Faltering Maghreb Integration: Historical and Institutional Roots

There is no disagreement among observers on the Arab Maghreb Union’s potential which, if revived, could allow it to play a major geostrategic role, considering the important location of the region, its tremendous human potential, huge economic wealth, and historic and cultural heritage that extends thousands of years.

The Maghreb Union states have a strategic depth based on their unique and diverse dimensions: Arab, African, Sahrawi, Mediterranean, and Atlantic. With a strategic mindset, along with planning and political willpower to play a more significant role, the Union states could create a regional power arrangement to be reckoned with.[1] Studies and reports confirm the advantages and developmental and strategic benefits of  Maghreb integration, as well as the huge cost of the absence of this integration at all levels, especially with regard to the economy and development.

Nevertheless, the institutions of the Maghreb Union, 36 years following its creation, still do not reflect the depth of the historic and cultural links between the states in this region, the simplest aspects of awareness of the challenges surrounding its states and people, nor the desire to build a future of economic and political integration and consolidation that is both a cultural obligation and a strategic necessity.

The deterioration of relations between Maghreb states  

The Maghreb Union states have witnessed an unprecedented deterioration in relations in recent times. Algeria and Morocco are in a state of diplomatic rupture. Libya is torn by internal conflict and is has become a stage for European, African, Turkish, Egyptian and Gulf interventions and initiatives, in the absence of effective Maghreb initiatives.  Meanwhile, Tunisia is heading towards an unprecedented internal crisis and an unfortunate regression of its democratic experiment.

Where does the problem lie? Where does it stem from?

In my opinion, there are historic, geographic, and institutional causes for the chronic illness afflicting the Maghreb Union. Despite the scale and impact of these various causes, institutional factors centrally lead them all.

Historically, since the Islamic conquest, Maghreb countries remained one country ruled by the major Islamic states, sometimes ruled by one regional state, while at other times ruled by competing local states. With the expansion of the Ottoman caliphate to the Greater Morocco countries, the inhabitants of Al-Maghrib Al-Aqṣá stopped its expansion at the borders of Tlemcen, and Morocco remained under the rule of local states (the Saadis then the Alawis). There was a clear political distinction between the Ottoman states in the Maghreb countries and the Cherifi Kingdom in Al-Maghrib Al-Aqṣá, as well as a relative distinction between Ottoman Maghreb states that ruled through military classes originating from mixed Turkish-Maghreb families, such as the Karamanids in Libya, the Beys of Tunisia, the Karghalys of Algeria, in contrast to the noble families ruling Morocco as a result of movements and revolutions stemming from the depth of interactions of local populations with the internal and external situations.

This situation created a distinction and weakness in the interaction between the Maghreb space states during this historic period, despite the Islamic confessional and ritual unity. Local populations of the Maghreb had their final say about it since the revolution led by its religious scholars against the Shiite Fatimid rule.

Anti-colonialism and Maghreb unity

As for the second historic stage, which probably had the most negative impact on the Maghreb’s path, relates to the French colonial period. France, which occupied Algeria in 1830, brought with it a dangerous ideological and colonial project. France considered Algeria a French province in North Africa and started expanding its control on all sides, cutting off many regions from its neighboring countries and primarily Morocco which was forced to sign an agreement in 1901 as a form of final closure of the issue of “the Tuat and Saoura district.” Then there was the 1902 protocol which forced the Makhzen to abandon the lands located between “Oued Zousfana and Keir.”[2]

The annexation by France of the Tindouf region in 1934 to the Algerian territory under its control would later create what was referred to in Moroccan literature as the “eastern Sahara” issue. The issue remained dormant during the nationalist struggle in the Maghreb countries as priority was given to armed struggle against French colonial rule.

The stage of armed conflict against colonialism was the brightest in the history of the Maghreb and most illustrative of its sentimental, cultural, and historic unity. It also was the best expression of its past and common destiny. This Maghreb cohesion and solidarity had a decisive role in the expulsion of colonial powers and in Maghreb countries obtaining their national independence. It can be said that the idea of the Maghreb Union and the dreams and literature related to it were created from the heart of the Maghreb national movement in this golden era of the region’s history that was full of both challenges and ambitions.

Although the founding fathers of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) agreed on respecting the borders inherited from the colonial era as a basis for peace and stability in the countries in the continent, Morocco still considered these agreements unfair. One year following Algeria’s independence, the border issue arose again. The countries fought the Sand War in 1963, which greatly damaged the relations between both countries. One can probably say that if the Eastern Sahara issue had been managed properly, the Western Sahara issue wouldn’t have arisen and created deep divisions that continue today.

The OAU summit in Rabat in June 1972 was a milestone in the history of the relations between the three countries: Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. According to the former Mauritanian President, Moktar Daddah, had King Hassan II ratified the 1972 Rabat agreement concerning the Algerian-Moroccan borders, Algeria wouldn’t have lured the Sahrawi liberation front, which was born in Zouérat, Mauritania and went on to become the Polisario. In other words, the Western Sahara war wouldn’t have occurred had the King of Morocco ratified the Rabat agreement.[3]

Divisions beyond colonial history 

The undeniable truth evidenced by many factors is that faltering Maghreb integration and the disappointing and seeming inability to achieve significant outcomes towards integration and the activation of partnerships between its countries, is not due to issues inherited from history or geographical issues inherited from colonialism. Rather, the causes consist primarily of an institutional crisis related to authoritarian influences and the democratic deficit in the region. The five Maghreb states are still stuck in a gray zone and controlled by hybrid democracy. They are neither pure authoritarian states, yet they are also not moving towards democratization. Despite the appearance of democratic aspects, there are still powers above the state which have the upper hand in developing policies and directing the orientation of these states, rather than elected democratic institutions.

In my opinion, achieving Maghreb integration is closely linked to the future of democratic transitions in countries in the region. The lack of democratic progress in these countries is the real challenge to development, for the following reasons:

First – The liberation of individual freedoms and self-initiatives and the rule of law, which are enabled by democracy, contribute to the creation of the economic model leading to prosperity and the eradication of poverty and therefore the creation of a significant middle class, able to protect the elected institutions and put a limit to the powers which are above the state, the official sponsor of the authoritarian regime. Solid democracy is what will achieve assimilation and integration of all the colors on the political, community and religious spectrum inside all-inclusive institutions.[4].

Needless to say, democracy’s benefits include the granting of legitimacy for political leaders, bolstering popular support for the state, and ensuring that political representatives act in accordance with the views of the local populace.

Second – Although democracies sometimes engage in different wars, there is a research-backed argument that democracies don’t fight each other, and there is a global orientation towards a more peaceful world where international relations are characterized by cooperation instead of conflict. In his book “Perpetual Peace”, German philosopher Immanuel Kant presents the idea of peaceful union stemming from cohesion between democracies. Kant presents three elements that enshrine the connection between democracy and peace:

Democratic criteria for peaceful conflict resolution (democracies enshrine the culture of peaceful conflict resolution).

  • Peaceful relations between democratic states are based on common moral laws (democracies cling to common moral values and that the bonds built between them due to these values lead to the formation of a peaceful union).
  • Economic cooperation between democracies and bonds of interdependence (since peaceful union is strengthened by economic cooperation and interdependence[5]).

Third – Democracies contribute to the eradication of some important motives for expansionist policies, as the aggressive spirit of the rulers towards the outside stems from the desire of non-democratic rulers to strengthen their positions on the inside. It may also result from rulers seeking recognition, not only from their subjects, but also from other countries.[6]

The European Union and democracy as an example for the Maghreb

Fourth – Democracy will show the true expression of the aspirations of the Maghreb people and enable the unitarian political orientations that have an interest in voluntary integration. I bet that it could form the appropriate grounds for resolving the chronic conflict in “Western Sahara.” That would be based on a solution that would provide the Sahrawis with social, cultural and political distinction, and guarantee Morocco’s unity, or the establishment of a confederation, not only between Morocco and “Western Sahara,” but potentially between all the Maghreb countries; or it could even be like a personal union “commonwealth,” similar to the relationship between Australia and Canada with the British Crown, despite these countries retaining their independence, free will, and their own model, as well as other creative formulas that can be devised in a free democratic climate.

The European Union arose from the ashes of devastating wars and bitter conflicts, but the deepening of democracy, the rule of institutions, the accumulation of awareness and the loyalty of leaders led them eventually towards integration and union. Will the “France-Germany” of the Arab Maghreb, “Morocco-Algeria,” take the initiative to draw lessons and transcend the past decade?

Dr. Sid Amar Cheikhna is a Mauritanian researcher specializing in history and political science. He is the Director of the Regional Center for Research and Consultations in Mauritania, Director of the Qawafil Publishing House and the author of several books and studies on Mauritanian history issues, democratic transition issues, and the Sahel crisis.

[1] See Ahmad Daoud Oglu, Strategic Depth, Turkey’s Location and Role in the International Arena, translated by Mohammed Jaber Thalji and Tareq Abdul Jalil (Doha: Al-Jazeera Sturdies Center, Arabian Arab Scientific Publishers 2010) p. 33 and after.

[2] Mohammed Bokboot, Desert Margins’ Resistance of Colonialism (Abi Raqraq Printing and Publishing House, 2005) p. 42.

[3] President Moktar Ould Daddah, Mauritania Facing Challenges, (Paris: Cartella Print House, 2004) p. 465.

[4] See: Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail, The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, translated by Badran Mohammed (Cairo: International House of Cultural Investments, 2015)

[5] Georg Sørensen, Democracy and Democratization: Processes and Prospects in a Changing World, translated by Afaf Al-Batayna, (Beirut: Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2015). P. 201.

[6] Georg Sørensen, Democracy and Democratization: Processes and Prospects in a Changing World, p. 208

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