Spanish Media and the Bankruptcy of the Anti-Moroccan Narrative

pedro sanchez-mohammed vi

The decision by the Spanish Government on March 18, 2022 to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and declare the Autonomy Plan proposed by Morocco to be credible and a solid basis for a solution to the Western Sahara conflict angered quite a few journalists and media outlets in Spain. It is surprising that these opinion leaders should be against peace and a win/win solution in the Sahara and against a normalization of relations between Spain and its southern neighbor with whom it shares borders, seas, history, geography, a booming trade, millions of tourists, investments, security concerns, migration headaches, resident and transiting migrant workers etc. It is strange that some Spanish media and journalists do not see the benefits of a partnership of peace and prosperity between Spain and Morocco. They seem to revel when the tension was at its height over the last few months, especially since the (not so) secret admission to Spain of Morocco’s enemy Number One, Brahim Ghali, who happens to be accused of genocide and crimes against humanity by Sahrawis living in Tindouf, Moroccan Sahara and Spain.

We need to dig deeper to understand why some Spanish media and journalists prefer tension over peace, partnership and good neighborhood relations between Spain and Morocco. The anti-Moroccan reflex of these opinion leaders comes from an atavistic anti-Moorish attitude that has sedimented in the psyche of some Spaniards over the centuries, since the Muslim conquest (in the 8th Century) and up till La Reconquista (13th -15th   Centuries). But this resentment resurged with force after the debacle of the Spanish Army at the hands of the guerrilla forces of Mohamed Ben Abdelkrim El Kahttabi in the “Annual” Battle in July-August 1921. Quite a few Spaniards see it as a form of humiliation but rare are those who see it as a liberation act led by indigenous Moroccan tribes against a colonial force that nobody invited to occupy the northern part of the Charifian Kingdom. “Annual” still resonates in the psyche of so many of these opinion leaders as a sign of Morocco’s untrustworthiness and treachery, repeating the same colonial dogma of “ungrateful indigenous populations” biting the civilizing hand of colonialism.

Fifteen years later, the Spanish civil war broke out. Francisco Franco had crossed from Northern Morocco to Spain to fight Spanish republicans, helped by Moroccan mercenaries who joined his army for pure economic reasons; these individuals acted alone knowing that they could earn more as soldiers than as laborers. Some Spaniards still think that Morocco helped Franco win and therefore abort the victory of the democratic forces against fascism. Very few would want to admit that at that time Morocco was colonized by the French and the Spanish, did not have any army, and the role of the Sultan (the King) was merely symbolic with no powers whatsoever. But it is a convenient narrative; it fits within the grand picture of Morocco as a scheming foe trying to undo Spanish sovereign nation-building aspirations.

On October 16, 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that there were legal ties (of allegiance) between Western Sahara and Morocco. The same day, Hassan II called for Moroccans to organize a peaceful march towards Western Sahara to put an end to Spanish colonialism. At that very time, Franco was in bed agonizing leaving a vacuum of power, since as a dictator he had centralized all the powers of decision within the Spanish state.  Spanish anti-Moroccan opinion leaders cried and are still crying wolf: “Morocco used Franco’s agony to humiliate Spain;” “Spain would never leave Western Sahara had Franco not been in his death bed;” “Morocco is at it again trying to build the Grand Maghrib of the Middle Ages;” “Morocco’s blackmail of Spain is at work again” etc.  A pure coincidence of events was turned into a narrative of blackmail and treachery. Nobody among these has ever mentioned that documents and testimonies showed that Franco was ready to negotiate the retrocession of Western Sahara to Morocco at the time of the Left-wing Government of Abdallah Ibrahim (December 24 1958- May 21, 1960) but internal tensions and truf wars between the then Crown Prince (who became King Hassan II in February 26, 1961)  and the National Movement and calculations as to who will reap the benefits of such a liberation of the Sahara came in the way and prevented a deal when Franco was in good health.

The retrocession of by Spain of Terfaya in1958, of Sidi-Ifni in 1969, the fact that Morocco was the first to register Western Sahara as a self-non governing territory with the UN Commission on Decolonization in 1963-4 do not matter if the intention is to paint Spain as “the good guy” and Morocco as the “bad guy”, as in a historical cheap and sentimental melodrama. None of the Spanish media cared to mention the attacks of the Moroccan Liberation Army (MLA) in 1957-58 on regions in Western Sahara which led to a joint operation by French and Spanish armies called “Ecouvillon” in February 1958 whose mission was to thwart the advance of the MLA. It just does not fit within the grand scheme of the Moroccan conspiracy against Spain.

Nobody has ever even mentioned that the Polisario was formed by Sahrawi students in Rabat in 1971-1972 in Rabat. El-Ouali Moustapha Sayed and his friends were dreaming of the Western Sahara being liberated as a Moroccan territory; they contacted political party leaders (especially the Nationalist Movement and leftwing parties) but were completely scorned off by the latter. In June 1972, they marched in TanTan to claim the Moroccanness of the Sahara and were brutally repressed by the security forces at the time of General Oufkir’s stronghold on security apparatuses as Minister of Interior. Faithful to his Nasserite Arab nationalist dreams, Hassan II’s nemesis, Muammar Gaddafi, who was adamant about toppling the Moroccan monarchy, heard of them and invited them to Tripoli. Encouraged, armed and funded by Gaddafi, the Polisario became an independence movement way after its first congress in Ain Ben Tili, a small village-fort in northeast Mauritania, part the Tiris Zemmour region, on May 10, 1973.

Algeria did not come into the picture till after the Green March and when it saw that the Polisario had arms, logistical support and organizational capability, all lavishly provided for by Colonel Gaddafi. None of these details matter to the above-mentioned Spanish opinion leaders’ selective and anti-Moroccan approach to the Western Sahara question. The narrative is nicely woven to picture Morocco as blackmailer and Spain as a victim. This is usual colonial rhetoric at its best where a reversal of roles is always a recourse to justify the colonial act: the colonizer becomes a victim and the colonized the oppressor.

The fact that Algeria became party to the conflict despite Algerian President Haouari Boumedienne’s recorded assurances in October 1974, at the occasion of the Arab Summit in Rabat, that Western Sahara is a Moroccan-Mauritanian issue, is so convenient for the anti-Moroccan rhetoric of some Spanish media and opinion leaders. Algeria was considered then by the European and Spanish Left and opinion leaders to be a progressive country embarking upon an agrarian revolution, autonomous management (à la Tito) and state-of-the-art industrialization. The Algerian Revolution was delivering on its revolutionary promises. Morocco, on the contrary, was backwards, tyrannical and monarchic (i.e. old school) anyway. While Algeria was showered with praise and adoration, Morocco was  bombarded with criticism and patronizing political rhetoric. The Polisario became a darling of Spanish and European left-wing media and militants because it symbolized an “Algerian Revolution in the Sands.” The revolutionary romanticism in support of Algeria and the Polisario rimed beautifully with the struggle against the remnants of Spanish fascism as embodied in the successive aborted coups of elements of the Spanish Army against the fledgling democracy.

When the Algerian Revolution turned later against its children and the Agrarian Reform as well as the Industrialization program became mere mirages and even nightmares that resulted in a bloody civil war in the nineties and the military strong grip on the institutional landscape, Spanish (and with them some European) opinion leaders put Algeria in the backburner and concentrated on attacking Morocco. The Polisario’s bleak human rights record, its embezzlement of humanitarian aid, its use of child soldiers, its illegal administration of the Tindouf Camps, and Algeria’s refusal to count and to identify the Sahrawi “refugees” (which Morocco considers Moroccans held against their will) on its territory should not matter, if Morocco is shown under a bad day.

What disturbs them is the striking economic and political advances in Morocco: the economy has tripled in 20 years; poverty was reduced to less than 3 per cent; Morocco is the second investor in Africa; infrastructure programs are transforming the connectivity landscape; mega projects are ushering in a new era of regional leadership; the Parliament is becoming more critical of government and accountability is working; notable advances on the human rights front… “How come”? “The Monarchical system is delivering in Morocco whereas the memory of the Algerian Revolution is bringing forth the worst in the Algerian Establishment.” “Something is wrong!” “It can’t be!”

“Eureka! Eureka!” “We found it!” Morocco is not really developing its economy and improving the livelihood of its people, but is malevolently trying to recreate the Grand Morocco of the Middle Ages that stretches all the way from the Senegal River, and includes Southern and Western Algeria, Western Sahara, Northern Morocco, Andalucía, all the way to the southern borders of Leon, Navarre and Castile.” A grand scheme indeed. For quite a few Spanish opinion leaders, “that is why some Moroccans still consider Mauritania and Eastern Sahara Moroccan Provinces, and why all Moroccans are unanimous on annexing Western Sahara and getting back Ceuta and Melilla, and why the Parliament has voted a law in 2018 to delimit maritime borders that may go beyond the Canary Islands.” It all fits in. The picture is complete. But the change is interesting: from combating a backward country led by a traditional monarchy, while the alternative is there in the Algerian Revolution and its promises, to preserving Spanish sovereignty from a beguiling foe that has shown in the distant past (Middle Ages) and not so distant past (Annual, the Spanish Civil War and the Green March) that it could harm the very fabric of the Spanish nation.

Homi Bhabha talks of “nation and narration”; here, Spanish opinion leaders create an imaginary narrative of an imaginary foe to fend off an imaginary threat to the nation. Students of conspiracy theories understand well this shift: Jaron Harambam and Stef Aupers called it the movement from the “unbelievable” to the “undeniable” ("From the Unbelievable to the Undeniable: Epistemological Pluralism, or How Conspiracy Theorists Legitimate their Extraordinary Truth Claims". European Journal of Cultural Studies. SAGE Publications. 24 (4): 990–1008). It is not about the truthfulness of whether Morocco is conspiring to recreate the Grand Morocco but everything fits in a perfect scheme since Annual (July-August 1921) up till the “migration blackmail of Ceuta of May 2021”, 100 years later. The stretch is unbelievable but the truth is undeniable.

Therefore, the tension with Morocco after the strange and “film noir” admission of the notorious Brahim Ghali into Spain was welcome by the anti-Moroccan media and opinion leaders in Spain. Continuous tension will prove that Morocco is always in a blackmail logic, will thwart any attempt to make Morocco and Spain politically agree on geostrategic issues like the Western Sahara, maritime borders and Ceuta and Melilla, because there is no end as to what Morocco, who revels in an expansionist existential state of mind, would ask. Tension will keep Morocco at bay, will delay a permanent denouement and normalization of relations; in the meantime, good relations with Algeria and the Polisario will help keep the conflict in Western Sahara aflame and Morocco busy and weak; and if Western Sahara becomes independent, so much the better, because Morocco will be contained and reduced to a more manageable size.

The Spanish Government’s decision to recognize the sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara pulverized this nicely woven and conspiracy-based narrative.  Political dialogue with Morocco is possible; partnership could be hoisted to higher levels; trade with Ceuta and Melilla will reopen; Andalusia will continue to benefit from high end tourism on the part of affluent Moroccan tourists; more than a thousand Spanish firms will continue to make money in Morocco; more than three million Moroccans will continue to cross Spain to come back home in the summer. And more than 7OO thousand Moroccans will continue to help with rebuilding the Spanish economy after years of slow growth. This is too much for doomsayers who prefer animosity and tension over good neighborhood and mutually beneficial partnership. It is true that their narrative has been debunked by the forces of the future on both sides of the Gibraltar Straits but more should be done so that this process is ineluctably irreversible. Hope is the best antidote not only to atavistic anti-Moroccanism but is the best we could do to generations on both banks of the Mediterranean who aspire for peace in a world ridden with the plagues of war, strife and terror. The antidote to tacit anti-“moros” racism, covert bigotry, fear of the other is hope, shared prosperity and long-lasting peace.