From now on, all of Morocco’s relations are based on the question of Western Sahara and the positions taken by its partners with regard to this conflict. A choice that even the earthquake of September 8, 2023 did not call into question. And which primarily targets France, Tunisia, and of course Algeria.
In its foreign policy, Morocco distinguishes between friendly countries and others. The first are those who recognized the Moroccan character of Western Sahara, while the second did not do so. The earthquake which violently struck the El-Haouz region in the Moroccan High Atlas on the night of September 8 gives Rabat the opportunity to confirm the » prism through which Morocco considers its international environment « , as had been announced King Mohamed VI , a year earlier in his speech to the nation, delivered on the occasion of the 69th anniversary of the Revolution and the people.
Among partner or neighboring countries, three countries are affected by this discrimination. France first, which did not follow in the footsteps of the United States and Israel who recognized the “ Moroccan nature ” of the Sahara . Algeria of course, since it continues to support the Polisario Front, engaged in a conflict against the Cherifian kingdom for the sovereignty of Western Sahara. And Tunisia, stuck between Algeria and Morocco, two countries determined to prolong the conflict between them, by involving other regional actors. In recent years, the tension between the two large Maghreb states has intensified so much that Tunis is struggling to maintain its historic neutrality on this issue which is poisoning the region.
THE CHOICES OF PARIS
France has just had proof that it is no longer among Morocco’s friendly countries . While the Spaniards were very quickly called upon to clear and save the lives still buried under the rubble, the French rescue teams were unable to get to the ground, as the approval of the Moroccan executive had not been given to them. . Paris had nevertheless prepared for it and French President Emmanuel Macron had made it clear: “ The second this aid is requested, it will be deployed ”. Out of nearly a hundred countries having offered their aid, only four were chosen by Mohamed VI ( Spain, United Kingdom, Qatar and United Arab Emirates). In France, this sidelining arouses embarrassment and incomprehension regarding the Arab country with which Paris has always maintained important economic, commercial and cultural relations.
In the French media, we are multiplying broadcasts and debates by soliciting experts, to try to minimize, and to reassure ourselves by saying that France will surely be called upon to intervene later, to rebuild villages and schools, and naturally to restore to nine Marrakech. We praise the logistics put in place by the Moroccan executive which wishes to avoid a “ congestion ” of international aid. We also insist on the fact that “ any controversy over aid is unwelcome « . Despite this, the controversy is there, raising questions about the king’s silence, relations between the two countries, and the responsibility of Emmanuel Macron. On September 12, the French head of state decided to put an end to it, by addressing Moroccans directly, in a video posted on X (formerly Twitter).
He recalls France’s availability, but affirms that it is “ up to His Majesty the King, and to the government of Morocco, in a fully sovereign manner, to organize the aid ”. While granting aid of 5 million euros to NGOs present on the ground, Macron places the relationship between the two countries in the long term: “ We will be there in the long term, on a humanitarian and medical level, for the reconstruction, for cultural and heritage aid, in all areas where the Moroccan people and their authorities consider that we are useful. »
A LONG-AWAITED VISIT
With these words, the French head of state is trying to overcome the tension that has arisen since 2020, with Rabat accusing Paris of not having aligned itself with the United States and Israel, which recognized the “Moroccanness” of the Western Sahara. But France believes that it has been, for five decades, the main supporter of Rabat in its position on the Sahara, whether at the United Nations Security Council, with the European Commission, or by having supported the autonomy plan. proposed by Morocco in 2007. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna recalled this in December 2022, while she was traveling in Morocco, as part of the preparation for Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Rabat.
But the French president’s state visit is still pending and seems less and less likely, as the tension between the two countries has grown, affecting the trust that reigned between the two ruling classes. The break dates from 2021, when Emmanuel Macron himself and some of his ministers were spied on by Morocco with Pegasus software. It was also fueled by the anger expressed by Moroccans when Paris took the decision to reduce by 50 % the quota of visas granted during the same year 2021.
It is in this deleterious climate that Paris moved closer to Algiers, further arousing the wrath of Rabat. The “ official and friendship ” visit carried out by Emmanuel Macron and a large part of his government to Algiers in August 2022, intended to “ rebuild and develop a relationship between France and Algeria ” greatly upset Rabat which experienced this trip as an aggression, especially since during this trip, a meeting was held near Algiers, in which the two presidents Abdelmajid Tebboune and Macron participated, with the chiefs of staff and intelligence of the two country. A security pact was concluded at the regional level. For Morocco, it can only be a priority axis of alliance, put in place to its detriment.
In reality, this rapprochement between Paris and Algiers occurred in a context marked by the war in Ukraine, and while Algeria was making a comeback on the international scene through hydrocarbons. And since its withdrawal from the Sahel, France also intends to rely on Algiers to block radical jihadism in this region.
Still, by displaying an understanding with the Algerian political class, Emmanuel Macron seemed to ignore the triangular relationship that has developed over the years, between France, Algeria and Morocco: when two countries commit in a relationship, they must take the third into account. But this practice imposes a balancing act that is often difficult for Paris, particularly on the Western Sahara issue. However, France, which needs Algeria in terms of energy and security, can hardly go further in the Sahara.
AN ENEMY COUNTRY ?
How can we escape from this constraint, at a time when the two large Maghreb states intend to condition their foreign relations on the question of Western Sahara ? If King Mohamed VI expressed it clearly, the severance of energy ties that Algiers imposed on Madrid shows that the two Moroccan and Algerian political classes are in the same state of mind. Morocco’s refusal to the French aid proposal shows the extent to which this constraint weighs heavily on the relationship between Paris and Rabat, calling into question a very old friendship and partnership. The question then arises of the definition of “ friendly country”. « . To what extent has France, which does not explicitly recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, suddenly become an “ enemy country ” ?
The question arises as much in France as in Morocco, where many people wonder how the country where the king spends a large part of the year between the castle of Betz in Oise, acquired by Hassan II in 1972 and his own mansion purchased in Paris in 2020, can be considered an enemy country. But in addition to the king’s extended vacation in France, the two countries are also linked by the presence of a large community: 1.5 million Moroccans in France, including 670,000 dual nationals and 51,000 French who reside in Morocco, constituting the largest large foreign community in the kingdom. Moroccans are also the main beneficiaries of the first residence permits (around 30,000 per year).
The leading investor in Morocco, France maintains important military and security relations with Rabat, which are mainly based on a technical cooperation agreement (1994) supplemented by an agreement signed in 2005, and joint military exercises are organized every year. It is also linked to Morocco through judicial cooperation. Furthermore, the visa crisis revealed how Moroccan elites were culturally attached to France, suffering from not being able to go there regularly. Also, how can we reduce France to a country ostracized, for not having recognized the “ Moroccan nature ” of Western Sahara and therefore prohibited from intervening in the disaster-stricken villages of the High Atlas ?
The earthquake in Haouz gave the Moroccan executive the opportunity to redefine its partners as the king clearly stated in August 2022:
With regard to certain countries among our traditional or new partners, whose positions on the Sahara are ambiguous, we expect them to change and review the substance of their positioning, in a manner that is unambiguous.
A REJECTION OF TUNISIA AND ALGERIA
On September 12, the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the refusal of the Moroccan authorities to accept the aid offered by Algiers. However, as soon as the earthquake was announced, Algeria said it was ready to “ provide aid and mobilize all material and human resources in solidarity with the sister Moroccan kingdom in the event of a request from the Kingdom of Morocco ” . It opened its airspace to facilitate the arrival of humanitarian aid and three large aircraft were ready to take off from Boufarik airport.
This Algerian aid gave Algiers the opportunity to reduce tension between the two countries. But for Mohamed VI , the closure of the land border since 1994, the severance of diplomatic relations by decision of the Algerians in 2021, and the accusations against Rabat following Israel’s penetration into the Maghreb due to the normalization of relations between the two countries cannot be overcome by humanitarian considerations.
Tunisia does not benefit from more consideration. Wanting to show its closeness and friendship to Morocco in this ordeal, the country also offered its help. President Kaïs Saïed said he was willing to send a field hospital. And in a video released by the Tunisian authorities, we could see teams ready to leave: around fifty doctors and rescuers, with reconnaissance dogs, medicines, etc. Interior Minister Kamel Feki came to greet them in person on September 9: “ You will go to Morocco, a friendly country, to our Moroccan brothers who were victims of a natural disaster (…), I hope that you will be up to it. »
The lack of response to this offer is due to a position on Western Sahara that Morocco considers ambiguous. By receiving the leader of the Polisario Front Brahim Ghali on August 26, 2022, and giving him a welcome worthy of a head of state, Kaïs Saïed broke with the neutrality of his country on Western Sahara, especially since Tunis does not recognize neither the Polisario Front nor the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic ( SADR ), self-proclaimed in 1976 and a full member of the African Union ( AU ).
But this neutrality and this distance from the Sahara issue are becoming difficult to respect. Economically dependent on Algeria, Tunisia is the victim of this difficult choice imposed by the two major capitals of the Maghreb on friendly and neighboring countries. On the one hand, the importance of the aid offered by Algiers increasingly takes on the appearance of Algerian control. On the other hand, Morocco’s position on the issue is now too clear-cut, as confirmed by the declaration of King Mohamed VI of August 2022 cited above.
Tunisia’s involvement in this dispute shows that Algiers and Rabat intend to prolong their conflict, by involving other regional actors, particularly in the rest of Africa. And saving human lives buried in the ruins caused by the earthquake does not weigh heavily in the face of geopolitical choices.
Political scientist, teacher (University of Paris 1) and associated researcher at the Sirice laboratory (Identities, international relations and European civilizations). Latest publications: Tunisia, Learning about democracy 2011-2021 (Nouveau Monde, 2021), and (with Pierre Vermeren), Dissidents of the Maghreb (Belin, 2018). Member of the editorial staff of Orient XXI .
Orient XXI, SEPTEMBER 20, 2023
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