The liberated Maghreb looks to economic union

Autocrats dithered for decades over a North African trading bloc, but the Arab Spring has placed the idea firmly back on the agenda.

Moncef Marzouki, the Tunisian interim president, right, greets Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz last week. Mr Marzouki toured Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria as part of a bid to renew interest in the Arab Maghreb Union.
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Autocrats dithered for decades over a North African trading bloc, but the Arab Spring has placed the idea firmly back on the agenda. John Thorne, Foreign Correspondent, reports

TUNIS // The overthrow of dictators last year united North Africans in spirit. Now the citizens of Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania might be on track for economic union, too.

Tunisia's interim president, Moncef Marzouki, toured Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria last week in a bid to breathe life into the moribund Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), a planned North African trading bloc.

While economic integration could boost employment and living standards across the region, leaders largely unanswerable to voters dithered for years in making it happen.

However, uprisings last year have given the AMU new impetus. Democracy is emerging in Tunisia and, potentially, Libya, while other governments have learnt that malaise can breed revolt.

"There's no question that the Arab Spring has created a totally new regional environment," said John Entelis, head of Middle East Studies at Fordham University in New York. "The more there are democratic advances, the more integration can move forward."

The AMU was launched in 1989 partly in reaction to an oil price collapse three years earlier and dwindling Soviet patronage in North Africa, but the road to economic integration has been strewn with obstacles.

"The question now is whether the global economic downturn and significant political revolution under way in North Africa are forcing leaders to change their calculus about regional politics," said Jacob Mundy, assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University in upstate New York.

The AMU has stalled mainly on Moroccan-Algerian bickering over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony invaded by Morocco in 1975. Algeria backs the Western Sahara's independence movement, the Polisario Front, and refuses to open its border with Morocco until the issue is settled.

"With Morocco and Algeria, just having an open land border would be a sign of change," said Mr Mundy. "Unfortunately, Algeria's position is difficult to walk back from."

Mr Marzouki has called on Morocco and Algeria not to let the Western Sahara dispute obstruct progress on economic integration.

The two countries may in fact be seeking a way forward. Their foreign ministers held a rare meeting in Algiers last month to discuss Western Sahara and the AMU.

"We are conscious now that there have been transformations in some AMU countries and these changes offer an opportunity to iron out differences and work towards North African integration," the Moroccan foreign minister, Saad Eddine El Othmani, said after the meeting.

Mr Marzouki said on Sunday that plans were under way for a summit of the five AMU countries aimed at advancing the project.

The AMU is strongly backed by the European Union, which sees North African integration as a step towards integration with the European common market.

Failure to integrate economies has cost North Africa up to US$9 billion (Dh33bn) in potential free-trade deals with the United States and Europe, according to a 2008 report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

For ordinary North Africans, integration holds the promise of more jobs while appealing to cultural affinity and a sense of shared history.

One such North African is the Tunisian filmmaker Abdelmajid Oueslati, whose documentary Al Hoq Al Juwar - roughly translated as "The Right of the Neighbourhood - recounts Tunisian support for Algeria's 1954-62 independence struggle against France.

Long banned by the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted as Tunisian's ruler last year, the film was shown last week at Tunis's state cultural institute to mark the anniversary of a 1958 French attack on a Tunisian border village caught up in the Algerian war.

The documentary was inspired by the story of a painter called Yasmina, who fled the Algerian city of Batna at the age of 5 after French bombs killed her parents, and grew up in Tunisia.

Oueslati met her in 1974 when he was in Algiers to film the 20th anniversary celebrations of the war's end, after he chanced upon her paintings of Tunisia in a state art gallery.

"I didn't make the film for Yasmina, though," Oueslati says. "I wanted to send a message to other Arab countries to help the Palestinians as we had helped the Algerians."

At that time, however, autocratic leaders in North Africa were steering courses that led more often to confrontation than to solidarity.

Morocco and Algeria clashed over their border and, later, Western Sahara, while Tunisia and Libya veered from an abortive union to border closures and severed relations.

In 1987 an ailing Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president, was sidelined by Ben Ali, whose regime banned Oueslati's film - among other works of art and literature - for reasons that were never made clear.

While Ben Ali supported a North African trading bloc in principle, he was also keen to supplant the memory of Bourguiba with his own adoration.

Today, with Ben Ali gone, Oueslati hopes to get Al Hoq Al Juwar on TV. Meanwhile, he supports Mr Marzouki's efforts on behalf of the AMU.

"It's a good thing, and I hope it will happen," he said. "It would open doors."