Libyan crisis is an opportunity to stir the Arab Maghreb Union from its slumber
On a crisp February evening in Marrakech in 1989, the impossible seemed to happen. Amid wrangling and rivalries, the leaders of five countries in northwest Africa — Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia — appeared on a balcony, arm in arm, and the Arab Maghreb Union was established.
Designed to coordinate the economic and political efforts of its members, the union was welcomed as an opportunity for the once borderless Maghreb peoples to reacquaint themselves with each other following the colonialism that had divided them. Within a decade, however, it appeared their political differences were too profound to overcome, with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi infamously describing the grouping as “frozen.”
Now, with Libya in the grip of civil war and the winds of revolution having blown through Tunisia and Algeria, instability has invited a host of outside interests to attempt to dictate events in the region. Amid such chaos, the need for regional cohesiveness could not be greater.
At the outset of the NATO campaign that ousted his father, Qaddafi’s son, Seif Al-Islam, warned the West of the futility of hoping for a quick exit from what has become a post-revolutionary Libyan quagmire. Chastising a mindset that had become accustomed to quick wins, he said “Libya is not McDonald’s” and victory was unlikely.
His words, which seemed bizarre at the time, proved to be prophetic. Following the overthrow of his father, Libya’s uprising morphed into a civil war that was exploited by foreign powers and quickly became an intractable proxy war.
The Libya of today is a far cry from the docile dictatorial society it once was; the deaths of some 25,000 people and the displacement of a larger number, compounded by an economy on the verge of collapse, tell the tale of a country on the brink.
Libya is divided between the elected Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army led by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. Each side has the support of a number of international powers, while vast parts of the country remain ungovernable and in the hands of tribal militia and other military groups.
As a result, a country that has the largest oil reserves in Africa (and the 10th largest reserves in the world) suffers shortages of everything, from fuel to cash, medicine to food. No amount of foreign mercenaries, indiscriminate drone attacks or international sanctions are able to ameliorate the situation.
The one glimmer of hope for the country lies in a potential settlement driven by its Maghreb neighbors, which have a vested interest in Libya’s long-term stability.
The Maghreb of today is unrecognizable from that which embarked upon a union 31 years ago. The departure of all the leaders that originally threw their respective hats into the ring has provided an opportunity for a recalibration of the bloc. Despite the changes, however, the challenges remain considerable.
In Libya, the only constant amid the shifting sands of revolution and counterrevolution is the unmistakable aspiration of its people to govern themselves. In Tunisia, embattled elected governments have struggled to steer a course toward fiscal independence, and a further influx of Libyan refugees is a burden the nation can ill afford.
A spirited popular uprising in Algeria amazed the world, as the flaws of the country’s creaking governing junta were exposed. In Mauritania, no amount of international aid has been able to markedly improve the country’s developmental challenges, and its economy faces another year of negative economic growth.
Morocco, however, provides a glimmer of hope. Despite its dangerous neighborhood, it has forged ahead as an island of stability in its region, combining its traditions with a bold domestic and foreign policy aimed at improving the old kingdom’s future prospects.
It is in the Libyan context in particular that Morocco can seek to put its positive political and economic experience and aspirations to good use. In 2015 it brokered the Libyan Political Agreement, or Skhirat Agreement, with the aim of “ensuring the democratic rights of the Libyan people, the need for a consensual government based on the principle of the separation of powers.”
The most realistic of the plethora of international efforts to bring about peace in Libya, the agreement fell apart amid the outbreak of a second civil war. The recent escalation of hostilities in Libya worries Morocco and its neighbors, particularly in light of the presence of foreign mercenaries on one side and Turkey’s continual threats that it will attack the city of Sirte and Libya’s oil facilities. These were met by Egyptian threats that it would also intervene militarily.
The countries of the Maghreb will not find peace until they seek a local resolution to their region’s problems, the need for which has never been more pressing.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Given that Egypt’s recent “Cairo Initiative” to resolve the Libyan crisis did not win widespread support, internationally or regionally, there is a real opportunity for Morocco, with the support of its neighbors, to seek a return to the terms agreed at Skhirat.
Morocco is poor in terms of natural resources and relatively stable in comparison with its troubled neighbors. The same is true of Tunisia and Mauritania. This provides a clear opportunity to combine a political solution in Libya with economic incentives.
The countries of the Maghreb will not find peace until they seek a local resolution to their region’s problems, the need for which has never been more pressing. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s recent declaration that “we have no problem with our Moroccan brothers” came at the right time. Should it be his intention to do so, resolving the region’s longest-standing rivalry and ending Algeria’s support for the rebels opposing its neighbor will go some way to bringing the nations of the Maghreb closer together.
Countless studies have shown that seamless regional trade provides incremental opportunities for growth and stability. The countries of the Maghreb, already united by language and religion, must now harness their shared potential.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid