Maghreb Union embraces a ‘no-victor, no vanquished’ approach

Algeria’s efforts to stymie the five-member union with a three-member breakaway group have been thankfully thwarted

Maghreb Union embraces a ‘no-victor, no vanquished’ approach

In late May, North African media reported an unexpected announcement from Tunisian President Kais Saied. Saied's proposal for a new Secretary-General for the Arab Maghreb Union had been approved by the leaders of the five-member union: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania.

The decision aligned with the provisions of the Marrakech Treaty, which designated Tunisia as the Secretary-General of the Maghreb Union, which is headquartered in Rabat, the Moroccan capital.

Analysts interpreted the Tunisian initiative as a rebellion against Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s proposal to establish a new bloc comprising Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia but excluding Morocco and Mauritania.

Risking fragmentation

This idea of a separate Maghreb ‘bloc’ emerged during a meeting in March on the sidelines of a gas summit in Algeria, attended by Saied and Libyan Council President Mohamed Younes al-Menfi. It aimed to create a nucleus for a distinct regional alliance with different structures and objectives and coincided with the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Arab Maghreb Union.

Yet a swift succession of regional, Arab, and international events—including the Gaza conflict, Middle Eastern tensions, and the Ukraine war—challenged the practicality and timing of the Algerian initiative.

More broadly, such endeavours risk exacerbating fragmentation within the Maghreb and the broader Arab world, increasing vulnerability to external shocks, from geopolitical realignment to the resurgence of far-right extremism in Europe. This includes the intensifying competition between foreign powers across Africa, notably impacting the Sahel countries on the southern periphery of the Maghreb.

Chance to revitalise

The appointment of Tunisian diplomat Tarek Ben Salem as the new secretary-general has sparked hope of averting further escalation in the region and of revitalising the union, previously characterised as stagnant or defunct. The positive response underscores sentiments and aspirations for unity, even amid diplomatic conflicts, political hostilities, and military tensions.

The union was formed in Marrakech in the late 1980s during the reigns of Morocco’s King Hassan II, Algeria’s President Chadli Bendjedid, and Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, which later became known as an era of relative consensus. However, Algeria’s government has most recently expressed discontent with the union, which it sees as offering a regional advantage to its rival, Morocco.

The appointment of Tarek Ben Salem as the new secretary-general of the Arab Maghreb Union has sparked hope of averting further escalation in the region.

Algeria cannot prevent Tunisia from appointing the head of the union, nor can it deter Libya from pursuing closer ties with Morocco, which hosted Libyan reconciliation conferences near its capital. Recent economic and trade rapprochements between Tunisia and Libya to the east and Morocco and Mauritania to the west have complicated this strategy.

Diplomatic games

The recent China-Arab summit in Beijing in May reaffirmed its support for Morocco and its role in mediating the Libyan crisis. Tripoli sent a senior envoy to Rabat, delivering a message to King Mohammed VI expressing Libya's commitment to the five-member union. The message emphasised the need to revitalise the union's structures to benefit the people of the Maghreb. Union aims include stability, security, economic and social development, integration, and inclusion.

Seizing the momentum, Tunisia—possibly advised by Arab or Western diplomats—quickly appointed a successor to Ambassador Taieb Baccouche, whose term ended in July 2022 and who was not fully aligned with Algeria. Tunisia's President Kais Saied is banking on the union's revival to bring economic benefits to Tunisia, such as by reactivating the Maghreb Trade and Investment Bank.

A moody member

Algeria is less keen on regional economic integration because it focuses on gas exports to the European Union. In October 2021, it ceased operations of the gas pipeline between the Arab Maghreb and Europe, cutting off natural gas supplies to Morocco and impeding its economic and development projects.

Algeria also prohibited flights, boycotted goods and commodities, held conferences, and even held sports events, refusing to engage with any sports team wearing a jersey displaying the map of Morocco, including the Western Sahara. Officials in Algeria want to weaken Morocco economically and fragment it geographically because this enhances Algeria's influence.

However, recent trade breakthroughs between Tunisia and Libya to the east—and Morocco and Mauritania to the west— have complicated this strategy.

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