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Even before allegations that Morocco may have tried to bug phones belonging to French president Emmanuel Macron, the North African kingdom was having a tense time with European powers.
Rabat had allowed migrants into Spain because it was annoyed with Madrid. It had squabbled with Germany over its position on the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
Now, spying allegations made public last week into the use by governments of the Pegasus malware, created by Israel’s NSO Group, have ratcheted up the tension further. The claims emerged as part of an investigation by journalism non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories and 17 media partners.
The French newspaper Le Monde said Morocco may have targeted mobile phones belonging to Macron and 15 French ministers as part of a cyber spying operation that may have also included targeting 6,000 phones belonging to Algerian officials, politicians and others. Algeria is Morocco’s neighbour and arch-rival.
France, the former colonial power, counts Rabat as a close ally in the fight against jihadism and is Morocco’s biggest trade partner.
Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa director at the International Crisis Group, said the timing of the revelations was “particularly damaging for Morocco which is going through two major diplomatic crises with Spain and Germany. It can’t open a third front with France.”
Morocco’s relations with Spain became strained earlier this year when Madrid hosted, for medical treatment, Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, an Algeria-based organisation demanding independence for the disputed territory of Western Sahara. In May, an influx of thousands of migrants from Morocco into Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in north Africa, was attributed to Rabat loosening border controls in displeasure at the Ghali visit.
The kingdom, which controls most of Western Sahara, has also fallen out with Germany. In May, it recalled its ambassador after Germany said it would not change its position on Western Sahara even though the US, under Donald Trump, had recognised Moroccan sovereignty as part of a deal in which Rabat normalised ties with Israel. A UN plan for a referendum to determine the status of Western Sahara has been stalled for decades.
“Arguably, Morocco’s standing in Europe has never been lower,” said US-based North Africa Risk Consulting. The potential spying “fits a pattern of an increasingly aggressive . . . Moroccan foreign policy”, it added.
Fabiani at Crisis Group argued that the change in Washington’s position had “made Morocco more inflexible” over Western Sahara and had encouraged it to try to gain wider recognition of its control over the territory.
France has launched an investigation into the spying allegations. After Macron met top security officials on Thursday, the Elysée said: “The president takes the subject very seriously and is following the progress of the investigation very closely.” But it stressed that “no certainty had emerged at this stage” that the allegations were true.
For its part, Morocco has denied vehemently that it undertook any such actions or that it had purchased 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 destabilise.”
Olivier Baratelli, a French lawyer who represents 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 group provided technical research to the media investigation. Previously it had 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 foremost trading and investment partner and a steadfast 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 various French players think about the Sahara question.”
While France was unwavering in its support of the Moroccan position on Western Sahara, Fabiani said, Paris “disagreed sometimes with its hard-nosed positions on the issue”. It would not be a surprise, he said, if “the Moroccans might want to keep tabs on the French”.
The fact that France was also a close partner of Algeria, the main sponsor of Polisario, contributed to distrust, he added.
Even if the spying claims embarrass Morocco and rattle France, the two countries will want to contain the fallout for the sake of security co-operation, say observers.
Moroccan intelligence is “very alert and very effective”, according to the former French diplomat. “They have helped France a lot in investigating terrorist attacks going back to the Madrid attack of 2005, as well as staying on top of Islamist threat in Europe,” he said.
“I think, if the news cycle moves on, then both countries will be quite happy to let this die,” he said.