When a veteran Western Saharan rebel leader checked into a Spanish hospital in April to be treated for Covid-19, few could have anticipated the repercussions.
Brahim Ghali, the 71-year-old leader of the Polisario Front, arrived in the country reportedly under a false name and with an Algerian passport, with the Spanish authorities hoping to keep his stay quiet.
But barely seven weeks later he has been identified as the catalyst for a migrant crisis in the Spanish city of Ceuta and a war of words between Madrid and Rabat that threatens to derail decades of close co-operation.
“In diplomatic terms, we are looking at the most delicate Spanish-Moroccan crisis since […] 1975,” noted political commentator Joaquín Luna, who added that “Madrid has everything to lose”.
The Algeria-backed Polisario Front has been fighting against the Moroccan army for sovereignty of Western Sahara ever since Spain withdrew from the territory in 1976. As the organisation's leader, Ghali, often pictured in battle fatigues and sunglasses, is a Moroccan public enemy.
After discovering that Spain had allowed him to enter the country and be treated in a hospital in Logroño, Rabat warned in early May that the decision would lead to “consequences”.
On May 17th and 18th, more than 8,000 migrants, most of them Moroccan, crossed the border into the Spanish city of Ceuta in the space of 36 hours. Ceuta is one of two Spanish enclaves next to Morocco – the other is Melilla – which have Europe's only land borders with Africa.
Many migrants were able to swim around the tall border fence or float around it on rafts, while others even managed to cross on foot when the tide was low. At least one man drowned. The Moroccan police, who normally control the border tightly, did little to stop them, reinforcing the notion that this was a reprisal by the Moroccan authorities against Spain.
Ceuta is used to receiving a regular flow of migrants, but such a large number in such a short period was unprecedented. Spain’s Socialist Party prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, deployed the military to the city, as industrial warehouses were converted into migrant stay centres.
“We will not accept any kind of blackmail or questioning of our territorial integrity,” said Spain’s defence minister, Margarita Robles, as she accused Morocco of violating international law. It was the most strident language Madrid had used to address Rabat in two decades.
The Moroccan government recalled its ambassador in Madrid and hit back in the escalating war of words.
"Morocco rejects threats which are based on clichés from the past," was the response of foreign minister Nasser Bourita. "Blackmail? Why would we do that? With what aim?"
Morocco has frequently had clear aims in mind when using the border with Spain’s North African enclaves to exert pressure on Madrid or on the EU. In the past, these objectives have been economic or political, for example as leverage in agricultural or fishing negotiations.
But on one occasion, at least, it has appeared to be more personal. In 2014, the Spanish civil guard stopped Morocco’s King Mohammed VI when he was jet-skiing off the shores of Ceuta, without realising who he was. In the days that followed, 1,200 migrants reached Spain from Morocco.
“Morocco has two main tools which it tends to use [with Spain]: immigration and the threat of not co-operating when it comes to security and counter-terrorism,” says Ignacio Cembrero, a journalist and author who covers North Africa.
This time, Morocco’s agenda stretches beyond annoyance at Ghali’s hospital treatment to the broader issue of Western Sahara.
In December, the outgoing Trump administration endorsed Morocco’s claim to sovereignty of the territory, a huge boost for the North African nation.
That change of policy came in exchange for Morocco formalising diplomatic ties with Israel, an important development for Washington in the context of the Middle East. While it is not yet clear whether the Biden administration will maintain this new stance, it has emboldened Morocco.
“That unilateral decision by Trump was euphorically celebrated by the Moroccan authorities and has led them to adopt a much more assertive attitude in their foreign relations,” noted Haizam Amirah-Fernández, senior analyst for the Mediterranean and Arab World at the Elcano Royal Institute.
Already this spring, Germany has felt the force of Morocco's new-found boldness, after pushing back against the US shift on Western Sahara. In May, Rabat recalled its ambassador in Berlin and accused Germany of "a negative stance".
Germany and Spain, like the EU as a whole, take the UN’s long-standing line that a referendum should be held in the territory. The refusal of other countries to follow the United States’s lead appears to have riled Rabat.
“Spain has not changed its position in relation to its policy as a neighbour of Morocco nor has it changed its position with regard to [Western] Sahara,” said deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo in the wake of the Ceuta migrant crisis.
Cembrero and others see the thousands of African migrants who travelled to the Canary Islands in the latter part of 2020 – many of them drowning on the way – as yet another example of Morocco exerting pressure, as it sought Washington’s support for its Western Sahara claim.
Meanwhile, the strife with Morocco has added a sour ingredient to Spain’s already vitriolic political arena.
The far-right, Islamophobic Vox party described the arrival of the migrants in Ceuta as an "invasion". The party's leader, Santiago Abascal, was jeered as he tried to stage a rally in the city, whose population is finely balanced between people of European and North African descent.
Some on the right have blamed the recent events on Podemos, the junior partner in Spain’s leftist governing coalition, for its advocacy in the past of Saharawi self-determination.
“Spain is always in a difficult position, because of the leverage Morocco has and the huge civil society support for Saharan independence,” said Jacob Mundy, visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s hard to know if Morocco is operating from a position of insecurity or confidence,” he added. “It’s probably both.”
Brahim Ghali testified before a Spanish judge this week as part of an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses against the Polisario leader in North Africa. But he was not charged and was able to fly out of Spain, to Algeria.
The decision not to pursue action against Ghali has further irritated Morocco. But it is likely to be even more frustrated this summer, when the European Court of Justice is expected to invalidate the EU’s inclusion of Western Sahara in its trade and fishery deals with Morocco.
In the meantime, Spain – and the EU – are hoping that the Ceuta migrant crisis is an anomaly rather than the shape of things to come.