Rabat had allowed migrants to enter Spain because he was annoyed by Madrid. He had quarreled with Germany over its position in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
Now, the espionage allegations made public last week about government use of the Pegasus malware, created by the Israeli group NSO, have further escalated the tension. The allegations emerged as part of an investigation by the nonprofit journalism organization Forbidden Stories and 17 media partners.
French newspaper Le Monde said Morocco may have targeted cellphones belonging to Macron and 15 French ministers in a cyber-espionage operation that may also have targeted 6,000 phones belonging to Algerian officials, politicians and others. Algeria is Morocco’s neighbor and great rival.
France, the former colonial power, counts Rabat as a close ally in the fight against jihadism and is Morocco’s main trading 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. He cannot open a third front with France.
Morocco’s relations with Spain became strained earlier this year when Madrid took in, for medical treatment, Brahim Ghali, head of the Polisario Front, an organization based in Algeria demanding independence from 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 attributed to the loosening of border controls by Rabat, unhappy with Ghali’s visit.
The kingdom, which controls most of Western Sahara, has also fallen out with Germany. In May, he recalled his ambassador after Germany said it would not change its position on Western Sahara even if the United States, under Donald Trump, recognized Moroccan sovereignty as part of a deal. in which Rabat normalized relations with Israel. A UN plan for a referendum to determine the status of Western Sahara has stalled for decades.
“It can be argued that Morocco’s position in Europe has never been so weak,” said US-based North Africa Risk Consulting. Potential espionage “corresponds to an increasingly aggressive model. . . Moroccan foreign policy, ”he added.
Fabiani of Crisis Group argued that Washington’s change of stance had “made Morocco more inflexible” on Western Sahara and encouraged it to try to gain greater recognition of its control over the territory.
France has opened an investigation into the allegations of espionage. After Macron met with senior security officials on Thursday, the Elysee Palace said: “The president is taking the matter very seriously and is following the progress of the investigation very closely. But he stressed that “no certainty had emerged at this point” that the allegations were true.
For its part, Morocco has vehemently denied taking such actions or purchasing software to infiltrate cell phones.
Chakib Benmoussa, Moroccan ambassador to Paris, told Journal du Dimanche that those who had brought such damning accusations against his country must now provide evidence. “In this story, Morocco is a victim,” he said. “It’s an attempt to destabilize. “
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 for the media investigation. Previously, he said he had evidence that Morocco was using Pegasus to infiltrate the phones of local journalists and human rights activists.
Rabat said Amnesty had shown no evidence linking Morocco to spying on journalists.
France is Morocco’s leading trade and investment partner and a staunch defender of its interests in Western Sahara at the UN Security Council.
“Morocco has always wanted to know what we really think about Saharan politics, not just what we tell them,” said a former French diplomat. “They also care a lot about what the different French players think about the Sahara issue. “
While France was steadfast in its support for Morocco’s position on Western Sahara, Fabiani said, Paris “sometimes disagreed with its intransigent positions on the issue”. It would not be a surprise, he said, if “the Moroccans perhaps wanted to keep an eye on the French”.
The fact that France is also a close partner of Algeria, the main sponsor of the Polisario, has contributed to mistrust, he added.
Even if the espionage allegations embarrass Morocco and shake France, the two countries will want to contain the fallout in the name of security cooperation, observers said.
Moroccan intelligence is “very vigilant and very efficient”, according to the former French diplomat. “They have helped France a lot to investigate the terrorist attacks dating back to the 2005 Madrid bombing, as well as to stay on top of the Islamist threat in Europe,” he said.
“I think if the news cycle continues, both countries will be very happy to let this die,” he said.