By Anouar Boukhars
The dream of Maghrebi integration remains as elusive as ever. It is hard to disagree with those who proclaim that the AMU is just about dead; whereas the five countries of the Maghreb recognize the tantalizing benefits of greater cooperation.
It has long been an axiom among the rulers of each Maghrebi country to brandish their rhetorical commitment to regional integration while often-shamelessly suffocating the principles and prospects of unity. King Mohammed VI of Morocco put an end to this masquerade in January 2017 when he proclaimed in front of African heads of state during the 28th African Union summit in Addis Ababa that the “The Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) is dead”.
Ten months later in Abidjan, as if to bring his point home, the monarch took the occasion of the 5th African Union – European Union (AU-EU) summit to once again direct his rhetorical artillery at the AMU, that putrid carcass of an institution that “doesn’t exist”.
For those that still cling or claim to care about the “Maghrebi dream” of integration, the instinct is to cry fatalism, for the throwing in the towel effect will extinguish any remaining glimmers of hope for unity that people of the Maghreb might still share. “We still believe in Maghreb integration for historical, cultural, political and economic reasons,” Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel stated in response to the comments made by Mohammed VI. (1)
The depressing truth, however, is that the King’s lament on the demise of the AMU is simply a reflection of the mood of resignation increasingly palpable in the Maghreb as well as rising frustration with the hypocrisy of those who preach the gospel of regional integration while doing nothing to bring it to fruition.
Even Tunisia that as recently as 2012 its then president, Moncef Marzouki, tried hard to breathe into the Maghreb Union the spirit of unity rekindled in the early days of the Arab Spring, has switched gear, focusing on cementing its bilateral relations with its neighbors, and like Morocco, pursuing deep ties with growing African economies.
So how did we get to this point of resignation? What’s next for the Maghreb in the current hardened geo-political landscape that is increasingly riven by multiple and diverging interests? The two countries consequential enough to anchor the Maghreb remain at each other throats.
Morocco and Algeria see eye-to-eye on almost nothing, and their bickering and recrimination has only gotten worse. Sadly, the demons of their discord seem to gradually possess their own public who intermittently hurl insults at each other in social media forums and sports and entertainment events.
Frozen in Time
Mohammed VI weariness with the depressing state of the AMU is not an aberration. After all, everyone knows that the AMU is an empty shell, ensnared in decades of neighborly parochial animosities, petty jealousies and perverse rivalries. The hypocrisy of Maghrebi leaders is well-established, and their citizens no longer know, or worse, care about what this institution is anymore. (2)
The late Mohamed Boudiaf, a veteran of Algeria’s independence and the last president to genuinely wanted to establish good relations with Morocco where he spent decades in exile, foresaw this sad state of affairs as early as 1964 when he warned that by abetting nationalist passions, radical particularisms, and diplomatic intrigues, governments would end up engulfing the Maghreb in passionate rancor that it would be difficult to cram the genie back into the bottle. (3)
Algerian novelist and journalist, Kamel Daoud, reiterated the same warning in March 2016 when he wrote that Morocco and Algeria are playing with fire. By stoking the fires of nationalism and populism, they are ‘fabricating, with the angry kids of today, the troops which will then make war on each other tomorrow.’ (4)
Daoud’s cry of alarm might seem apocalyptic but is a reflection of growing concern within Maghrebi intellectual circles that the unrelenting enmity between Morocco and Algeria risks spiraling out of control.
At a time of increasing inflexible posturing, relentless insults and prickly sensitivities, potential sparks proliferate. The October 2017 disparaging remarks by Algeria’s top diplomat, Abdelkader Messahel, when he accused Moroccan flagship businesses of laundering drug money in Africa are only one of the many examples where leaders’ irresponsible penchant for vilification deepens the discord between neighbors. (5)
Of course, Algeria does not have exclusive monopoly for absurdity. In 2016, Hamid Chabat, the former Secretary General of the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, caused a diplomatic row with both Algeria and Mauritania by accusing the former of being a colonialist country that still “occupies Tindouf, Hassa Massoud and Bechar as well as other provinces which are at the origin, Moroccan” (6) and referring to the latter as “a Moroccan territory”. (7)
Anecdotal evidence shows that this constant waves of rancor and vitriol has ended up trickling down to some parts of the public. (8) Even soccer games are becoming political affairs, as happened in May 2015 in Algeria when an African Champions League soccer game pitting Morocco’s Raja of Casablanca against Wifak Sétif descended into violence.
Taking a dig at Moroccans, Wifak Sétif’s president, Hassan Hammar, proclaimed on camera that Algerians are proud supporters of the Polisario and possess a sense of dignity that Moroccans who kiss the hands of their King lack. (9)
The Moroccan’s response came quickly when hackers penetrated the website of the Algerian Culture Ministry, leaving a warning message to the “Algerian people and its commanders” to steer clear of the territorial integrity of Morocco. (10)
A year prior to the soccer incident, the callous remarks of an Algerian aspiring singer during an episode of Star Academy Arabia where she railed at the “sorcery” of her Moroccan counterpart who distributed traditional jewelry as a gift to other candidates caused an uproar on social media.
Such incidences, which are not limited to Morocco and Algeria, even if their occurrence between other Maghrebi countries are less vile and certainly less political, are driving an irreparable divide between the people of the Maghreb.
At an age where the internet and social media are bringing people together, Maghrebi youths are not only becoming more disconnected from each other but also wholly unaware of the common history that once tied them.
“Who of today’s youths remember the Tunisian brothers, Ali and Mohammed Bach Hamba, who, at the beginning of the twentieth-century, addressed a memorandum to US President Woodrow Wilson demanding the joint independence of Algeria and Tunisia?”
Algerian journalist Akram Belkaïd rhetorically wondered. “Who among the young Maghrebi generations,” he added, “can articulate the role that the Arab Maghreb Liberation Committee chaired by the Moroccan Emir Abdelkrim El Khattabi played in the late 1940s? (11)
This growing disconnect bodes ill for Maghrebi integration. Aside from the dwindling forums where some of the region’s well-meaning intellectuals persist in discussing and debating the Maghreb Union, even if such intellectual exercises quickly lead to the same old arguments and points of criticism being rehashed over and over again, the Maghreb’s political parties, professional associations, civil society groups, and business interest groups have been conspicuous by their absence or indifference. (12)
At the rare instances when such organizations try to breathe new life into the stalled integration process, their initiatives end up being too timid to create the powerful regional economic bloc necessary to put pressure on politicians to transcend their petty and self-serving disputes.
The creation of the Maghreb Union of Employers (UME) is case in point. In 2007, the Employers federations in the countries of the Maghreb—CAP (Algeria), LBC (Libya), UNPM (Mauritania), CGEM (Morocco), and UTICA (Tunisia)—created UME to try and reinvigorate business cooperation in the Maghreb.
After all, the Maghrebi private sector has paid a steep price from disconnected national markets, low intra-regional trade complementarity, fragmented value chains, high tariffs and underdeveloped investment patterns.
Unfortunately, the private sector, where the business entrepreneurs that matter most are deeply embedded in the regimes that sustain them, has been unable to provide the leadership role necessary to enhance regional integration.
North African Statistics [Guardian]
References are available in the original article.
Anouar Boukhars – Associate Professor of International Relations at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.