In 2012, a few weeks after my election as President of the Republic of Tunisia, I visited the four Maghreb states with the hope of taking the Arab Maghreb Union out of the recovery room it had virtually been in for forty years due to the Algerian-Moroccan conflict in Western Sahara.
My proposition to all the leaders consisted of temporarily putting this dispute aside and not making it the first and foremost condition for resolving the crisis, as well as adopting what I referred to as “the five freedoms,” which entail the recognition by each Maghreb country of the right of Mauritanian, Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian and Libyan citizens to move freely, acquire property and work in neighboring countries, and own and take part in municipal elections.
I tried to convince all leaders that such a process will enable us to find a Maghreb solution to the dispute which arose between the two sister countries.
The three circles
I named the proposal “the three circles,” that overlap and would free the Sahrawis from remaining stuck because of geography and history. This would entail firstly granting them autonomy (the first circle), within the state of Morocco (second circle), and providing the same five freedoms to study in Tunisia, own properties in Algeria and work in Libya (third circle).
I proposed to the leaders of the four countries to organize the Tunisia Summit in December 2013 and the rest of the story is well known. This Summit was never held and the proposals for the five freedoms and three circles remained nothing but wishes which never came true.
The question about unity shouldn’t be focused on lamentations about the Maghreb being one of the least integrated regions in the world, and the heavy economic losses. Nor should it be focused on the responsibility of such and such party in a disaster with repercussions weighing on our exhausted people.
The question that all political powers should ask, especially those that will be leading our countries after the departure of the current generation that missed so many opportunities to create regional unity, is what are the conditions that will enable the five freedoms and three countries from existing. More importantly, how can we discharge the Arab Maghreb Union from the recovery room so that we don’t cry out one day out of pure anger and desperation, wailing over our dead?
Battle of narratives in the Western Sahara conflict
Before examining the conditions of taking the patient out of the recovery room, we should start by returning to how this patient ended up there to begin with.
There is a firm conviction that the issue that has derailed the path to unity is the issue of the Western Sahara. The Algerian authorities have insisted for decades that it’s a case of Morocco colonizing a land that is not theirs. They claim that they are standing alongside a people defending their right to nationhood. Naturally, the Algerian authorities draw parallels with the Algerian people’s defense of their independence in and that of the fight for nationhood in Western Sahara. However, there are evident misconceptions that render this narrative a mere mask for deeper reasons that these authorities do not wish to disclose.
Before continuing, I must focus on the unreasonable elements of this narrative that made me reject it from the start. Did the Moroccans have to acknowledge the right to self-determination for the “people” of Tangier and the “people of the Northern Rif” while they were under international mandate and Spanish colonization? Are the Moroccans and the Sahrawis of a different ethnicity and religion, as was the case during the French colonization of Algeria? Furthermore, do Algerians imagine that Emir Abdelkader (within the framework of the colonial narrative) would have been able to establish the largest French empire and built a city like Marseille?
This is exactly what happened historically, and it was the Sahrawis who built the city of Marrakesh and established the first major Moroccan state, namely the Almoravid dynasty, which lasted from 1056 to 1147.
How can we then talk about colonization when Morocco did not gain any wealth from the Sahara, but instead invested tremendous resources to develop it? Is Morocco preventing the return of those who migrated after the painful events that unfolded due to a conflict that can be described as a tribal conflict at the most? Describing it as colonization, on the other hand, is nothing but an irrational claim.
The problem is that this narrative, which is not based on any geographical, historical, or human logic, has been deeply entrenched in the minds of generations of leaders, who, like someone who tells a lie and eventually believes it, have elevated it to the status of sacredness that should not be discussed.
War drums beating, neutrality fleeting
Ultimately, politics is not about adherence to logic and truth. As Machiavellians believe, its sole aim is to achieve results that benefit those who fabricate and use these narratives.
From this perspective, one can say that the narrative of the Algerian regime has primarily harmed generations of Sahrawis trapped in Tindouf. It has also harmed Algerians and Moroccans, who have spent huge amounts of their budgets accumulating weapons, at the expense of the poor citizens of their nation. Moreover, it has harmed all Maghrebians who are not involved in the conflict, including Tunisians, Libyans, and Mauritanians, by denying them significant opportunities for work, mobility, and investment.
There is another rule in politics that can be summed up in response to another question: Where will things lead if we continue to adhere to this narrative and base our actions on it? Unfortunately, the answer is obvious – generations of Sahrawis will continue to suffer in their exile in Tindouf; all integration and coordination will stop in a world interconnected in a way that is impossible to resolve; and there will be increasing impoverishment of people due to further military expenditures; and finally, the catastrophe we all fear: war.
Today, we hear the beating of the drums of war, and the worst part is that it might involve external parties, such as the Israeli wolf. Our Moroccan brothers have made a grave mistake by involving Israel in our problems, solely because it will give the Algerian generals, the true rulers of the country, a certificate of patriotism, nationalism, and opposition to Zionism, thereby reviving the credibility of their narrative.
What can we deduce, as things become increasingly complicated with Tunisia leaving its traditional and reconciliatory neutral role between the two countries, aligning itself with the Algerian regime, which now boasts that it “will not allow” anyone to touch its new ally, with whom it shares the same understanding of exercising power? Here we come to the structural reason behind the cessation of the union’s path, which many still overlook the importance of, as focusing on the tree has concealed the significance of the forest.
Lessons from the European Union
Few take heed of the lessons of history, especially those closest to us in time and place.
We all admire the seeming miracle of the European Union’s establishment, that encompasses 27 states and 22 languages, and the resulting facilitation of living conditions and economic development of its people. Meanwhile, we, Arabs in general and Maghrebians, in particular, despite sharing the same language and religion, yet fail to build the simplest bonds of connection and rapprochement.
What many fail to understand is that Europe did not achieve its miracle in the last century by uniting between Nazi and Fascist dictatorships, Polish Communism, Spanish Falangism, or Portuguese Salazarism. It achieved its unity after the collapse of these oppressive systems, which never unite among themselves, as each dictator wants to appoint himself the king of kings. It smoothly and easily achieved its unity when democratic regimes were established on their ruins. Only these democratic systems are capable of building unions in the interest of their people because democratic leaders respond to the demands of their people, knowing they are transient and not eternal rulers. Therefore, they do not treat their countries like farms, prohibiting any competitor from challenging their rule.
Democracy, the antidote to disunity
The lesson we should learn is that the issue of democracy should be tackled first before the issue of a union between nations. The day we build true democratic systems, all false narratives will naturally crumble, and the five freedoms will be realized without a problem. The Sahrawis will live freely within the three departments, free from the captivity of Tindouf.
Save for this constant collision with the same wall or spinning in the same empty circle, as we witness today with the multiplicity and failure of all diplomatic attempts, regardless of their source.
Fortunately, there are reasons for hope. Remember the joy of Algerians at the victory of Moroccans in the World Cup and how Algerian and Moroccan athletes embrace each other after any match.
It is fundamentally important for all intelligent politicians in the Maghreb to invest in the development of our countries and leave their mark on history through the love of Maghreb peoples by rejecting undemocratic regimes that claim to be the solution while they are the biggest problem.
The dark night must eventually give way to the morning light.
Dr. Munsef Al Marzooqi was the former president of Tunisia from 2011 to 2014. He is a leading advocate for human rights and democracy in Tunisia and the Arab world.