highway to Figuig again. After some somewhat innocuous attempts to set up a grill near the border, we finally settled outside of the date palm oasis, on the edge of the Sahara.

Our goal this trip is to learn about the weaving process, and also about the cultural resonance between residents on either side of the Moroccan-Algerian border. The border was drawn up in the early 20th century by European colonialists, though it was rather porous until the wars of independence that followed World War II. In the 1990s, following a bomb explosion in Marrakech, the Moroccan government imposed visa restrictions and the Algerian government responded in kind. Today, the only way to cross is by plane from Casablanca to Oran, though on the ground it seems different. Military outposts are manned, but only few of them are actually patrolled.

Though our political concern the border, our cultural interest lies in the rug weavings in the region; an practice crucial the livlihood of many families here and an interesting confluence of global market pressures and local heritage. Today, for instance, many woman are using recycled materials from plastic packaging and linens from old coats to create new pieces with age old weaving techniques. Over the next week, we will be working with weavers all along the border, from Figuig to Oujda, to learn as much as we can about how these carpets are made, and the delicate balance of patrimony and economic persistence. Stay tuned for more updates!