After months of tussling, everyone’s a winner at the Maghreb Union

In an organisation whose five members seem to be forever fighting, agreeing on anything is an achievement. The election of a please-all technocrat lets all parties sleep at night.

After months of tussling, everyone’s a winner at the Maghreb Union

In late May, the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that diplomat Tarek Ben Salem would be the new Secretary-General of the Arab Maghreb Union.

His appointment is noteworthy for two reasons. First, this is a choice based on administrative and technical capabilities and will benefit the union in this respect. Second, it is a settlement position, allowing each party to claim a victory from the process. Alas, this ensures that the union’s existence and relevance remain minimal.

The appointment garnered widespread attention across the Maghreb due to its context. A month earlier, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had called for the establishment of a North African bloc. That bloc would have comprised Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya (omitting Algeria’s main rival, Morocco). Yet the idea soon floundered. Mauritania dissented, calling it a “divisive option”. Morocco, meanwhile, considered it a direct challenge.

No-one’s victory

Politically and diplomatically, Tarek Ben Salem’s appointment has been interpreted as the quiet burial of Algeria’s initiative. It is also being seen as confirmation of the union’s continuation in its current format and with its five-member composition: Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Mauritania.

Morocco cleverly marketed the appointment as a reshuffling of cards, thereby seemingly validating its opposition to any Algerian-led parallel bloc. Rabat now claims success at dismantling the nascent Tunisian-Algerian-Libyan alliance.

Yet diplomats see this as neither a Moroccan victory, nor an Algerian defeat, nor a Tunisian “submission”, as was claimed by some. High-level sources told Al Majalla that the proposal to appoint Tarek Ben Salem was made over a year ago but was delayed by Moroccan reservations. Rabat had been insisting on Taieb Baccouche, an ally (and an Algerian adversary).

Tarek Ben Salem's appointment signals a continuation of the Arab Maghreb Union's current five-member composition: Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Mauritania.

Alongside Morocco's longstanding animosity towards Algeria, the Kingdom has also fallen out with Tunisia, after Tunisian President Kais Saied received a Polisario Front representative. The Polisario Front claims Western Sahara, as does Morocco. Officials in Rabat, therefore, used the  secretary-general's appointment to put pressure on Tunisia after both countries withdrew their respective ambassadors. Morocco argued that the top union position should go to Mauritania. A personal envoy from the Mauritanian president was duly sent to present his country's candidate to his Tunisian counterpart.

Breaking with tradition

The union's founding Marrakech Agreement stipulates that the position of secretary-general should rotate among the members, and it was Tunisia's turn. Morocco's proposal of a deviation was, therefore, unprecedented.

Tunisia also deviated from tradition to some degree. Union secretary-generals typically have a wealth of national political experience on which to draw, often having held prominent government positions with regional influence. This is not the resumé of technocrat Tarek Ben Salem.

Many dismiss the union as irrelevant because decision-making requires unanimity among the five members, who appear to be in a permanent state of squabble. Senior officials told Al Majalla that the previous secretary-general tried unsuccessfully to change things by removing each member's veto. Yet this mechanism, while increasing stagnation and paralysis, also prevents the creation of alliances within the bloc.

Algeria accepted Tarek Ben Salem's appointment in part to distance itself from accusations that it was trying to create an alternative and in part because it felt a Tunisian would look kindly on Algerian proposals.

Libya, which is set to host the next meeting in July, played a mediating role in the run-up to the appointment, liaising with Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, while Mauritania demonstrated its commitment to quiet diplomacy by withdrawing its candidate once a consensus had been reached.

For now, the Arab Maghreb Union has avoided dissolution and preserved its five-member structure, with no break-ups or expansions. On Egypt's one-time proposal to join the union, the late Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba once said: "The Mahgreb borders stop where couscous stops."

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