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Tunisia and Morocco quietly 'uneasy' with Algeria's popular movement

Ramzi Boudina, Reuters

Since protests against a fifth mandate for Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika began on February 16, neighbouring Tunisia and Morocco have been watching the situation with caution and anxiety.

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As protests continue against the Algerian president – who will no longer seek a fifth term, while the presidential election scheduled for April 18 has been postponed – Tunisia and Morocco have been watching these unfolding developments very closely, even though their respective governments have refrained from comment.

The Algerian people are “free to express themselves on their own governance as they wish”, Tunisian President Béji Caïd Essebi asserted on February 25. “Every country has its own rules, and I don’t have the right to give lessons to anyone,” he continued.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi has been the only North African leader to express the opposite position, having warned on March 10 against the risks demonstrations might pose: “All this has a price […]; the people, young children and future generations will pay the price – that of a lack of stability.”

‘After Libya, Tunisia doesn’t want another neighbour to plunge into chaos’

Tunisia, meanwhile, has shown impeccable reserve. “The authorities are very cautious with regard to Algeria, and, traditionally, since it gained independence in 1958, Tunisia hasn't intervened in neighbouring countries’ affairs,” explained FRANCE 24 Tunis correspondent Marilyne Dumas.

Algeria and Tunisia share a border of more than 1000 kilometres and have a strategic economic and security partnership. Counter-terrorism co-operation is especially important for Tunisia, which has been in a state of emergency since 2015.

“Tunisians fear the wrath of the Algerian government; many people still remember the time when then Algerian President Houari Boumediene cut off the electricity supply – for which Tunisia relied on Algeria – after a dispute with his counterpart Habib Bourguiba in the 1960s,” Dumas pointed out.

This has not prevented some Tunisians from expressing sympathy with the Algerian protest movement, as it echoes the 2011 demonstrations that toppled then President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. On March 9, hundreds of Tunisians, most of them civilians, demonstrated in solidarity with the Algerian protests.

But for many others in Tunisia, the situation in Algeria has provoked concern, especially in light of the instability that has racked Libya – the only other country with which it shares a border – since Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was overthrown in 2011.

“Having seen the chaos in Libya, Tunisia doesn’t want another neighbour to plunge into chaos,” said Noureddine Mbarki, Tunis correspondent for FRANCE 24’s Arabic channel. “Any destabilisation of Algeria would have serious repercussions for Tunisia and for the stability of the whole region.”

As the situation has evolved – with Bouteflika first announcing that he would step down after re-election, then that he would not seek a fifth mandate at all – several Tunisian political parties have “shown how relieved they are, because they see these developments as pointing in the direction of stability and as offering escape routes from the crisis”, Mbarki continued.

‘Morocco regards the events in Algeria with trepidation’

Morocco has been similarly taciturn. Its government has made no official pronouncement on the turbulence in neighbouring Algeria since protests burst onto the streets there. However, there is no doubt that Rabat is observing the unfolding events with great attention and caution.

For their part, many ordinary Moroccans have vociferated their support for the Algerian protestors on social media. “They welcome what they see as Bouteflika’s climbdown in the face of his country’s young people,” says Achraf Tribak, director of the Rabat-based Hespress Centre for Studies and Media.

However, “Morocco’s government regards the events in Algeria with trepidation, and the precarious state of relations between the two countries accentuates its caution”, Younes Moujahid, president of Morocco’s National Press Council, told FRANCE 24. “Rabat doesn’t want to look like it’s interfering in its neighbour’s business,” he continued. That's while the Moroccan magazine Hebdo – seen as close to the government – stated that “the destabilisation of Algeria is in nobody’s interests”.

The two neighbours, whose shared border has been closed since 1994, have maintained tense relations for several decades, particularly because of the dispute around Western Sahara. This is the only disputed territory remaining in Africa. 80 percent of Western Sahara is occupied by Morocco and the other 20 percent by the Polisario Front – an armed group which claims independence for the territory it holds, with Algeria’s support.

“Morocco sees the Algerian crisis through the prism of the difficult relationship between the two countries,” said Tribak. “Rabat wants to develop closer ties, to the point of reopening the border and settling the Western Sahara question.”

Nevertheless, “some in Morocco think that in order for Algeria – and relations between the two countries – to move forward, there must be a change of power in Algiers,” Tribak concluded.

This article was adapted from the original in French

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