Tunisia has changed but its stance on regional realities has not. Thus, the visit of its Prime Minister Beji Caid el Sebsi to Rabat was an occasion to discuss the revival of the Maghreb Union, with the aim of guiding it out of the recovery room.
Neither the idea nor the option of the Maghreb Union has died. However, these have not been tested sufficiently to help categorize the Union either as a viable gamble – if the differences that led to its slump are to cease existing – or as mere illusions that must now be discarded and replaced by a different alternative. At a time when the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] seems to have proven its worth by dealing with the events in Bahrain and the Sultanate of Oman, in a framework of a commitment that reflects a maximum level of solidarity, its counterpart in the Maghreb area has not made a single move vis-à-vis many of the events and developments transpiring, such as with the far more deteriorated situation in Libya.
The Arab League might be a suitable framework for shaping stances and positions. However, this does not negate the fact that the Maghreb Union should follow the example of the Gulf experience, all the while taking into consideration the major differences in what regards the assessment of developments. If the [Maghreb] Union is not active in times of crises, then it will not be expected to be active in regular times. Therefore, its current situation raises several questions implying that this Union is nothing more than a token of the past that draws nostalgia from time to time.
Some assumptions indicate that the Maghreb Union will act as a wagon that could pull the North African countries away from the state of division, fragmentation and conflict to the banks of unity, solidarity, and agreement. The founders [of the Maghreb Union] meant for it to engage in a three dimensional dialogue, especially with the European Union to the north and the GCC to the east. Some parties also thought that it would complement Arab countries located in Africa, such as Egypt and Sudan.
None of that came true, and even the bets on the Union’s economic dimensions – in the context of integration and the movement of people and goods without any barriers over the Maghreb world – was faced by political differences that abide by the traditional and isolationist notions of sovereignty; how dissonant it is for one to preach in the desert.
In terms of its historical background, the Maghreb Union sought to preempt stormy international changes, mainly, the end of the Cold War. But the trend then became to create a framework for the whole of Middle East and North Africa. Thus, developments resulted in the initiative for the Union for the Mediterranean, all the way to other ideas revolving around a possible partnership with Europe and the United States. During all these phases, the Maghreb Union was carrying its crisis on its shoulders, not in terms of it as an idea and a choice, but rather as practices that had a limited effect. This meant that the Union was a static, unresponsive body.
Do things seem different this time, in light of the repercussions of discontent in the Maghreb Street, which is longing for freedom and dignity, or is it too late now to take resort to this option? In any case, the need for this Union is too important to be obscured by emerging events. In fact, the current crises will soon impose a reality where joint fateful policies need to be considered once more. And there is nothing problematic about reviving an option that encompasses elements of resistance and endurance within it.
The Tunisians have set off on a new path, emboldened by the logic of change. And the Moroccans are about to experience the constitutional recipe for dealing with their crises. In addition, the Algerians, as well as the Mauritanians, will be no exception, pending the emergence of the light at the end of the Libyan tunnel. These transformations are essentially based on the repercussions of the popular demands for change, which are affecting everyone. But the benefits of complying with these demands could be achieved through the Maghreb Union as well, at least through political and economic openness, which would help in containing internal difficulties.
It is now also a fact that a given country cannot rely on an isolationist project to guarantee stability. Thus, there is no alternative to reviving the Maghreb agenda, which achieves equilibrium, be it on the level of complementary and solidarity policies, or through playing a regional role that guarantees a wider and strategic stability. The lesson of solidarity in periods of harshness and prosperity, which is offered by the GCC, is perhaps the best guiding light towards achieving a similar experience in the western part of the Arab world.