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.