Morocco: criticism of science as a means of pressure?

In Moroccan media, a study by German Maghreb researcher Isabelle Werenfels is under fire. Critics accuse her of having an anti-Moroccan agenda. But it is probably only superficially about science.

Embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco in Berlin

Radio silence between Germany and Morocco: seat of the Moroccan embassy in Berlin

Even the Moroccan king apparently found the study worthy of a remark. Morocco, Mohammed VI declared. in his "Speech to the Nation," which is also documented in French of the 20. August 2021, is currently facing "deliberate and premeditated aggression" vis-à-vis. The "enemies the territorial integrity of the Kingdom did not want Morocco to remain a free, strong and influential power. To prove the activities of these enemies "mainly European countries" – he referred to unspecified "reports", the "limits of the acceptable and "pleaded for restricting the development of the country"."

The remarks were accompanied by a series of articles in Moroccan media – including English-language outlets such as Morocco World News and The North Africa Post – that took issue, sometimes sharply, with a study published last November by Maghreb researcher Isabelle Werenfels of the Berlin-based Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) (SWP) expose.

The article itself deals with Morocco’s successful Africa policy. This policy, Werenfels argues in her analysis, has made the kingdom an influential state in Africa, unlike its two neighbors, Algeria and Tunisia, which have had modest political and economic successes at best. In the spirit of a cohesion policy, Werenfels argued in her article for more support for the two neighboring countries. In the "Morocco World News" she was interpreted as a plea for the attempt to "promote the emergence of a new power independent of Western influence" – precisely Morocco – to prevent.

Morocco l King Mohammed VI receives Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Rabat

"Deliberate and premeditated aggression": Moroccan King Mohammed VI

Exasperation with Germany

The article had been on the website of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs for almost nine months when it suddenly became the target of Moroccan media. This is not surprising, suggests Isabelle Werenfels in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "The debate came after then-U.S. President Donald Trump said in December 2020 that he would recognize Western Sahara as Moroccan territory." Germany did not follow this line because of concerns under international law. "My paper was simply very helpful in constructing a line of argument against German foreign policy. It is not so much about me as about the German-Moroccan relationship as a whole." This has been strained for some time by Germany’s refusal to recognize Moroccan claims to Western Sahara. In May, Morocco withdrew its ambassador from Berlin. Since then there has been a virtual radio silence between Rabat and Berlin, relations are on ice.

Werenfels says that she finds it difficult to understand the individual points of criticism. "Apparently Morocco wants to escalate tensions once again and portray Germany as the nation that wants to put the brakes on Moroccan development within Europe."

Sharp-tongued criticism

Some of the criticisms in the Moroccan papers are very sharp. The paper lacks scientific rigor and fails to provide any evidence, according to the French-language news magazine "Challenge".

Werenfels told DW that she had the impression that commentators were focusing on one sentence in her study, which, like all SWP papers, had undergone a rigorous internal fact-checking and review process. In light of Morocco’s strong development, the author had recommended that the European Union focus on African integration and multi-stakeholder cooperation between the EU, the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. "This, according to the essay, "could put Morocco’s hegemonic claims into perspective."

Dr. Isabelle Werenfels - Political Scientist and Maghreb Researcher

Under fire in the media: Maghreb researcher Isabelle Werenfels

This was the word that the commentators henceforth placed at the center of their criticism: "hegemony". "They read the sentence as if I were arguing for putting the brakes on Morocco", according to Werenfels. "At the same time, I will make it quite clear later on that it is not a matter of strengthening either Moroccan or Algerian and Tunisian policy, i.e. of playing the states off against each other – but, on the contrary, of promoting constructive approaches in general", says the political scientist. In view of the country’s existing capacities and the enormous progress Morocco has made in its Africa policy, it is also "clear that the country is less dependent on technical expertise from Germany than Tunisia or Algeria with regard to sub-Saharan Africa." Algeria has traditionally had a tense relationship with Morocco. At the end of August, the country suspended diplomatic relations with the neighboring kingdom.

Anti-colonialist tone

However, there could be more behind the criticism, says Werenfels. In retrospect, she wonders whether the criticism might not have been based primarily on the "hegemony" of Germany- term, but based on another statement. "I was referring to the statement of civil society actors in Morocco who criticize that there is a comparatively low trickle-down effect of Africa policy, i.e. that relatively little of the wealth generated reaches the wider population. This is, of course, a very sensitive point, which may also have caused some resentment."

In some of the criticism, there is at least a latent anti-colonialist tone, directed less against Werenfels than against Europe as a whole. Some Western organizations "are only interested in the benefits that Europe can reap and how to prevent the emergence of a new power independent of Western influence.", says Morocco World News.

Algeria Sahrawi refugee camps

Unresolved Western Sahara conflict: Scene from a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria.

Economic integration

Accusations of this kind are absurd in view of the major investors in Africa such as China and the United States – and increasingly also Turkey and the Gulf states, says Werenfels. Only France could perceive the Kingdom of Morocco as a competitor in West Africa. The EU as a whole has considerably more restrained ambitions. "And I also wrote that Europe was doing too little to promote economic integration within Africa.", according to Werenfels.

The EU must ensure that it takes into account possible consequences for the African free trade area launched in January 2020 when negotiating free trade agreements with the Maghreb countries, he said. There are voices, not only in Morocco, who see bilateral agreements between the EU and the Maghreb states as an attempt to undermine African integration. "Fact: Everyone would benefit if Africa became more integrated and the division between North and Sub-Saharan Africa was more strongly eliminated economically."

Weakness for Algeria?

Werenfels may have made herself personally vulnerable when she expressed her great weakness for Algeria on her Twitter profile. "But this is based on the fact that I have a doctorate in Algeria. In retrospect, of course, this confession turns out to be a mistake – even though I have repeatedly criticized Algerian politics in countless tweets." And it is by no means the case that the Algerian government perceives her as pro-Algerian, says Werenfels, rather the opposite is probably the case: "I have not received a visa for Algeria since 2019 despite multiple applications."

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