Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dreaming Of A United North Africa

By Francis Ghiles
               The former leaders of Maghreb countries in their first meeting to create a Union
History shows that transitions to democracy are messy and protracted. Building a working democratic system will take time even in Tunisia, where the first modern constitution in the Muslim world was promulgated in 1861. But the departure of three ageing tyrants from North Africa’s stage offers an excellent opportunity – irrespective of how events unfold in Morocco and Algeria – for the Maghreb countries to put themselves back on the map in a region where new actors such as China and Brazil have joined France, Italy and the US as players.
Faster economic growth able to create desperately needed jobs is, of course, essential for stability. Better governance, let alone democracy, stands little chance of taking root in the absence of faster growth. Free and fair elections are fine and dandy but for the impoverished youth they hold little attraction in the absence of bold new economic policies. Leaders must aspire to more of a united Maghreb – a scenario that will give hope to 100m people whose culture, religious practice, cuisine and architecture, let alone family links going back 3,000 years and common Berber inheritance, offer ample opportunities for building new bridges. As for Algeria’s and Morocco’s leaders, they need to show some vision for once. They could open up their frontiers to the free flow of trade investment and people. For this they must exchange the narrow nationalistic narrative of their recent histories.
It would help, of course, if France and the European Union accepted that the Barcelona Process, that early attempt at improving Mediterranean links, lacked the critical mass of investment needed for it to flourish. As for the EU’s “Neighbourhood Policy”, it can best be described as mealy mouthed. Most countries have continued to favour their traditional bilateral relations with EU countries at the expense of their north African ones: in other words, everybody has engaged in multilateral bilateralism.
It would also help if France stopped pretending that north Africa was simply its backyard; and if the US supported true democrats in the region rather than playing cat and mouse with the Muslim Brotherhood as it has done for half a century. The dirty truth is that the “war on terror” has served the interests of security establishments in the west as in north Africa.
The carrot for north African and European companies, but also American and Chinese, private and state-run, is the colossal investment opportunity, beyond gas pipelines, in energy and mineral sectors, notably phosphates, plastics and renewable energy. Natural gas and phosphate rock offer rich opportunities: they could boost the production of fertiliser, a commodity whose potential market is huge. The four north African countries boast phosphate rock, gas, ammonia and sulphur in abundance, and offer a cost-effective opportunity to manufacture fertiliser given that demand is growing exponentially as standards of living in China and other emerging markets increase dramatically.
Building trust can and should take the form of investment: mistrust between countries in the region is far less pronounced between private entrepreneurs than state and security officials whose mindset and economic interests have so far benefited from the current situation.
A functioning Libyan state will not, of course, be easy to build but Tunisia deserves all the help it can get from the west. One success story would act as a catalyst for the region as a whole. If the broader regional initiative is to have any hope of success, north Africa will have to acknowledge its common Berber heritage. The Berber language is the anthropological bedrock of Maghrebi identity: Arab nationalism has failed, as has the radical Islamic project in Algeria. Algerian leaders behave as if their country was still training PLO commandos as it did in the 1960s: they need to be urged and nudged to hand over to a younger generation, the sooner the better.
Europe is acting against its interests when it simply imposes ever tighter visa policies. Greater industrial co-operation ties in well with the idea of the Maghreb as a reservoir of growth for Europe. Millions of French citizens of north African descent are intermarrying and could, in time, be an engine for development. There are solid economic interests here for the Maghreb and Europe. A greater Maghreb need not be a dream.
-This commentary was published in The Financial Times on 13/09/2011
-The writer is senior research fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and consultant on the Middle East and North Africa

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