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Rabat – In a spirited opinion piece in El Espagnol, Samir Bennis has laid bare the underlying issues that keep tensions lingering between Morocco and Spain. Bennis, a senior political advisor in Washington, DC and co-founder of Morocco World News, used his opinion piece to explain the major misunderstandings that continue to dominate headlines and opinions in Spain.
Bennis described some of the key myths that continue to swirl in Spanish opinions regarding Morocco. Spanish commentators commonly describe Morocco as a hostile country with expansionist ambitions. Such an attitude ensures that Spain does not give an inch on issues such as Western Sahara, in fear of creating a domino effect.
News and popular opinions in Spain express a fear that if Spain would find a compromise with Morocco regarding Western Sahara, it would soon risk losing its north African enclaves in Ceuta and Melilla or even risk losing the Canary islands.
“Moroccans do not see the Spanish as their existential enemies, nor do they arm themselves to attack Spain,” Bennis explained.
He highlighted the outlandish nature of some claims that prevail in Spain’s national dialogue. “There have even been some commentators who have confidently said that after the Sahara, Morocco will try not only to invade Ceuta, Melilla and the Canary Islands, but also the mainland of Spain.
Bennis argues that such fears are completely unfounded and based on prevailing myths and misunderstandings. Morocco has no expansionist ambitions, especially not such that would extend to mainland Spain as some in the Iberian nation fear.
Morocco, Bennis emphasized, is not “blackmailing” the EU as a gatekeeper to Africa. The EU provides vastly more funds to Turkey, which does use refugees as a negotiating tactic, compared to Morocco which only receives a fraction compared to Ankara. “They never wonder why the same EU gives Turkey so much more money to control its border with Europe,” Bennis observed.
“When Morocco serves as a gendarme for Spain, everyone is happy,” Bennis described. “But when there is an increase in migrant arrivals, there is a storm of news in which Morocco is accused of blackmailing Spain.”
Unfounded fear and misunderstanding is fueling tensions between the two countries, Bennis writes. “Moroccan public opinion wonders why there is so much hostility towards Morocco.”
A key example of this is Spain’s indecisive response to the US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Misunderstandings fuel Spain’s apprehension to take action on the Western Sahara dossier and allow mistaken narratives to swirl freely without recourse. This has resulted in the mistaken observation that Algeria is a supporter of Sahrawi self-determination.
Bennis provided examples from 1984 and 2002, when Algeria clearly showed that self-determination is the last thing on its mind. “From the point of view of Moroccan public opinion, they do it for the simple reason that they do not want Morocco to end this conflict, turn the page and focus on strengthening its economy,” Bennis said of Algeria’s motivations.
Bennis described how in 1981, Algeria blocked Morocco’s request for a referendum organized through the Organisation of African Unity, the ancestor of the African Union. In 2002, Algeria went even further as it proposed to partition the Western Sahara region with clear disregard to the wishes of Sahrawi people.
Algeria, according to Bennis, also blocked a Tindouf census by the UN because the majority of camp residents are not Sahrawi. There have been reports, including in Le Monde, that more than half of the residents in the Polisario-run camps come from Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria.
A census, Bennis argues, would additionally reveal that the camp contains far fewer residents than the UN and the global community realize, something that could impact the amount of foreign aid provided to Tindouf.
Narratives hostile to Morocco continue to flow freely in Spain’s press with little space for debate or dissenting opinions. Bennis decries this information void as a key factor in the prevailing misunderstandings that pervade the Spanish media and political discourse.
Building mutual understanding
Having laid bare the enduring myths and fallacies dominating most Spanish media’s coverage of Morocco, Bennis urged Madrid and Rabat to transcend inaccurate popular narratives and have a genuine conversation about their partnership.
“Without a mutual willingness to debate our ideas, to listen to what the other party thinks, we will continue in the same paradigm” he warned. “There will be no mutual understanding or understanding between Moroccans and Spaniards.”
Bennis’s hope is that Spain’s fundamental misunderstandings about Morocco can be resolved by better informing Spanish citizens. Spanish school books continue to portray Morocco in a bad light, creating a skewed view of the country in Spain’s young minds, Bennis writes.
For him, Spain should allow more dissenting voices in its national dialogue in order to clear up misunderstandings regarding its southern neighbor. The current views commonly expressed in Spain’s press are both incorrect and conducive to creating a hostile attitude towards Morocco, according to Bennis.
Only through honest dialogue and free expression can these misunderstandings be resolved, Bennis advised. “If Spain is a democracy in which freedom of the press prevails, it must open itself to dissonant voices that do not align with the dominant narrative,” he writes in El Espagnol.
In the aggregate, Bennis hopes that free dialogue, debate and an honest look into Morocco’s ambitions will bring the two countries closer together and create a more honest and truthful understanding of the two Mediterranean countries. But this, given how deeply entrenched the myths and misconceptions he describes are, remains to be seen.