Sign up to myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about Morocco news.
Even before allegations that Morocco may have tried to tap phones from French President Emmanuel Macron, the North African kingdom had a tense time with European powers.
Rabat had allowed migrants into Spain because it was annoyed by Madrid. It had bickered with Germany over its position in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
Now, spying allegations made public last week about governments’ use of the Pegasus malware created by the Israeli NSO group have further heightened the tension. The claims emerged as part of an investigation by the nonprofit journalism group Forbidden Stories and 17 media partners.
French newspaper Le Monde said Morocco may have targeted cellphones belonging to Macron and 15 French ministers as part of a cyber-espionage operation, which may have also targeted 6,000 phones belonging to Algerian officials, politicians and others. Algeria is Morocco’s neighbor and arch-rival.
France, the former colonial power, considers Rabat a close ally in the fight against jihadism and is Morocco’s largest trading partner.
Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa director of the International Crisis Group, said the timing of the revelations was “particularly damaging to Morocco, which is experiencing two major diplomatic crises with Spain and Germany. It cannot open a third front with France.”
Morocco’s relations with Spain became tense earlier this year when Madrid, for medical treatment, received Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, an Algeria-based organization demanding independence for the disputed territory of Western Sahara. In May, an influx of thousands of migrants from Morocco to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa, was blamed on Rabat’s easing of border controls during Ghali’s visit.
The kingdom, which controls most of Western Sahara, is also arguing with Germany. In May, it recalled its ambassador after Germany said it would not change its stance on Western Sahara, even though the US, under Donald Trump, had recognized Moroccan sovereignty as part of a deal in which Rabat normalized ties with Israel. A UN plan for a referendum to determine the status of Western Sahara has been in place for decades.
“Undoubtedly, Morocco’s position in Europe has never been lower,” says US-based North Africa Risk Consulting. The potential espionage “fits a pattern of becoming more aggressive”. . . Moroccan foreign policy,” it added.
Crisis Group’s Fabiani argued that the change in Washington’s position had “made Morocco more inflexible” over Western Sahara and encouraged it to try and gain greater recognition of its control of the area.
France has launched an investigation into the allegations of espionage. After Macron met with senior security officials on Thursday, the Elysée said: “The president is taking the subject very seriously and is closely following the progress of the investigation.” But it stressed that “no assurance had arisen at this stage” that the allegations were true.
Morocco, for its part, has vehemently denied taking such actions or purchasing software to infiltrate mobile phones.
Chakib Benmoussa, Morocco’s ambassador to Paris, told Le Journal du Dimanche that those who had made such damning accusations against his country must now provide evidence. “In this story, Morocco is a victim,” he said. “This is an attempt to destabilize.”
Olivier Baratelli, a French lawyer representing Morocco, was quoted by French media as saying the kingdom would sue both Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International for defamation in Paris. The human rights organization provided technical research to the media inquiry. It had previously said it had evidence that Morocco used Pegasus to infiltrate the phones of local journalists and human rights activists.
Rabat said Amnesty had not shown any evidence linking Morocco to spying on journalists.
France is Morocco’s main trading and investment partner and a staunch supporter of its interests in Western Sahara at the UN Security Council.
“Morocco has always wanted to know what we really think about the Sahara policy, not just what we tell them,” said a former French diplomat. “They also really care about what different French players think about the Sahara issue.”
While France staunchly supported Morocco’s stance on Western Sahara, Fabiani said, Paris “did sometimes disagree with its tough stance on the issue”. It wouldn’t come as a surprise, he said, if “the Moroccans want to keep an eye on the French”.
The fact that France was also a close partner of Algeria, the main sponsor of Polisario, added to the mistrust, he added.
Even if the espionage claims embarrass Morocco and shake up France, the two countries will want to mitigate the fallout for the sake of security cooperation, observers say.
Moroccan intelligence is “very alert and very effective,” said the former French diplomat. “They have helped France a lot in investigating terrorist attacks dating back to the Madrid attacks in 2005, as well as keeping abreast of the Islamic threat in Europe,” he said.
“I think if the news cycle continues, both countries will be very happy to let this die,” he said.