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Can the Maghreb Union resurrect without Morocco-Algeria rapprochement?

Participants are seen at the 30th African Union (AU) Heads of State and Government Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 28 January 2018 [Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency]

Ironically, Maghreb governments grieve the missed opportunities of their decadent union, but refrain from taking genuine steps to bridge divides. Moroccan officials, for instance, frequently extol the benefits of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). King Mohamed VI’s message to the EU-AU summit in Abidjan last November criticised the Maghreb Union’s demise, highlighting its importance for the security and stability of Africa and trans-Mediterranean relations.

Deputy Minister of Transport Najib Boulif pinpointed that each Maghreb country would gain around 5-6 per cent GDP after unsealing borders. More recently, in a forlorn attempt, Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika commemorated AMU’s 29th anniversary expressing readiness for promoting its revival. Bouteflika, however, overlooks current realities in the area, since political disputes, exchanged animosities and reluctance to broker bilateral compromises stall North African relations.

Historically, the AMU started as a dead initiative. Sustainable aspects for its functioning were marginalised from the onset. A solid union required strong social, civil, economic and academic bonds, while Maghreb leaders, in 1989, focused solely on political coordination. Consequently, internal and regional political events blocked cooperation and added nails in AMU’s coffin day after day. For example, in the Cold War era —and the international arrangements it entailed— Morocco blamed Tripoli of backing military coups against the monarchy. Later, late Muammar Gaddafi expected more support from Maghreb regimes to alleviate the effects of the post-Lockerbie embargo, which he was not granted. Thus, despite being AMU’s main weakness, politics has been foregrounded, neglecting the regimes’ ideological divergences, internal challenges and international allegiances.

Moroccan-Algerian tensions have affected AMU’s continuity the most. Reflecting the inherited problems from French colonialism, the bilateral Sand War (1963) initiated endless skirmishes between Rabat and Algiers, facilitating the intervention of foreign powers in Maghreb affairs. In the Sahara War (1975-1991), though Morocco clashed with the Algeria-backed Polisario, it confronted the Algerian military directly in the battle of Amgala. In 1992, President Mohamed Boudiaf, who had returned from exile in Morocco, was assassinated to end his short mandate after the military coup. Reasons for his murder included potential rapprochement with Rabat. In 1994, Algerian intelligence services were accused of attacking the Atlas Asni Hotel in Marrakech, in retaliation for Rabat’s alleged involvement in the decade-long Algerian civil war. Borders have been closed ever since, while disputes continue over the Sahara affair. The resultant animosity mires sustainable relations though regimes value bilateral cooperation.

Read: Algeria, Morocco reinforce security, military presence on borders

Additionally, the two countries duel stiffly for leading North Africa. Each would like to be the most reliable in fighting militant groups. They compete over dismantling terrorist cells and hosting anti-terrorism training programmes. Nevertheless, estimating the impediments of a US Regional Command, Morocco refrained from hosting Africom. Rejecting Africom is a positive sign for Algeria since its southern territories were part of the areas US forces would monitor or target. Second, each offers assistance for EU countries in dealing with homegrown violent activists. Since Morocco and Algeria are key origins of immigrants, they offer intelligence and mediation as third parties. Furthermore, competition has led to a race for arms, especially from Russia, aggravated by the US’ unstable position in Sahara affair. Though claiming strategic alliance with Morocco, the US administration fluctuates on the legal situation of the Sahara. Additionally, Morocco and Algeria would like to make the best of the rising opportunities in Africa, which stiffens competition. Instead of cooperating to generate mutual economic and geopolitical profit, they prefer to follow fruitless skirmishes that squander opportunities.

Adding insult to injury, Algerian politicians frequently link Morocco to drug-trafficking. Successively, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdelkader Messahel, accused Morocco of investing drug revenues in Africa, indicating that drugs enhance investment capacities. Then, PM Ahmed Ouyahia indicted Morocco of flooding Algeria with hashish and cocaine, denoting Morocco’s involvement in exacerbating his country’s social problems. Later, Gamal Ould Abbas, leader of the National Liberation Front, stressed that the only source of drugs, “which are more destructive than missiles or bombs”, is Morocco. Algerian officials neglect that their borders with Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Tunisia are loose at different spots. The presence of the Polisario, instability in the Sahel countries and fragility of Mount Chaambi create potential room for different types of trafficking. Moroccan authorities react to Algerian statements by describing them as “childish”, which not only widens the diplomatic distance between the two countries but also stifles possibilities for bridging AMU’s divides.

Read: Algeria accuses Morocco of preventing Maghreb Union growth

On the contrary, post-2011 circumstances have favoured North African relations. In 2012, Saad Eddine El Othmani, Morocco’s minister of foreign affairs, visited Algiers before any other capital, stressing readiness to push relations forward. Tunisian ex-president Moncef Marzouki clearly tried to initiate MAU’s revival too. For Libya, Morocco welcomed the revolution and hosted the post-Qaddafi negotiations for a peace deal between different factions. However, Moroccan-Algerian disputes in the corridors of the EU and the UN have sent AMU into oblivion again. If the two countries do not seek genuine compromises, from which the whole region can benefit, calls for AMU’s revival will remain mere demagogy and empty talk.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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