Democracy promotion is, at least for now, dead. Long live the market! This seems to be the unwritten rule of engagement increasingly informing French and European relations with the countries of the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauretania). The conviction that business and trade is a potential peace-builder between Europe and North Africa appears to be driving president Sarkozy’s vision for consolidating France’s role in this part of the Arab World. Maghrebi statesmen are being receptive for their own reasons. French and Maghrebin agendas, based on realism and pragmatism, call for explication.
These agendas are anchored in at least four important historical moments: The Iraq War and the resurgence of US ‘hyper-power’ in 2003; the demise of democracy promotion beginning in 2006; increasing Maghrebin isolation in Arab League affairs; and the steep rise of oil prices.
Each of these four moments constitutes at once a problem and an opportunity. The Iraq War of 2003 was a liability for regimes resembling that of Saddam Hussein. The lesson that military defeat, even if not UN-mandated, can be brought down upon so-called rogue or pariah states became an incentive for those seeking rehabilitation into the international community. Libya, in particular, absorbed this lesson intelligently. Concerned for his political survival, Libyan President Gaddafi moved to avoid a repeat of the US 1986 bombing of Tripoli or meeting his end ‘caught like a rat’ in the bottom of a hole.
France finds itself after 2003 in a world marked by the ascent of Anglo-American influence. France sees this influence as having advanced at its expense not only in Iraq, but also in North Africa, a zone long considered to be France’s backyard. Under the banner of the War on Terror, the US has strengthened its military relations with Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia; signed a Free Trade Agreement with Morocco; and is setting up an Africa Command. President Sarkozy’s intense southern diplomacy, couched in the context of his proposal to establish a ‘Mediterranean Union’, is aimed at reversing this perceived or real threat to its historic North African influence. Fear of US ‘hyper-power’ also strikes a chord with most, if not all, Maghrebin states.
Both France and the Maghreb have been dealt blows in the international relations regime of the post Iraq invasion world. France is turning to the Maghreb to redeploy its resources (political, economic, cultural, historical, and military) where they can potentially yield assured dividends. This is being executed not only as an antidote to US foreign policy in the post-Iraq world, but also as a mode for renegotiating and renewing its postcolonial claim to a ‘natural’ sphere of influence in the Maghreb. US security and economic thrusts into the Maghreb challenged France’s historical free hand in the Maghreb. What Chirac’s France had lost to the US after 2003, President Sarkozy is seeking to compensate for by returning to one of the ‘basics’ of French foreign-policy: the restoration of the Maghreb as a prime zone of influence as in the Gaullist era.
Indeed, the US casts its shadow on most of the Arab world today, with its bases increasingly dotting territories from Kuwait to Morocco. Bases in varying degree of size and strategic importance exist in the Maghreb region, and Maghrebi states (except Libya) conduct joint military exercises with the US. But this is almost a ritual--a minimalist act of faith in the war against terror in order to register their position with the US and not against it. Algeria, the country courted even more than Morocco to host a large US base for containing and operating against terrorism in the whole of Africa, has thus far resisted full ‘militarization’. So far, Maghrebin states have refused to tread the path of some Arab Gulf states of housing large US bases. Not even the rising threat of the so-called ‘Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (QIM) seems to justify in Maghrebin eyes the US proposal of a large military base in Algeria flanked by smaller bases in Morocco and Tunisia.
Of course, the Maghreb is not a monolith. Interests differ. Each country pursues a separate security agenda with the US. Each security agenda subsumes a political agenda and assesses liability and opportunity differently. Algeria has palpably suffered from terrorism in a way that Morocco, Libya and Tunisia have not. Apart from competing with Morocco for attention in Washington (especially over the Western Sahara problem) and for leading power status in the Maghreb, Algeria seeks from military co-operation with the US a revival of its status as a global player who had distinction in the past in mediating international conflicts (e.g. the Iran-Iraq War). In addition, Algeria’s oil and gas riches enable it to bolster its regional and international significance.
Morocco’s diplomats realize the dividends to be had from military co-operation with the US in pursuit of its most coveted prize: closure of the Western Sahara dossier through international backing of its autonomy proposal for the disputed territory’s people. Ideally, the Moroccans would wish for the US to reciprocate Rabat’s unequivocal stance against anti-US terror by having Washington declare the Algerian backed Polisario as terrorists. Just as the US has declared the extremists fighting the Algerian state terrorists.
The Tunisians reap the benefits of security and development co-operation with the US. However, they keep these relations to a minimum, at least in comparison with Algeria, Morocco and potentially Libya (the other oil-rich state). Tunisia’s relations with the US have a merely diplomatic quality since there are no major trade relations between the two and only secondary security issues. On the other hand, diplomatic ties between Tunisia and the US are amongst the oldest in the Arab world, going back to the ‘Treaty of Amity and Trade’ signed between the US and Tunisia in 1797.
For the Libyans the thaw in relations with the US is a legitimizing political feat. Through a combination of cheque-book diplomacy (e.g. payments to the victims of the Lockerbie bombing), scrapping its entire WMD programme in 2003, a quasi ‘de-ideologization’ of the Gaddafi’s rhetoric, and a cooling off of anti-Western and revolutionary zeal, Libya is once again a ‘good citizen’ in the community of nations, and one that is coveted as a trading partner. Tony Blair’s 2004 visit signalled the onset of a new scramble for a share of Libya’s vast oil and gas reserves. It also hinted at Libya’s rising purchasing power, as the French and the Spanish discovered during Gaddafi’s shopping spree there in December 2007.
In broader terms, the Maghreb (like much of the Arab World) harboured much scepticism toward the Bush administration’s ‘democracy promotion’ agenda. This aspect of US policy seemed even more intrusive than security co-operation. Beyond the doubt as to the US’s motives, democracy promotion seemed also naïve and ineffective. Neither the gradualist and fairly hands-off Barcelona Process launched by the EU in 1995 nor the US-proposed Greater Middle East Initiative launched in 2004 has had a visible impact on polity or society.
Like in the rest of the Arab World, most Maghrebins find little in the troubled unfolding of the Iraqi experiment, the leading ‘workshop’ for democracy promotion in the Arab region, that encourages emulation. Uncertainty, instability, chaos, impoverishment, violence and counter-violence and the prospect of dismemberment all discredit rather than credit democracy promotion. More importantly, the majority of Maghrebins prioritize economic development and stability, more or less, a return to the old ‘paradigm’ – ‘development now, democracy later.’ in terms of political development, the best that can be aimed for in this period is a preservation of electoral gains and a gradual but slow widening of political participation and political liberties.
The Maghreb is not monolithic; however, there seems to be an unwritten pact against ‘militarizing’ the region. Algeria’s past as a staunchly anti-colonial leader in the Third World and a state that still suffers physically and psychologically from the vestiges of colonial rule, including French atomic tests in its desert in the 1950s and 60s, dictate against surrendering ‘independence’ by hosting the kind of military bases found in Qatar or Kuwait. Similarly, Libya’s opposition to foreign bases in the region is strongly informed by its experience under King Idris who partly relied on foreign garrisons for rent-seeking and protection. For now, the Maghrebi modus operandi is to upgrade security co-operation with the US whilst at the same time keeping ‘Uncle Sam’ at arms length, opposing the housing of large-scale military bases.
Against this background, France and the Maghreb return to each other to breathe much missed equilibrium back into their international relations. Despite a troubled colonial past, the Maghreb regards France as without a rival as an indispensable ally. France hosts 6 to 7 million expatriate Maghrebis (including about 2 million clandestine migrants) who not only represent a powerful demographic reality (about 10% of France’s population), but also an economic (skilled and un-skilled labour), cultural (Francophone world, Euro-Islam), and political (voting potential) factor in any power equation in Franco-Maghrebi relations. In these ways, France and the Maghreb countries are very interdependent. For the Maghreb, such a human resource is a vital link in the Franco- and EU-Maghrebin chain of cultural and political rapprochement. Economically, the inflow of remittances and know-how from France to the Maghreb benefits development. The Maghreb can live without the US but not without France. Neither the Arab Gulf nor the US labour markets can absorb a Maghrebi labour force of that size. It is a linchpin in Franco-Maghrebi relations.
On the policy front, the Maghreb is not merely re-inventing its identity along the lines of a passing Mediterranean fad. Rather, capitalizing on historical ties with France, in particular, and the EU, in general, it is deploying existing resources in response to emerging opportunities. To this end, the Maghreb, having been a trailblazer in integrating itself to France and the EU (through the 1995 Tunisian Association Agreement, and the Moroccan AA in 2006), is once again taking the lead in revitalizing ties to a vital political and socio-economic space where it can set to gain from renewed co-operation with France and the EU. In addition to the first association agreements, there is the 5+5 Forum (Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Libya; and Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Malta) that began in 1990 but can be recast as a platform for helping Sarkozy launch his Mediterranean Union. France gains prestige and leadership and the Maghreb gains from a sounding board that becomes a ‘lobbying’ forum on issues regarding migration, tariffs, exports quotas, investment, development aid, cultural exchange, security, and overall upgrading (mise à niveau) policies to bring the Maghreb in line with EU standards in agriculture, the environment, industry, education, and the third sector.
In his ‘charm offensive’ toward the Maghreb states, as well as other Arab countries, Sarkozy has shifted emphasis from the political--and by implication democracy promotion--to the economic. The powerful human rights lobby in Paris could not stop Gaddafi’s visit, disrupt it or cancel the trade agreement resulting from it. In Sarkozy’s Mediterranean, if politics is to be the art of the possible, economics is to be its handmaiden. There is opportunity for both France and the Maghreb in refiguring the fundamentals of political ‘rapprochement’ through market mechanisms.
the flurry of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ visits between both rims of the Mediterranean by Sarkozy soon after his presidential victory in June 2007 and by Gaddafi in December 2007, raised speculation about whether Sarkozy’s and Maghrebi statesmen’s ‘Mediterranean Union’ will become an overwhelming ‘wave’ or ebb into a ‘ripple’ in Franco-Maghrebi relations. The initial signs are that the essence of the 2007 shuttle diplomacy is a set of trade-offs. France wins back a sphere of influence where competition has been mounting from the Americans, enhancing its patronage through economic deals – ‘marketization’ as opposed to democratization. The Maghreb, for its part, regroups around a reliable northern neighbour who can perform the following tasks: continue to host the largest expatriate Maghrebi migrant community in the world; shield the Maghreb by providing a countervailing force against the intrusive US security agenda in the region; lobby on behalf of the Maghreb within the EU at a time when Eastern European labor is beating them out; provide hi-tech and military goods; and help in the quest for nuclear energy (Algeria, Libya and Morocco are all purchasing civilian nuclear reactors from France).
Libya and Algeria, being the region’s hydrocarbon states, are ideal for Sarkozy’s Mediterranean project. Their rent-seeking capacity has risen markedly in a thriving oil market, giving them purchasing power their oil-poor neighbours envy. Petrodollars buy favour and influence in addition to industrial and technological capital needed for development. The surplus from oil rent saw a spendthrift Gaddafi sign deals worth $15 billion in Paris, a fillip for France’s sluggish economy. Morocco, by comparison, signed during Sarkozy’s state October 2007 visit to Rabat a $3 billion agreement for the purchase of trains, planes and a civilian nuclear reactor.
Like Sarkozy, Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez, had lots to thank Gaddafi for – nearly $17 billion to go to companies made up of oil groups (Repsol YPF, Cepsa), defence and aeronautics (EADS). This is what the new realism can look like in practice: business without the old moralism of ‘civilizing missions’ or human rights lecturing – as Gaddafi reminded those French who protested against his visit on humanitarian and democratic grounds. Indeed, Gaddafi does not hold elections; and thus does not have to rig them. He gave up his weapons of mass destruction; he rewarded Sarkozy’s July 2007 visit to Tripoli by handing him over the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor accused of infecting Libyan children with HIV; he paid his dues to the victims of Lockerbie; he severed ties with Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary Front and Liberia’s National Patriotic Front; and he did his time as the head of a pariah and embargoed state.
Now Libya can look forward to full and equal re-integration into Sarkozy’s Greater Mediterranean and the wider EU. The market offers an ‘equality’ that neither politics nor ideology do. As if political economy is being ‘disassembled’ by relegating ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ to separate spheres. Had politics been wedded to economic affairs, France’s agreement to build a civilian nuclear reactor in Libya would have been impossible. The separation may be good for business, but, human rights activists would argue its contradiction with the ‘moral’ agenda. Champions of the market would retort that under-development and the marginalization associated with it are equally ‘immoral.’ This moral dilemma shall no doubt accompany Sarkozy’s vision for a Greater Mediterranean.
Algeria and Morocco will vie for ‘privileged country’ status with France. Like Tunisia, their economic links with France are extensive. About 26% of Algeria’s FDI derives from France. Algeria’s economy ranging from the oil sector, pharmaceuticals (Sanofi Aventis), food (Danone), to the banking sector (BNP, Société Générale) features a significant presence by French companies. Algeria is additionally formidable by its hydrocarbon resources. Some 3 million Algerian expatriate migrants or citizens of Algerian descent live in France. That is, 5 % of France’s population are Algerian. This is a resource no other country possesses in France, and its potential for both development and lobbying remain largely untapped. In other words, despite a bloody French-Algerian colonial history, Algeria has the building blocs for assuming a leading role in Sarkozy’s Greater Mediterranean.
Morocco and Tunisia boast good citizenship in the Euro-Med neighbourhood, the EU’s first ‘candidates’ in association. Unlike Libya and Algeria, both are posts of ‘moderation,’ and both have been reliable Western allies from the time of the Great Wars. Where the two differ is in the fact that Tunisia has maintained good relations with all Maghrebin states. Morocco’s problem is Algeria; and Algeria’s problem is Morocco. There is a quasi arms race between the two as well as a diplomatic race to reach out to Euro-Med powers (e.g. Spain, the former colonial power in the Western Sahara). As the festering sore of Maghrebin relations, the Western Sahara may have to wait for resolution when and if Sarkozy’s Greater Mediterranean gets off the ground. That would be an almost poetic turn of history: the country that united the Maghreb against it as a colonial power in the 20th Century may then unite the Maghreb around its leadership in the 21st, as a peace-maker and a center for development goods and know-how. Like Algeria, Morocco’s expatriate French and European community is vast and its influence is rising in both France and Belgium. Two females of Moroccan and Algerian descent hold portfolios in Sarkozy’s cabinet (respectively, Rachida Dati, Justice Minister; and Fadela Amara, Secretary of State for Urban Affairs).
With only a population of 10 million, Tunisia is dwarfed by its populous Algerian and Moroccan neighbours (each about 35 million). With 10% of its population living within the EU, mostly in France, Tunisia has its own presence within the Euro-Med region. Tunisia views itself, and others tend to concur, as a successful ‘workshop’ in steady and durable development. Being human resources-rich and oil-poor, Tunisia leads the Maghreb in most human development indices, and economically it is on a par with South Africa for the most competitive and productive country in Africa. Like Morocco, it has invested a great deal in cultivating special relations in EU association and, naturally, in closeness with France. Sarkozy announced his Greater Mediterranean plan in Tunis in July 2007. This was no coincidence. Tunis sees eye to eye with Paris on the primacy of development as a peace-builder in the Mediterranean basin. Whilst like its Maghrebin neighbours it seems to be open to security co-operation with the US, Tunisia favours a social justice-focused and development-driven strategy over any military strategy. Indeed no Maghreb state wants to consider the war on terror as its top priority, for the financial burdens of the ‘war on terror’ would harm the civilian economy just create more poverty and hence more fertile ground for extremism. Recent events in Pakistan seem to illustrate their point; their colonial experience left them with the conviction that reliance on policing alone sows the seeds of further polarization, instability, and divisiveness between state and society.
In line with this vision, policy-makers in Tunisia are already discussing the instruments they would contribute to Sarkozy’s Greater Mediterranean when and if it is created. Topping this is a Solidarity Finance Facility for re-investing a portion of debt repayments into development. Another instrument they view as vital for development is a Mediterranean university that synergizes the region’s resources in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, technology and IT. Pooling resources in order to upgrade advanced Learning and teaching for the purpose of development is, the Tunisians argue, the missing link in Euro-Med multilateralism. Last but not least, they propose a dialogue of civilisations facility that would bring the region’s diversity and differences closer together in the service of mutuality and greater understanding.
The conclusion of multi-billion trade deals with French and Spanish capitalists by the once staunchly socialist Gaddafi marks, to an extent, an ‘end of ideology’ in the Maghreb. With every transaction between France and its Maghrebi partners a nail is driven in the coffin of the ideological politics of the past. Arab socialism, pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism are all being traded off for pragmatic statecraft.
The pitching of ‘Arabian tents’ in the heart of Paris and Madrid by the author of the ‘Green Book’, and Sarkozy’s championing of a Mediterranean Union also hint at an ‘end of geography.’ Nothing would millions of ‘harraqah’ (boat-people) of the Maghreb want more from globalization than open European borders, borders standing between them and the putative opportunities to be had in the European Union.
Ironically, France’s efforts to consolidate its influence within a Mediterranean zone is unwittingly helping to enhance the solidarity of the Maghreb states whose 19-year-old union has treaded the same trajectory of all Arab unification projects: incompletion or failure. The potential is there: a total population of nearly 100 million people and thus a vast market place, huge oil and gas reserves (Algeria and Libya), thousands of miles of Mediterranean coast that closely border key EU member states, and undeniably cultural and historical ties whose vestiges and marvels adorn Mediterranean antiquity from Cordova, Granada, and Palermo all the way down south to Leptus Magna, Sabrata and El-Jem.
The flip side of increasing Maghrebin solidarity is the loosening of political ties to their broader pan-Arab milieu; and Sarkozy’s France is helping lead the Maghreb countries away from the Arab fold. This is the most conspicuously obvious and yet un-stated shift in Maghreb-Arab relations. Of course, what transpires from this shift and how dramatic it turns out to be remain unknown factors. However the Maghreb is clearly more interested in its future relationship with Europe than its role in the Arab world.
Fundamentally, the Maghreb has lost its place in Arab affairs. The caprice in setting up and steering the Arab agenda by the US-backed ‘quartet’ (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Jordan) leaves little or nothing for the Maghreb to do beyond futile ‘summiteering.’ All of the hot dossiers of how to deal with Hamas and Hizbollah, how to moderate Syria, how to reconcile the feuding and warring Iraqis, how to resolve the Darfur crisis, how to leverage the Saudi peace plan, and how to rebuild pan-Arab multilateralism have become the exclusive bastion of this quartet.
Exasperation at pan-Arab discord and indifference to the Maghreb’s role in Arab affairs led Tunis to suspend the Arab League Summit in March 2004, although it relented and hosted it again later in the year. The summit held a year later in neighbouring Algeria confirmed that no Maghrebin agenda was to be accorded center stage by the other Arab states. In particular, the proposal for reforming the Arab League was rejected by Egypt who has enjoyed a monopoly over the office of Secretary-General. Algerian Prime Minister Belkhadem’s plan to model the Arab League roughly on the EU with regard to rotation of the office of Secretary-General fell on deaf ears.
Both summits were noted for the absence--or brief appearance of--Arab heads of state. Both were grandly billed as forums for reforming the dying Arab body politic. Both failed. A strong sense of dejá vu sets in with the approaching deadline of the Syrian Summit in late March 2008. Ironically, the US security agenda is all that remains of pan-Arab unity. Arab Ministers of the Interior are the only ones who seem to keep the pan-Arab flame alive. Fighting terrorism commands unlimited resources and attention. The embargo on Gaza and Israeli disproportionate use of force against its civilians, the 2006 33-day bombing of Lebanon, the unfulfilled plans for an Arab common market and an Arab common defence convention are all testaments to the failure of collective Arab action.
For the record, of course, it must be noted that Maghrebi statesmen cannot be absolved from the demise of Arab multilateralism. Gaddafi has elevated divisive theatrics to an art form he seems to reserve for the grand openings of Arab League sessions. The trading of insults between him and then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in the 2003 Cairo Summit was televised live throughout the Arab World.
The point is that the Maghreb’s real involvement in pan-Arab political affairs may be coming to an end. Maghrebi statesmen twinned themselves to the Mashreq and its causes from the height of pan-Arab action against colonial rule. The Maghreb faced a crisis of identity owing to a virile brand of colonialism that only links to the Arab and Islamic heartland in the Mashreq could help to heal. The Maghreb had to reinforce its Arabist and Islamic credentials by engaging itself in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the ideological struggles of the Mashreq.
Only Tunisia’s Bourguiba bucked this trend, advocating peace with Israel as far back as 1965. Algeria and Libya were once member states in the Arab Front of Steadfastness against Israel. Algeria’s Boumedienne committed troops to the 1973 war. Gaddafi has never been cured of his pan-Arabism no matter how hard he seeks to conceal it with pan-Africanism, of which ordinary Libyans are not convinced. He had to invent a ‘plan B’ after his financial and ideological commitment to the Arab Israeli conflict came to an abrupt end following his discord with Sadat over Egypt’s ceasefire in the 1973 war. Morocco, too, saw action in the 1973 October war, and the cause of Jerusalem is adopted by its Sharifi monarchs since the reign of the late Hassan II.
After struggling and ardently embracing a pan-Arab identity during the colonial period, the Maghreb is now re-inventing its identity according to a new realism. This new realism is mediated by the market. The EU model informs the embattled Arab Maghreb Union. It has made a degree of integration between the North African states and the EU as well as between them imperative for re-orienting development away from hollow ideology and emotive ties.
What is exists in terms of Maghreb-Arab relations is being driven by the market. The small oil-rich Gulf states of Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and even Kuwait are becoming important investors in Maghrebin states. Multi-billion dollar projects have already been signed for building enormous tourist resorts in Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. these are bilateral transactions devoid of pan-Arab ideology. What ideology has failed to create in terms of economic integration is today being approached by the market.
The Maghreb has grasped the lesson of diversification. France is irreplaceable as a host for the largest Maghrebi community in the world, and a prime source of all manner of goods – political, military, cultural and economic. But the Gulf states are emerging as formidable investors who provide, in parallel with the French and the EU, added value to Maghrebi economies. As such they are quickly catching up to the French and the EU as prime sources of foreign direct investment.
Sarkozy’s arrival on the scene, which has enthused Maghrebin statesmen, is timely. His vision of a ‘Mediterranean Union’, which is viewed sceptically by powerful EU member states such as Germany, coincides not only with the readmission of Libya into the community of nation-states, but also with the windfall from hikes in the price of petroleum benefiting some countries of the Maghreb (namely, Algeria and Libya), and the prioritization of economic over political development in the region. Whilst still hazy, Sarkozy’s plan is for the market to facilitate the flow of investment and growth (including employment) in a way that gives prospective Euro-Med partners a stake in stability and cross-Mediterranean peace. To an extent, Sarkozy’s approach approximates the Maghrebi view that development is potentially a peace-builder, including in the fight against terrorism. But just as the market is assumed to distribute development and welfare goods, it is equally, and perhaps naively, assumed to disperse power away from the centre in a way that in the long run democratizes. But for that to happen, only stable and effective states can act as progenitors of growth and eventually political development. This explains why the ‘Makhzan’ (centre) in all Maghrebi states is, in varying degrees, ‘re-centralizing’, with elections (Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia) or without them (Libya).
The current inheritor of Bonaparte’s mantle of leadership in France seems not to be driven by illusions of grandeur in his bid to rebuild anew Franco-Maghrebi relations. Sarkozy values them as an end in themselves as well as a foundation on which to create a Mediterranean Union. His vision may indirectly pander to the French Revolution’s ideals of liberté, egalité, fraternité. With regard to liberty, the market shall for now rule. It is back to the basics of laissez-faire – as a guarantor of peace and development for all. What is certain is that France’s vision would naturally aim to re-establish, and perhaps deservedly, herself as ‘first amongst equals’ in Sarkozy’s Greater Mediterranean. That would be one way of re-launching and revitalizing France’s role in North Africa as to stem or limit the tide of Americanism creeping into the Maghreb.
The ethic of fraternity
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