Spain, Morocco Tensions Rising

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Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia wave to the crowd during their visit to Ceuta

For two countries that claim to be the closest of allies, Spain and Morocco sure do fight a lot. The latest chapter in their ongoing love-hate fest came this week, as Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia made a trip — their first as monarchs — to Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish cities that Morocco claims as its own. They were on official state business and it was the first time a Spanish monarch had visited since 1927. Last Friday, Morocco's King Mohammed VI protested the royal visit by withdrawing his country's ambassador to Spain and on Monday, as thousands of flag-waving Ceutís turned out to cheer their monarchs, Moroccan Prime Minister Abbas el Fassi indignantly characterized the trip as a "provocation."

Located on the coast of western North Africa, Ceuta and Melilla have been part of Spain for more than four hundred years. But Morocco views the two cities as occupied territories — a last, insulting bastion of Spanish colonialism. Much as any gesture of British sovereignty in Gibraltar raises Spanish hackles, so do assertions of Spanish identity in North Africa irritate the Moroccans. Five years ago, for example, the two countries came to the brink of war when a band of Moroccan soldiers raised their national flag on a tiny, uninhabited island called Perejil that Spain considers its territory.

Still, this latest response seems to have taken many in Spain — including Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who was in Morocco at the time the ambassador was recalled — by surprise. "It's not the reaction itself, but rather the speed with which relations between the two countries have deteriorated that is so surprising," says Haizam Amirah-Fernández, senior analyst for the Arab world at Spain's Royal Elcano Institute. "Spanish-Moroccan relations are always presented as privileged. But these declarations have been extremely vehement." On Saturday, the Moroccan parliament called for protests outside the Spanish embassy in Rabat, and on Monday, hundreds of angry citizens demonstrated on the Moroccan border with Melilla and in the city of Tetuan.

Why the fervor? Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet, speaking from Rabat on Monday, points out that "public opinion and the opinion of parliament are not necessarily the same thing." Certainly the Moroccan government has been discomfited by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón's decision last Tuesday to investigate several Moroccans, including a few high-ranking officials, for alleged atrocities against the North African Sahawari people between 1976 and 1987 after Spain withdrew from its former colony of Western Sahara. The fact that the Spanish monarch's visit to Melilla on Tuesday coincides with the anniversary of the Green March — the day in 1975 when 350,000 Moroccans poured into Western Sahara to claim the region — only adds to the friction.

Still, Lmrabet is skeptical about the brouhaha. "This isn't about foreign policy — it's for domestic consumption," he says. In his view, the Moroccan government gains something from the ongoing tension with its neighbor across the Mediterranean. In September parliamentary elections, only 37% of eligible voters went to the polls. The low turnout — the worst in the country's history — was widely interpreted as a sign that voters felt irrelevant to the political process. "It's not unusual for Morocco to whip up nationalist sentiment when it wants to create a distraction from the country's real problems," says analyst Amirah-Fernández. "But it's not a good sign."

For their part, members of the Spanish government are trying to placate the Moroccans. Spanish defense minister José Antonio Alonso assured the press that the royal visit "wasn't against anyone." But with nearly a third of Ceuta's 75,000 population turning out to greet the king and queen by waving flags and singing "Olé, olé, olé, we're Spaniards," that message may not make it across the border.