Home » Understanding the Morocco-Algeria conflict which has led to CHAN 2022 boycott stories

Understanding the Morocco-Algeria conflict which has led to CHAN 2022 boycott stories

by Lesley Ngwa
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Ahead of the African Nations Championships (often referred to as CHAN), there’s tension between hosts Algeria and their neighbours Morocco.

Morocco finally decided to take part in the African Nations Championship (CHAN) despite earlier insisting they were cancelling their participation due to the closure of Algerian airspace to Moroccan planes, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The Moroccan national team will travel to Algeria to participate in the CHAN,” the ministry told AFP.

The competition gets underway on Friday 13/01/2023.

Morocco’s FRMF football federation said in a statement earlier that the Confederation of African Football (CAF) had informed it last month that Algeria had issued “an authorization in principle” for the flight.

But just 24 hours before the start of the tournament, the FRMF said it “notes with regret that the definitive authorization for the flight from Rabat to Constantine has unfortunately not been confirmed.”

Algeria closed its airspace to all Moroccan flights in September 2021, the month after it cut off diplomatic ties with its rival, accusing it of “hostile acts.”

That was the latest escalation in a long-running rivalry fuelled by the Western Sahara dispute and relations with Israel.

The Moroccan team, which made history last month by becoming the first African or Arab team ever to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup, have won the past two African Nations Championship.

The CHAN, reserved for players competing in the national championships, will be held from January 13 to February 4 in Algeria.

Understanding the boycott

Defending champions of the African Nations Championship (CHAN), Morocco, had officially announced they will not take part in this month’s tournament.

The decision to pull out of the competition was made official just a day ahead of the commencement in Algeria.

The Atlas Lions had been drawn into Group C, where they would have faced Sudan, Madagascar and Ghana.

But what went into the decision for the Moroccan FA to announce their decision to pull out of the 2022 CHAN tournament?

Apparently, Morocco had been threatening to not play in the competition for quite some time now over travel arrangements.

Morocco’s Football Federation had mentioned they were going to withdraw from their title defence and only compete if there is a direct flight from the Moroccan capital Rabat to the Algerian city of Constantine, where Morocco’s games are scheduled to be played.

Algerian Minister of Sports Abderrazak Sebgag recalled that the Algerian Football Federation (FAF) was “seized” last week by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) regarding Morocco’s request.

“The FAF will respond to CAF via official channels. Algeria has its laws, its sovereignty which is above all consideration,” he said, hinting at his country’s rejection of the Moroccan request.

This is not the first time that, without directly rejecting Morocco’s request, Algeria has suggested that it will not open the closed airspace between the two countries.

Last week, the head of the CHAN organizing committee Rachid Oukali said that his country is “not responsible for ensuring the availability of a direct route for the participating teams.”

In response to Oukali’s remarks, the president of Morocco’s football federation stressed that Morocco had not “asked Algeria to provide us with a private flight or anything.”

Instead, Lekjaa noted, Morocco’s request only sought to highlight the importance of a permission to allow the official airline for Morocco, Royal Air Maroc, to transport the national team directly to the host country.

Morocco and Algeria: A long rivalry

Moroccan military and commercial aircraft have been barred from Algerian airspace since the two neighbours severed diplomatic ties last year.

Their dispute is linked to multiple issues; including contested Western Sahara, a territory that Morocco annexed in 1975 and that Algeria-backed Sahrawis have long sought independence.

In times past, there has been a tense relationship between both Algeria and Morocco since their independence following Algeria’s support for Polisario, a separatist movement in the Western Sahara region of Morocco.

The border between the two countries has been closed since 1994 while Algiers also cut all ties with Rabat in August 2021.

The hostility and the long-time rivalry between the two neighbouring countries has been long running. Nevertheless, tensions greatly intensified in December 2020 when Morocco normalized its relations with Israel in exchange for U.S. recognition of the kingdom’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara territory, and since that time, Algeria has appeared increasingly isolated diplomatically. The Algerian regime suffered a new defeat when Spain expressed its support for Morocco’s autonomy plan for the Western Sahara.

Verbal attacks have continued, if not increased, in their intensity over the last few months.

Moroccan Ambassador to the United Nations Omar Hilale’s open support for the self-determination of the Kabylie region in response to Algerian support of the Polisario Front infuriated Algerian leaders, prompting the recall of Algeria’s ambassador to Morocco. Meanwhile, the Pegasus scandal, in which Morocco was accused of hacking the phones of Algerian political and military officials among others – which it denies – was similarly making headlines. Further, Algeria accused Morocco of supporting the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie and the Islamist Rachad movement, both recognized as terrorist organizations by Algeria, and also blamed Morocco for being behind deadly wildfires in Kabylie, without providing any evidence.

For over four decades, the Western Sahara issue has purportedly been the main reason for the poor relations between the two countries; their positions over the status of the territory are irreconcilable. Morocco considers its sovereignty over Western Sahara as a non-negotiable national cause which drives its foreign policy, whereas Algeria supports the pro-independence Polisario Front.

When they partook in a shared struggle against colonial France and Morocco’s frontier served as a rear base for the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale, their trajectory seemed intertwined.

Up until Algeria’s independence, the two countries’ elites had close relations and even family ties; there are well-known examples of political figures who had links to both countries at that time. The heads of state haven’t held official talks since Mohamed VI and the late Bouteflika met in 2005 at the Arab League Summit in Algiers.

The way forward

As a result of this distance, today’s political actors now hardly know each other, while the new generation has grown up consuming misconceptions and clichés perpetuated by pro-government media on both sides, which frequently defame the other country’s political figures and focus on each other’s internal crises. Yet, the longstanding political feud generally has not impacted both societies’ perceptions of the other, with people regularly calling for the opening of the border. For example, sports events, during which they often support each other, indicate a genuine sense of brotherhood.
On several occasions, Morocco has moved towards reconciliation and called for dialogue and the opening of the border, with King Mohammed VI pushing for a new dynamic in his throne speech as tensions rose. On the other hand, Algeria’s rulers, who largely belong to an older generation and are beleaguered with internal political crises, are not demonstrating any willingness or political interest in reconciliation. In any event, in order for the bilateral relations to improve, leaders on both sides will eventually have to agree to sit at the discussion table.
The Moroccan federation said in a statement that it had written to the African Union (AU) about procedures for African sports events and “facilitating the conditions of the participating teams.”
In its letter to the AU, the Moroccan federation demanded that the national team be able to fly directly to Constantine on a private aircraft of Royal Air Maroc, the official carrier of Morocco’s national teams.
A conflict resolution pattern from the AU working with other sports stakeholders where sports transcends into politics, diplomacy and geopolitics would be highly welcomed.

(Excerpts courtesy of AFP)

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