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Spain changes its policy on the Sahara and fuels the war in the Maghreb

2022-03-19 | Magreb

Overnight, Spain has made a U-turn on the Sahara. Sánchez has committed to Spanish support for the Moroccan occupation of the former Spanish colony. A new impossible balance of Spanish imperialism in the Maghreb dangerously inflaming the tensions which keep Algeria and Morocco permanently on the brink of war.

The first reception of the news

The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Albares, presented yesterday the new Spanish position after the Moroccan note was made public, as "a new stage".

The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Albares, presented yesterday the new Spanish position after the Moroccan note was made public, as "a new stage".

The official discourse in the press justifies it on the impossibility for the EU to hold an open conflict with Morocco in the middle of the Ukrainian war and the convenience of following the USA, France and Germany. The conservative press, on the other hand, criticizes it as "a concession which weakens us", seeing the gas business which the Spanish capital was aiming at disappear. What nobody seems to care about is the fact that this diplomatic move fuels the latent, but increasingly present, war between Morocco and Algeria, raising the regional tension to the impossible.

The Spanish shift on the Sahara as seen from Morocco

This morning the Moroccan press was jubilant. They have all received a press release from the Moroccan Royal Household highlighting phrases of a letter from Pedro Sánchez that nobody knew about, not even in Madrid, until yesterday. According to textual quotes from the missive, Sánchez "recognizes the importance of the Sahara issue for Morocco" and therefore "Spain considers the Moroccan autonomy initiative, presented in 2007, as the most serious, realistic and credible basis for resolving the dispute".

After this U-turn in the official position on the Sahara and in case there were any doubts as to the extent to which it commits the Spanish political line, the letter ends by affirming that "Spain will always keep its commitments and its word".

Le Matin stresses that with this move "Spain undertakes to guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Morocco" on the borders so far recognized only by the USA, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Emirates. Assabah, triumphalist, congratulates itself because "Spain is back on the right track" and in a flowery article, in the old style, rubs the strategic triumph of the Makhzen on the Algerian leadership.

This recognition is enough to be a plea in the international forums, and to dispel the clouds of ambiguity and the duplicity of positions that the Polisario has been hiding behind for several years, presenting the vacillation of the Spanish government as a position in favor of its unjust "cause".

Moreover, the Spanish position torments all the dreams of the Algerian generals to organize a referendum on the Moroccan Sahara by abandoning the madness of the "right of self-determination of the Saharawi people", which Algeria used as a scarecrow to intimidate the international community.

In fact, the position of the Spanish government defending the Moroccan Sahara is the political and diplomatic response of an independent European country, sending a message to the bloodstained Algerian generals that it will not accept blackmail and will not accept to trade its positions for gas. A game Algeria has been playing since the decision to close the Maghreb gas pipeline, as was made clear when Tebboune asked the Spanish Prime Minister to refrain from supplying gas to Morocco in the opposite direction, in a veiled threat to cut off the tap.

Spain not only countered the Algerian blackmail, "Gas in exchange for Western Sahara", but reminded the world of the close relationship between the two neighboring countries, closely linked by ties of friendship, history, geography, interests and common interests.

Meanwhile, in Algeria...

We do not know the date of Sánchez's letter to the King of Morocco. What is certain is that releasing it yesterday, as the Moroccan Royal House did, carries a special symbolic charge.

Today, March 19, is the 60th anniversary of the Évian Accords that put an end to French colonization. It is the major holiday in the Algerian nationalist calendar, "Victory Day". The official communiqué of President Tebboune is reproduced in all the media, affirming in the face of Macron's "reconciliation" initiative the official discourse according to which "the crimes of colonization" - but not those of the FLN - "can neither prescribe nor be forgotten".

Very significantly, the shutdown of French media in Mali is celebrated by the press in the middle of the operation of the departure of French troops while some media announce the next trip of Tebboune to Rome, where the Algiers government sees the opportunity to raise capital to extend the existing gas pipelines to Italy and become a substitute supplier of Russian gas.

The only news on the Sahara first thing this morning was the refusal of the President of the US Senate to combine US aid to Morocco and the Sahara in a single budget, ignoring the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory made by Trump and reaffirmed by Blinken, as the Spanish governmental press is reminding us today.

But at noon, the news appeared in the form of a Polisario communiqué: " Sánchez signs a second historical betrayal of Spain " ‎to the Saharawis‎. Quickly followed by echoes from repeating sources claiming that the Sánchez's letter did not involve the whole Spanish executive, and thus the state, downplaying its importance and predicting a crisis in the government once he appears into parliament.

The Algerian government, however, remains silent at the time of publication of this article.

Two years of pre-war tensions in the Maghreb

The Makhzen releases the tensions of the Saharawi industrial crisis by turning it into a migratory crisis with Spain.

Queues of migrants in the port of Arguineguín waiting to take their Covid tests

Queues of migrants in the port of Arguineguín waiting to take their Covid tests

2020 brought the Sahara back to the center of global imperialist tensions. First there was a massive and risky migration encouraged by the Makhzen itself.

The Moroccan state holds up Western Sahara as a big "special economic zone" which attracts capital on the basis of low taxes, the absence of minimal labor regulations and the military guarantee of order in the factories. The acceleration of the economic crisis, which accompanied the first year of the pandemic, was pushing to the limit the tension of the ultra-precarized workers of the sweatshops, dismissed en masse and abandoned to their fate. The state's solution? To push a desperate and large-scale migration of unemployed workers to the Canary Islands.

A masterstroke. By weakening a serious threat of class struggle, a trump card in the imperialist game was won. A few months earlier Sánchez had signed new gas contracts with Algeria and the Spanish position, which had been hinting at an opening to the "autonomist solution", reaffirmed the commitments made at the time with the UN: to support a referendum of self-determination limited to the population living in the colony in 1975.

The Abraham pacts, the agonizing resurrection of the Polisario by Algeria and the recognition by the U.S. of the Moroccan status of Western Sahara.

Fighting between the Polisario and Morocco on November 13, 2020.

Combats between the Polisario and Morocco last November 13.

But these were the final months of Trump's presidency. The rebalancing game was being replayed in the Middle East and the US wanted Morocco in the "Abraham Pacts" forming a new Arab front around the recognition of Israel. And Morocco was getting closer and closer to a historic international triumph.

The closure by the back door of the Saharawi question had been in the making for years. But, in the midst of the recession, the interest of the USA in obtaining Moroccan recognition of Israel and of Spain in stemming the Sahelian and Saharawi migratory flow, threatened a rapid outcome contrary to Algerian imperialist interests.

Are we heading towards a new war in the Maghreb?, 17/11/2020

The Algerian government therefore attempted an agonizing resurrection of the Polisario and the war of the desert... which ended with a demonstration of military impotence on the Saharawi-Algerian side and with the formal recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara by the USA.

What became clear in November is that although the rejection of the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara is Algeria's war flag, the Polisario, however doped it may be from Algiers, no longer has the capacity to put the Makhzen in check. To begin with, it has no capacity for real mobilization in a Sahara turned into a gigantic sweatshop exploiting thousands of workers with origins ranging from Senegal to the Rif. And militarily it has been irrelevant since at least 1990.

As the Rabat press made clear from the first moment: "if there is war, it will be against Algeria".

Morocco and Algeria: new steps towards an old war, 2/9/2021

Simulacrum in Ceuta and cold war with Spain and Germany

Entry of young Moroccans through the Tarajal beach, beginning of the alleged "migratory crisis" in Ceuta.

Entry of young Moroccans through the Tarajal beach, beginning of the alleged "migratory crisis" in Ceuta.

From that moment on, all the capacities of the Makhzen were focused on pressuring the European powers to achieve a similar recognition or at least to openly support the Moroccan position as the only way out of the conflict with Algeria, as France had already done before the USA.

The kicks and low blows then began to follow one after another in expectation of a gesture from the Spanish government which, when it arrived, turned out to have the opposite meaning to that expected in Rabat: the Spanish government took in and gave medical assistance to the lifelong dictator of the phantom Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic maintained by Algeria from the 150,000 refugees/prisoners it keeps on its soil under Polisario control. As expected, the attitude of the Makhzen bureaucracy towards Spanish imperialism could only get worse. (...)

The truth is that, for the moment, Spanish companies are being excluded from public financing and state contracts and concessions are largely written off. If the situation were to escalate further, a large part of the Spanish capital present in Morocco would have to leave the country. The economic and political defeat for Spanish imperialism would be catastrophic.

Spanish imperialism takes on water and opens the game, 17/5/2021

The day after publishing the above article, the secret services organized a mini-"Green March" on Ceuta as a blunt but contained signal of the threat they are prepared to sustain.

There are fundamental differences however: to begin with, this movement did not start with a call from the Royal Household nor with a call for patriotic mobilization by the Makhzen parties. On the contrary, the front pages of Assabah and Le Matin this morning complained about German hostility against Morocco, reported the upcoming congress on Cannabis in Tangier... but did not devote a word to Ceuta or Spain. And of course, this morning's public television news also feigned insanity.

The discretion of the propaganda apparatus of the Makhzen on the supposed migratory crisis and the playful mood of those who crossed over indicates rather that it is a gesture, a signal in the form of a simulacrum of the path that the Moroccan state wants to make the Spanish state believe that it is ready to undertake. And therein lies the danger.

Ceuta is not experiencing any "migratory crisis", 18/5/2021

The exit path chosen by Sánchez, an impossible and victimizing equilibrium game between Algeria and Morocco that agitated the "migratory threat" in front of the EU, ended with the departure of the self-proclaimed president of the Sahara from Spain - where he had entered clandestinely to be treated by Covid - and leading to a real cold war with Morocco.

The Green Deal, gas, the rupture of relations between Morocco and Algeria and the Algerian counter-offensive

When, at the end of August, Sánchez finally dismissed his dismal foreign minister, one of Rabat's demands to ease tensions, the European Green Deal was already completely reshaping the scenario

Spain, in the midst of the strategic deployment of the Green Deal, is breaking daily records for electricity prices, the macroeconomic effect of which is beginning to be a growing trend towards inflation. A shortage of natural gas this winter would multiply prices even more and would probably produce an industrially and socially unsustainable situation.

Morocco and Algeria: new steps towards an old war, 2/9/2021

Algeria sees its opportunity. It reaffirms its commitment to supply Spain and breaks off diplomatic relations with Morocco, a step prior to the non-renewal - due on October 1 - of the contract which supplies Morocco with gas and enables it to export it through the Maghreb Gas Pipeline to Spain.

There are many in Algiers who believe that the severance of diplomatic relations is only a stopgap that will serve, in the end, to negotiate a new regional balance. Many in Rabat expect the same. The fact is that the Algerian military leadership, which makes its opinions transparent in the Arabic-language press in Algiers, is increasingly of the opinion that this is not a crisis like any other.

Hence the permanent reference to the "war of the sands". The growing idea is that if Algeria is not capable of containing Morocco now and accepts that the Makhzen reconfigures regional relations, gaining weight in the Sahel and rejuvenating its ties with Europe, Algeria will lose its capacity to confront neighboring imperialism during the next decade, suffering an existential danger.

Morocco and Algeria: new steps towards an old war, 2/9/2021

From then on, military skirmishes between the two countries accompanied diplomatic ones.

This Wednesday Algeria accused Morocco of the death of three Algerian truck drivers in a drone bombing while they were driving from Mauritania on a road under Polisario control. It represents a step beyond the accusations of terrorist financing this summer that led to the severing of diplomatic relations and the shutdown of gas supplies to Morocco - and Spain - through the pipeline running through the Rif.

In the background, the border issue and the Moroccan pressure to force the recognition of its sovereignty over the Sahara. But also the gas crisis. Spain and Portugal depend on Algerian gas, which can now only arrive through the Medgaz pipeline... which does not provide sufficient capacity to supply all the demand on the Iberian peninsula. The shortfall will be made up by shipments by ship, which are much more expensive.

This strategic position is helping Algeria to counterbalance the Moroccan political offensive by taking advantage of its new capacity to exert pressure in Europe. For the moment, the Algerian government has already obtained from Spain the surrender of opponents linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and is demanding the "point-by-point renegotiation" of its trade agreement with the EU.

But the main course is to use Spanish "mediation" to contain Moroccan impetus. That aspiration is what the sophisticated drone attack that killed three truck drivers this week was a response to.

In Algiers, the possibility of war with Morocco is looking closer and closer, but for the moment it is more likely that deadly incidents like Wednesday's will increase. What is certain is that Morocco is tempted to take advantage of the de facto rupture of relations between France and Algeria to impose itself regionally by any means. It hopes that Paris, at loggerheads with Algiers in the imperialist game for control of Mali, will stand aside.

The reality is that as of today the Algerian-Moroccan border is a "hot strip" with increasing armed incidents and that all the caromings of imperialist interests are possible.

The spectre of war surrounds the EU again, 4/11/2021

Spain increasingly values Algerian gas...

Gas pipelines of the Maghreb and Medgaz

Gas pipelines of the Maghreb and Medgaz

Historically, since the first González government, there is a part of the Spanish bourgeoisie which has strongly bet on a solid alliance with Algeria. Their impetus turned Spain into the soil of 1/3 of the EU regasification plants. Their perspective, to turn the country into the alternative source of Russian gas for the European industry, was again and again frustrated by France which was not willing to give way to a competitor through its soil. The result: gas in Spain is more expensive because only 22% of the regasification capacity is used... which still has to be paid off.

This does not mean that this pro-gas sector has disappeared. It simply took a back seat without ever ceasing to put pressure on governments.

I would like that, just as France has set very clear objectives in favor of nuclear energy or Germany has set in motion its agreements to have a gas pipeline connected to Russia, in Spain we should set our own goals. In this sense, it is important to emphasize that North Africa is a gas producer. It needs social stability. Spain has an opportunity with our regasification plants. We can help the entire European continent.

Josu Jon Imaz, CEO of Repsol, April 2021

That battle has crossed the Sánchez government itself, as was seen in the takeover bid for Naturgy - the gas company that brings gas from Algeria and which is 4% owned by the Algerian state-owned Sonatrach - by an Australian fund. And even more recently in the debate on "sustainable investment taxonomies" in the EU.

In fact, the Sánchez government moved over the last four years from an "anti-gas" position focusing energy policy on accelerating the Green Deal and attracting capital for photovoltaics and wind, to now openly embracing the gas thesis and using the Ukraine war and the move to a continent-wide energy war economy to pressure France to extend the MidCat pipeline gas connection.

...but tries to strike a new impossible balance

However, if the Algerian leaders thought that Spain would not betray the tacit agreements linked to the future gas business... they were wrong. The weakness of Spanish imperialism both vis-à-vis Morocco and vis-à-vis Germany and France when they align themselves, are the constant that marks the development of the Spanish side of this crisis from the beginning.

Already in June 2021 Merkel had excluded Spain from the summit on Libya as a gesture of reconciliation towards Morocco. But the final blow would come with the German "traffic light coalition". In the new Scholz government, Foreign Affairs was left to the Greens and when it became clear that Biden was not going to reverse Trump's Sahara position, the position held until then by the Social Democrat Gabriel was sacrificed without problems. In one of her first statements as minister, Annalena Baerbock aligned Germany with Morocco and the "autonomist solution".

For Spanish capital and the Spanish state to maintain a position different from the French in Morocco is difficult, but to maintain a position against Germany in Brussels is almost impossible. If, in addition, it implies risk vis-à-vis the US, the cracks in the ruling class itself may burst.

Add the effects of the war in Ukraine on the global structure of imperialist alliances and the desperation of Spanish capital in the face of the economic emergency and we will have the key to understand yesterday's declarations of Minister Albares as much as the chorus of his apologists:

The balances that allowed Spain to maintain its traditional position regarding the Sahara have been broken with the geopolitical earthquake that means the invasion of Ukraine. The two central countries, France and Germany, were already won over to Rabat's position. The United States undertook the pivot with Trump, with the double move of the Abraham Accords: exchanging Morocco's resumption of relations with Israel for Washington's recognition of Moroccan sovereignty. Biden has never corrected it, nor was there any sign that he would. In view of the Spanish turnaround, not only will he not do so, but he will congratulate himself on the continuity.

Never fight two wars at the same time. Bassets yesterday in El País

The result is an impossible balance. So impossible that it seems that the Spanish government did not even consult with or communicate its decision to Algeria. According to Albares, it is necessary to hope for the best because the potential business of Algerian gas through an expanded Medgaz, participated by Spain and France with European funds, would compensate Algeria for the loss of the Sahara.

In these times of so much instability in Europe, with an illegal, unjust and unjustified war in Ukraine, precisely this strategic relationship between Algeria and Spain, this gas pipeline that unites us, can give even more value to this partnership.

Albares yesterday at the press conference in Moncloa.

The road to war

The Algerian army takes up positions in the mountains of Ain Defla against an Islamist guerrilla financed by Morocco. This support is part of the permanent subway war between Morocco and Algeria.

The Algerian army takes up positions in the mountains of Ain Defla against an Islamist guerrilla financed by Morocco. This support is part of the permanent subway war between Morocco and Algeria.

But Algerian plans are very different. Algiers does not look to Spain and the Medgaz as its main outlet to Europe. It is too risky to depend on both France and Spain. Algiers looks to Italy and it is through Italy that it hopes to link itself to the new EU energy map.

Moreover, Algeria has good reason to see Moroccan assertion as an existential threat. Morocco historically claims almost a third of Algerian territory and at the immediate level has not shied away from showing its ambitions over Bechar, Tlemcen and even Tindouf. The attainment of dominion over the Sahara will very possibly set in motion the claims over these cities. Just as it will make the Makhzen more belligerent in the medium term in Ceuta and Melilla.

But if Spain can hope for a certain calm, at least for a few years, Algeria cannot fail to notice that Morocco is arming itself thoroughly, both in the Emirates and, with state-of-the-art equipment, in Israel, including an anti-missile "Iron Dome". In December, at the height of rising border tensions, it opened its first long-range missile launch base. And it has not followed the EU and the US in the blockade against Russia partly because it hopes to be able to arm itself in that market as well.

The Algerian ruling class is well aware that if it waits any longer it could lose any military possibility against a rearmed Morocco equipped with the latest war technology. It is tempted, in the midst of the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of independence, to redirect the nationalism of the petty bourgeoisie who impotently led the revolt during these years and now vegetate between powerlessness and demoralization.

The workers and the war

Assembly of workers on wildcat strike in Jerada, Morocco, 2018.

Assembly of workers on wildcat strike in Jerada, Morocco, 2018.

The Spanish ruling class is very wrong if it thinks it will avoid war and make the Algerian military forget about the Makhzen threat, simply by facilitating new gas sales.

The main barrier today for the Algerian government to take an irreversible step is only the fear, always present among the ruling class in Algiers, that a military mobilization would produce a general uprising of the workers, especially those of the oil and gas industry.

That is why, after the dangerous Spanish turn, which throws fuel on the embers of an endless latent war, for the workers, both in Morocco and Algeria, the choice between fighting against "their" own ruling class or being massacred in a new imperialist slaughter is becoming more increasingly immediate.