The eighth edition of the summit between Japan and the countries of the African Union, which was held last weekend in Tunisia, was announced as tedious, with no major agreements in sight. However, unexpectedly, hours before the start, a crisis broke out that marked the event: Morocco announced that it was withdrawing from the conclave and calling its ambassador in Tunisia for consultations because of the invitation to the summit of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) , not recognized as a state before the United Nations. The Tunisian government responded with the same coin, and withdrew its ambassador from Rabat. This is the fourth bilateral diplomatic crisis that Morocco has opened in the last year, after those already closed with Spain Y Germanyand the current with France.
In all cases, the trigger appears to be the Western Sahara conflict, which, as King Mohamed VI warned in a recent speech, is the “prism” through which the North African country assesses its foreign relations and alliances. Often, these crises break out after Morocco declares itself offended by some action of another country with respect to the Sahara, even if this is not different with respect to the status quo previous. For example, never before had the arrival in Spain of a leader of the Polisario Front provoked the reaction and the crisis that it provoked Brahim Gali’s admission to a Spanish hospital in April 2021.
“This aggressive attitude is not new, but there are precedents. However, it has risen in tone after the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara by Donald Trump by the end of 2020″, estimates Irene Fernández-Molina, professor at the University of Exeter (United Kingdom). This expert in international relations from North Africa also points to other factors that explain Moroccan methods, such as the success of a hard position in negotiations with the EU from Morocco itself or from Turkey. “This policy is closely associated with the rise of the current Foreign Minister, Naser Burita, and is also due to the perception of Algerian weakness after the protest movement of the hirak“, Add.
Eduard Soler, a CIDOB researcher, clarifies the Moroccan strategy. “Rather than aggressive, I would define Moroccan diplomacy as assertive. He does not usually only threaten negative consequences, but also deploys a strategy of seduction”. According to Soler, Rabat is aware that his weight on the international scene has increased, and he is capable of playing different cards depending on the interests of the interlocutor. “In Africa, their diplomacy has been very successful, betting on economic development and religious diplomacy. With Germany, it uses its condition of future green hydrogen producing power, and with Spain, the migratory issue”, adds Soler.
Now, in the case of Tunisia, there is no carrot. In its statement, Rabat accuses Tunisia of having unilaterally invited the SADR “separatist entity” to the summit, and criticizes the fact that President Kais Said received its leader, Gali, with the honors of head of state. Hours later, Tunisia responded with another public note justifying its position: “The African Union, as the main participant in the summit between Japan and the countries of the African Union, had published a memorandum inviting all its members, including the SADR”, reads the text, in which it reiterates the “neutrality” towards the conflict in Western Sahara.
In a new statement, Rabat expressed disgust at the Tunisian response, warning that it had deepened the crisis even further. Moroccan diplomacy claims that Tunisia had previously carried out “hostile acts”, citing its abstention last year in the UN Security Council in a vote on Western Sahara, aligning itself with Russia, an ally of the Polisario Front.
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“Gali’s reception was a provocation and a mistake that broke Tunisia’s historical neutrality that allowed it to try to mediate in the conflict,” says Tunisian analyst Ayman Bougami. “President Said has chosen to align himself with Algeria not only for national interests, how to receive gas at a discount pricebut personal. He needs the support of Algiers for his project because he is quite isolated at the international level”, slides Bougami.
Turbulence with Paris
The relationship between Rabat and Paris is also going through turmoil. In his recent speech dedicated to the Sahara, King Mohamed VI urged greater “clarity” to some “traditional partners”, a hint that was interpreted as directed at the Elysee. “There is cooling between the two countries, which is due to various reasons, including the espionage scandal with [el software israelí] pegasus to members of the French government, and the restriction of visas by France … as well as the fact that the US has set the bar very high for support in the Sahara, and Rabat is pressuring France to do the same”, considers Fernández-Molina. Furthermore, experts like dissident journalist Ali Lmrabetpoint out that the close political and security relationship that is being forged between Israel and Morocco, which it considers its back home, would not have sat well in Paris.
“In the current Maghreb, relations are zero-sum. Balance is difficult. Any bilateral progress with Algeria is at the expense of Morocco, and vice versa”, comments the Algerian journalist Otman Lahiani, who believes that the Macron’s long trip to Algeria it was, in part, a signal to Rabat. At the moment, Moroccan diplomacy is not expected to open new fronts, since it usually does so only once one of the already open ones has been closed.
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