Small Wars Journal

Lest We Forget North Africa

Sat, 02/04/2012 - 10:16pm

Editor's Note: As the focus of the wave of change in the Arab world sweeps to the east, we would do well not to forget the states where it started.  There is great potential to be unleashed if the Mediterranean could once again become a basin of commerce.  The crisis of the European economies to the north will dominate for a time, but there are great gains to be made by economic and political development in the Maghreb.

The landmark Arab uprisings that started in Tunisia in December 2010 caught most U.S. and even Arab analysts and decision-makers off guard.  Unfortunately, international attention has largely shifted away from the Maghreb countries of North Africa as events have since transpired elsewhere in the Middle East.  Aside from a brief uptick in coverage during its recent elections, it seems that Tunisia has been all but forgotten in both Western and Arabic coverage.  Even Libya has gradually slipped off the radar.  But we should not lose sight of the fact that these rapid and historic changes, driven largely by popular unrest with authoritarianism and economic despair, highlight the need for enhanced regional integration, particularly economic integration at the North African sub-regional level.  Although the Maghreb has often been dismissed by Western observers during times of perceived “stability” as a peripheral sub-region, the groundbreaking events of the past year suggest that it should play a greater role in the U.S.’s wider Middle East strategic thinking.   

Despite some more recent setbacks and uncertainties that have clouded much of the initial optimism around the so-called Arab Spring, the events of the past year present the Arab World with an unprecedented opportunity for genuine and effective regional integration, particularly a new and revitalized Arab Maghreb Union, which up until now has been largely impeded by self-interested autocrats and a small economic elite with limited foresight and a stake in the deficient status quo.  The rapid spread of protests from Tunisia to the wider region should have shown us all that an Arab World, possibly more interconnected than ever through globalization, is a reality.  It is both likely and hopeful that pan-Arab and pan-Maghreb issues will be placed at the forefront of these countries’ national agendas with the prospect of more representative governments and institutions in place. 

It is not just a matter of popular sentiment, but rather a matter of economic necessity that greater regional cooperation receives priority in the foreign policy goals of these countries.  Deeper integration and enhanced intra-regional trade would likely impact North African economies in a way that would dramatically raise living standards across the board, thus avoiding some of the very problems that led to the uprisings in the first place while serving as a stepping stone towards greater integration both within the wider Middle East and within the global economy.  Political repression, corruption, uneven economic growth and massive youth unemployment, in some cases a direct result of failed integration, have provided fertile ground for youth radicalization.  Somewhat ironically, however, some of these same factors that are commonly thought to have driven North African and other Arab youth into the radical Islamist fold have driven democratic youth activists to take to the streets to demand political and economic reforms over the past year.  At any rate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is primarily a criminal organization that has been largely overblown by Western “experts” and by regimes seeking to use the terror card to their own advantage. 

The unprecedented events of the last year demonstrate loud and clear that the countries of the Maghreb can no longer afford to ignore the political and economic costs that stem from disjunction.   Thankfully, regime change and political openings offer the promise of enhanced regional cooperation.  Although Tunisia and Libya will likely have to focus on their own domestic issues in the short term, the new governments should immediately begin planning for ways to promote regional integration as they embark on their historic transitions. 

The biggest impediment to genuine Maghreb integration has been the severe tensions between Algeria and Morocco, the two most populous countries in the Maghreb, primarily as a result of the Western Sahara issue.   The U.S., given its lack of colonial baggage in North Africa, does have extensive leverage on the Moroccan regime and could play a key role in helping to improve Algerian-Moroccan bilateral relations and in pushing for a just and lasting settlement on the Western Sahara conflict.  Outside countries such as France have much less credibility in that respect.  For their part, both Algeria and Morocco should hearken back to March 2011 when budding signs of rapprochement surfaced in response to mass Arab protests.  Simply put, Algerian-Moroccan economic cooperation, particularly energy cooperation, makes a lot of economic sense.  Re-opening the borders between the two countries would be a good confidence-building measure and a good first step towards improving bilateral ties.  Recent promises to re-open the border must be followed through.

As we all reflect on the events of the past year, it becomes clear that it is only at our peril that we lose sight of this vitally important sub-region if we wish to keep pace with such rapid historical developments.  If the U.S. wishes to stay constructively active and engaged in this new landscape in the years to come, it would be instructive for it to provide unwavering support for democratic reform and for it to pursue policies and relations that are less focused on terrorism and hard-security issues and more focused on the economic and political reforms so desired by the peoples of the Maghreb and the wider region.  In the long run, it could prove disastrous for us all if the Arab Spring fails to fulfill the hopes and ambitions of youth across the region.  Enhanced regional integration is one of the keys to a brighter future.

Categories: Arab Spring - North Africa

About the Author(s)

Fahad Malaikah is a Research Associate at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC.  He holds an MA in Arab Studies, with a concentration in political science, from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. 



Mon, 02/06/2012 - 12:46pm

There is so much about this that the people do not understand and probably never will. When the President of the United States call for and uprising all over the world and then puts American troops in harms way you will have a hard time convincing the people of America that we need to be involved in this at all.

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It is not up to the government of the Untied States to change the politics of other countries like they did with the <a href="">mikado casino</a> nor is it our place to incite hate and riots.


Mon, 02/06/2012 - 3:42am

In reply to by Bill C.

I see no evidence to support the hypothesis of an American foreign policy consistently supporting modernization. I'd say we oscillated between marking the un-modern with a big red X on the map and trying to pretend they don't exist and erupting in spasmodic and ill-considered action when the un-modernity spills over and causes us pain or irritation.

Bill C.

Sun, 02/05/2012 - 11:26pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Would it be helpful to explain that, in our eyes, either governments or population groups may be considered sovereign, legitimate and, indeed, our allies today, depending on which group (the government or the population) is seen to be actively working toward modernizing their state and society along western lines?

Herein might we also note, consistant with our position above, that:

a. We are quite happy to work with any government that seeks to modernize their state and society along western lines, and quite happy to help these "friendly" governments overcome any resistance by their population to this western-modernization process.

b. Likewise we are quite happy to work with any population that may seek to modernize their state and society along western lines, and quite happy to help these "friendly" populations overcome any resistance by their governments to this western-modernization process.

Does this clarify, fairly well, our foreign policy direction and position today re: such things as sovereignty, legitimacy and foreign entity "friend" and "foe?"


Sun, 02/05/2012 - 10:30pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

<i>it is the same drive for greater self-determination and better governance that drives young men to press for democracy that also drives them to join orgnizations such as al Qaeda</i>

As always, I think that statement requires a bit more evidence in support. It's anything but self-evident truth.

<i>How do we influence evolution of governance rather than control revolution against government? </i>

Must we - and can we, effectively - do either? Trying to influence someone elses evolution is presumptuous at best, and interference in the affairs of others hasn't always worked out well for us.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 02/05/2012 - 7:41am

I think we gain a clearer picture when we think of "Arab Spring" as beginning in Iran in 1906, rather than in Tunisia in 2010. But the point of appreciating where it began, why it began, why it stalls, and the most critical point that it is the same drive for greater self-determination and better governance that drives young men to press for democracy that also drives them to join orgnizations such as al Qaeda, are worth considering.

For the US this is a tremendous challenge. How do we shift from decades of seeking to control political outcomes to one of merely shaping and influencing the process? We don't want to be perceived as being "defeated" or as being "disloyal" to allies. Often a catch-22 when so many of these allies have grown so out of touch with their own populaces over the past 60 years.

Populaces are evolving, while governments are clinging to a more comfortable (though increasingly irrelevant) status quo. How do we influence evolution of governance rather than control revolution against government? We seem to be stabbing at the problem in fits and starts, with odd concepts like R2P on one hand; while employing CT to help preserve some shady friends on the other hand.

The group that makes me most nervous: Those Americans who are equally dedicated to preserving relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia as is; while pushing for war with Iran with equal ardor. Relationships with both of those allies are long overdue for updating to the current environment; and we should reach out to our old ally Iran. As Lincoln wisely pointed out when challenged for not planning to be hard on a defeated South, "Do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend?" It is time to bypass obstacles set up by our current 'friends' and repair that important relationship.