- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2000

TUNIS, Tunisia Despite ringing appeals for unity, the North African nations known as the Maghreb "the place where the sun seats" seem to be drifting apart.
Ethnic and religious bonds notwithstanding, their planned union is plagued by such strong divisive factors as different ideologies, political cultures and attitudes toward Islamic fundamentalism, as well as frontier disputes.
Initially, Maghreb was a term used to describe the former French protectorates of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria the latter was considered to be part of France until its 1962 independence.
The founding charter in 1989 of what is now known as the Arab Maghreb Union (French acronym UMA) also includes Col. Moammer Gadhafi's Libya and the small desert republic of Mauritania, which unlike the others is geographically south rather than north of the Sahara Desert.
Their leaders have signed 343 protocols theoretically leading toward economic unity. Now the process is stuck because of Morocco's continuing occupation of Western Sahara and Algeria's backing of desert tribes known as the Sahrawi, which demand an independent republic.

'A paper camel'

Some North African officials bluntly admit that unless the problem is solved, the Arab Maghreb Union will remain "a paper camel."
At a speech last week marking his 13 years in power, Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali declared that after 11 years of efforts, "It is unacceptable that we should be prevented by transitory difficulties from resuming our progress."
And he added:
"It is therefore necessary and urgent at this stage that we take our union out of the state of lethargy in which it is, that we compensate for lost time and join efforts to finalize its construction and buttress its foundations."
To many Western diplomats and other observers, the union's foundations need more than "buttressing." And some feel that Mr. Ben Ali's appeal is from a lonely voice in the desert railing against what one specialist described as "Algeria's reluctance and Morocco's indifference."
Despite such assessments, Mr. Ben Ali has been a persistent advocate of Maghreb unity, saying the idea "fits into the patterns of the present-day changes, marked by the emergence of regional groupings."

Libya looks southward

Little is being heard from Mauritania, and Libya richest of the Maghreb states has pointedly turned its attention southward.
Officials of the various Maghreb institutions say they have encountered no obstacles from Libya's mercurial leader, who last year described Arab unity as a mirage and said he would have nothing to do with the Arabs because "I am an African."
"I have always found Col. Gadhafi cooperative," Mohammed Amamou, UMA's Tunisian secretary-general, said in an interview. He feels that "fragmented, the Maghreb means nothing. In view of the world's evolution, our only hope is to pull together."
Mr. Amamou has a lofty vision of the five Maghreb nations united economically, with a joint population of 75 million and likely to reach 80 million next year, gross domestic product of $153 billion and trade relations with the outside world worth $73 billion annually.
He pointed out, however, that between 85 percent and 90 percent of their trade is with Europe rather than with one another, and that their per capita income varies from $7,000 for oil-rich Libya to $500 in impoverished Mauritania, where 70 percent of the country's 2.2 million people have no access to health services and 63 percent lack running water.

Shared French method

The former French possessions of the Maghreb have retained French methods and administrative systems, and to this day use French technical and professional terminology. In that sense, their Francophone heritage should have helped their cooperation.
Algeria and Libya are blessed with oil, but their sizable petrodollar revenues have yet to filter down to the population.
Libya recently emerged from the shadows of international ostracism and is making efforts to improve ties and business relations with several West European countries.
Algeria has been profoundly marked by eight years of intense Islamic terror, which has left the country numb, its social and educational system in tatters and the bulk of the population living below the accepted poverty level.
Although the intensity of terrorism has considerably subsided in recent months, the wounds are not healed and the possibility of more strife haunts the country. According to Lakhdar Benchiba, an Algerian journalist, "it is no longer a state of war, but neither is it a state of peace."

Algeria's income gap

The former French possessions of the Maghreb have retained French methods and administrative systems, and to this day use French technical and professional terminology. In that sense, their Francophone heritage should have helped their cooperation.
Algeria and Libya are blessed with oil, but their sizable petrodollar revenues have yet to filter down to the population.
Libya recently emerged from the shadows of international ostracism and is making efforts to improve ties and business relations with several West European countries.
Algeria has been profoundly marked by eight years of intense Islamic terror, which has left the country numb, its social and educational system in tatters and the bulk of the population living below the accepted poverty level.
Although the intensity of terrorism has considerably subsided in recent months, the wounds are not healed and the possibility of more strife haunts the country. According to Lakhdar Benchiba, an Algerian journalist, "it is no longer a state of war, but neither is it a state of peace."Algeria's income gap A large portion of the revenue from Algeria's oil and gas exports is used for the armed forces and security apparatus, and some is said to end up in the pockets of the military elite backing the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
When the school year opened this year, an estimated 2.2 million children of the poor required a special state subsidy to buy pads and pencils.
"Many families, mainly in the countryside, simply could not afford to send their children to school," Mr. Benchiba said.
At the same time, he added, "in the cities, the newly rich ostentatiously brandish their prosperity with their extravagant villas, white-coated servants and expensive cars."
Such glaring contrasts can also be seen in Morocco, where young King Mohammed VI, on the throne for 16 months, has yet to live up to his promise that he also will be the "monarch of the poor."
According to Fouad Abdelmouni, one of Morocco's leading Islamic militants, 65 percent of Moroccans live below the poverty level, bolstering the fundamentalist movement.
"Our [militant Islam's] strength lies in the absence of democracy and in Morocco's perpetually unsolved economic, social and political problems," he said.

Tunisia values schooling

Tunisia alone stands out as moving toward prosperity, although it lacks natural resources and claims its wealth lies in its educated population.
With one third of its budget earmarked for education, Tunisia has created a modest but satisfied middle class, is actively promoting the rise of women in business and government, and constantly receives high grades from international lending institutions.
Above all, the government of President Ben Ali says it has successfully "inoculated" the population against Islamic fundamentalism, banning all its forms in public and official life.
The strong-arm measures opposing Islamic fundamentalists have prompted accusations from European liberals that Tunisia has a regimented government that deprives its citizens of freedom of expression.

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