Spain and Morocco, an anachronistic misunderstanding


In the crisis between Spain and Morocco caused by the recent events of the reception of the Polisario leader, Brahim Ghali, in Logroño and the crossing of thousands of people, including many minors, from the other side of the border to Ceuta, with the subsequent adherence of the European Union to Madrid's position, everyone loses, we all lose. However, we must bear in mind that this is only the last link in a long chain of inaccuracies and forgetfulness, if anything else than simple contempt for our southern neighbour, perhaps the most invaded and subjugated country in the history of this part of the world, which lived for centuries confined inland because its coasts were successively taken over and exploited by the Eastern and European powers.

The insistent abuse suffered by the former sultanate of Al-Maghrib al-Aqṣa, which means "the extreme or far west" to the Arabs, and of which the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are a testimony, no matter what the itinerary of events or opinions on either side of the Mediterranean, had its final black cap with the establishment of the Protectorate from 1912 onwards by France and Spain, the latter traumatised by the disaster of the losses of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam and reluctantly forced by the United Kingdom to avoid leaving the unilateralism of the southern coast of the Strait and its aftermath in the hands of Paris.

It is necessary to make a small effort of imagination at this point to compose the scene of neighbouring states militarily invading another, much older one -a thousand years old- which already existed as a nationality when in Europe the barbarians were still running after the bison, in order to impose a "civilisational" yoke, improper today, as if it were the crusades of the Middle Ages. Nothing new under the sun. It is striking that Madrid, Paris and London, with the approval of their European neighbours, drew the Moroccan perimeter, including the Sahrawi territories. What were they playing at, one might ask, have they regretted that geographical "slip"? Has anything changed in all these years? It does not seem so because no pronouncement has been made on the matter, even though more than a century has passed since then; or is it that the African neighbour does not deserve it?

It is a long history of the former sultanate of Morocco, an Arab model that contemplated the authority of its highest exponent, the sultan, indivisible in terms of politics and religion, and which extended as far north as Mali and Senegal and included a large part of Mauritania's territory. Of course, this bond of dependence was underpinned by Islam, which was the territorial form in which the once distant civilisation was organised and included hierarchically other delegations in distant mosques and temples within its vast expanse. With the Protectorate and Spain's appropriation of what are now called the "occupied territories" by the Polisario independence fighters, which it named with the pompous and daring, even panphile, nomenclature of Spanish province, as it also did with Equatorial Guinea, the great problem that separates the truth from the lie, or at least from imprudence, arose, because Madrid arrogated to itself the right to break the established order of things since antiquity, creating the seed of what is happening today, Morocco was impoverished and bound hand and foot by the military superiority of its invaders and by the calamities its people suffered in their forced diasporas, the loss of important maritime and land enclaves or the costly warlike confrontations with its chronic and bitter enemy and neighbour, Algeria, which took advantage of the immobilisation of its Maghreb brother in the 1963 Sands War to annex the territories that are now home to the Tindouf camps with the implicit support of France, which reserved its aspirations to exploit the iron and manganese deposits in its hitherto Gallic Algerian provinces.

Until the Franco-Spanish occupation, Western Sahara was part of the geographical context of the Moroccan sultanate, with its Bedouin tribes moving through the desert, living off their camels and goats and fighting each other over pastures and hereditary disputes. Some of them were very warlike, as Moctar Ould Daddah, the architect of independence and first president of Mauritania, explains in his now historic book Mauritania, against all odds. Alfonso de la Serna, Spain's former ambassador to Rabat, who died in 2006, also deals with very important and decisive keys in his well-known essay South of Tarifa: Morocco-Spain: a historical misunderstanding' to understand the magnitude and true nature of the problem.

No, Madrid, Paris or London have so far not been heard to utter a "mea culpa". On the contrary, they have been entrenched in a silence unbecoming of developed democracies and, on Spain's part, in a Cainite and arrogant silence that has led to this new phase in which Morocco, quite possibly spurred on by the recognition of its territorial integrity by the United States, its long-standing ally of colonial sentiments, has reacted in a thoughtless, or at least hasty, manner with its visceral pressure for Ghali's arrest and subsequent "invasion" by abstention of Ceuta with highly questionable trickery involving unaccompanied minors, something unforgivable in rich Western nations; although, of course, there is a strong case to be made for their secular suffering in the face of a haughty and powerful Europe, which forgets the pressure on its southern neighbour with its overflow of irregular sub-Saharan immigration and its arm-wrestling with Islamist extremism in the Sahel.

In any case, whenever the issue is raised, the immediate reaction of the Spanish pro-polisario, very respectable by the way, is to refer to UN resolutions and to a referendum that is already highly unlikely given the time that has passed and how much the population in Western Sahara and the geopolitical context of the region have changed for the many current international force majeure interests on both sides of the Atlantic. In this context, it could be argued that the United Nations is not a temple of anything but a multilateral institution founded after the end of the Second European War through the Bretton Woods Agreements of 1944 and which has been emptied of authority more than a few times to launch furious attacks on developing countries, generally rich in natural resources and commodities, by the interests of its mentors or funders, among which the United States of America stands out above all others.

Ultimately, no one here can be portrayed as the good guy, nor can any of the actors involved in the Western Sahara conflict be labelled as bad. If there is one clear victim in the whole process, it has been Morocco. It is another matter whether or not the old sultanate in the far west of the Arabian Peninsula will find the right ways to defend itself and whether or not it will use diplomacy and the patience of the desert before taking forceful decisions to leverage Europe's age-old tradition of deafness and insensitivity towards African affairs, because Europe today remains united and acts in a collegial manner in the face of external disputes and is very immovable, especially when the conflicts originate in the south.