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Imad Mesdoua Headshot

Will the Arab Spring Finally Unite the Maghreb?

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It has long been a commonly accepted belief, prior to the Arab Spring, that the dream of North African unity would always have to be reported to better days of democracy and true representation of the peoples' will.

The idea of North African unity has always existed amongst the peoples of the region since they gained independence in the late '50s and early '60s. North Africans are naturally united by a shared history, culture and language. The mutual solidarity and aid which was provided across their borders in their struggle towards national liberation also 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 they would 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 (common market, currency) as well as intense political cooperation.

For example, in 1994 members agreed to a regional free trade zone, a decision left unimplemented ever since. 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 common dreams, aspirations and perceptions of the world, yet their feuding states are unable to come together politically in a concerted effort to articulate said dreams of unity. Such differences have always been accepted as being the end product of states not being democratic or inadequately reflecting the realities of their people's aspirations. The Arab Spring and its recent developments test such assertions by asking: will newly elected governments bring a promising new start or awakening of pan-Maghreb sentiment?

The new governments in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya certainly reflect a break from the past. The legitimacy and popularity of the new elected islamist parties in Morocco and Tunisia, for example, will no doubt lead to discussions among like minded decision makers. Though the new government in Libya carries big question marks as to what ideology drives its efforts, one can also reasonably expect an islamist victory there in coming elections. Despite Algeria and Mauritania's non-participation in the Arab Spring's sweeping political reform, they too might be inclined to join a new impulse for political change.

One can only speculate as to what importance or shape a regional policy might take for these newly elected governments. Nonethless, many issues have yet to be adequately addressed by the fledgling organisation; and it will be difficult to deter governments-regardless of their ideology- from overriding national interests.

The obvious lack of trade between Maghreb countries prior to the union's creation meant that the organisation's future would largely depend on the political will of governments. Such will has been quasi non-existent in light of the inability to overcome geopolitical obstacles. This is particularly the case in the Western Sahara, the issue of Berber nationalism/identity. Though the former might seem a greater roadblock to unity than the latter, both hold equal importance in the organisation's ability to progress.

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 the respective nation states.

In Morocco, Berbers represent a whopping 40% of the population, and 25% or more in Algeria, yet they continue to face unequal treatment and are hostile to any efforts of forced assimilation into an Arabized national culture. A real respect and much needed inclusion of said groups in the process of a shaping a union is vital but was never truly undertaken.

The primary contentious issue blocking the union's efforts however is the intractable feud between Algeria and Morocco over the issue of Western Sahara. Untying this modern day Gordian knot will not be easy. The arid region of Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony annexed and occupied by Morocco in 1975. The occupation of the territory has resulted in war with the POLISARIO, an Independence movement supported by Algiers.

The war has resulted in the fleeing of over 200.000 people to refugee camps in Algeria's south-western town of Tindouf as well as the paralysis of international efforts to finally resolve the matter. For instance, MINURSO, the UN mission tasked with maintaining peace and overseeing the organization 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 high politics and national sovereignty and has long swept aside the POLISARIO as hapless puppets of Algiers. It believes a solution can only be reached in bilateral talks with their Algerian counterparts who refuse to do so invoking multilateral solutions (referendum) or a negotiated solution with POLISARIO. A dialogue of the deaf to say the least.

The distrust between both parties grew even stronger in the nineties. This period proved to be a very difficult decade for Algeria as it dangerously entered a vicious cycle of violence and political instability. At the heart of the Maghreb, Algerians expected help from their neighbours but failed to receive it. The Algerian government seemed to conclude Morocco was happy to see its neighbour plunge into all-out civil war.

For both Moroccans 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.

Finally, the reality is that Maghreb states trade far more with their European partners than amongst themselves. Morocco and Tunisia's privileged position in the eyes of the European Union, both as 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, also pushes them to believe their financial clout enables them 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 such as the Arab Maghreb Union has become a vital tool for developing states in protecting themselves from the foreseeable and indeed unforeseeable dangers of the current globalised international system.

Whether it be on the economy, development or dealing with transnational threats such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, cooperation and common policies will go a long way in bringing a much needed stability to the region.