This week I decided to travel near the border separating Morocco and Algeria for some primary research for my website and doctoral proposal. I was, of course, on the Moroccan side. Aside from the contraband Algerian fuel that Moroccan smugglers were selling at reduced prices on this side of the fence, what particularly shook me was the sense of unity between Algerians and Moroccans waving at each other across the border.
The border is a simple barbwire mesh no taller than myself, and literally about 5 yards away with Algerians on the other side in our immediate vicinity. It has remained closed since 1994, when a terrorist attack targeted a Marrakesh hotel.
Moroccan officials suspected the Algerian government of having a covert hand in the attacks, thus requesting visas from Algerian citizens to closely monitor movement across the border following the event. In response, Algeria’s President Bouteflika enforced a complete closure of the border for land travel.
The two countries have been in ongoing conflict since their so-called “independence” from France, where geopolitical ambiguity has led to accusations from Algeria of Morocco occupying the Western Sahara region. By modern standards, Morocco is occupying the Western Sahara, but a postcolonial complex is partially responsible for the “Greater Morocco vision” reminiscent of a romantic, medieval past. This “vision” is what’s fueling Morocco’s occupation of the region – a sensitive subject back at home.
Algeria is not free from its own human rights violations. A recently retired agent from Algeria’s moukhabarat revealed a couple of years ago that the country was indeed responsible for coordinating and executing the terrorist attacks in Morocco in 1994.
What’s more, both Morocco’s monarch and Algeria’s President have rotated only once since, and Bouteflika will probably pass his power to a family member or a close ally in the Algerian military when he eventually dies. Algerian therefore resembles a monarchal system more than it does a republican democracy.
For many Algerians, their regime is a system built upon and justified by immanent Islamist resurgence, and is not justified by its own merit and competence, such as through succesfully promoting human development, social welfare and income equality.
There was a clear “tit-for-tat” happening at both sides of the fence. Both countries demonstrating how loud they can party, with flags dotted everywhere and massive drapings of the Moroccan king on show for Algerian officials to see from the other side of the beach.
Then something occurred to me. The French had colonised both countries and left their leaders arguing with one-another over unresolved postcolonial land disputes. Isn’t it interesting that we look up to the French and seek to emulate our oppressor in all walks of life yet our officials seem to literally despise their own North African kin?
We speak the same dialect of Arabic and share a near identical culture. It’s pathetic. There are families literally torn by the conflict. Towns divided by the stubborn border. One such town suitably named “zouj beghal” (two mules) with a main motorway crossing over a border which is now indefinitely blockaded.
Where I was in Saidia, I couldn’t swim a couple of dozen yards to get to the Algerian side; instead I would have to drive 10 hours to Casablanca and fly over due to the stubbornness of our conflicting officials. The people – the civilians – seem to have had enough. They just want to be reunited with their families and want to benefit from greater exposure to international trade. Our phosphate is cheaper and their fuel is cheaper. Imagine the potential for international trade if the border re-opened.
However, this doesn’t just come down to officials. A few days later I crossed into the Spanish enclave of Melilla out of morbid curiosity. The town was taken in revenge for the Moorish conquest of Andalusia. Crossing into the enclave, a desperate Moroccan family were arrested for trying to illegally cut the border. It is no wonder. There is a huge gulf in coordination, efficiency, cleanliness and general economy. I found myself ashamed in reluctantly hoping that the Spanish keep the town so that us Moroccans don’t ruin it. Maybe I, too, am a victim of the Arab colonial psyche.
How is it that an enclave in the same geographical vicinity as Morocco’s is decades ahead in terms of general organisation and economic development? The only differences are the government and the inhabitants that have inhabited and nurtured the enclave over the past hundreds of years. Back on the Moroccan side of the border, people are throwing rubbish on the road with no consideration for how we can appear to Spanish settlers with a colonial mindset. Behaviour like ours justifies their colonisation – they deem us uncivilised and “in need” of a colonising mission. Perhaps being mindful of their presence is itself an act of psychological colonialism.
Nonetheless, the Spanish officials turn a blind eye to some contraband goods smuggled back into Morocco for business use. This European desire for efficiency is understandable: it’s nearly impossible to ensure that everybody who is taking produce back into Morocco for “personal use” is telling the truth; how much time and money would such continuous, thorough investigations cost? People also allege that our colonisers are happy to see us deal with contraband and remain in a perpetual cycle of illegitimacy whilst our “European” counterparts excel in more credible walks of life.
We therefore need a psychological revolution, a renewed awareness, a heightened consciousness and complete change in mentality. From the official level where a proud border closure policy supersedes our economic needs as a developing region, to the civilian level where we just can’t seem to organise ourselves and create grassroots change and stimulate self-emancipation.
Much talk about the “Arab Spring” has been institutional: which leader will be replaced by whom? What constitutional changes will take place and when? But without addressing our postcolonial issues head-on, we will likely find ourselves in the same perpetual, disorganised mess.
In Egypt, one dictator has been replaced by another. In Libya, one regime has been replaced by a failed regime. Changing the face of politics is essentially irrelevant when we are not even looking at evolving the psyche that operates behind the face.
The Arab Spring, if it is to become a “Spring”, needs to be as much about bottom-up change as it has been about top-down change. The next generation will ultimately form the future of our countries, and will eventually go on to become leaders and influencers themselves:
- Begin teaching children their colonial history in compulsory classes; this way they can identify the origins of their power struggles and create ideas to resolve these whilst putting their developmental needs first
- Create awareness through government funded campaigns on the importance of respecting time and appointments, as well as how this can benefit Arab societies in their entirety
- Continue to subsidise green enterprise and artistic, cultural development to stimulate long-term, sustainable sources of business and tourism