Ceuta, Sebta and a religious war 2.0

Ceuta España Marruecos

A week of crisis is coming to an end and there are many necessary questions regarding Rabat's actions and the migratory and humanitarian crisis generated in Ceuta, which is part of Morocco's retaliation against Spain for the political and diplomatic actions of Pedro Sánchez's government with respect to Moroccan interests. 

Much ink has flowed in these turbulent days. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita explained, towards the end of the week, that the migratory wave towards Ceuta was due to a situation of fatigue or tiredness of the Moroccan police after the end of the Ramadan festivities, an incredible response for a country that cares and worries so much about details. The foreign minister added that the crisis was also generated by "the total inaction of the Spanish police" who, according to him, have one policeman for every 100 Moroccan officers deployed in the border areas. The political and diplomatic crisis between Rabat and Madrid can be explained as several Moroccan and Spanish analysts have done. The migratory and humanitarian crisis generated has no justification whatsoever. With the cynical response provided by the head of Moroccan diplomacy, Rabat has taken it upon itself to show its most brutal and cruel dimension, not to the press, not to the West, not to foreigners, not to its people.

That said, I will not comment on the crisis, the events themselves, but on the surrounding issues, the discourses, the interpretations. In addition to the political and diplomatic tensions in the bilateral relationship between Spain and Morocco, there were protests against the PSOE and UNO Podemos government in Ceuta. Citizens received Pedro Sánchez with boos and calls for his resignation. Social networks were flooded with historical territorial claims from the 20th century and a kind of religious war 2.0. 

Demonstrations in the streets of Ceuta, with Spanish flags and a Moroccan flag trampled and about to be burnt, banners with "War on the invader", "Stop the invasion", and chanting "Moors Out! Chants warning "it's an invasion", "against Islam, radical struggle", "Long live Christ the King", are some of the forgettable postcards left by the week that has just passed. Upset and offended Spaniards appeared in the media warning that the Moroccans want to invade Spain to make their country 'another Morocco'. Morocco in turn was defined with excrementitious adjectives. 

Several decades ago, Spain was a poor country that lagged behind Europe, experienced a war, suffered a long dictatorship and whose situation at different times pushed thousands of Spaniards to emigrate to Latin America, Morocco and other countries in search of a better and more dignified life. All of this today seems distant or non-existent when one reads articles that state that Spain has "a formidable responsibility, because its border separates democracy from tyranny and civilisation from barbarism". To use such expressions in 2021 does not seem very fortunate. Spain has not always been the modern, civilised, democratic and largely secularised country that many of us like. Some centuries ago, while northern Europe, the Protestant area, was modernising and secularising, the south, Christian Europe, was resisting. Nor should we lose sight of the major transformation of Spain in the last five decades. All countries, their systems and societies can change, transform and modernise. It is necessary to bet on, promote and support modernity for the countries of the South, without condescension, although we still have a long way to go before we have truly liberal democracies and economies, modern countries and secularised societies. 

Migrantes corren hacia la valla que separa Marruecos de España, después de que miles de migrantes cruzaran a nado la frontera, en Ceuta, España, 19 de mayo de 2021

Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain's far-right VOX, said that this was not a migration crisis but an "invasion". An "invasion" of 'barbaric', 'uncivilised', 'illegal' children and young people? An "invasion" of Moors, blacks and Muslims? Many in Spain spoke of "invasion", not just the far right. Progressives focused on Morocco's export of poverty: "Morocco, a country that kills its people with poverty, uses that misery to send its own compatriots, many of them minors, to swim to us in retaliation for the medical treatment of the Polisario leader. Their own children, yes. It's frightening. This is how he treats and uses them," tweeted a prominent opinion columnist. However, it does not seem that the interpretations of one or the other strictly correspond to the Moroccan reality, at least not for a person who, like me, has lived in Morocco for some time, coming from Colombia and getting to know the daily life of different Latin American countries crossed by populisms that reveal their religious roots and where "holy poverty" grows exuberantly, as an Italian writer would say.

Morocco does not kill its people with poverty, the sentence is an exaggerated and effective one. It is true that different factors make life difficult in Morocco, but Morocco is not a country where it is impossible to live, Venezuela is right now a country where it is impossible to live. Poverty is not in itself the biggest Moroccan problem, nor does it sufficiently explain the migratory avalanche that has been a settling of scores with Madrid. Authoritarianism, illegality, mafia culture, clientelism, corruption, patrimonialism, mentalities, behaviour, habits, and the lack of a rational notion of time undoubtedly hinder and obstruct the generation of wealth, competitiveness and the country's economic development. Despite all this, Morocco has made progress at different levels and has even managed the health crisis remarkably well, unlike many countries in Europe, Africa or America. There is poverty, yes, as in many African and Latin American countries. In addition to the social and economic crisis, there is the precariousness and marginalisation aggravated by the health crisis and the standstill imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, not only there, but in many countries around the world. Or what was the trigger for the people in Colombia to take to the streets for almost a month? 

Until 2019, poverty in Morocco was around 5%, a figure that was arguably almost enviable for any Latin American country before the pandemic, where the level of misery, precariousness and destitution was already very visible before the health crisis. Northern Morocco, which faces Spain, could well compete with Spain's Costa del Sol in terms of tourism. The area has undergone significant modernisation, there are hotels, resorts, and a booming gastronomic and service offer, at least before the pandemic. However, there is a lack of perspective and business vision that undermines the high potential of Morocco's Mediterranean region. Morocco needs greater liberalisation, with a great distance from the Spanish and Moroccan interpretations of a markedly statist tendency, I would like to say that on arriving in Morocco one realises how opportune it would be to reduce the size of the state and its enormous bureaucracy and, instead, promote more market, more private initiative, more competition, more competitiveness, greater productivity, more companies, businessmen, entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs, creative people. Not everything can or should be solved by the state. The question of mentalities, which lag far behind the significant modernisation that Morocco has undergone, and the lack of openness and political and business decisions to make the north of the country more attractive to tourists, are slowing down the development of this area, but even so, northern Morocco does not look anywhere near comparable to the misery of many Latin American cities, let alone some Colombian departments or localities, in terms of infrastructural, human, economic and social development. If the worst poverty and the greatest precariousness that Spanish citizens have seen is that of the Moroccans, perhaps they should be encouraged to cross the Atlantic and travel through Latin America. Going to Bolívar, Chocó or Buenaventura in Colombia can re-dimension what is understood in the old continent by poverty, misery and state neglect, as you can see, you do not have to go to extreme cases such as Venezuela, once a rich country.

El ministro marroquí de Asuntos Exteriores y Cooperación Internacional, Nasser Bourita

See statistics. Poverty in Latin America increased by 3% in 2020, but in Colombia it increased by 7%. According to the official statistics agency in Colombia (DANE), as a consequence of the economic and social crisis generated by the health crisis, misery today reaches 15% of the population, i.e. extreme poverty increased dramatically in 2020 and there are 2,800,000 people in Colombia who suffer hardship to feed themselves, families who cannot eat three times a day. This group is part of a larger group of 21 million citizens who represent 42% of the population in a country of 50 million inhabitants. This group, the monetary poor, comprises families who cannot meet their basic needs. A considerable part of the vulnerable middle class returned to a condition of poverty from which it is and will be very difficult to escape. Without government palliatives, the impact would have been much worse and the setback in the fight against poverty would no longer be 10 to 12 years as it was, but two decades. Given the Moroccan reality, the country's capacities and potential for development and economic growth, the situation looks more hopeful on the Moroccan side than on the Latin American side; of course, the potential can remain just that, potential, nothing more. Morocco today promises more in terms of economic development and modernisation than most Latin American countries. Not so in terms of rights, freedoms and modernity.

On the other hand, Colombia, a country that has traditionally been an emigrant-sending country, one day, for reasons of geography and its proximity to Venezuela, discovered itself to be an immigrant-receiving country and is facing the spill-over effects of the crises (humanitarian, political, economic and social) caused by the Chavista regime like no other country in the Americas. Between 70,000 and 80,000 Venezuelans have crossed from Venezuela into Colombia in a single day. Some five thousand citizens have been leaving Venezuela daily at the most critical moments. Some three thousand stay in Colombia, another two thousand continue on to the southern countries of the continent. Colombia is already hosting, in very precarious conditions, more than two million Venezuelans and has decided to regularise 1.7 million. Without being a rich country, it has had a more generous migration policy than other countries in Asia, Africa, Europe or the Americas. 

In recent years, Moroccan friends have said, a little seriously, a little jokingly, that we Latin Americans are not perceived in Spain in the same way as they are. We would be, in that order of ideas, like the poor cousins (the majority) or the nouveau riche (the minority represented, for example, by the mafioso 'Boliburgueses', once militants of Chavismo, now installed in luxurious flats in Salamanca in Madrid), but blood relatives, after all, while they continue to be perceived not only as different, but directly as 'invaders'. It always seemed to me that there was some victimhood and exaggeration in that assessment, but in the light of recent events and reactions, they may have a point, also when they speak of institutionalised racism in Spain. 

Soldados españoles y miembros de la Guardia Civil patrullan en la valla fronteriza entre España y Marruecos en el enclave español de Ceuta, el 19 de mayo de 2021

A few Moroccans have indicated to me in the past their preference for Ceuta and Melilla to remain Spanish, not because they consider them to be geographically or historically European, but as a practical matter, something of a lifeline: if the situation in Morocco becomes difficult, that is, if the landscape of freedoms closes further in the country, having a European city relatively close by is reassuring. Others have suggested that Spain is reluctant for Morocco to take back the Sahara because once it has it and is out of trouble it will go for Ceuta and Melilla, but no one denies that this will not be the case. The massive declarations by Moroccans, from the head of government a few months ago, to various analysts and academics, to demonstrations by Moroccan citizens, provide sufficient evidence to point to an interest in claiming these Spanish enclaves located in African territory. The claim, however, would be extremely costly in terms of time and resources for Morocco, and it would not necessarily be successful and victorious in its claim, since Ceuta and Melilla, as their citizens and even the European Union have already said, are European cities in Africa. In other words, Ceuta and Melilla are not the territory disputed by a subversive and totalitarian movement sponsored by Algeria, as is the case with the Sahara.

The diplomatic tensions between Morocco and Spain over the Sahara, in addition to the political, migratory and humanitarian crisis in Ceuta, led to a kind of religious war that was being waged without borders and in a virtual format. The global trending topics on Twitter on 18 May were #EspañaInvadida, #MarruecosInvadeEspaña, #CeutaSeDefiende, #CeutaEspaña, #CeutaInvadida, #Ceuta_Es _Marroquí, among many others. The public's discomfort with the migratory avalanche from Morocco was expressed through protests. Ceutíes mobilised against the PSOE government and Unidas Podemos, they called for the resignation of Pedro Sánchez, there were Spanish flags, banners and harangues. Social networks were ablaze with insults, comments, tweets and posts from Spanish and Moroccan citizens who launched verbal attacks of considerable calibre. 

The words revealed resentments inherited from generation to generation, not from today or yesterday, but from many centuries ago. Spanish and Moroccan academics and intellectuals resorted to geographical, political and historical interpretations, with religious roots and populist Manichean and binary views to claim, among other things, that Ceuta, Sebta and Melilla belonged there. There was talk of Al-Andalus, the Reconquest, some Spanish eminence outlined that "the Alaouites", the dynasty to which the current Moroccan monarch belongs, "have once again sown hatred and racism between Spaniards and Moroccans" and took the opportunity to promote his book in which he proves and demonstrates the beliefs and assertions made. "Decades of good relations thrown overboard by the whim of a satrap and his court", he concluded. These words earned him the response of a Moroccan intellectual who listed the affronts committed by Spain against Morocco from the 18th century to date, as well as Spain's historical debts to Morocco. "Hatred of the Moor is rooted in the collective imagination" of Spaniards, however enlightened they may be, said his Moroccan counterpart and interlocutor. 

Crisis migratoria entre Marruecos y España

Spanish political parties and leaders came out in defence of Spain's territorial integrity, even expressly surrounding the government despite the political division that prevails in the country. Analysts and journalists, whether progressive or conservative, published numerous articles with insulting and offensive expressions against Morocco and also against King Mohammed VI, ignoring or omitting that the king in Morocco is respected and loved by the majority of citizens and that the Monarchy has the confidence of the citizens, considering it as an institution that unites and guarantees the vital constants of the kingdom. However, in the Spanish press, the king has been insulted with expressions such as "reyezuelo" or "rey logazán", among others. Samir Bennis pointed out that this is an unacceptable way of addressing not only the country, but mainly the head of state. He told Spanish journalists and correspondents that no matter how many political disagreements there are between Morocco and Spain, the media in his country have never insulted King Felipe VI. The insulting expressions in the Spanish press infuriate and intoxicate the Moroccans, who resent the fact that they feel disrespected, which is why they add that restoring a bilateral relationship damaged by Spanish affronts and offences necessarily involves being treated as equals and not in a condition of inferiority, as has been the case until now. As can be expected, the treatment of Morocco in the Spanish press has been badly received by the authorities and by the foreign minister, who deplored "the campaign of media hostility" of the Spanish media, both public and private, against Morocco through "the mobilisation of all the media in unacceptable terms and on occasions with the intervention of high-ranking officials".

Spaniards pointed out on social networks that, in 30 years' time, Spain will have taken in some 5.7 million immigrants, that most of them will be Muslims and mainly Moroccans, and that this number would mean some 50 or 60 seats in Parliament for an eventual Islamist party. To this fear are added others, for example, that these immigrants maintain highly endogamous relationships and have large families, in contrast to an ageing native population where young people are not interested in parenthood and are not committed to forming extended families. From these perspectives, Spain faces an uncertain future and the most alarmist warn of Spain's eventual subjugation due to Moroccan immigration, which, according to them, is being boosted and encouraged by the current government. Moroccan intellectuals and politicians have warned that different conspiracy theories are circulating in Spain regarding the 'Moroccan threat'. There are also readings from Spain that allow themselves to outline fear or hatred of the Moor, or both, and that reveal a traumatic sentimental historical relationship between Morocco and Spain, whose conflicts are of long standing and come to the surface during economic crises. The language reveals deep-rooted ideas and imaginaries. Watching it all has been like a gruelling journey back in time, a march into the past, a surreal and extravagant situation. 

Transcending the disaffection between diplomats, politicians and rulers, there are relations that do not admit grounds for divorce, as a Costa Rican president said about Nicaragua a few years ago, but this reference extends to other countries that for reasons of neighbourhood and borders should be understood beyond disaffection, mood swings, fatigue or disagreements. This is illustrated by Mexico and the United States, Argentina and Brazil or Spain and Morocco, just to cite a few very obvious cases. "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder", is a dictum for neighbouring countries, but not for love between men and women, of course.

*Clara Riveros is a political scientist, political analyst and consultant on issues related to Latin America and Morocco. Author of the books Diálogo transatlántico entre Marruecos e Iberoamérica and Diálogos transatlánticos, Marruecos hoy. Director of the CPLATAM platform, which promotes liberal ideas and monitors the political situation in Latin American and Maghreb countries.