With Ben Ali on the Run and Gaddafi Fighting for his Life is a Unified Maghreb a Fading Dream?
[By Nasima Alli and Arezki Daoud] All eyes are currently focused on the revolutions taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. It started with mini rumblings in Algeria over the price of foods and a housing distribution program gone bad during the month of December 2010. The wave of discontent quickly progressed to Tunisia, then Egypt, now Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, and even the sheltered Saudi Arabia. No Arab ruler and beyond feel so vulnerable.
Current Situation: Turmoil in the Arab World, Pending Collateral Damage in the West
While in the Maghreb (northwest Africa), Algeria and Morocco seem relatively calm at this point of time, there is a palpable feeling of pending conflict with people there asking for a clear cut political change. Like the other tumultuous leaders that we saw toppled, Bouteflika of Algeria has been in presidency since April 1999 and his promises of democracy and economic progress have all vanished. At 74 years of age, many Algerians wonder if he has the strength to bring his reform agenda back on track while political feuds seem to dominate the regime. Yet as he progresses in age and career, he now has a tiny window of opportunity to exit the political scene with honor, if he wishes so. King Mohamed VI of Morocco for his part, albeit young, has also had 11 years to enact meaningful political reforms. Instead he is being accused of complacency as he has taken minimal steps to bring about political change. He is viewed by many as a “good project manager” building plants, bringing investors, dealing with development issues, etc. But Morocco needs an ideologue and a political visionary and not a business executive. Aimed at announcing major consitutional revisions, his televized speech of March 9, 2011 brought no new revolutionary ideas, yet the Moroccan youth will no doubt give him the benefit of the doubt when the changes he has in mind will be announced this summer.
Arab leaders love to cling to power for decades until they are toppled. Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for over 20 years (since Nov. 1987) and Mubarak of Egypt for 30 years. But the one who holds the record is no doubt Muamar Gaddafi of Libya, who, while he has no official title, as he often repeats it to deflect criticism, has been leading that country for over 41 years. As the dramatic events unfold in the region, Western governments are watching with trepidation how the situation is spinning out of control. Governments are undoubtedly focused on their national media machines and are conscious of any messaging that can be viewed as supporting dictators and dictatorships. Many Western governments simply missed the mark of history, siding against common sense, and France has been at the top with a series of diplomatic debacles. Amid insurmountable criticism over links with the former regime in Tunisia, France’s Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie resigned. Her resignation is not just the result of a poorly trained minister, but it reflects how bankrupt French diplomacy has been over the past decade. One mistake after another, France ended up appointing junior diplomat Boris Boillon as ambassador to Tunisia. Shortly after his appointment he went on a rampage insulting Tunisian journalists, a behaviour that angered the Tunisians. This action left him in damage control mode for many days after the incident. Apparently the Tunisian people have forgiven him. Working to fix its mistakes and trying to play catch up, France has been very aggressive in dealing with Muamar Gaddafi to avert a humanitarian disaster in the Mediterranean.
The problem facing France is not just specific to the former colonial power of the region. Many other European nations will have to deal with the aftermath of the Arab revolution with their own time of reckoning. For example, there is a great deal of talk about the cosy relationships between Berlusconi of Italy and Muamar Gaddafi. Billions of dollars of business dealings will have to be investigated by the Italian authorities when the dust settles. Likewise, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is also facing growing scrutiny over his role in bringing Libya into the light. In the next months and years we are likely to witness interesting revelations as to how the Western leaders and Arab dictators got along. In the fallouts of the Arab revolutions, the West is simply weathering collateral damage.
The Arab revolutions are by no means bad news. Putting aside the ongoing civil war in Libya, we are witnessing a momentum toward democracy, the likes of which have never been seen before. Can the momentum expand without the crisis going out of control? Does a domino effect automatically mean the political crisis expanding into other countries and turning them into civil wars? We argue that this does not have to happen if governments in the region make genuine efforts to enact new reforms and avoid bloodshed during the process. If they don’t, their Western patrons should force them to do so. In fact, we are seeing a window of opportunity for old enemies to put their feud aside and to emerge as agents of change. This is particularly the case for Algeria and Morocco, two countries that have not been friendly to one another for a long time due to their disagreements over the fate of the Western Sahara territory. Ironically, their respective peoples are the same in every aspects, from ethinicity to religion and culture. Nothing separates them except two regimes that lack creativity to overcome differences. Furthermore, the two countries have long been part of a dormant institution that has so far unsuccessfully advocated economic and political integration among the five countries of the Maghreb: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. The Arab Maghreb Union or AMU remains a dysfunctional institution plagued by members that barely tolerate each other.
Hope of Uniting the Feuding Brothers:
What are we to think of the AMU now that two of its members are in turmoil and that the AMU’s first promoter Gaddafi is completely discredited?
The short term is likely to bring about the complete collapse of AMU version 1. The political constitution of the Maghreb is changing rapidly and more drastic change is on its way. While there is some continuity enabling Tunisia to go through a relatively smooth transition, the country will face many problems for the foreseeable future as it rebuilds its institutions. In contrast, Libya is descending down the abyss of a civil war. Seif Al Islam Gaddafi warned that Libya will go on the path of a civil war without his father in control; but our analysis shows that the country is already steeped into a brutal war precisely because the Gaddafi family is there. Entrenched, the Gaddafis are unlikely to leave in the medium term and when they do, the reformation of the country, in terms of stabilizing and building a constitution and institutions, will take a substantial length of time to achieve. Just like Tunisia in the mid term, Libya will have to be inward looking for a much longer period of time.
Ironically, Algeria and Morocco, the two countries that have had the most freezing impact on the AMU, are not only still standing but are unlikely to follow the same radical path as Tunisia and Libya despite their brewing crises. They are slowly absorbing popular discontent with carrot-and-stick strategies. Once again, the future of the AMU defaults back to these two countries and there are reasons to suggest that the Arab revolutions are forcing them to engage in discussions. They are now finding common grounds in many areas of economic cooperation largely in an effort to reduce their differences. Just this month, the heads of the two nations’ energy sector, Youcef Yousfi of Algeria and Amina Benkhadra of Morocco pledged to collaborate. Their statement was perceived by the region’s press as an “effort that would contribute to a rapprochement.” In addition to Morocco having privileged access to Algerian natural gas, the Algerian and Moroccan state electricity and gas utility firms will partner toward a joint-European marketing strategy.
These announcements in the energy sector are part of a choreographed move orchestrated by Washington. The move is meant to pave the way for an easing of tension between the two countries and establishing common strategies in various sectors. February 23, 2011 was the day that a rather unexpected announcement was made by Mourad Medelci, the Algerian Foreign Minister, during which he informed the press that “Morocco and Algeria have agreed to initiate a policy aimed at reinforcing bilateral relations.” This was an unpredicted turnaround, but we are certain that the events rocking Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab region acted as catalysts, giving a sense of urgency in the western Maghreb to establish pragmatic policies and throw away destabilizing old squabbles. The Medelci press conference also announced that three Algerian ministers were scheduled to visit Rabat in March, after the visit of Amina Benkhadra in Hassi Rmel. This news did not just come from Algiers. In Rabat, Medelci’s counterpart Taieb Fassi Fihri went on television to announce his “eagerness to host the Algerian ministers to usher in a new era.”
While the Bush administration stands as guilty of blindness as the Europeans mentioned in this article, the current U.S. Administration is apparently playing a more pivotal and effective role in these efforts to bridge the difference between the two countries. These efforts are a direct challenge to France, which has long had the assignment of keeping an eye on the region but has clearly failed to do so, at least until it decided to take a proactive role in unseating Muamar Gaddafi. American diplomats, various security advisers of President Obama and high-ranking defense officials have been shuttling back and forth between Algiers and Rabat to help negotiate a rapprochement, which no doubt has been accelerated by the urgency of the moment. With the Sahel to the south of the Sahara in trouble, and the eastern flank of the Maghreb in a state of chaos, the West, headed by the U.S. initiative seeks to secure some common strategy with Algeria and Morocco to contain the crisis and prevent a complete collapse.
Watching France getting bogged down by its own diplomatic inertia with the Sarkozy government unable to contribute to a fair and objective appeasement, the United States has been working to bring Algeria and Morocco together. There is some hope that ultimately the Western Sahara crisis would be resolved. The Medelci and Fassi Fihri statements came in shortly after a visit to Algiers of William J. Burns, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. According to North Africa Journal sources, it was meant to clear as many hurdles towards the first steps of a rapprochement, including offering new ideas about the thorny Western Sahara conflict. Indeed, the meetings held between Burns and the Algerian President included key officials involved in Maghreb and African affairs, in particular Abdelkader Messahel. The latter is the key negotiator and leads the Algerian delegation in all talks about the Western Sahara crisis.
Although a great deal of the American argument takes an economic angle, such as advancing the economic interests of the two feuding countries by promoting shared benefits through synergies, there is undoubtedly the security aspects under consideration given the involvement of US defense officials in the process.
While one expected some resistance from Algiers to the American ideas, the Bouteflika administration has been clearly weakened by the ongoing crisis affecting neighboring nations but also due to the persistent state of crisis within the country. The domino effect that many analysts talked about includes a spill-over of the crisis into Algeria, with Bouteflika being the target. Furthermore, Wikileaks cables have also reported about the American sentiment over the questionable elections that lessened the regime’s legitimacy in the last presidential elections. In Morocco, pressure on the Monarchy has been growing steadily. Tens of thousands of Moroccans took to the street to demand political change. The Monarchy has also been discussed in US diplomatic cables. The Moroccan people have made their views clearer about corruption and governance. This situation is an important one for the Americans to take advantage during negotiations with Algiers and Rabat to force them to ease their positions.
In a good negotiating position, the Americans are likely to get an Algerian agreement to open up the Algerian-Moroccan borders in the medium term. An announcement is likely to come when some of the basic political obstacles are overcome and the logistics of such opening permit.
What does all this mean for the Maghreb union? Simply put, the AMU that we’ve known no longer exists, and it should not. The institution is there but it serves no purpose. The environment in which the AMU was created and the cast of characters that drove the initiative at first are no longer in power and hold no source of influence. This makes the institution ineffective and it should be decommissioned to make way for a new, more pragmatic and efficient institution. For the time being however, an AMU V2.0 will require a great deal of time to engineer. As Algerians and Moroccans learn how to shake hands again, assuming they themselves manage their internal problems smoothly, Tunisia will need to stabilize. A core AMU V2.0 will have to start with these three nations as Libya will likely continue to face unprecedented domestic troubles. That’s the most likely AMU scenario, but it could also be wishful thinking and Algeria and Morocco could decide that appeasement is not what they want.