The latest developments in Tunisia, where President Kais Saied’s power grab has triggered a political crisis that is pushing the country on the brink, are overshadowing the real magnitude of the ongoing realignment in the Maghreb, which came out in the open after the signature of the Abraham Accords but was already in motion well before.
A particular aspect of the changing geopolitics of the region, the normalisation of diplomatic ties between Israel and Morocco was significantly strengthened following the signature of an agreement on cyber security between the Israel National Cyber Directorate (INCD) and the Direction Générale de la Sécurité des Sistèmes d’information (DGSSI) of Morocco. Signed on 15 July in Rabat during the visit of INCD’s general director Yigal Unna to the DGSSI’s head el-Mostafa Rabii and in presence of the Moroccan Defence Minister Abdellatif Loubiyi, the deal will allow Israel and Morocco to participate in operational cooperation; research and development; and the sharing of information and knowledge.
The agreement is further evidence of the serious intention of both sides to enhance the bilateral relationship, including the resumption of direct flight between Israel and Morocco; and plans to re-open the Israeli embassy in Rabat next month during the expected visit of the Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
However, the timing of the announcement was particularly unfortunate, as three days later the findings of the international collaborative investigation coordinated by the non-profit journalism organisation Forbidden Stories and the Security Lab of Amnesty International were made public. The investigation, which shed light on the role of the Israeli company NSO Group Technologies in licensing the use of its Pegasus software for surveillance to several governments known for their restrictive policies on media, also mentioned the case of Omar Radi, a Moroccan journalist and human rights activist which on the 19th of July has been condemned to a six-year prison term by the Court of Appeal of Casablanca for espionage and sexual assault. Arrested in 2020, Radi was reportedly another victim of the Pegasus spyware, as between 2018 and 2019 his mobile phone was hacked by a client of NSO believed to be the government of Morocco.
The revelations, that have been vehemently rejected by Rabat, seem to suggest that the Israeli Moroccan collaboration on cyber security had already been established well before the signature of the cooperation agreement, underlying a geopolitical convergence that predated the Abraham Accords. While the reverberations of the Pegasus project are being obfuscated by the events in Tunis, the externalities have been already felt among Morocco’s friends and foes alike, raising some serious questions in France, where several politicians were reportedly eavesdropped by Moroccan agents; and increasing resentment in Algeria (particularly targeted by Morocco’s intelligence operations) at a time in which the traditional rivalry in the Maghreb is escalating.
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Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region