Tunisia seeks to revive Maghreb union

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Al-Akhbar Management

Published Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tunisia's new President Moncef Marzouki prepared for a major drive to unify the Maghreb on his first foreign tour as the country sought to recover lost diplomatic prestige.

Seven weeks after taking office, Marzouki will on Wednesday kick off a six-day trip to Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania in a bid to revive the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), a dormant body that also includes Libya.

"This visit is aimed at reviving the Arab Maghreb Union and discussing the holding of a summit that Tunisia proposes to host," Marzouki's spokesman Adane Moncer said.

The UMA was created in 1989 as a trade agreement meant to eventually achieve deeper political integration, but has been inactive since 1994, mainly because of a dispute between Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara.

According to the spokesman, Marzouki already broached the issue of a regional summit with Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia on the sidelines of the annual African Union heads of state meeting in Addis Ababa last month.

Marzouki is due to meet Morocco's King Mohammed VI and his new prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, before holding talks in Mauritania and wrapping up in Algeria, where he is due to meet President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The new Tunisian president was a prominent opposition figure and human rights campaigner under the 23-year-rule of Ben Ali, who was brought down by a popular uprising in January 2011.

He envisions a "Maghreb of freedoms" modeled on the European Union inside which citizens of the five member states could cross borders, reside, invest and buy property freely.

"2012 will be the Maghreb's year," Marzouki said.

The main obstacle to reactivating the UMA has been the row over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony which has been annexed by Morocco since 1975, but where separatist Saharawi rebels are backed by Algeria.

Western Sahara has a population of barely half a million, but is recognized by dozens of states and is a member of the African Union.

Following the Western-backed overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's new government changed its policy on Western Sahara to support Morocco's claim.

Strengthening the UMA is seen as a counter to the dominance of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – an organization encompassing six oil-rich Gulf Arab states – which has tried to exert its influence over north Africa in recent years.

Morocco is negotiating access to the GCC, despite criticism that the country is only linked to the Gulf by its similar monarchical structure.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

Comments

High time indeed. I wish the Tunisian PM all the luck for this very important mission.

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