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Isle in middle of storm

Isle in middle of storm

Isle in middle of storm
Iranian musicians play in a Youth Symphony in Tehran, Iran, in this Sept. 19, 2000 photo.
Photo by VAHID SALEMI/Associated Press

Island spat latest incident in love-hate relationship between Morocco, Spain

RABAT, Morocco - On the surface, the fuss of the past 10 days between Morocco and Spain was over a tiny, uninhabited rock outcropping that is a haven for hashish smugglers and clandestine immigrants heading for the northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea across the spot where Africa and Europe nearly touch.

But the occupation of the 30-acre island the Moroccans call "Night" and the Spanish call "Parsley," first by Moroccan gendarmes, then by Spanish Legionnaires, is just the latest incident in the countries' turbulent relationship, which Moroccan satirist Ahmed Sanoussi calls "a very complex love-hate story."

The crisis erupted July 11 like one of the sudden summer squalls that can catch fishermen and sailors between Mount Musa and Gibraltar, the legendary Pillars of Hercules guarding the 12-mile strait marking the entrance to the Mediterranean.

Morocco said the handful of troops from the royal gendarmerie of King Mohamed VI went to the rock 200 yards off its coast to make one of their periodic checks on drug and immigrant smuggling. Spain had called on Morocco to better control both.

A diplomatic statement later said Spain never before objected to brief Moroccan visits to the island, which Rabat says reverted to Morocco upon independence in 1956.

In a deal mediated by Secretary of State Colin Powell after Spain removed its 75 Legionnaires, tents and flags Saturday night from the island, Morocco said Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa would meet Monday in Rabat with his Spanish counterpart, Ana Palacio. She assumed her post less than two weeks ago when Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar shuffled his Cabinet.

It will be the first high-level meeting between the two countries since Morocco abruptly recalled its ambassador to Spain last October.

Palacio was scheduled to be in Brussels on Monday to meet with European Union foreign ministers. But like her predecessors, she will make Morocco her first foreign outing.

The Moroccan press has jabbed at Aznar, the leader of the conservative Popular Party, who reportedly made authority over Perejil a matter of national - and personal - pride.

"Spain doesn't appear to care about humiliating Morocco in its attempt to demonstrate just who is in charge," said Ali Lmrabet, editor and publisher of Demain, a weekly often at odds with Moroccan authorities.

But he says it's difficult to grasp why Morocco ever gave Spain the pretext to assert itself.

"It either demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of who Aznar is, or the authorities need a crisis with Spain to hide domestic problems like a mounting budget deficit, lack of employment opportunities and the economic fallout from the prolonged drought," he said.

Morocco, a nation of 30 million walking the line between a rich but burdensome tradition and the call to modernity from a population with 4 million mobile phones, is scheduled to hold legislative elections in September. They are touted as the first truly free and fair polls in the brief parliamentary history of a country that has been an absolute monarchy since 1956 after 46 years of colonial rule by France and Spain.

Since Mohamed VI assumed the throne in 1999, Morocco has not publicly renewed its sovereignty claim over the small Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Mediterranean coast - and the sprinkling of other islands and rocks near them. Benaissa said in Paris last week that, sooner or later, "We must confront this subject."

Spain gained control of Ceuta from Portugal in 1580. It seized Melilla, 143 miles east, in 1497, five years after Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled all the Muslims and Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Many found refuge in Morocco.

In a corner of Madrid's elegant Retiro park stands a statue of an officer on horseback commemorating the Spanish army's "glorious African campaign" - all the battles occurred in Morocco.

The most disastrous of those - in which about 15,000 poorly trained, equipped and fed Spanish soldiers were slaughtered by Moroccan rebels a year after the proclamation of the Protectorate - began at Anual, 118 miles southeast of Ceuta, on July 17, 1921. The rebels stopped just outside Melilla, reportedly to avoid "international repercussions." Spanish Legionnaires occupied, and then left, Perejil 81 years later.

Mohamed VI's father, Hassan II, made a point of not pressing the issue of the enclaves to foster important economic and diplomatic relations with Spain and the European Union, which Madrid joined in 1986.

Nevertheless, pointed comparisons were made over the public desire of Spain to retrieve Gibraltar, ceded to Britain in a 1713 treaty, and Madrid's equal lack of enthusiasm to restore two tiny footholds in Africa to the Muslim nation in which they are embedded.

But as Spanish dictator Francisco Franco lay dying in 1975, and new King Juan Carlos and his advisers decided to abandon Spain's colony in Western Sahara, Hassan II seized the moment to rally hundreds of thousands of Moroccans for a "green march" south to claim the phosphate-rich territory already contested by the Polisario Liberation Front.

A war that consumed millions of dollars and thousands of lives ensued between Morocco and the Polisario as Hassan strove to impose his authority over the ancient, anarchic country whose Arabic name, al-Magrib, means "the far west."

Both sides signed a cease-fire in 1991 on condition that a U.N.-supervised referendum would determine the region's fate. But Morocco has not made a secret of its intention to hold onto the territory.

As the difficulties in staging the referendum multiplied, the United States - which regards Morocco as an important, moderate ally in the Muslim-Arab world - and France - Morocco's leading trading partner ahead of Spain - appear inclined to accede to Moroccan control. Among the 15 EU nations, only Spain continues to robustly support the Polisario claim.

Morocco, which is earnestly seeking favorable trading conditions with the EU, refused last year to renew a five-year fishing agreement whose main beneficiary would be Spanish sardine fishermen. Morocco said the conditions were too onerous.

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