Spain and Morocco

Hard Rock

A Moroccan woman waves her national flag across from the islet of Perejil, July 20, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

When on July 11 a handful of Moroccan frontier guards planted their national flag and a tent on the tiny uninhabited island of Perejil—Leila, in Arabic—tensions between Rabat and Madrid heated up.

The Spanish government, the press, and the public expressed outrage at the occupation of that strategic enclave, situated 200 meters—swimming distance—from the Moroccan coast, over which Spain claims de facto sovereignty. “The invasion breaks the status quo established 40 years ago,” Spanish Vice President Mariano Rajoy lamented in El Mundo (centrist, Madrid, July 13).

After the European Union issued a statement warning Rabat that the incident could have severe repercussions for their bilateral commercial relations, Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar ordered his navy to “recover” Perejil. A special operations unit did a clean job in removing the Moroccan occupants from the atoll. Regardless, Rabat, the Arab League, the European Union, and the United States perceived Aznar’s move as inappropriate.

The European Commission, particularly France, urged Spain to withdraw from Perejil, while Amr Mussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, demanded in an interview with El País (liberal, Madrid, July 18) that the Spanish government “remove its forces,” while at the same time stressing the friendly bonds between Spain and the Arabs. Morocco’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa characterized the Spanish retaking of the island as “an act of war,” according to Hakim Arif in Le Reporter (independent weekly, Casablanca, July 19). 

This conflict was only the latest in a series of disputes between the two nations over illegal immigration by Moroccans to Spain, fishing rights, the Spanish occupation of the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the northern coast of Morocco, and the status of Western Sahara. This territory was annexed by Morocco after the former colonial power, Spain, pulled out in 1976. Morocco rejects the claims of the Polisario Front, which has been fighting for the independence of Western Sahara, and believes that Spain sides with Polisario.

“The absurd and mistaken Spanish defense of ‘the rights of Saharan people’ has poisoned its relations with Morocco,” wrote Fouad Kadiri in La Gazette du Maroc (newsweekly, July 31). “The U.N. has acknowledged a group of ‘five friendly countries’ (United States, France, Spain, United Kingdom, and Russia) to assist in settling the dispute. Only Spain is now opposed to the integration of Western Sahara into Morocco through a special charter of autonomy,” Kadiri added.

A week after the Perejil-Leila incident, Benaissa and Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio agreed to return the island to its previous status and to meet to discuss other unresolved issues, such as the recall of the Moroccan ambassador from Madrid last fall.

But in August, diplomatic tensions were raised again when Rabat reiterated its historical claim to Ceuta and Melilla.