Considering recent continental and regional developments, now may be the time to revive the Maghreb Union. But first, Morocco and Algeria need to put their differences aside.
BY FLORIAN ELABDI
On the Algerian-Moroccan border lies the coastal towns of Marsa Ben M’hidi and Saidia. Local tourists flock to their beaches to cool off during the summer, but also to peek at their neighbor. Separated by a deep trench, with large flags waving on each side, these towns have come to symbolize how the two neighbors seem to be locked in a never-ending standoff. On the Moroccan side of the trench, where I used to spend my childhood family vacations, the word on the street testifies to this interpretation; “if you try to cross, you’ll risk getting shot by a sniper”.
But it wasn’t always like this. In 1989, the Maghreb countries – Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya – founded the Arab Maghreb Union. The first years of the Union’s history were marked by open borders and free trade to the economic benefit of all.
That all ended in 1994, however, when Morocco blamed a terrorist attack in Marrakech on the Algerian intelligence service, which prompted the Algerians to close the border. It has remained hermitically sealed ever since.
Since then, the cold war between the two neighbors, centered around the Sahara-issue, has been the main obstacle for a revival of the stagnant Arab Maghreb Union.
Despite contemporary disagreements, Algeria and Morocco share a common history, religion, culture, language and a similar ethnic mix of Arabs and Berbers. No border existed between the two countries before one was set up by French colonialists to keep Moroccan fighters from helping their Algerian compatriots’ struggle for independence.
Back then, the destructive policies of French colonialism sowed the seeds of division. Today, Algeria and Morocco are unfortunately preserving this unnatural division instead of breaking away from it.
Considering the recent peace deal between two other African nations, renewed public pressure for reconciliation and a potential joint North African bid for the World Cup in 2030, this may be the right time to put ideological and political differences aside and focus on common interests by reviving the Maghreb Union.
Why a Maghreb Union?
Economists have called the Arab Maghreb Union “the world’s worst-performing trade bloc”, but that’s rather due to a lack of political will, than a lack of potential. In fact, regional leaders should consider the Maghreb Union a missed economic opportunity of historical proportions. Had the Maghreb countries implemented a comprehensive economic integration policy, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia’s GDP per capita would have nearly doubled from 2005-2015, according to a report by the World Bank.
Instead, the Maghreb border area remains separated by fences, berms, walls and mines. The main trading partner of all the Maghreb countries is Europe, while internal trade between North African countries constitutes less than 5 percent of their trade volume.
If a Moroccan farmer wants to export a batch of oranges to Algeria, it will have to be transported via the port city of Marseille, instead of just driving it across the border. Obstacles like these are a major hinderance to regional economic prosperity.
Contrary to the depressing status quo, the Maghreb Union initially intended not only to establish an economic union, but a juridical, administrational and military unification of the five member states. The tenth principle of the 1989 charter went as far as to state that “any aggression against a member state, will be considered an aggression on all the other member states”.
Instead of building a solid military alliance, strengthening the whole of Maghreb, vast amounts of money are spent from Moroccan and Algerian state budgets to invest in military hardware to deter one another. Morocco remains the largest African purchaser of US weapons as Algeria is of Russian weapons.
While this weapons race benefits the financial interests of the American and Russian arms industry, it hasn’t strengthened the stability of the wider Maghreb region and its neighbors. Libya, a Union member, has remained unstable since the NATO intervention to oust Gaddafi in 2011. Large parts of the Sahel region have become a lawless zone of drug trafficking, migrant smuggling and extremism. When Mali descended into chaos six years ago, the country was assisted by a French-led Eurafrican coalition, while the Maghreb countries had no substantial influence on what was happening in their backyard.
Hope for the future
While there are strong economic, strategic and security incentives for the revitalization of the Maghreb Union, the first step is to put differences aside.
One of the main impediments for a revival of the union is the Sahara conflict. Some critics would argue that this conflict must be resolved before the Maghreb Union can rise again. But this assumption is contradicted by history, considering that the conflict predates the establishment of the initially successful union by more than a decade.
Morocco and Algeria have previously shown that they’re able to put political and ideological differences aside. It’s time to return to this previous path of cooperation instead of dwelling in the current state of static cold war.
All research indicates that regional trade agreements reduce the likelihood of war between neighboring countries, hence a strengthened regionalism in the Maghreb would be a solid measure to ensure future stability and peace between the two countries.
And recent continental and regional developments suggest that this may be the right time to seize the opportunity and revive the Union. Lately, we’ve seen signs of rapprochement between Morocco and Algeria. While Saudi Arabia, supposedly a strong ally of the Kingdom of Morocco, lobbied support for the American bid for the FIFA World Cup in 2026, Algeria voiced support for Morocco’s bid to host the prestigious sporting event.
In the aftermath of Morocco’s unsuccessful World Cup bid, the king of Morocco Mohammed VI has allegedly proposed to Algerian President Bouteflika a joint bid to host the tournament in 2030.
The secretary general of the Maghreb Union, Taieb Baccouche, was quick to seize the momentum and suggest a joint bid from all five Maghreb countries.
“The goal of the Maghreb joint bid would be to give a push to inter-Maghreb cooperation at all levels,” said the secretary general according to local media.
While such a joint bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2030 seems rather unrealistic – for one, Libya is still trapped in armed conflicts – it was a bold suggestion that has received plenty of media coverage and official praise throughout the Maghreb region, which may be exactly what is needed to kickstart a serious regional conversation about future collaboration.
If we look at the continental trends, there are further reasons for optimism. Last month, Ethiopia and Eritrea decided to make peace and put an end to their decades-long conflict. Maybe such an unlikely rapprochement between two African countries, with an even more complicated history of conflict, can inspire Maghreb leaders to finally put political and ideological differences aside and focus on regional cooperation and prosperity.
In recent weeks, people on both sides of the Algerian-Moroccan border have demonstrated for open borders, and the revival of the “Maghreb Union” has been described as a popular demand among protesters.
Maybe it’s time for the two countries to listen to these popular demands, for the sake of the whole of North Africa and its people.