When thousands of Moroccan migrants reached Ceuta — a Spanish enclave on the north coast of Africa, bordered by Morocco — exhausted from the swim, they found they had been duped. Moroccan authorities had set in motion a wave of migration, to punish Spain for providing hospital care to the leader of the Polisario Front, which is leading the struggle to end Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara.
The Spanish fairy tale begins…
The first “invaders” appeared at dawn on May 17. Stealthily swimming ashore at El Tarajal beach in Ceuta, Spain’s Moroccan enclave, they quickly overcame the resistance of the Spanish Civil Guard.
Wave after wave followed, some pouring across the land border with Morocco. By May 19, their “occupation”, carried out by more than 8000 “combatants”, was complete.
The dreadful character of the occupying force soon showed: Spanish territory was being “violated” by thousands of young “warriors”, “armed” with mobile phones and led by an elite unit in board shorts. Most were Moroccan but accompanied by a regiment of “fearsome Sub-Saharans”. Some commando units were camouflaged as “families”.
The “troops” spread out, skilfully applying guerrilla tactics to avoid arrest. A few infiltrated shops, others seized overcrowded migrant reception centres, while most set up command posts in parks.
The “occupiers” could be heard receiving coded instructions in Arabic and Amazigh from controllers on the Moroccan side of the border:
“Darling, what did we do to deserve this?” “Your sister just cries, she’s already missing you.” “You’re WHERE? Come home this minute.”
Spanish intelligence’s top code-breakers translated these communications but their complicated cipher remains unbroken.
Spain’s political leaders rushed to Ceuta to “face down the foe” and engage in a contest of patriotic virtue.
Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) prime minister Pedro Sánchez, suspected by half the country of appeasing the “Moorish threat” and the Basque and Catalan enemy within, stated: “The government will defend the territorial integrity of Spain and the safety of all compatriots — at every moment, before any challenge and by all means necessary.”
Pablo Casado, leader of the opposition People’s Party (PP) went further: “This is a situation of extreme seriousness such as has never taken place in our democracy’s history. The government must strengthen the army so that there are no more violations of national borders.”
Casado promised partisanship so long as the PSOE dropped its junior partner in government, the radical Unidas Podemos (UP), sympathetic with Morocco’s worst enemy, the Polisario Front.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal showed the greatest love of country: “They aren’t refugees fleeing tyranny but soldiers obeying the Moroccan government that has ordered the invasion.”
The Communist Party of Spain (PCE) added its bit: “Spain must defend its sovereignty and compliance with international law in the face of Morocco’s blackmail.”
United Left (IU) coordinator Sira Rego accused Casado of a lack of patriotism because of his discussions with a party that claims Ceuta for Morocco: “Basically, Mr Casado has opted to side with the interests of the feudal Moroccan monarchy.”
Only one “treasonous” voice, that of the Catalan ex-president Carles Puigdemont, spoiled the music: “I hope the European Union doesn’t get swept away by Spanish nationalist fervour: Ceuta and [second Spanish enclave] Melilla are two African cities, which are only part of the EU by reason of a colonial past which allowed Europeans to gain possessions outside Europe.”
Nobody, of course, paid any attention. Reinforcements were rushed to Ceuta, irrelevant UN refugee conventions discarded, and the invaders expelled.
Besieged with trustworthy social media stories about the invaders “robbing, raping, and burning down supermarkets”, what alternative did the Spanish government have?
The only exception involved 200 underage “infiltrators”, some as young as six. They were taken into custody with plans to distribute them across Spain’s 17 “autonomous communities” (states).
Some regional administrations complied, but PP governments dependent on Vox are being threatened with new elections if they accept any of the children, destined as they are to a “life of crime”.
The tale has a happy ending. After calls from “important EU figures” Moroccan King Mohammed VI closed the border and promised that no repeat invasion would occur.
Ceuta would survive, as Spanish, Catholic and — if its inmates so decide — run by Vox, the heroes who are conducting a vibrant campaign to encircle the town with a wall higher than former United States president Donald Trump’s.
Spanish fairy tale ends. Sordid reality resumes…
The thousands who crossed over into Ceuta were duped by a social media message that the Spanish border was open and that applications for Spanish residence would be processed.
Here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape poverty and hopelessness aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As one unemployed plumber told Catalan daily Ara: “There’s no work in Morocco to support our families. This country gives us nothing.
“I was on the beach and I saw clips on Facebook of people crossing over without the Moroccan police doing anything. I grabbed a taxi and came here. The police told us to keep going, to cross over, and I dived into the water.”
When people reached Ceuta, some exhausted from the swim, they found that they had been deceived. It was all a lie, set in motion by the Moroccan authorities to punish the PSOE-led government for providing hospital treatment for a COVID-19 infection suffered by Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic.
When the “invaders” realised that they had been duped, those whom the Civil Guard hadn’t already expelled — often brutally — just went back home.
Western Sahara in Moroccan politics
The Polisario Front fights for the full liberation of the Western Sahara, which Spain abandoned to Morocco in 1975, the dying days of the Franco dictatorship. Declared a United Nations protectorate, the region is largely occupied by Morocco, which in 2001 withdrew from a 1991 UN resolution supporting a referendum on its future.
In his last days as president, Trump abandoned the US’s formal support for the UN position, and recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco recognising Israel.
That emboldened Mohammed VI to reassert claims over “Moroccan Sahara” with the kingdom’s colonisers, France and Spain. He was also encouraged that France, embroiled in an anti-jihadist war in Chad, believed a Moroccan takeover to be the only realistic course, given that no major player has ever been serious about making the UN position stick.
The monarchy’s new-found boldness next extended to the Spanish enclaves. Speaking on Egyptian television, prime minister Saadeddine El Othmani said that “the day will come when we’ll reopen the issue of Ceuta and Melilla, territories that are just as Moroccan as the Sahara.”
Another motive for the May 17 move was to relieve Morocco’s monarchy of the desperate people of the Fnideq region, whose economy depends on cross-border trade with Ceuta. Protests against the border’s year-long pandemic-imposed closure were violently repressed.
Here Mohammed VI was repeating an old formula: divert discontent by stirring indignation against those denying Morocco its national rights (real or fictitious). The “invasion” of Ceuta was a distorted echo of another mobilisation — the 1975 “Green March” into the Spanish Sahara to force Spain to relinquish the region.
This approach, along with targeted repression and concessions to Amazigh-speaking Berber communities, allowed Mohammed VI to weather the Arab Spring.
The technique has worked again: Spain’s provision of hospital treatment to Ghali has united some of Morocco’s opposition with the monarchy. The editorial in the May 19 edition of independent, “socialist-oriented” publication Al Ahdath Al Maghribia, asked rhetorically: “What would happen if Morocco had given its support to the Catalan referendum of 2017 and Carles Puigdemont had been welcomed and our foreign minister had declared that it was for humanitarian reasons but in no way would affect the relationship with Spain.”
The latest falling out between the Moroccan monarchy, Spain and the EU can deceive as to their mutual dependence. The EU needs Mohammed VI just as it does the Turkish Erdoğan regime, to keep refugees at bay and in the fight against jihadism.
That dependence strengthens the Moroccan monarchy by putting a weapon of blackmail into its hands. When Mohammed VI asks the EU for still more money to fund refugee containment, Brussels readily obliges.
In the same speech that Pedro Sánchez pledged defence of Spanish frontiers he promised €30 million to Rabat to fund its border police.
Forgotten in this orgy of realpolitik are all its victims: Sahrawis denied a future in their own land, the dirt-poor and exploited common people of Morocco, and refugees desperate for any sort of future.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]