Morocco World News - 31 August 2022
Signs of an emerging France-Algeria-Tunisia axis to restrain Morocco
The three countries appear to be rallying around a shared goal of countering Morocco’s growing diplomatic assertiveness at both the regional and worldwide levels.
Washington DC - In a speech he gave last November, King Mohammed VI emphatically laid out what good diplomatic relations with Morocco require or entail. Rabat, the King insisted, will not enter any trade deals with countries that hold ambiguous or hostile positions regarding its territorial integrity.
He reiterated this in the speech he gave on August 20, and it is now apparent which countries are friendly to Morocco and which are opposed to its strategic interests.
The high-level reception with which Tunisian President Kais Saied honored the leader of the Separatist Polisario Front is a strong indication of Tunisia’s (newfound) stance on the Sahara dispute.
While the Tunisian Foreign Affairs Ministry has since tried to play down the political significance of President Saied’s gesture, lavishing on the Polisario chief honors traditionally reserved for a visiting head of state is perhaps to date the best evidence that Tunisia has chosen its side in the complex Western Sahara saga. It has joined the ever-irrelevant — though unceasingly active and vocal — axis of countries supporting the Algerian regime’s agenda of opposing Moroccan territorial integrity.
It, therefore, seems that Morocco has yet again entered a crucial and very sensitive phase in its efforts to settle the Western Sahara question. Underlying the apparent resurgence of this anti-Morocco axis is that the diplomatic breakthroughs that Rabat has achieved in the past few years have started to annoy some countries that Moroccans used to look to as allies and friendly states.
There is no doubt that the Tunisian president’s move, which amounts to a de facto acknowledgment of the Polisario’s fictitious state, was a shock to the Moroccan people. To Morocco, President Saied’s gesture was nothing short of a betrayal: of the historical, social, and cultural ties binding the friendship of the Moroccan and Tunisian peoples; and of the traditionally strong diplomatic ties between Rabat and Tunis.
The best demonstration of these ties was King Mohammed VI’s visit to Tunisia in 2014. Traveling to what he called a “sisterly nation” amid post-Arab Spring turmoil characterized by a spate of vicious terrorist attacks in Tunis and elsewhere in the country, the Moroccan monarch roamed the streets of the Tunisian capital in show of fraternal support to a people that needed a morale boost to embark on the perilous journey of a political transition.
The goal of the visit was to send a strong message to the international community: That Tunisia was fine, and that it was stable despite those attacks. The visit was well received by the Tunisian people.
Throughout the past decades, whether in the era of Habib Bourgiba, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Moncef El Marzouki, or Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia has strived to stay neutral in the Western Sahara dossier, notably by distancing itself from any action that could sour its relations with Morocco.
The broader context of the Polisario leader’s visit to Tunisia – the escalating Rabat-Algiers tensions, King Mohammed VI’s remarks about the centrality of the Sahara to Morocco, and France’s Emmanuel Macron visit to Algeria amid Paris-Rabat tensions — – points to the birth of a trilateral Algerian-French-Tunisian alliance aiming to further prolong the Western Sahara conflict and stand in the way of Morocco’s widely applauded and increasingly successful efforts to close this file.
Signs and Motives of the Emerging Anti-Rabat Axis
The signs of this alliance came to the fore more than a year ago. One of the most conspicuous was Tunisia’s abstaining from voting on a Security Council resolution concerning the Sahara last October.
That abstention upended the tradition that Arab countries have upheld since the late sixties, a tradition whereby Arab members of the UN Security Council typically strive to vote for decisions that enjoy wide support from other Arab countries.
Put differently, Arab countries sitting on the UN Security Council have continuously voted in favor of resolutions concerning the Western Sahara dispute. Even Algeria itself voted for “relevant” Security Council resolutions when it was a member of the UN body in 2004 and 2005.
Tunisia’s abstention was thus crucial as a sign that President Saied’s regime has become an appendage of the Algeria regime, working faithfully to implement its agenda. The first sign of Tunisian-Algerian convergence, and President Saied’s resolve to align with Algeria at the cost of Tunisia’s decades-long neutrality on the Sahara question was his decision to make Algeria the destination of his first official visit abroad as president in February 2020.
During President Saied’s visit, the Algerian regime eagerly announced its decision to deposit $150 million in the Central Bank of Tunisia in the form of a grant that could help Tunisia facilitate payments for access to Algerian gas.
The visit was thus a telling declaration of intentions from both the Tunisian and Algerian regimes, who have ever since appeared to be striving to deepen bilateral ties to form a Maghrebi bloc to undermine Morocco’s strategic interests.
Responding to Tunisia’s President nicety, Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune visited Tunisia in December 2021. During that visit, he granted Tunisia a $300 million (MAD 3.2 billion) loan to help it overcome its dire economic crisis.
High-level visits between the two countries continued, with the latest being a visit by Algerian Foreign Minister, Ramtane Lamaamra last June, and he too was welcomed by President Kais Saied.
While Tunisia secured financial and political support from the Algerian regime, France rushed to support Saied politically and give him the legitimacy he lacked at the domestic level.
France’s support was on display during the meeting that the French Ambassador to Tunisia held with the country’s Foreign Minister in January, when he stressed Paris’s commitment to support the Tunisian regime’s efforts to secure loans from the International Monetary Fund.
He also expressed France’s support for Saied’s efforts to “strengthen democracy and the rule of law” in Tunisia.
Conversely, Moroccan-Tunisian relations entered a period of unprecedented stagnation and a nearly total absence of communication between the countries’ high-level officials. One major evidence of this stagnation was the fact that it took the Tunisian president two years and three months to receive Morocco’s ambassador Hassan Tariq. The Moroccan diplomat was only able to present his credentials in January.
Neither did Tunisia’s President respond to the invitation that King Mohammed VI extended to him in January 2020 to visit Morocco.
Tunisia’s decision and Moroccan-French tensions
Tunisia’s decision to host the Polisario chief should also be analyzed in relation to simmering tensions between Morocco and France over the past four years, which deepened when the United States recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara.
While France has ostensibly supported Morocco at the UN Security Council in the past 15 years, that support was never absolute, nor did it translate into a genuine desire to undo the damage France inflicted on Morocco’s territorial integrity at the height of Europe’s struggle for Morocco’s spoils in the early 20th century.
France has simply kept using the same phrase over the past decade, stressing that Morocco’s Autonomy Plan is a “serious” and “reliable” basis on which the parties to the Sahara dispute could build a lasting political solution.
This stance has come at no political risk for France, for while it has appeared to be supportive of Morocco, Paris has made sure to never take a position that could alienate Algeria. France has thus labored to keep its strategic interests in Algeria unscathed while paying lip service to Morocco’s territorial integrity.
At the same time, preserving this half-hearted French support has come at a great economic cost for Morocco over the past 15 years. To please France and maintain its symbolic support of the Moroccan Autonomy Plan, Morocco was forced to give it preferential treatment by granting French companies the lion’s share of huge infrastructure projects in the country over the past two decades.
But Morocco has increasingly taken steps to diversify its diplomatic base, and France’s erstwhile monopolistic economic interests in the kingdom have appeared to be on shaky grounds since Morocco secured the US recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara.
One could safely argue that the US recognition was a shocking blow that took the French political class off guard. It came at a time when Morocco was visibly growing weary of France’s double-speak and its apparent lack of genuine desire to end the Sahara dispute.
It also came as relations between Paris and Rabat had witnessed several bouts of tensions since 2014. Morocco had undertaken to curtail French dominance over its economy and to chart its own path both at the domestic and international levels. Not only has Morocco sought to diminish France’s stranglehold over its economy, it has also sought to compete with Paris in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in West Africa where Morocco is now among the most important foreign investors.
If France was truly serious about its support of Morocco’s Autonomy Plan, the political atmosphere could not have been more ideal to unambiguously say so after the US recognition. Yet, instead of following in the steps of the US — and Spain, more recently — France has chosen to look the other way, thus conveying a clear message about its eagerness to prolong the dispute in order to protect its economic position in Morocco.
Over the past decade, Morocco has given clear signs of its intention to break free from France’s stranglehold over its economy. The country has done so by diversifying and strengthening its strategic partnerships with China, Russia, India, Brazil, Japan, and South Korea.
Naturally this Moroccan “rebellion” does not sit well with France, where the political and media elite have grown accustomed to regarding Morocco as an exclusively Frenchs backyard.
For the French political establishment, this paradigm shift in Paris-Rabat relations, especially Morocco’s persistence to be treated as an equal partner based on the principles of mutual respect for strategic interests, is an unacceptable and intolerable development.
From the neo-colonial perspective of the French elite Morocco is but a peripheral state that should remain within France’s sphere of influence, toe the Francafrique lines, and obey Paris’s diktats. Every Moroccan move to break this paradigm is considered a crime of lese-majesty that ought to be nipped in the bud.
The signs of France’s annoyance with Morocco’s new direction started showing when it took Spain’s side during the migration crisis in May 2021, in the midst of a Madrid-Rabat diplomatic crisis that eventually pitted Morocco against the European Union.
The French stance was in contradiction with the supposedly strong Franco-Moroccan relations. In particular, France’s support for Spain was in stark contrast to former French President Jacques Chirac’s endorsement of Morocco during the Perejil Island crisis in July 2002. Taking Morocco’s side against Spain, Chirac had sought to preserve what he saw as a deep-rooted and profoundly strategic “Franco-Moroccan friendship.” The second sign of French discontent at Morocco’s growing diplomatic assertiveness could be the French government’s decision to lower the number of visas issued to Moroccan citizens by 50%. In a bid to fend off suggestions that the visa move was primarily and specifically targeted at Morocco, France added Algeria and Tunisia to the visa restriction list.
In an equally preemptive gesture, Paris claimed that the decision to slash the number of visas annually issued to Moroccans was due to Morocco’s “refusal to cooperate” on the repatriation of Moroccan nationals illegally established in France. Instead, the main reason for the visa move was that, in addition to being displeased with Morocco’s efforts to diversify its strategic partnerships, Paris was increasingly exasperated with Rabat’s constant pressure to clarify its position on the Western Sahara dispute. Another contributing factor is that Morocco has prevented French companies from securing the kind of important, large economic deals that they had traditionally felt entitled to in the North African country.
This included the Dakhla port project, which Morocco’s government has assigned to a Moroccan company. More recently, there have also been signs that France will not be in charge of building a high speed rail line between Marrakech and Agadir.
All of this shows that French influence will dwindle more in Morocco, as the kingdom shifts more toward forging strategic partnerships from a pragmatic standpoint of mutual benefits.
King Mohammed VI’s speech last week underlined that Morocco intends to continue with its policy built on demanding its traditional allies to clearly acknowledge the Moroccanness of the Sahara.
This especially applies to France for playing a major, historical role in laying the groundwork for the start of the Sahara dispute in the beginning of the 20th century, when it divided Morocco up and gave Spain control of the kingdom’s southern provinces when it was still an independent country.
France seems to have received the royal speech’s clear message, which might be a sign of new chapters in the tumultuous relationship between Paris and Rabat. With bilateral relations, there is a high probability that the fabricated video that has been shared since August 24 might have actually been the doing of French intelligence.
France has chosen its camp
President Macron’s recent visit to Algeria after his election for a second term can be considered as a sign that France has picked a side in the decades-long Algeria-Morocco rivalry, and that it no longer looks at Morocco as a strategic partner or “political twin.”
Additionally, France could work through the alliance it formed with Algeria and Tunisia – who have not rebelled against its political and economic dominance – to undermine every effort Morocco makes to settle the Sahara dispute.
France is well aware that, unlike Algeria and Tunisia where the political regimes suffer from fragility and illegitimacy, Morocco’s political system is built on strong foundations.
The most important of these foundations is the pledge of allegiance between the people and their king, as well as their attachment to the monarchy. The King and People’s Revolution of August 1953 and the political turbulence that followed for two years are the best evidence of the Moroccan people’s loyalty to the monarchy and the sanctity of the pledge of allegiance that ties it to its legitimate kings. This is the best evidence of the failures of the various attempts by France to create a regime that follows its influence, obeys its orders, and serves its interests.
France’s stubbornness and its refusal to support Morocco’s efforts to resolve the Western Sahara dispute stems from its entrenched conviction that Morocco has all the necessary foundations to get rid of its dependence on French influence. For Paris, should Morocco succeed in ending the Sahara conflict in its favor, it would set its sights on reviving the historical role it played before colonialism and again become a link between the Arab World and Africa with the rest of the world.
As France still indulges in its imperialist mindset, with its leaders having failed to make peace with the fact that nations’ histories change and that no status quo is eternal, they maintain the hope of maintaining the century-long influence that France has enjoyed in the Maghreb.
The post-colonial ambitions of France clash with the ambitions of a state like Morocco, which is working to occupy “the position it deserves” in world affairs while diversifying its diplomatic connections and preserving its territorial integrity. As France’s elitist and expansionist mindset considers Morocco as a rebellious satellite state that needs to be put at its place, it will work on building an alliance with two illegitimate regimes to serve its interests and obstruct all efforts by Morocco to get rid of the consequences of French occupation.
It goes without saying that countering this intricate, emerging anti-Morocco axis requires the mobilization of all the political, economic, strategic, and human assets Morocco can — and should — muster to preserve its recent, wide-ranging diplomatic breakthroughs and defend its territorial integrity.