The Geopolitical Deficit of the Maghreb and the Sahara Issue

"As for the Maghreb project, it has remained stationary. Being neglected for a long time, it has not led to any significant concretization   since the creation of the UMA in 1989.  It is the political contradictions among the States of the region that are, essentially, responsible for this impediment: the settling in of the hegemonic State at the heart of the Maghreb of yesterday and its uncontrolled dissolution today, have been the major causes. In the absence of a Maghreb project, the countries in the region have been forced to negotiate and manage separately their relationship to United Europe, which has placed them in a position of weakness."

This long quote by one of the leaders of the USFP, dates back to April 1996; there is nothing to delete from it.  Nonetheless, one could add the facts that over the last decade have further aggravated the perfect lethargic state of the Maghreb and its geopolitical weakness in the face of Europe, but also facing the United States for which, as a result of this weakness, the Maghreb is no longer a partner but tends to become the object of a stake in a competition among superpowers.

It is high time, however, that one moved beyond the language of doublespeak of chancelleries and official visits: the Union of the Maghreb does not exist. This is a fact that no one can refute and it is perfectly laughable to see the Ministers of Public Resources of the member States who held a meeting a few month ago lecturing at length about Inter-Maghrebin projects of infrastructures, always dreamed of but never fulfilled!

How can one still discuss -without risking ridicule -- inter-Maghrebin cooperation whereas the Morocco-Algerian borders are still closed and that President Bouteflika has confirmed personally while on the threshold of the Elysee, two years ago, that its opening would happen easily after having evoked its reopening few days before!

A few years ago, the Mediterranean Studies group, the GERM, organized its annual meeting around the theme of the cost of a non-Maghreb.  It seemed to me that the non-Maghreb could give birth to a "space of risks" on three levels: an economic risk, a socio-cultural risk and a risk for the political development of the State of law. Today, and given the ongoing stagnation of the construction of the Maghreb union, there is also the potential of a military risk which Algeria is perfectly in a position to activate via the Polisario and would, as always, justify the military conflict by referring to the people's right of liberation from colonial domination!!

None of this should obscure the new and dramatic implication of a non-Maghreb: the nonexistence of the Maghreb on the international scene whose disastrous consequences on the Maghrebian people are so obvious.

I. The geopolitical inexistence of the Maghreb

It is with some regret that one is obliged to note that the Maghreb States, and for that matter the pretentious Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), are not subjects of international relations. These States and this so-called Arab Maghreb Union are but mere objects of a power games among paramount forces whether at the United Nations or in the Mediterranean region at the hand of the European Union and its member States, or the United States, and recently Russia which has lately put on the shoes of the former Soviet Union in Algeria.

The Main cause for this "objectification" of the region lies in the incapacity of its States to unite around what is essential to their survival; they continue to tear each other over a legacy of colonization which Algeria continues to draw benefit from since 1962.

For reasons we do not need to dwell on here, both Libya and Mauritania play only a marginal role in the region, even if the Libyan oil is coveted by many.

Likewise, Tunisia is preoccupied by its own tourist industry and internal problems linked to the status of President Ben Ali and the response of his opposition and, thus, seems quite content with the bilateral relationships it has developed with the European Union, or in the context of the Agadir Free Trade Agreement which, nonetheless, still encounters many problems before becoming fully functional.

Algeria, which has not yet fully recovered from its Islamist "cancer", though not unlike its political past founded on  One-Party rule and its hegemonic dreams, is totally incapable of maintaining constructive policies not only in the Maghreb but also in the Mediterranean basin and vis-à-vis Europe.  On the other hand, it has a great capacity to prevent, a capacity to harm, which lays on the resources that gas and oil reap for it.

One ought to be innocent enough not to see that there lies a super bonus for the relationships between Algeria and the States that need these energy resources, and that the "Customer States" whose good offices can be paid for or for the good grace of the United Nations for that matter.

Again, here one ought to be naïve enough not to understand that if Algeria holds so strongly to the creation of a Sahraoui micro-State, which by the way, will be democratic and popular only by name, like Algeria since 1962, it is because as nobody would deny it, and especially the insiders of UN house, the micro-states which cannot assume their obligations of the UN Charter do benefit, nonetheless, from all the rights implied by the membership at the UN.

But this is mere doodle politics. Algerian leaders believe that by inserting a state between Morocco and Mauritania, they will have access to the Atlantic, and thus can weaken the power of the Cherifian Kingdom. They do not seem to understand that this may have been relevant in the context of 19th century geopolitics. Today, Germans are almost at home in Agadir without having recourse to the frigate "Panther" and Russians are back in Nice without the support of the Communist International. Thus, Algeria can be tomorrow in Casablanca or Dakhla in the context of a Maghreb union that can include the entire North African region from Toubrouk to the Senegal River if only the geopolitical conceptions of the aging Algerian leadership can have a moment of illumination and discernment to see that this is the 21st century!!

In any case, it is extremely difficult for Algeria to have an influential role even in the Mediterranean region because of its electoral shambles. The terrible participation rate in the recent legislative elections,  which were but a "remake" of the elections of April 10 would not allow it to posture as a paragon of democracy and a State of law.

In 2004, the President of the Constitutional Council in charge of checking on the regularity of elections was Mohamed Bedjaoui who was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs from May 2005 to June 4, 2007 when he was replaced by Mourad Medelci, the former Minister of Finance. Thus, to put it mildly, the regularity of elections is as contested today as it was yesterday. Whether in internal politics or foreign affairs, Algeria continues to lead internally and in relation to the Maghreb the same politics initiated by Houari Boumedienne forty years ago. While Boumedienne is gone, Bedjaoui is still around and Bouteflika is back.

As long as they have control over the cogwheels of the State and can decide on Algerian foreign and Maghrebian policy, there is no hope in seeing the birth of the Maghreb. There is even a worse scenario. In fact, there is reason to fear that they may leave behind them a time bomb constituted of thousands of powerful guerrillas made and trained in Tindouf or in Cuban dens under the direct or indirect supervision of the Polisario, not to mention those trained in terrorist dens of al-Qaida and who the Algerian military seem unable to neutralize. Algerian leaders need to think hard about the "collateral risk" of the irresponsible policy they have been leading for almost forty years. In fact, it may very well be that their fear of losing control over a process they have themselves triggered makes it very difficult for Algerian leadership to reorient towards a wiser approach which today consists of rallying in support of a mutually acceptable pacific solution that would be beneficial to the leadership and more importantly to all the people of the Maghreb.

In any case, we should not minimize the risk of seeing Algeria "exporting" this problem in a Machiavellian way to Morocco while pretending to rally on behalf of the Autonomy Project for the Saharan Provinces that has been generously proposed by Morocco. It is at this stage that the role of "mentorship" of the European Union and the United States will become critical. Instead of rehearsing the same ritualistic discourse about the necessity of understanding and Maghrebian integration, the Chancelleries in question must concord words and deeds. An action concerted by the European Union and the United States and accompanied by appropriate "means" is capable of making the voice of reason heard, which is in fact the voice of the Maghreb people, who for the majority, are poverty-stricken and kept for more than half a century under the illusion of unity, prosperity and dignity.

The influence of the Maghreb is so priced and the return of the countries forming it onto the Mediterranean and international scene, not in dispersed order like clients more or less beggars, but suggests instead  that at last they are building a Maghreb that the leaders of the nationalist parties wished for in their meeting in Tangier 1956.

II. The consequences of a non-Maghreb

These consequences are numerous and they are all catastrophic, not only in terms of material costs but also and possibly especially in the socio-cultural and political domains.

It is obviously impossible to assess the material costs. Let us leave aside the negative consequences in the areas of regional integration and the projects were at the heart of the policy of the Permanent Committee for Maghreb Cooperation founded during the 70's and then of the Maghreb Arab Union.

Recently, in November 2006, at a forum on Euro-Mediterranean business held in Marseille, the French Minister of Foreign Trade insisted on the importance of the improvement of regional integration, especially through the realization of a large scale infrastructure. The Maghreb was urged to develop transversal relations, which could facilitate all kinds of exchanges from the West to the East. Obviously, the Maghreb is still far from the realization of this project since the borders by Oujda have been closed since 1994, and the Algerian border controllers could be seen at their observation towers on the other side of the border or on the banks of Isly or about a hundred meters away from Figuig!

It ought to be known that because of this situation, a number of investment projects, meaning of development, will never materialize despite the availability of funds and the efforts made by the business community to palliate the deficiencies of State policies.

Likewise, it is difficult to assess the cost of the loss of influence for the Maghreb on the international scene, and particularly the Mediterranean one, because of the current splits among the Maghreb States.

In October 2005, during a meeting organized by the Circle of Economists and the Mediterranean Institute held in Marseille, participants underlined the fact that the Integration Plan of the Arab Maghreb Union member States which has been drawn in the Marrakech Agreement "has not yet materialized" even though it is a key element in the Agreement. Consequently, it has not been possible "for this part of the world to secure for itself an important weight at the regional and international levels," which would first require a peaceful region. While economic operators are not usually held hostage to the politics of statesmen, they cannot afford total lack of interest when the latter hold relations of open conflict. In the current context, the central position of Algeria in the Maghreb and the policy it persists in maintaining towards its neighbors constitute a real obstacle that no investor can ignore.

Today, each of the Maghreb States plays its own game without in fact being sure that the game is not conditioned by the calculations of its partner(s).

The case would be totally different if the Maghreb countries could coordinate and centralize their actions in their relations with their partners, whether they are the European Union, NATO, the United States, or even in the bilateral relations they traditionally have with certain countries.

At the United Nations, representatives of Algeria and Morocco have been for decades primarily engaged in assembling votes to support resolutions presented to the Security Council in relation to the case of the Moroccan Sahara while questions involving the Middle East or Africa are of the highest urgency.

With the European Union, there has never been consultation or agreement among Maghrebian negotiators to determine a base for regional integration that the European Union may support. If the European Union has not taken advantage of the dispersion and disunity of its partners in the Maghreb, it nonetheless allows criticism aimed mainly at the countries of the Maghreb but objectively does not spare its Euro-Mediterranean policy and may eventually undermine its efficiency.

This can only suffer from this Maghrebian "cacophony": separate cooperation agreements, a neighborhood policy well developed with Morocco but with no relation to potential action plans concerning neighboring Algeria or Tunisia, strictly bilateral relations with Spain, France, Italy, etc.

Likewise, the situation concerning the problems of security and defense is no less catastrophic.

Algeria remains tied to its traditional "protector", former USSR, which is also its main provider of military armament. In fact, Algeria has just purchased billions of dollars in armament from Russia which is also interested in extending the cooperation to the areas of oil, gas and nuclear energy. For Russia, this is obviously an excellent opportunity to come back as an important player in a region where it has lost influence since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the East/West confrontation.

Algeria is not threatened by anyone, if not by unemployment, poverty and alas still by terrorism, which has become endemic. However, instead of putting together a daring policy of development and a common security policy with its neighbors to counter possible dangers, it has opted for rearmament through exorbitant contracts signed with the Russians. It is likely that part of this armament will end up in the hands of Polisario combatants who in fact constitute Alger's margin for maneuver for its policy in the Maghreb. This deal satisfied the military nomenclature which fact has at the same time consolidated the power of the policy of nomenclature.

In such conditions, it is not surprising to deplore the absence of any consultation on regional security problems with NATO organization, which has become particularly active since the end of the cold war and the emergence of new threats for peace especially in the Mediterranean region. In the absence of coherent regional organizations, NATO had to be content with bilateral relations with each country.

The organization maintains a clear distance from all regional conflicts and in particular the problem of the Moroccan Western Sahara and neglects offering services that answer the needs of its partners in the domains of security and defense. States are then free to accept or refuse what they are offered, although now terrorism is seen as the main threat to North African countries. Algeria in particular depends more on Russia for its security, and thus is not responsive to the propositions of NATO, whether in the area of training or performance improvement of its armed forces, intelligence or inter-operationality.

In contrast, Morocco has remained open to all suggestions which coincide with its vision of the regional security problems. In fact, cooperation between Morocco and NATO has reached a satisfactory degree at the qualitative and quantitative levels especially that the Moroccan army has accumulated a long and important experience in the area of military cooperation due to its interventions in Africa, Kosovo or Haiti.

In the area of bilateral relations, Morocco continues to consolidate with its privileged partners France, Spain and Italy fruitful and productive cooperation. The arrival of a new French President can only be more beneficial for the bilateral cooperation between Morocco and France, given the statements made by newly elected President Sarkozy concerning the importance of the Mediterranean in general and the Maghreb in particular.  In addition, for years now French politics has been rich in discourse but shy in action.

All this should not make us forget that the major risk of a "non-Maghreb" is the geopolitical impotence of the countries which constitute the Maghreb to play a pivotal role in the future of the sub-region to which they belong and which is the Western Mediterranean. This is why it is more urgent today to put back on track the Arab Maghreb Union. May the Moroccan proposal for the autonomy of Sahara provinces contribute to this. 

Michel Rousset