Tuesday, March 2, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — Efforts to form a cohesive bloc among five North African coastal nations have stumbled into obstacles that no one seems capable of removing.

They include the intractable quarrel between Algeria and Morocco over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, Algeria’s Islamic insurgency and Morocco’s chasm between rich and poor, exploited by the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.

Western analysts see Libya’s return to the international community and Tunisia’s continuing political stability as the only encouraging signs in the vast area stretching from the Libyan desert to Morocco’s Atlantic coast and known as the Maghreb — the land where the sun sets.

What has become known as the Union of Greater Maghreb comprises, from east to west, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania.

Last December, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali invited his Maghreb colleagues and five heads of European states facing North Africa to a conference. The idea was to build political and economic bridges across the western Mediterranean, a center of the civilized world in antiquity.

The summit, known since as “the five plus five,” ended in mutual congratulations, North African hopes for easier access to European markets, and European reluctance to make commitments that would bypass the European Union on the eve of expansion.

Nonetheless, to Western diplomats, the Tunisian idea represented a step forward, even though, three months later, there is little to show besides several communiques and plans for more meetings.

While the European partners of “five plus five” — Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Malta — await the EU’s May 1 expansion from 15 to 25 members, the Maghreb has become resigned to individual quests for a better future.

Tunisian experts are generally pessimistic — not about their own country, but about what they call “the rough neighborhood” around them.

The Tunisians are particularly concerned about neighboring Algeria’s erratic turbulence, convinced that the Islamic revolt there is far from being stifled. Senior Tunisian officials are also perturbed by what one described as the erosion of influence, particularly among the young, of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, which they fear is likely to fuel extremism.

Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya no longer worries the Tunisian government. The often-erratic strongman’s decision to abandon his nuclear program, and the multibillion-dollar compensation to the families of victims of two aircraft explosions blamed on Libyan terrorists, further pushed the door open to Libya’s full partnership with the West.

Moreover, Tunisia was comforted by what political commentator Samir Gharbi described as “the beginning of a honeymoon between Libya and the United States.”

Senior Tunisian officials view the problem of Algeria with considerable concern. They feel the Algerian military elite is ossified and corrupt, and that no significant changes are likely after the April presidential elections expected to return President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to power for another term. The role of the military in the election campaign remains murky.

Although Mr. Ben Ali, prior to his recent state visit to Washington, said in an interview that “terrorism and extremism are nothing but accidental phenomena” that Tunisia has eradicated, he warned that “the danger of terrorism transcends borders and requires diligent action and constant caution.”

While banning political parties using religion in their platforms — meaning Islam, in the Tunisian context — the Ben Ali government has undertaken wide-ranging reforms that have turned the nation of 9.6 million into the best-educated in the Arab world.

The advancement of women was a major factor in the reforms — which, in addition, created an effective barrier against the Islamic fanatics who, in the 1980s, were poised to seize power in Tunisia.

Along the Algerian border, Tunisia has deployed protective measures from the forest-covered mountains in the north to the sands of the Sahara in the south. These include what a senior official described as “a triple security belt,” consisting of police and customs posts in the first line, followed by units of the paramilitary national guard, and finally, of military bases scattered along the border.

Because of its geographic size — five times that of France — a population of 30 million, and considerable oil reserves, Algeria has been singled out as the primary target of fundamentalist extremists. The decision was made in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, by a shadowy group calling itself “the Fundamentalist International.”

A guerrilla and terrorist war spread throughout Algeria in the 1990s, and by now has caused over 100,000 deaths — some caused by the army and security forces punishing villages for harboring fundamentalist militants.

Mr. Bouteflika’s critics claim he pays too much attention to foreign policy, and hardly any to basic issues like the economy, education and unemployment. Some, like Said Sadi, head of the Rally for Democracy and Culture, describe the diminutive Algerian president as “a pocket Stalin.”

Mr. Bouteflika’s image has been tarnished by accusations of corruption within his family and political entourage, although the president himself is rarely so accused.

The substantial income from oil and natural-gas exports has hardly filtered through to Algeria’s population. It has enriched a small elite and paid for the army of 127,500 troops, and a security apparatus consisting of 60,000 paramilitary gendarmes, 20,000 members of the national security corps and 1,200 presidential guards.

All have been hunting down Islamic guerrillas in the mountainous and desert terrain, where from 1954 to 1962, the half-million-strong French army battled Algerian rebels fighting for independence.

The war for independence succeeded, mainly because of external political pressures, but afterward Algeria was plunged into a series of crises and internecine strife.

Farther west, in Morocco, the parliament moved in November to reform the “Moudawana” family code, for the first time introducing the concept of equality between men and women — 50 years behind Tunisia.

Moroccan traditionalists and hard-liners voiced objections, but without affecting the vote, described as the most important since Mohammed VI succeeded his late father, Hassan II, in August 1999.

Under the new law, the woman is an equal partner in marriage and can legally marry without the approval of her father or another male member of the family.

This January, the king pardoned 33 political prisoners and promised to “restore dignity and heal the wounds of the past” — when opponents of the regime were incarcerated for years under medieval conditions.

Last year, however, Moroccan authorities made many arrests and carried out quick trials of suspects after the May terrorist attack that killed 45 persons and wounded about 100 in the Atlantic port of Casablanca.

Moreover, the young king has remained adamant about the future of Western Sahara, which Morocco seized after Spain left in 1976. This poisoned the kingdom’s relations with Algeria, which backs the Polisario Front, a guerrilla movement that had declared the region independent. The Polisario forces set up bases in Algeria, and for years harassed Moroccan troops dug in behind a fortified berm.

King Mohammed vowed to continue his father’s policy in Western Sahara, declaring: “I have settled the Sahara question … . We agree to a fair solution within the framework of Moroccan sovereignty.”

Because neither Algeria nor Morocco is willing to compromise on Western Sahara, the dream of a “greater Maghreb” has remained what some call “a paper camel.”

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