The Sand War (1963) : An Overview of an Instrumentalized Conflict



Hajar Benmoussa is a student at Sciences Po Paris. Having completed her undergraduate studies in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies, she is currently studying abroad at the Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi in Milan. She is preparing to begin her master’s degree in International Development at the Paris School of International Affairs this autumn. Her academic interests are applied economics, public policy making and social theory.  Inspired by the ‘diversionary theory,’ which argues that global conflicts are often initiated by leaders threatened by domestic unrest, this paper argues that both internal turmoil and the use of force by a dictatorial leader ignited a ‘pointless’ war whose impact, nevertheless, can be seen even today.  

Figure 1: Ana Torres-Garcia (2013): US diplomacy and the North African 'War of the Sands' (1963), The Journal of North African Studies, 18:2, 324-348
Figure 1: Ana Torres-Garcia (2013): US diplomacy and the North African ‘War of the Sands’ (1963), The Journal of North African Studies, 18:2, 324-348

“In Morocco, the monarchy was able to consolidate its rule and smash the growing movement of the left. In Algeria, the Ben Bella regime was able to moderate mass revolutionary pressures and to consolidate a bureaucratic state apparatus.” (Farsoun & Paul 1976)


The  Sand War  (Guerre des Sables) refers to a border dispute over the “ill-defined frontier limits between Algeria and Morocco inherited from the French colonial period.”[1] As the very first disagreement that brought the two newly independent countries into conflict, it has attracted much scholarly attention to the impact it has had on the two states’ bilateral relations. However, the purpose of this paper is to focus on the ways in which domestic factors in both countries contributed to the conflict. As tensions between the two states increased, Morocco and Algeria were experiencing severe internal unrest. Thus, the ruling elite had a particular interest in engaging in an external conflict to detract attention from domestic repression and creeping authoritarianism following the colonial era.This paper uses “diversionary theory” to argue that “leaders threatened by domestic turmoil manipulate the ‘rally around the flag’ effect by initiating conflict abroad … mitigat[ing] the negative effects of the unrest, thus saving the leader’s position.”[2] The aim of this analysis is not to show that the Sand War was triggered solely to divert the attention of Moroccans and Algerians away from internal unrest, but rather to examine how domestic upheaval and diversionary logic were one of many factors underlying the conflict.

Morocco’s Internal Politics in the Early 1960s and its Impact on Hassan II’s Policy-Making Process

After his ascension to the throne in 1961, King Hassan II of Morocco initiated a shift in his country’s foreign policy. In parallel with the long and tedious process of decolonization, he attempted to restore political stability through the use of domestic force. Nonetheless, this attempt proved to be rather unsuccessful and was met with broad popular discontent.

The political cleavages inherited from the French protectorate played a key role in Morocco’s internal politics during the early 1960s. The Istiqlal party, the principal ally of the monarchy in its struggle against colonialism, soon became the state’s main opponent after independence (1956). Indeed, Istiqlal’s political figures strongly criticized Hassan II’s lack of legitimacy in comparison to his father’s reign, as well as his lack of effort to recover the territories Morocco lost during the colonial era. Moreover, Hassan II was thought to be a feudal figure that used corruption and a venal bureaucracy to assert his power.  The opposition was mobilized through two different channels : the conservative nationalists  and the Union National des Forces Populaires (UNFP), a Marxist party which split from Istiqlal in 1959 over ideological differences.

The situation worsened with the significant decline in standard of living and increased repression. In 1962, Hassan II put in place the first constitution and initiated superficial reforms in an attempt to democratize the country and boost his popularity. In 1963, legislative and municipal elections were expected, making it a critical year for the building of the country’s political stability. To counter growing opposition,  the King created a political party in 1963, the FDIC (Front de Défense des Institutions Constitutionnelles) and exerted control over another, known as the MP Party (Mouvement Populaire). Despite the  relatively wide support  that the FDIC gained, the UNFP and the Istiqlal parties were still able to mobilize 56,5% of the electorate.[3] The FDIC’s electoral defeat precipitated a political war waged by Hassan II against the opposition, resulting in a series of arrests against political leaders and the shut down of opposition media sources. On July 16, 1963 the state arrested approximately 5000 UNFP and communist activists and the courts sentenced some figures, such as Fqih Basri, to death. Other opposition members, such as Ben Barka, fled to Algeria and created the “foreign provisory directorate of the UNFP.”

Barka’s decision to seek asylum in Algeria is highly significant given the political environment at the time After a hundred years of devastating colonial rule, Algeria experienced an eight year war for independence that led to severe social and economic problems. Nevertheless, the Moroccan opposition figures, such as Ben Barka and Bouabid, openly encouraged the establishment of a socialist regime in Algeria and sympathized with the revolution. As a consequence of their support,  Moroccan exiles were welcomed in Algeria with open arms. This situation fed Hassan II’s suspicions and fears with regards to the prospective establishment of another socialist republic in North Africa.

Additionally, Hassan II also had to face nationalist claims against his rule. In his quest for legitimacy, the king started diplomatic talks with neighboring Spain over the Sahara region and reached a compromise : Morocco would regain its sovereignty over the territories while Spain would gain economic access to the country’s resources. The deal was never implemented since Franco eventually rejected any negotiation on the status of Spanish Sahara. Shortly after, in March 1963, Hassan II travelled to Algiers to initiate talks on the common land border that the French had left undefined. The king wanted to negotiate a new frontier that would include Morocco’s territorial claims over Tindouf. The Algerian prime minister at the time, Ahmed Ben Bella, suggested that the issue should be discussed at a later date – as soon as Algeria’s political institutions were established and its stability guaranteed. These successive foreign policy failures heavily threatened the monarchy and put the regime under growing internal pressure.  Political unrest added to Hassan II’s failed attempts to meet the opposition’s demands  strongly influenced the course of events, and more precisely the launching of the Sand War.

The Dire Algerian Internal Situation : from Insurrection to Civil War.

At the same time as King  Hassan II was battling popular discontent in Morocco, Algeria’s new government was experiencing an equally, if not more, dire domestic conflict.  The French occupation left the country divided into multiple military districts, or wilayas, that became almost independent and autarchic.  The French colonialists destroyed or dismantled most of Algeria’s productive sectors during their retreat, depriving the country of most of its civil servants, doctors, teachers and skilled workers. This resulted in a catastrophic economic situation which, coupled with a global atmosphere of chaos, created a decentralized state with no firm locus of power.

In parallel with this difficult social and economic situation, the political scene in Algeria was marked by a lack of coherence and unity. The FLN (National Liberation Front) which supposedly represented the bloc of anti-colonial forces experienced several internal crises and left a political vacuum that was soon filled by the GPRA (Algerian Provisional Revolutionary Government) and the ALN (National Liberation Army). Both parties operated outside the country, and the GPRA acted as a government-in-exile. This fragmentation led to a struggle for dominance over the state. Ahmed Ben Bella, a prominent FLN figure, eventually consolidated power in 1962 after he suppressed his political opponents and gained the support of the army. On 20 September 1962, Ben Bella was elected and, within a few months, Algeria was recognized as a member of the United Nations. During his first year as president, he concentrated power in his own hands by forging an alliance between the army and the civil government. Additionally, Ben Bella established a one-party government, outlawed his opponents, abolished the wilaya system and took on the role of Prime Minister, President of the Republic, Secretary General of the FLN and Commander-in-Chief of the army. Opposition parties launched an armed confrontation against the regime from 1962 to 1964 in response to the president’s centralization of power. The Kabyle region proved to be particularly rebellious and defied Ben Bella’s authority, accusing him of creating a fascist dictatorship. The Algerian leader used force to crush the different insurrections, and in October 1963, government troops “peacefully occupied the Kabyle capital of Tizi-Ouzou”.[4] Simultaneously, several demonstrations organized by the unemployed took place in Oran and Constantine, followed by urban terrorism and assassination attempts.

Hassan II took advantage of Algeria’s political instability to impose his will. A few days after the beginning of the insurrection in the Kabyle region, Moroccan troops took control of two key frontier posts : Hassi-Beida and Tindjoub. The Sand War broke out in 29 October, and was “the first open-armed conflict between both countries and it represent[ed] an early illustrative case of the troublesome nature of Algerian–Moroccan relations during the post-independence period that has stubbornly undermined the project of Maghribi integration”.[5]

The Sand war quickly escalated into a full-blown confrontation and saw intense fighting around the Algerian town of Bechar and the Moroccan town of Figuig. Given the superiority of the modernized and well-equipped Moroccan army, Algeria appeared strongly disadvantaged. Despite its military losses, the Algerian government was able to win the political struggle over the regions of Bechar and Tindouf. Soon after the conflict reached a stalemate, international interventions (mainly by the United States, the Arab League and the Union of African Unity) managed to arrange a formal cease fire on 20 February 1964 and to reach a peace agreement. The Sand War may have ended, but its socio-psychological legacy has been strong enough to initiate a long and difficult period of tension between the two countries, aborting all attempts to foster regional harmony. These hostilities later evolved with the Western Sahara issue and, to this day, the Algerian-Moroccan borders remain closed and the countries’ bilateral relations are dominated by mistrust and constant defiance. Contemporary developments of Algerian-Moroccan relations, such as last month’s border confrontations, as well as spiteful and vindictive speeches, clearly show that tensions between the two countries have yet to be resolved. That being said, there is nothing imminent or inevitable about this conflict; Morocco and Algeria have a great deal of similarities in terms of language, culture, history and interests for the future. Nor are these similarities limited to the contemporary situation; indeed, the countries’ socio-political conditions and the grievances brought forth by the people, which the governments sought to cover up by launching the Sand War, were more alike than different.



[1] TORRES-GARCIA, Ana, “US diplomacy and the North African ‘War of the Sands’ (1963)”, The Journal of North African Studies, 18:2, 324-348. Accessed 02/04/2013.

[2] SOBEK, David, “Rallying Around the Podesta: Testing Diversionary Theory across”, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan., 2007), pp. 29-45. Accessed: 08/04/2013.

[3] VERMEREN, Pierre, « Histoire du Maroc depuis l’indépendance », p34. Collection Repères, Editions La découverte, Paris, 2006. Printed.

[4] FARSOUN Karen, PAUL Jim, “War in the Sahara : 1963”, MERIP Reports. No.45 (Mar., 1976), pp. 13-16. Accessed 18/04/2013.

[5] TORRES-GARCIA, Ana, “US diplomacy and the North African ‘War of the Sands’ (1963)”, The Journal of North African Studies, 18:2, 324-348. Accessed 02/04/2013.

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TORRES-GARCIA, Ana, “US diplomacy and the North African ‘War of the Sands’ (1963)”, The Journal of North African Studies, 18:2, 324-348. Accessed 02/04/2013.

VERMEREN, Pierre, « Histoire du Maroc depuis l’indépendance », Collection Repères, Editions La découverte, Paris, 2006. Printed.