The Maghreb region currently faces a distinctive combination of security threats – socio-political transformation sparked by the recent wave of pro-democratic movements that have spread across the entire North Africa and Middle East coupled with the ‘frozen’ border disputes and territorial conflicts which seriously undermine all efforts at regional integration.
The upsurge of democratic aspirations and movements in the region reflects the ultimate failure of the existing socio-political systems, while it also constitutes a driving force of change in the Maghreb. The ongoing protests shed light on the long-standing structural, socio-political challenges as well as the grievances of the people across the Maghreb at the regimes’ low regard for human rights, dignity, freedom and social, economic and political justice.
The research paper entitled “The Changing Security Situation in the Maghreb”, prepared by an international expert team and recently published in the Prague-based Association for International Affairs, argues that “the current status quo in this region is no longer sustainable.” What are the risks and what would be the costs of maintaining the current status quo? To find out, consider the tumultuous developments in Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian military is now standing at a historical junction as it faces the choices of either functioning as the agent of change or maintaining status quo in the country.
It is not yet clear as to whether its recent undertaken actions and steps can be interpreted as the beginning of a genuine transition to a more-democratic system of government or simply a shuffling of the aging stalwarts of Mubarak‘s regime. While the army officially embraces change, it seems to have generally sought to slow down the process of structural changes within the regime. The recent new wave of unrest in the streets of Cairo has highlighted the growing frustration among the Egyptian people at the perceived lack of political will on the part of the ruling military council to complete the post-Mubarak transition and at its failure to prosecute the former president.
The protestors on the Tahrir Square are increasingly skeptical that the regime can change itself from within. Moreover, the authoritarian regimes across North Africa and the Middle East would only bet at their own peril that the pro-democracy protests will fade as demonstrators grow weary. Earlier, President Ben Ali of Tunisia had learned this lesson the hard way. Also Leaders in neighboring Algeria may soon find that its population is not as complacent as it may seem to be but that, in fact, the Algerian revolution is, as one recent commentary asserted, “slowly finding its way via the structures of civil society”. History offers plenty of evidence that if the regime fails to keep pace with the demands of its people, it is bound to lose its legitimacy while the protesters would sooner or later return to the streets.
Ultimately, there is some hope that the newly empowered Maghrebian people, weary of the protracted territorial and border disputes that have hampered regional cooperation and integration, will also be the catalyst of change for the transformation of the region to a more stable, peaceful and prosperous place. The current wave of pro-democratic movements has somewhat overshadowed the persisting and deep-rooted territorial problems and ‘frozen’ border disputes, namely the question of Western Sahara. In fact, it could be argued that the democratic aspirations sweeping across the region have now assumed a relatively greater significance and thus could be placed above the ‘frozen’ border issues and territorial disputes in the Maghreb.
Why? Simply because the ongoing ‘frozen’ border disputes do not influence the people’s democratic aspirations but they rather work the other way round. In particular, the democratic aspirations will ultimately lead to free elections and it will be these newly elected leaders, parliamentarians and policy-makers, who will – with a clear democratic mandate of the people – sit down at the negotiating table and seek a way out of the current impasse. Admittedly, this scenario is based on the premise that finding a long-term, sustainable solution to the territorial disputes, without a resort to violence or drumming up nationalist fervor is what the Maghrebian electorate will resolutely demand from its leaders.
Having said that, this does not mean that the question of Western Sahara has lost some of its urgency. On the contrary, the ‘frozen’ border disputes continue to hamper all attempts at meaningful and effective regional integration that, if attained, would significantly contribute to economic prosperity and socio-political stability in the region. And this is where the important role of the European Union comes into the picture. The EU should seize this opportunity and take the lead instead of being dragged along by events.
Firstly, Brussels should look forward and not hesitate to encourage the Maghrebian countries to adopt a daring vision of further regional integration short of the EU’s enlargement (if only for its own greedy self-interest because the Maghreb is perhaps the only area for substantial expansion of the sluggish European economies for many years to come). Secondly, the EU should support the democratization process and economic development in the region as human security-centered issues. Finally, the Central and East European countries should launch an “experience sharing process” with the Maghreb region that would benefit from the CEE countries’ knowledge and experience in the process of social, political and economic transformation following the fall of communism in 1989. This would allow the North African countries to avoid some of the pitfalls that line the tortuous path from an authoritarian to a democratic regime.
Daniel Novotný is a member of the Association for International Affairs Prague, an Endeavour Research Fellow at Monash University and a lecturer at Deakin University, Melbourne.