Maghreb Union Revived by Arab Uprisings

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Members of the committee of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) pose for a picture during a meeting of the Monitoring Committee of UMA in Rabat 18 February 2012. Seen here from left to right are Representative of Mauritania Mohmed Oueld Moaouiya, UMA Secretary General and Tunisian Diplomat Habib Ben Yahya, Foreign Minister of Morocco Saad Dine El Othmani, Foreign Minister of Algeria Mourad Medelci, Foreign Minister of Tunisia Rafik Abdessalem, and Foreign Minister of Libya Ashour bin Khayyal. (Photo: REUTERS - Stringer)

By: Othman Tazghart, Mourad Traboulsi

Published Monday, February 20, 2012

Saturday’s meeting of Arab Maghreb Union foreign ministers was their first in 18 years. Hopes are high of renewing a regional association rendered obsolete by political and national security disputes.

Algiers, Paris – Since it was founded, the Arab Maghreb Union has not been able to regularly convene or carry out its duties due to a number of regional events, particularly those in Algeria.

In June 1988, the leaders of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania met in the Algerian town of Zeralda and announced their intention to form a regional association. Less than four months later, a popular uprising broke out in Algeria which triggered a chain of tumultuous and far-reaching developments.

In February 1989, the AMU held its inaugural summit meeting in Marrakech, Morocco. But at this point the Algerians were focused firmly on developments at home.

Within two years, Algeria was on the threshold of a civil war. One by-product of that was a sharp deterioration in relations with Morocco, already strained by the two countries’ long-running quarrel over Western Sahara.

This did not only impede their bilateral cooperation. The AMU’s plans to develop an economic union were also put on hold.

By 1994, the organization was in a state of utter paralysis. Things became so bad that when the AMU convened its annual summit in Tunis in April that year, Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi refused to take over the rotating presidency of the organization.

Last weekend’s meeting in the Moroccan capital of the council of foreign ministers, the AMU’s second-highest level body, was its first in 18 years. Algeria tried to hold a similar meeting in March 2001, in one of many abortive binds that were made over the years to reactivate the union and hold another summit of heads of state. But the Moroccan foreign minister failed to turn up, and the endeavor failed.

The common assumption is that the AMU’s failure to take off has primarily been a result of Algeria and Morocco’s many rows, particularly over Western Sahara.

But Algerians dispute this. They note that the Western Sahara conflict began in 1974, and argue that if that had been the impediment, the AMU would never have been launched in the first place.

The implication is that the geopolitical causes of the AMU’s dysfunctionality run deeper.

In particular, they relate to the political changes which swept Algeria after the October 1988 uprising, and which led – after the army took power and annulled general elections in which Islamists had scored a commanding first-round lead – to the country’s bloody decade-long civil war.

The violent showdown between the regime and militant Islamist fighters was a crucial factor in the deteriorating Algerian-Moroccan relationship. In 1994, a hotel in Marrakesh was bombed by a group composed of Moroccan and Algerian extremists based in France. Moroccan authorities accused the intelligence services in Algeria – which at the time was suffering bombings and assassinations on a daily basis – of complicity in the attack as part of a bid to “export terrorism” to its neighbors. Morocco reacted by imposing visa restrictions on Algerians. Algeria retaliated by ordering the closure of the land border between the two countries. The ensuing rift lasted for the best part of a decade.

However, security tensions and political differences between Algeria and both Tunisia and Libya also played a part in fostering the mutual mistrust and frosty relations between member-states that prevented the AMU from taking off.

The democratic reforms introduced by the Algerian authorities under the pressure of the October 1988 uprising were an important factor. These included the introduction of a new multi-party constitution and the lifting of restrictions on media and other freedoms, in a manner without precedent anywhere in the region.

Algeria was subjected to harsh criticism by both Gaddafi’s Libya and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia. Both feared there could be a spillover effect in their own countries related to the changes in Algeria.

Tensions with Tunisia were exacerbated due to the help Algeria’s then-banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was believed to be receiving from its counterparts in Tunisia’s Ennahda movement.

Gaddafi, for his part, tried to subvert the reforms in Algeria by repeatedly attempting to incite Tuareg tribes in the Algerian Sahara Desert to demand secession.

Against this backdrop, the plan to forge a regional union was put on hold before its strategic importance – and its massive potential to improve political, economic, and social conditions – even began to be fully appreciated by the five member-states.

It is no coincidence that efforts to reactivate the AMU should be back at the forefront today, following the radical political changes that have swept the Maghreb region in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring.

One particular outcome has been a marked increase in Algeria’s enthusiasm for the AMU. Recently, Algeria has stressed the need to develop the union on the basis of the five member-states’ shared interests, and not to let contentious issues get in the way.

A steady rapprochement with Morocco has been underway for months. Relations have improved remarkably, and late last year, working groups were set up to discuss joint development projects that would benefit both countries.

The claim that Algeria would be disadvantaged economically if the border with Morocco was reopened – which has been reiterated incessantly in recent years – is barely to be heard these days. Instead, Algerian media have taken to discussing the potential benefits in terms of boosting bilateral investment and trade and giving the economies of both countries a lift.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

your article means i as an amazigh woman i have no rights in my country!! maghreb = tamazgha was an amazigh country and will stay...no to arab maghreb union (uma)..

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