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Will the Arab Spring make the Arab Maghreb Union Bloom?

There have long been hopes of a functioning regional union, but obstacles remain.
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The flag of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU)

Since northern African nations gained independence in the late 50s and early 60s, and long before the Arab Spring, the dream of North African unity has existed amongst the peoples of the region. North Africans are naturally united by a shared history, culture and language. And the solidarity and aid provided between the countries in their struggle towards national liberation helped cement the sentiment that the region’s inhabitants were one and the same.

Founded in 1989, the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) found its raison d’etre in the Treaty of Marrakesh. Leaders agreed to meet every six months to boost the new organisation. Their goals were ambitious to say the least: they hoped to mirror the European Union model and aimed for similar economic integration in terms of a common market and currency as well as foster extensive political cooperation. In 1994, for example, members agreed to a regional free trade zone, although it was never implemented. By 1995, political disagreements between member states, considered to be irreconcilable, pushed Morocco to demand that the organisation’s activities be temporarily put to rest. Many years on, the AMU’s laudable objectives have remained null and void as the organisation was consensually set aside.

The people of Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya share many common dreams, aspirations and perceptions of the world yet have been unable to come together politically in a concerted effort to articulate these dreams. Such differences have often been accepted as being the result of insufficient democracy. Will the Arab Spring and its recent developments reawaken pan-Maghreb sentiment?

Blossoming cooperation?

The new governments in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya certainly reflect a break from the past. The legitimacy and popularity of the newly elected Islamist parties in Morocco and Tunisia, for example, will certainly lead to discussions among like-minded decision makers. And although questions remain over what ideological stance the new Libyan government will take, it is likely to be of some Islamist persuasion. Furthermore, despite Algeria and Mauritania’s non-participation in the Arab Spring’s sweeping political reform, they too might be inclined to join a renewed impulse for political change.    

One can only speculate as to what importance or shape a regional policy might take for these newly elected governments. And it is clear that new governments will have numerous urgent issues to face and may be reluctant - regardless of their ideologies - to override straightforward national interests. The obvious lack of trade between Maghreb countries prior to the union’s creation means that the organisation’s future is largely dependent on the political will of governments and such will has often been non-existent in light of difficult geopolitical obstacles.

Rooted grievances?

The Arab Maghreb Union’s name itself is open to legitimate attacks from the region’s ethnic and linguistic minorities. The umbrella term ‘Arab’ is open to controversy as it fails to recognise the region’s deeper Berber identity and roots. This situation at the regional level naturally reflects the outright discrimination faced by these groups within their respective nation states. In Morocco, Berbers represent a very considerable 40% of the population and 25% in Algeria, yet they continue to face unequal treatment and are hostile to any efforts of forced assimilation into an Arabised national culture. Real respect and inclusion of these groups in the process of a shaping a union is vital and has never truly been undertaken previously.  

The primary contentious issue blocking the union’s efforts, however, is that of Algeria and Morroco’s seemingly intractable feud over the issue of Western Sahara. Untying this modern day Gordian Knot will not be easy. The arid region of the Western Sahara in question is a former Spanish colony annexed and occupied by Morocco in 1975. The occupation of the territory resulted in war with the POLISARIO, an Independence movement supported by Algiers. This led to over 200,000 people fleeing to refugee camps in Algeria’s southern town of Tindouf while international actors were paralysed in their efforts to resolve the matter. For instance, the UN mission MINURSO tasked with maintaining peace and overseeing the organisation of a free and fair referendum of self-determination has, to this day, never been allowed to carry out its mission.

The Moroccan monarchy naturally sees this issue as one of politics and national sovereignty and has long castigated POLISARIO as hapless puppets of Algiers. Morocco believes a solution can only be reached in bilateral talks with their Algerian counterparts, who refuse to do so and instead insist on multilateral solutions or a negotiated solution with POLISARIO.

The 90s proved to be a particularly difficult decade in terms of distrust between the two parties as Algeria entered a vicious cycle of violence and political instability. At the heart of the Maghreb, Algerians expected help from their neighbours but when they failed to do so, the state believed Morocco was happy to see Algeria plunge into all out civil war.  For both Morrocans and Algerians, the Saharawi issue goes beyond changing governments. It has now become a subject of utmost national interest, reserved to the countries’ top military and political brass. No new government on either side, regardless of its ideology, would dare question the King’s or state’s stance on the matter.  

Old comforts

Finally, the reality is that Maghreb states trade far more comfortable with their European partners than amongst themselves. Morocco and Tunisia’s privileged position in the eyes of the European Union, both as a sought-after tourist locations and as allies in various international forums have enabled them to disregard Maghreb Unity thus far. Similarly, Algeria and Libya’s status as petro-dependent rentier states, allows them the financial clout to steer clear of a common Maghreb market.

But are such positions viable in the long run? The concerned states would certainly be wrong to think so. Reinforcing regional bodies have become a vital tool for developing states to protect themselves from the foreseeable and indeed unforeseeable dangers of a globalised international system. Whether it be economically, in terms of development or dealing with the transnational threats such as Al Qaeda, cooperation and common policies will go a long way in bringing much needed stability to the region.

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