Abdelkader Abderrahmane, North Africa Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa
On January 23rd, 2012, the Moroccan Foreign Minister, Saad-Eddine Al-Othmani met with his Algerian counterpart Mourad Medelci in Algiers. For those acquainted with North Africa political affairs, this visit, if not historical, can certainly be termed as a step towards thawing the relations between Algiers and Rabat. Moreover, the Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki has reserved his first trip abroad this month for a tour of the neighbouring countries of the Maghreb. In addition, ministers of foreign affairs from across the region will also gather in Rabat on February 17th-18th to attempt to re-active inter-state cooperation. All these events may be seen as positive steps towards the re-activation of the Union du Maghreb Arabe (Arab Maghreb Union, known by its French acronym UMA).
Since its foundation in February 1989, the UMA has indeed more often than not been the subject of articles and analysis about its incapacity to achieve tangible goals, and the fact that it resembles something of an empty shell. Indicatively, 6 UMA Summits have been held in the last 23 years, equalling one every almost four years. For many observers, the reasons behind such a stalemate are to be found in the Western Sahara conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front.
Meanwhile, other attempts have been made to organise the countries around the Mediterranean rim. Europeans have taken the command of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) and dictate the conditions of the Barcelona Accords signed in1995[l1] that aims at strengthening North-South relations along the Mediterranean. And since 2007, it is also the Union pour la Méditerranée (Union for the Mediterranean or UPM under its French acronym), a French-European initiative that is put forward and promoted in the capitals of the Southern shores of the Mare Nostrum. The UPM is also rather at a standstill and needless to say that the EMP does not facilitate any UMA pro-active integration as this creates a multiplicity of regional membership.
Furthermore, since 1994 and the bombing of foreign tourists in Marrakech, Morocco, the terrestrial border between Algeria and Morocco is sealed off. Rabat had wrongly and publically accused Algiers of being behind the bombing. Algiers retaliated by closing off the common border and in response; Rabat imposed visa requirements on Algerian citizens. This event brought to a halt Morocco’s economy in the Eastern region of the country. However, the role of this episode, as well as the Western Sahara conflict, in the on going dispute between Algeria and Morocco is largely exaggerated. Indeed, it is worth recalling that the border between Algeria and Morocco has, despite different signed treaties, been the source of disagreements and disputes since Algeria’s independence in 1962. In 1963 for instance, Morocco instigated a war – la guerre des sables or war of the dunes- against its neighbour over land claims. The historic animosity between Algiers and Rabat is therefore fifty years old and the Marrakech bombing, as well as the Western Sahara conflict, have only complicated things.
Today,, more than twenty years since its creation, and amid profound political changes in the region, the UMA could well now find a new impetus and finally become a strong and viable political and regional entity. During the celebration of the first anniversary of the post Ben Ali era in Tunis on January 13th, president Marzouki as well as the Libyan leader of the NTC (National Transitional Council), Mustafa Abdeljalil called for the unity of the Maghreb. Similarly, during the African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa this January, Marzouki reminded the audience that Tunisia had the ambition to work for the revitalisation and unity of the UMA.
Nonetheless, in order to do so, leaders will need to overcome a certain number of hurdles. Indeed, some different groups across the region such as the trabendistes (or illegal traders), businessmen and entrepreneurs who have only enriched themselves with the current stalemate, do not necessarily wish to see the construction of the UMA. Moreover, although nothing in theory prevents it from doing so, Rabat may also finally decide which economic regional entity it firmly belongs too. Indeed, Morocco has often been invited as well as tempted to join the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and even last year signed some trade agreement with the ‘monarchies’ club, which includes the Gulf States as well as Jordan. Surely, such a policy does not send the best signal to its North African neighbours. Equally, among the Algerian population, many argue that Morocco’s false accusation in 1994 may need to be repaired. As a sign of genuine commitment to change, Rabat could perhaps publicly acknowledge its wrongdoing and present its apologies to Algiers. Such a gesture would undoubtedly facilitate the long-awaited rapprochement.
No major changes happened during the meeting of the Moroccan and Algerian foreign ministers in Algeria and “les dossiers qui fâchent” – or sensitive issues - , namely the Western Sahara issue and the re-opening of the border, were carefully avoided. Instead, security and drug issues were thoroughly discussed between the Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mourad Medelci and his Moroccan counterpart. Yet, this Moroccan visit must be perceived as a step towards an entente or at least political thaw between Rabat and Algiers. And Marzouki’s tour this month may also bring some new perspective for a concrete and active UMA. In this period of global economic crisis, the European Union is desperately in need for new markets and clients. The Maghreb is an old and lucrative market for the Europeans. And in order for North African countries not to become the hostages of the Europeans, they must put all their efforts in the reconstruction of the UMA.
In the meantime, exchanges between different civil society groups continue. Economic exchanges, partnership and cooperation also occur such as the Maghreb-Europe pipeline, going across Morocco to Spain and Portugal.
In May 1958, amid the Algerian war of independence from France, a conference was held in Tangiers, Morocco. Amongst the issues discussed was how to bring aid to the Algerian neighbour, friend and brother. Following this conference, the French daily Le Monde headlined: “Le front du Maghreb” (or the Maghreb Front). “[…] Maghreb unity is taking shape, as the war rages and it is directed against us. What are today only recommendations will take shape tomorrow in political, trade unionists, and economic institutions that will represent 23 millions of Muslims”. In 2012, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya have a total population of 85 million people. It is probably overdue to transform Le Monde’s statement into a prophecy.
There is a saying amongst the elders of North Africa that the Maghreb is an eagle whose body is Algeria and the wings Morocco and Tunisia. Without the body, the wings are useless. Without the wings, the body cannot fly. And when Algeria catches cold, Tunisia coughs and the entire Maghreb is in pain. In this period where regional integration is extremely important for both, the countries of the region as well as for Africa as a whole, it is urgent to work towards an integrated and pro-active UMA. Algeria and Morocco are the natural heavyweight of the region and all countries of the region are complementary. A strong Union would have a great impact on the economy of the region but also on Africa as a whole. It would also be a bridge between Africa and the European Union (EU). In this period of global economic crisis where the EU is struggling to keep its economy afloat, the UMA leaders ought to work towards a genuine inter-state political and economic integration. It is surely in this sense that the different UMA ministers of foreign affairs will gather in Rabat later this month – to invigorate the spirit of the 1958 meeting in Tangiers.
[l1]The EMP (or Barcelona Process) led by the EU theoretically aims at strengthening North-South (or EU-MENA) relations. It roughly contains three ‘baskets’: Political and Security Basket; Economic and Financial Basket; and Social, Cultural and Human Basket. As for the UpM, (Sarkosy’s initiative) it would only involve countries of the Mediterranean.