Morocco-Spain: ‘The other kingdom clinging to the remains of an obsolete empire’

François Soudan
By François Soudan
Editor-in-chief of Jeune Afrique

Posted on Tuesday, 8 June 2021 20:33

Demonstrators in the Green March march towards West Sahara. On 6 November 1975, 350,000 Moroccan volunteers peacefully occupied the Spanish Sahara. This symbolic gesture led to the departure of the Spanish and the restoration of part of the Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania. © Alain Nogues/Sygma via Getty Images

Relations between Morocco and Spain are highly subjective. It's the same situation with France, but in the case of Spain, it's the other kingdom clinging to the remains of an obsolete empire - Ceuta, Melilla and a handful of islets - like an oyster to the rock of Alhucemas.

Tensions between Rabat and Madrid are more acute than ever due to the closure of borders between Morocco and the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the hospitalisation of the Polisario’s leader near Zaragoza and the migration crisis.

To better understand the crisis that broke out in April of this year between Rabat and Madrid, against a backdrop of migratory tensions and nationalist sentiment, it is important to have an appreciation of the two countries’ shared history.

It is one that involves a history of colonisation and resistance, of cooperation and war and of dialogue and violence, which dates back to the beginning of the 15th century. It was from this period onwards that all Moroccan dynasties, from the Merinids to the Alawites, had to confront Spain.

Across the Straits

When Paris and Madrid shared Morocco in 1912 – the North and the Saharan extreme South went to Spain – the latter, which was nothing more than a shadow of its former self, found a great cause to regain faith in its destiny.

The great enthusiasm of hispanidad was linked to the realisation that the future of the peninsula, located south of Algeciras on the other side of the Straits, was at stake. But this colonisation would prove to be unsuccessful, as it lacked the appropriate financial and military resources.

When the seemingly endless Rif war broke out, the Spanish army was crushed and, above all, humiliated on the Anoual plateau by Abd el-Krim’s tribes. Furthermore, the devastating reconquest was only possible thanks to the French.

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Spain was bled dry and, in fact, only occupied the coast. In the south, in Rio de Oro, the atmosphere was stifling. Until their withdrawal in 1975, the Spaniards patrolled, monitored, repressed as well as exploited the Boukraa phosphate mine a little, but hardly administered anything and, above all, created nothing.

Whoever opposes the sacred notion that the Saharawis are Moroccan automatically excludes themselves from the national community, as the debate has been settled.

The persistence of the double bond of allegiance and belonging, both religious and personal, of the great Saharawi tribes to the Sultan of Morocco can also be explained by the yoke. And, therefore, the cultural alienation brought about by sluggish colonisation was much less burdensome here than it was under the French protectorate, as it only engendered an ersatz national feeling.

Sacred notion

As seen from Rabat today, the re-establishment of the pact between the monarchy and its people that led to the recovery of Western Sahara is more than ever self-evident. The former Spanish colony’s notions of self-determination and liberation are no longer accepted by the overwhelming majority of Moroccans.

Whoever opposes the sacred notion that the Saharawis are Moroccan automatically excludes themselves from the national community, as the debate has been settled. As for Algeria, it “created” the Polisario with the sole aim of opening up an outlet to the Atlantic through its little vassal. The discussion ends there.

Spain is in an ambiguous position as no one managed to cultivate nostalgia for the time when the Tercio stood guard over the El Aaiún and Villa Cisneros forts. Therefore, the double guilt of having abandoned the handful of Sahrawi independence activists to their fate and of not managing to create an Iberian state a few hundred yards from the Canary Islands continues to permeate the political class, NGOs, the media and part of public opinion.

As a result, relations between these two old nations – where national pride is based on the land, on the dead and on generational bloodshed – can only be considered to be extremely passionate. Especially when the scent of istiamar (“colonialism”), which Moroccans are so quick to detect, returns with each new crisis.

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