Monday, February 21, 2011

The Maghreb Union: Without A Trace

By Mohammad el-Ashab
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 20/02/2011
The twenty-second anniversary of the founding of the Maghreb Union was uninteresting and inconsequential, not the least because the North African region was preoccupied with other concerns. The role of the ruling elites has regressed in the face of the momentum of an angry and rebellious populace. There is no time now for talking or thinking about the failure and retreat that the efforts for a union among the Maghreb countries have met with.

There is no time for the political imagination that concocted many a plan to create economic blocs and political partnerships, all based on a vision for stability amid certain conditions that later on proved to be fragile and brittle. There is a new reality that is now rocking the ground under everybody’s feet. And perhaps the factor that is most absent amid the numerous developments is the Maghreb Union, established at the end of the eighties with the aim of becoming a part of the following transformations that altered many notions and questions.

This intuition, which seemed to anticipate the coming changes, was signaling that a wave of change has started to blow over the world, and that the Maghreb region cannot possibly be an exception. Unfortunately for the region, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the communist bloc both diverted the attention of the region’s partners, namely the countries of the European Union, towards the happenings of the European sphere at the expense of the southern bank of the Mediterranean. Even the implementation of privatization and openness to market economy did not bring the Maghreb region the revenues it had been hoping for, in order to get on the path of growth and development.

What happened was that political differences were stronger than the strategic choices that call for stepping away from small sensitivities. Thus, the Maghreb project did not impose itself as an alternative to all the tendencies towards seclusion, nor did the local experiences of the countries succeed in responding to urgent needs. Thus, the losses doubled, especially since missing major opportunities means larger repercussions on the local and regional levels.

When asked about the extent of the need for the Maghreb Union framework once, the late King Hassan II said that the region was undergoing shakes and deep transformations, and that the best way to counter these is to establish a state of institutions. But he stressed that the role [of that state] would not be complete without the existence of a regional framework that would act as a natural channel for economic integration, which alone can provide protection against violent episodes. That was one of the major reasons behind the bets placed on the Maghreb Union, which was regarded as an interlocutor equal to the European Union, and as a long arm extended towards the Gulf Cooperation Council in the east. But where are we now in respect to that testimonial, which seems to have fallen on deaf ears?

The Maghreb leaders fought among each other until estrangement amongst them became skin deep. They dealt with their animosities through limited remedies that were merely restricted to exchanging congratulations, or expressing solidarity during natural disasters. Today however, they are facing a different kind of calamities that can no longer be blamed on external sides. Indeed, some politics resemble debts, the interest rates of which grow larger than their own value. It is now suddenly time to pay those debts without any prior notice.

The irony is that the treaty for the establishment of the Maghreb Union had stated that any aggression suffered by one of the Union’s countries is to considered directed against every other country in the union. The treaty also banned the use of the territories of any country by the opponents of another. However, the arrows of the criticism directed against the Maghreb regimes are not coming from outside anymore. They are now part of the ingredients of a situation that led to explosion in the absence of the immunity provided by the state of institutions.

The Maghreb regimes have went through stormy changes and they heard western and domestic advice that the peaceful transfer of power is not a dismissible option. It also happened that the Maghreb regimes were the stage of revolutions that were called many names, from the ‘revolution of the bread’ and of ‘high prices’, to the ‘rebellion of those leaning against the wall’, to all kinds of civil unrests and acts of violence.

There are many important lessons. However, nothing is pushing in the way of correcting mistakes and learning from past experiences. What is perhaps worse is that no one wants to forget the lessons learned through preachers. Indeed, the logic of exceptions believes that dangers and disasters only happen to others, although change – that used to seem far away, taking place in Eastern Europe and the jungles of Africa – has now neared all the fortresses and it has been rocking them for weeks and days.

The anniversary of the Maghreb Union has gone by, and it was overlooked by all the concerned capitals. Seclusion has achieved the highest levels of occlusion. Local concern for countries no longer directs their policies. Rather, the sphere is on its way to shrink further and to be calculated in meters, after horizons had once been open to dreams and to stability.

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