ISSN 2330-717X

Reflections On The Maghreb – Analysis


The geographical limits of the Maghreb are difficult to define. A distinction is made between a central Maghreb composed of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, which covers an area of 3 million square kilometers, or more than five times the size of France, and a large Maghreb that covers, with Mauritania and Libya in addition, an area of approximately 5.7 million square kilometers. The term Maghreb – and not North Africa, which includes Egypt but excludes Mauritania – generally refers to the central Maghreb, which forms a relatively homogeneous whole; but it also sometimes refers to the greater Maghreb, which has been an institutional reality since the creation of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) in 1989. This Maghreb group, concentrated on the northwestern part of the African continent, is marked by its proximity to Europe and its membership in the Mediterranean civilization.


Rising conflicts and current political developments

The Maghreb region or the Greater Maghreb, which includes Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, has become one of the most volatile geopolitical frontiers in the past decade. This vast area inhabited by some 101 million people – eighty percent of them in Algeria and Morocco – is landlocked between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert, and separates southern Europe from the Sahel.

Maghreb countries of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia. Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Maghreb countries of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The Maghreb is one of the most conflict-ridden regions on the planet, with a wide range of structural problems: from poverty to corruption, unemployment, economic and social inequality, technological deficits, underdeveloped education and infrastructure, food insecurity, and water stress, which will be one of the world’s greatest by 2040. (1)

At the end of August 2021, Algiers decided to break off diplomatic relations with Rabat before closing its airspace to all Moroccan aircraft a month later. With air links between Casablanca and Algiers already suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the decision should only marginally affect air traffic. But Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra has also indicated his intention not to renew a major contract for the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline (GME), which has linked Algerian fields to Europe via Morocco since 1996 and which expires at the end of October 2021. (2)

Decades of instability in the region have greatly reduced trade between the two countries. In 2020, the volume of trade barely exceeded 500 million euros, or 1% of Morocco’s imports and exports, according to the Moroccan foreign exchange office. A paltry amount when compared, for example, to trade between the Sherifian kingdom and its neighbor Spain, which reached 13.5 billion euros in 2020. Morocco mainly imports hydrocarbons from Algeria and exports metals, fertilizers and textile products to its eastern neighbor.

However, the official figures do not take into account smuggling, which has developed at the border, as well as companies operating in the informal sector to avoid administrative constraints, such as Moroccan VSEs working in the field of construction and crafts in Algeria. “The problem is that it is necessary to go through Marseille to send the goods. Obviously, the cost of transport is reflected on the final cost and faced with competition from China and Turkey, it is discouraging. So, many are forced to go through the smuggling routes or simply give up, “regrets an entrepreneur who had tried the adventure on the other side of the border, before giving up. (3)


Until 2016, however, a year that saw a resurgence of tensions in the region, Algeria was Morocco’s leading trading partner in Africa. A position since taken over by Egypt and Côte d’Ivoire.  Diplomatic tensions are increasingly felt on the ground, on both sides. Containers are stopped at customs for no reason. More and more paperwork is required and it takes a lot of time at the risk of losing the perishable goods.

Diplomatic frictions are paralyzing the development of an economic union in this region, which shares the same problems: endemic unemployment among young people and graduates, the water crisis, the consequences of Covid-19 on investments and tourism, etc. According to a prospective report by the World Bank published in 2006, economic integration of the Maghreb could have increased per capita GDP by 34% for Algeria, 27% for Morocco and 24% for Tunisia, which is indirectly impacted by regional instability: (4)

“This report on the new vision for Magreb economic integration argues that assessing the benefits from regional integration can best be done in the context of the broader issues of economic integration in the world economy and more specifically with the main trading partner, the European Union. Based on empirical evidence the paper finds that there is limited potential for intraregional merchandise trade integration in the Maghreb. The report also alerts that benefits from deeper economic integration are no means automatic. Several worldwide studies have argued that weaknesses in the investment climate not only hinder a country’s imports and inward foreign direct investment, they also deter exports from enterprises operating in the domestic economy (World Bank, 2005). Service liberalization requires complementary policies and effective regulation, ranging from prudential regulation to pro-competitive regulation in telecommunications. The concluding message emerging from the analysis is that a strategy focusing on service sector and investment climate reforms aimed at facilitating market competition and contestability would improve growth, trade and investment performance in the Maghreb, bringing greater economic gains than would be derived from merchandise trade liberalization alone. ‘’

However, the much-desired integration has not materialized and little has changed since. (5)

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that a Maghreb union would have increased the five countries of the region (including Libya and Mauritania) by the equivalent of 5% of their combined gross domestic product.

On the importance of the Maghreb in the world, Haim Malka writes: (6)

‘’After decades on the margins of the Arab world, what happens in North Africa’s Maghreb region now reaches into its core. Since December 2010 much has changed. Libya is divided by civil war and is destabilizing its neighbors, political Islamists won elections in Morocco, and Tunisia is on a fragile path toward more representative government after decades of dictatorship. These trends, combined with regional uncertainty, turmoil, and competition, increasingly affect the interests of a wide range of actors. No longer an outlier, the Maghreb is now an important strategic component of new regional alignments that have been coalescing since the uprisings. ‘’

The system of governance and the narratives for development

The differences in the political systems of the Maghreb countries go back to independence and the divergent political choices made at the time. Algeria chose the socialist path, Tunisia the liberal path, like Morocco but with a different political functioning, while Libya remains politically unclassifiable. Mauritania is based on tribal structures, with a state that struggles to form a base, while Tunisia and Morocco have managed to maintain an overall coherence that shapes their political systems, even if Tunisia now tends to pervert its own mode of operation. Bourguiba had tried to lay the foundations of a modern, liberal and republican state. Today, we are witnessing a return to despotism with president Kaïs Saïed and his constitutional coup d’état of July 25, 2021. (7) 

On the other hand, Morocco has kept this overall consistency. At independence, it opted for a liberal system and constitutionalized it by banning the single party. Since then, the country has not fundamentally changed. The same structuring logic has shaped the Moroccan political system since independence. 

Algeria is sliding towards liberalism and privatization of the public system, abandoning the socialist path chosen at independence but the army is still heavily in power and the masses have rejected this governance through massive street demonstrations since 2019, known as Hirak or the” Smile Revolution”. (8) As for Libya, the decline of Qaddafi did not bring peace, as hoped by the people, but more turmoil and the country is still struggling to set up an acceptable governance in spite of help from other Maghreb countries, Europe, the UN, etc.

The Maghreb thus presents a conglomerate of political systems that operate differently. The analysis becomes even more complicated when one takes into account the significant gap in the five Maghreb countries – and especially in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – between the texts and the actual political functioning. This hiatus makes the Maghreb political systems difficult to understand: a new outside observer always encounters difficulties in understanding the relationship between the citizen and the administration, between men and women, between the population and religion, the state, power, etc. Morocco is often presented as a state of freedom, democracy and justice, a state governed by the rule of law. However, the lack of respect for the law is legion. From this point of view, the Tunisian situation is worse; the judicial system is locked, under the thumb of a despotic state, which marks a step backwards from the Bourguiba regime.

Today, the Greater Maghreb is a geographical, social and ethnic reality. But, at the same time, it is also the denial of a political and economic reality. Composed of five states – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania – the region is a bridge between northwest Africa and Europe and is therefore perceived as a transit zone for illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorism, allowing them to enter the European Union (EU). (9) Thus, EU members often view the Greater Maghreb as a threat, generating consequences for support mechanisms for the region. (10)

Currently, migration, smuggling, and terrorist activities are challenges facing the Greater Maghreb, particularly in border regions that are often marginalized. (11) These problems are exacerbated by the lack of communication and cooperation, the closure of many borders, and the poor economic development of the respective countries.

The status of women and their place in society

The status of women in the three Maghreb countries is marked by a struggle between social conservatism and modernity. Maghrebi societies are still caught between archaic customs and modernity. In these societies, women are still in a state of dependence, even submission, to men, even in countries like Tunisia where women’s rights have developed considerably. Despite the positive developments that have taken place over the last few decades in the Maghreb countries, Maghrebi women are still kept in a kind of legal ghetto in defiance of the international conventions they have ratified, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). (12)

R. Ghurayyib describes the status of women in the Maghreb in the following terms: (13)

“Women’s status in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia is briefly summarized. It is based on a pamphlet produced by the Women’s Committee of the Center for Arab Studies for Development, Canada. In Algeria, women’s status has been severely restricted by fundamentalism. The independence of 1963 brought with it fundamentalist conditions: mosques became places for political sermons and schools were filled with Islamic zealots. The Family Code of 1984 was imposed. It considered women minors for life, polygamy and divorce freely available for men, and threats to women’s right to vote. In 1990, women’s organizations in a large rally protested abolition of the 1984 law. The 1991 elections reflected the differences in opinions on women’s issues and a 3rd party may be formed with democratic tendencies and support for the Women’s Liberation Movement. Morocco also has an antidemocratic regime. 78% of women in 1982 were illiterate. Many work as domestics (56.5%) or in the textile (62%), agricultural, and industrial sectors. Little girls also work as apprentices in exchange for food and clothing. 100% of women are untrained while 100% of men are trained. Rural seasonal workers are ignored. Female employment rose in public services from 16% to 28% in 1989. 53% are engaged in menial occupations; 36% are teachers, secretaries, or nurses. Prostitution thrived when oil merchants invaded. Most women are divorced or widowed, and consequently must work for subsistence because the family code does not permit these women economic independence. In the 1970s men and women protested the royal family’s codes. Tunisian women have a more privileged position, due in part to the support from the male feminist leader, Tahar El Haddad, who wrote a book espousing the right of divorce and equal rights in education, and condemning polygamy, sex segregation, and the veil. In 1956, the code changed and forced marriage and polygamy were prohibited. Implementation lags behind the law. Islamic law still gives women 50% of the males’ inheritance. Constraints are an economic crisis due to decreased exports to Europe, the Gulf war which ended tourism, the opening of eastern European markets to western Europe, and fundamentalist pressure. It has been proposed that Islamic Shari’a be more progressively interpreted, and state laws be secularized. The Tahar el Haddad Club is a strong feminist group. “

The three North African countries: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, among the most developed in Africa, are Muslim countries where a Sunni Islam of the Malikite rite has been practiced since the beginning of the 7th century, marked by the presence of important religious brotherhoods (Tidjaniyya, Alawiyya…) practicing Sufism and the existence of numerous marabouts scattered throughout the cities and countryside. In this secular cultural framework, the status of women is governed by the Sharîca as transmitted by the cUlemas and understood by the population. (14)

The independence achieved in 1956 (Morocco and Tunisia) and 1962 (Algeria) allowed for significant economic, social and cultural development in each of the three Maghreb countries. Among the most visible results is the promotion of women through the expansion of education and access to work in all economic sectors (administration, education, health, industry, services…). Sociological burdens have begun to recede, especially since the legal status of women has undergone significant changes in each of the three countries, even if their scope is not the same. In Tunisia, the reforms carried out since 1957 have been profound, going as far as the abolition of polygamy and the recognition of women’s right to divorce; in Algeria and Morocco, the reforms carried out (the Moudawana in Morocco in 2004 and the Family Code in Algeria in 2005) have introduced new rights for women, but have remained far from what was expected and are strongly impregnated with the spirit of the Sharîca law. (15)

However, this progressive trend was confronted from the end of the 1970s onwards with a political Islamism based on a Wahhabi vision that made women a central political issue by advocating a return to the sole provisions of the Sharîca. In the Maghreb countries, this has had the effect of crystallizing the social and cultural constraints that development had somewhat shaken off and of inducing retrograde individual and collective behaviors that attempt to reduce the social role of women in society and to limit their presence in the public space while imposing a standard dress. (16)

In Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, civil societies have never given up on making their demands heard, whatever the regime. Women, in particular, have been fighting for decades to conquer more equality and freedom. And if there is one subject that symbolizes the tradition of injustices they want to abolish, it is the inequality between men and women in the field of inheritance. In none of these countries are women equal to their brothers, sons, cousins or husbands, in terms of succession.

This practice, based on ancestral customs and social conservatism, and erected in the name of a questionable interpretation of Islamic law, has dramatic consequences. In rural areas, in particular, widows can lose their land overnight to family members they have never met. This, while the labor force of women in these regions is often essential to maintain farms. In addition, women in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are increasingly employed in skilled jobs and are often the driving force in the family economy. 

However, they are often heads of families and have to deal with old-fashioned rules that make them vulnerable. Studies show that the use of the inheritance share attributed to women benefits the real economy much more than the share attributed to men. Inequality in inheritance is therefore also a brake on the development of an entire society.

In all three countries, gender equality is enshrined in the constitutions, and all have ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But at the same time, they have expressed reservations that prevent the crucial issue of inheritance from being addressed. The International Federation for Human Rights -FIDH- and its partner organizations in the Maghreb continue to denounce this aberration, while after decades of intense struggle, women’s rights have finally been able to progress. (17)

UN Women Maghreb has supported capacity building programs in three Maghreb countries for women candidates and elected officials on both technical aspects related to the conduct of campaigns and electoral mandates but also to fight against self-censorship and to strengthen self-confidence and leadership. In Morocco, the partnership concluded in 2014 with the Ministry of the Interior – Directorate General of Local Authorities – has helped build the capacities of more than 4,500 elected women and civil servants in gender approach and leadership.

In Algeria, an important capacity building program for elected women was also the framework of the “Tafcîl” program in partnership with the Ministry of the Interior and Collectivités Locales (local government). Nearly 600 elected women from 21 wilayas have been trained in leadership and electoral campaign management.

In Tunisia, the partnership with the League of Tunisian Women Voters conducted in 3 regions has reached out to the local population in order to encourage women to register to vote. Within this framework, young women and men were trained in door-to-door techniques. On the other hand, women candidates or elected of the region of Jendouba have been able to benefit from a training in the technical fields of parity and political commitment but also leadership and self-leadership and self-confidence, which are essential for leading an electoral campaign. 

Maghreb, youth left adrift

Won over by despair and disillusionment, young people from the Maghreb flee their countries by the thousands, often on board makeshift boats to reach the Spanish or Italian coasts. Many “Harrâga“, as they are called, often fail to reach this Eldorado, disappearing in the middle of the sea, drowned and depriving their families to mourn. (18)

Despite the unprecedented scale of this phenomenon since the beginning of 2000 and the daily tragedies caused by this massive exodus, the stories reported by the European media, Italian and Spanish NGOs and the pressure exerted by Rome and Madrid, the Maghreb authorities remain deafeningly silent.

The successive waves of illegal immigration and the impressive number of boats that run aground on the Spanish and Italian coasts do not seem to be on the agenda of the powers that be for the moment.

For two decades, in view of an unprecedented flow of illegal immigrants from the Maghreb coasts, the stories of tragedies reported by the media and Spanish and Italian NGOs in particular, seem to have become part of the normality of things. The only reactions come from the families of the missing, and from the Spanish and Italian NGOs who continue to provide statistics or work to identify the bodies of the drowned.

Since 2000, the Boat migration across the Mediterranean Sea was mostly Moroccan and Tunisian phenomenon among the youth but since the beginning of the street demonstrations and Hirak uprising in Algeria in 2019 thousands young Algerians are crossing the sea in thousands to seek fortune in the European Eldorado.

The month of September recorded a massive flow of illegal immigrants from Algeria. From September 1 to 23, more than 2,200 Algerians landed on the Spanish coast in 150 or more boats, and these are only approximate figures which only take into account the stowaways rescued or intercepted by the Guardia Civil’s maritime service.

The number of Algerian “Harrâgas” who landed illegally in Spain exceeded 1,000 illegal travelers in three days, namely on 17, 18 and 19 September 2021. In a single weekend last May, nearly 700 Algerian irregular migrants arrived on Spanish soil. This means that since the beginning of this year, until May 15, 320 illegal boats have taken to the sea towards the Spanish coast, almost double the flow of the same period last year. (19)

The stories of these massive departures, of boats that never arrive in port, of corpses that litter the coasts, are reported daily. Faced with the hecatomb, we cloister ourselves in a suspicious silence. The phenomenon of clandestine emigration has taken on worrying proportions in recent months and some call it “double suicide”. What pushes young Algerians to leave their country, risking their lives? The answer could not be clearer: “Disillusionment” and “despair”, says the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH).

In the face of the tragedy of Maghrebi youth migration, Christophe Barbier wrote in L’Express: (20)

‘’Le Maghreb, c’est aussi notre problème. Garder le silence face à la situation des jeunes maghrébins, fragilisés par le chômage et le coût de la vie, n’est pas une solution. Osons leur porter secours, évitons une islamisation de nos voisins méditerranéens. ‘’

He goes on to say quite rightly :

‘’Seuls les cris de la jeunesse savent briser les miroirs menteurs. Le Maghreb n’est pas notre plage ni un refuge au soleil l’hiver, comme le cortège des VIP “marrakéchisés” l’a encore illustré lors des fêtes de fin d’année. Il n’est pas notre arrière-boutique, pour délocalisation pratique et francophone, ni un vivier pour importation de main-d’œuvre à bon marché.  

Il n’est pas plus, et ne sera jamais, quoi que prêchent les apôtres de la repentance, notre remords, un boulet psychologique tiré par le canon colonial. Le Maghreb, c’est notre présent, c’est notre problème. Comme la sainte-barbe des vieux vaisseaux, le Maghreb est une poudrière sur laquelle nous sommes installés pour traverser le XXIe siècle. ‘’

[‘’Only the cries of youth can break the lying mirrors. The Maghreb is not our beach nor a refuge in the sun in winter, as the procession of “Marrakechized” VIPs illustrated again during the end-of-year celebrations. It is not our back office, for practical and francophone relocation, nor a breeding ground for cheap labor.  

It is not more, and will never be, whatever the apostles of repentance preach, our remorse, a psycho-logical ball and chain drawn by the colonial cannon. The Maghreb is our present, it is our problem. As the holy beard of the old ships, the Maghreb is a powder keg on which we are installed to cross the XXI st century. ‘’]

However, one wonders why are the Maghrebi youth risking its life to go to Fortress Europe for supposedly better life conditions. In 2011, the Tunisian youth launched successfully the Arab Spring that toppled Arab dictators in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen and set up a civil war in Syria with the hope of achieving. But alas, the Islamists entered in a coalition with the counter revolutionary forces and killed the Arab youth dream.

Faced with this new reality, the Maghrebi youth resorted anew to the pateras (boats) to migrate clandestinely to Europe sickened by the lack of democracy, non-respect of human rights, patriarchy, the suffocating weight of religion, seniority and traditions. The Maghreb is a region dominated by youth numerically speaking but led by gerontocracy, leaving no breathing space for innovation, progress and modernity. (21)

Islamism and its political relevance

In gestation during the 1970s, the Islamist phenomenon has spread in the Maghreb since the early 1980s, gradually taking over the monopoly of political protest. The acceleration, between 1978 and 1988, was linked to events in Iran, Afghanistan, and the Middle East conflicts, as well as to internal tensions in the Maghreb: an ideological vacuum, identity problems, devaluation of the political forces that had fought for independence, and a crisis in the welfare state that led to discontent among the underprivileged and the marginalization of intellectuals and the middle classes. (22)

The Islamist wave then reached the machinery of the state, especially the army and the police. This Islamism, a political reading of Islam rather than theological renewal, appears above all, in the Maghreb, as a protest movement, another way of fighting against the powers in place when the classical forces have been discredited. It aspires to exercise “this tribunician function of defending those excluded from modernization and of managing values” which was, according to Professor Remy Leveau (Le sabre et le turban: L’avenir du Maghreb, 1993) that of communist parties in Europe in the 1930s. (23)

The Maghreb countries are currently facing multiple challenges: social changes, modernization of the educational and judicial system, development in a globalized world, and the discovery of adapted modalities in the field of education and training. But to the extent that the Islamist movements have succeeded in imposing themselves as important vectors of contestation of the established powers, the management of this Islamist opposition is a central question that societies must face. (24)

As we know, the establishment of Islamism in the Maghreb is due to the social crisis that young people in particular are experiencing and to the failure of attempts to economic development based on unsuitable models, and authoritarian models, as is the case in Algeria. This phenomenon has been reinforced by transforming to its advantage, on the same substrates of chauvinism as the national ideologies – the Algerian case is, once again, emblematic – the historical legitimacy confiscated by the power into religious legitimacy. The demographic and urban explosion, the difficulties of daily life but also the identity malaise offered to this ideology ideal conditions of popular implantation. (25)

However, depending on the country under consideration, this politico-religious phenomenon has been variously controlled by the powers that be. The three Maghreb states have chosen different ways to face the problem. And Morocco seems to be, at present, among the Maghreb countries, the one that has made the best choice: an accepted political alternation that seems to open the way to a controlled democratization involving, in particular, the integration of some components of moderate Islamism, which could finally lead to the “normalization” of this phenomenon. (26)

Islamism is not a uniform or monolithic phenomenon, even if the ideological base, violently anti-democratic, even and if the breeding ground that favors it (social misery, identity malaise, frustrations born of the shock of modernity and the absence of spaces for expression and freedom) is globally identical. The nature of the relationships of Islamism with the powers in place has evolved over time and appears in a different light from one state to another due to the diversity of national realities. (27)

On the concept of Islamism in North Africa, International Crisis Group writes: (28)

“Islamism, terrorism, reform: the triangle formed by these three concepts and the complex and changeable realities to which they refer is at the centre of political debate in and about North Africa today. The role of Egyptian elements in the leadership of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organisation is well-known, if not necessarily well understood. The involvement of Maghrebis in terrorist networks in Europe — whether linked to al-Qaeda or not — has recently been underlined by the suspected involvement of Moroccans in the 11 March 2004 attack in Madrid. Egypt itself has endured years of terrorist violence; few if any countries have suffered as much from terrorism as Algeria has over the last twelve years; and the bombings in Casablanca on 16 May 2003 suggest that Morocco is not immune.

At the same time, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco have all been sites of important attempts at pluralist political reform. Morocco’s political system has exhibited a measure of party-political pluralism since the early years of independence. Egypt experienced political pluralism before 1952, and under both Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak a degree of pluralism has been allowed at some periods only to be stifled at others. In Algeria, formal party pluralism was introduced in 1989 and has survived although it has fallen far short of substantive democracy.

Yet, debate over these issues has become bogged down in a welter of fixed but erroneous ideas. One is the notion that posits a simple chain of cause and effect: absence of political reform generates Islamism which in turn generates terrorism. This simplistic analysis ignores the considerable diversity within contemporary Islamic activism, the greater part of which has been consistently non-violent. It also overlooks the fact that the rise of Islamist movements in North Africa has not been predicated on the absence of reform, but has generally occurred in conjunction with ambitious government reform projects. The expansion of Islamic political activism in Egypt occurred in the context of President Sadat’s audacious economic and political opening — infitah — in the 1970s; the spectacular rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) in Algeria in 1989-1991 occurred in the context of the government’s liberalisation of the political system and its pursuit of radical economic reform. “

Faced with a Moroccan regime whose legitimacy is based on Islam, in its Sherifian tradition, and recently modulated by an outline of political pluralism – in some respects exemplary, given the mediocre situation in this area, of other Arab countries, Islamism has remained diffuse, if not marginal, even if it sometimes shows a real presence in the social field. In Algeria, which in the past has experienced brutal ruptures (conditions of independence, single-party authoritarianism, forced industrialization, then interruption of the democratization process since 1992), part of the Islamist opposition (armed groups) is characterized by the violence of its actions, even though moderate Islamist parties (an-Nahda and Hamas) remain associated with the government. As for Tunisian political power – long identified with the desire to build a modern state which, while remaining faithful to the principles values of Islam, is based on secularism -, it has never ceased to outlaw the initially moderate Islamists of Rashed Ghannoushi. At the same time as power became more personal and authoritarian, Islamism became more radical and marginalized. (29) 

Geostrategic importance

A market of one hundred million consumers, the Maghreb occupies a key geostrategic position between Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Open to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, it has great potential in hydrocarbons and raw materials.

It is on the economic front that we can truly speak of an American-European competition in the Maghreb, as the forces at work are comparable. With a 26% share of world GDP, compared to 31% for the United States, the second largest agricultural potential in the world, and a strong industrial and financial base, the EU has the economic means to achieve its ambitions. Aware of Europe’s growing power in this area, the United States sought first to assert its hegemony over the oil economy of this region, starting with Algeria and Libya, and then to establish partnerships with the Maghreb countries, particularly through free trade agreements (FTAs), such as the one concluded with Morocco in 2004. (30)

On the importance of the Maghreb for Europe, Janicke Stramer-Smith writes: (31)

“Europe has always considered the Maghreb important because of its proximity, and has viewed security as dependent on containing Islamists and migration (Lacroix para. 6). Large waves of migration are normally associated with internal conflicts, as in Afghanistan or in Syria. Yet, Maghreb outmigration is motivated to a much greater degree by economic impoverishment. In the event that the economic situation in North African countries further deteriorates, blocking such migration may become very costly to the EU, not only because of the cost of maritime surveillance but especially because of the costs of internal tensions in Europe. It will be difficult to strike a balance between largely shared values of human rights and the fear, not only from neo-populists, among large parts of European electorates that Europe would ‘lose its European identity’ if there were to be further massive immigration from the Maghreb. There are no majorities in any European country supporting massive immigration to the extent practiced in 2015. In the region on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, Europe has an overarching interest in political stability and some economic progress which keeps the populations in their countries. The argument that Europe cannot solve the global problem of poverty is therefore not pertinent because the Maghreb has a special geographical relationship with Europe, as demonstrated by the difference in intensity of migratory movements in comparison with non-civil-war ridden countries in Asia. “

Since the late 1990s, the United States has wanted to give its trade relations with the Maghreb countries a well-defined framework, similar to the Euro-Maghreb relations. Dissatisfied with not being associated with the historic Euro-Mediterranean Conference in Barcelona in 1995, the Americans responded by proposing to the three central Maghreb states a partnership similar in many respects, notably through the Eizenstat project in 1998 and bilateral free trade agreements, the first of which was signed with Morocco in 2004. 

Although the United States has put forward purely economic arguments to explain this renewed interest in a region traditionally committed to Europe, it is difficult for the United States to hide the fact that this is a manifestation of a rivalry that goes beyond the strictly commercial framework. (32) The project, named after then-Under Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Eizenstat, consists of economic cooperation based on trade and investment and aimed at accelerating structural reforms in each country and encouraging the private sector. (33) But it is a conditional partnership in the sense that it poses as a prerequisite the dismantling of intra-Maghreb customs barriers, the Americans want an integrated regional market to enable their large companies to achieve optimal economies of scale. 

However, the de-compartmentalization of the Maghreb markets remains dependent on a reactivation of the project of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) currently “on hold” because of the eternal problem of Western Sahara and the lack of real political will. In this context, the Eizenstat initiative seems unrealistic and unattainable unless the Americans invest more in the political field to help resolve the Sahara issue. Moreover, the small amount of money proposed for this program (barely $2 billion) is an additional reason why the Eizenstat project has remained wishful thinking. It is not with such a commitment that the Americans can compete with the Europeans who are strongly anchored in the Maghreb.

However, faced with the offensive of its rival partners, the EU has not hidden its concern through the voice of Brussels and especially Paris. It is true that the process of establishing a U.S.-Maghreb FTA, competing with the one planned between the EU and the Maghreb, began with the entry into force on January 1, 2006 of the U.S.-Morocco agreement. Even if some voices try to put it into perspective, the free trade process proposed to the Maghreb countries by Washington inevitably clashes with European interests in the region. (34)

In a study devoted to this free trade agreement. Robert Zoellick, who led the negotiations for his country, recalled that Morocco was no longer a French colony. U.S. officials did not fail to remind the Europeans that the Alawite Kingdom was the first country to recognize the independence of the United States in 1777 and that a treaty of peace and friendship has bound the two countries since 1787. Moroccan officials, on the other hand, have been at pains to demonstrate that the agreements with the United States and the EU are not contradictory.

By way of the Maghreb, the Americans and the Europeans seem to be playing a game of mutual containment. In response to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the United States launched the Greater Middle East Project, to which Europe tried to respond by inventing other forms of partnership.

It is clear that the Maghreb has become important to the United States only in terms of its interest in the Middle East, and insofar as it allows them to achieve their strategic goals. This is the crux of the Euro-American rivalry in the entire Mediterranean. “The misunderstanding is that for the Americans, the Mediterranean is only a pawn in their global strategies, whereas it is vital for France and Europe” (Balta, 2003). What distinguishes the Europeans from the Americans is that the South and East of the Mediterranean represent for the former a human proximity that they must, no matter what, assume and try to manage. (35)

Europe seeks to constitute a powerful pole including its proximity zone and competing with the great powers. In order to strengthen its place and role, the EU wants to be the hard core around which “concentric circles” revolve, on the same model as American regionalism. It is always France that is at the forefront of such ambitions, which put it at the heart of the rivalry with Washington.

The American deployment in the Maghreb in recent years has raised many questions. Indeed, many observers in France and in the Maghreb are concerned that the United States is taking too close an interest in the Maghreb and suggest that it wants to supplant French influence there. The Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs even declared on April 13, 2006 that France did not have “the same weight in Algeria” as the United States, which has become Algeria’s main client, with $12 billion in trade in 2005. (36) This seemingly innocuous sentence implies that the United States is destined to play a leading role in the region. (37)

But what is the reality? What are U.S. interests in the Maghreb? How has American policy evolved? Why has the Maghreb become a strategic region? Is it true that the United States wants to supplant European influence through the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and the Millennium Challenge Account? The main argument is that there is an undeniable US interest in this region, which has become strategic since 9/11. 

It is also true that despite the appearance of competition between Europe and the United States in the Maghreb, transatlantic relations in the region are more about complementarity than rivalry. However, the question can be raised as to whether the United States has a strong interest in the region. However, it is questionable whether the United States, whose foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, has given rise to a certain anti-Americanism – which has only increased with the United States’ support for Israel’s war against the Palestinians and the Lebanese in July 2006 – will be able to establish the same level of influence on the Maghreb countries and their public opinion that Europe in general, and France in particular, have. Moreover, the hegemonism and unilateralism of American foreign policy under the George W. Bush constituted an obstacle to the development of relations other than those related to security and energy interests. American-Israeli complicity in the Middle East has a definite impact in the Maghreb. Moreover, U.S. support for authoritarian regimes, despite President Bush’s rhetoric on the spread of democracy in the Arab world, only serves to discredit the image of the United States in the region.

Sustainable peace and political stability

The Greater Maghreb is a puzzle with variable dimensions and a changing number of pieces. For a long time, it was France that modified the cuts. On the eve of independence, they were not definitively fixed and new players, each with their own piece, tried to adjust the contours. At first, the game was played by three players, and more precisely, by one (Algeria) against two (Tunisia and Morocco). But which Morocco is it then, a “small” or a “large”? Paris, both player and referee, decided to add a new piece in 1960, Mauritania.

After Algeria’s independence in 1962, the game became more complicated: the players had difficulty adjusting their five pieces because they did not agree on their final shape, nor on their respective weight. Each one wants to tilt the balance in his favor. Alliances are formed. But any rapprochement between partners – which changed according to the situation and national interests – immediately provoked the suspicion or fear of the others. From 1975 onwards, the five will quarrel over the place and size of the sixth, Western Sahara: should it be independent, federated or integrated into the Moroccan kingdom? Alliances and reversals of alliances will continue: one against all, two against three or four. As partners change sides, the teams will not always be the same.

The weakness of intra-regional trade, excluding various contrabands, indicates a poorly integrated whole and reveals sometimes long-standing rivalries over regional hegemony between Algeria, and Morocco. Stemming from a territorial dispute from the colonial period, the Algerian-Moroccan rivalry has been fuelled by the tense circumstances and power strategies of the two states. In addition, there were ideological oppositions during the “inter-Arab cold war“: the Sherifian monarchy was rather conservative and close to the United States, while Algeria defended a third worldism inspired by the socialist bloc. In 1994, an attack on Western tourists in a hotel in Marrakech led to the closure of the land border. While Algeria has moved closer to the United States on security issues of common interest under the Bush administration and has seen its non-oil trade balance widen since its association with the European Union, Morocco has a head start in its economic and political cooperation with the northern shore of the Mediterranean.

Moreover, the difficulties in settling the Western Sahara issue, claimed by Morocco since the Green March of 1975, and the Mauritanian withdrawal from part of these territories have first isolated Morocco but since the American recognition of the Moroccanness of the Sahara has given the Sherifian kingdom more international stature, no doubt. 

The recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic by the Organization of African Unity led Morocco to withdraw in 1984, although it maintains good relations with many sub-Saharan states. Algeria, which supports Sahrawi self-determination, helps the Polisario and hosts its refugees. This conflict is the real stumbling block to regional integration: the creation of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) follows a year after the decision in 1988 to hold a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara within a UN framework; it will never take place because of problems in defining the electoral college, and the AMU will then be bogged down in political inaction. (38)

On the conflict between Morocco and Algerial, Amal Ouchenane writes: (39)

‘’Scholars describe the relation between Algeria and Morocco by using the term “frères ennemis” (or enemy brothers). The problems betweenAlgeria and Morocco started from the beginning of their independence. The major cause of it was the colonial policies. During the cold war, they were on different sides. They have long competed to be the dominant power in the region, and they are the main actors in North Africa. However, the relations between them were troubled. The conflict over Western Sahara has become the main feature of North Africa’s international politics and regional relations. Algeria and Morocco are the main actors in this conflict, which has influenced the present and the future of 85 million Maghrebis by weakening regional cooperation and integration. It has also obstructed the North African regional security cooperation against regional threats like terrorism and arms smuggling. Many scholars explained Algeria’s position in this conflict; some argued that Algeria’s policy aimed at destabilising Morocco, while others argued that Algeria’s policy is idealistic, which reflects its norms and values of self-determination that directed Algeria’s decolonisation from France.‘’

The diplomatic normalization between Morocco and Israel entered its phase of concretization, Tuesday, December 22, 2020, with the landing in Rabat of a plane from Tel Aviv. On board, an Israeli delegation led by the Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Alon Ushpiz, and Jared Kushner, son-in-law of Donald Trump and architect of the American “peace plan” in the Middle East.

The inauguration of this air link is the first consequence of the “deal” announced on December 10, 2020 by the U.S president Donald Trump, under which the kingdom undertakes to normalize its relations with Israel in exchange for U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

The Maghreb is living in a real economic stranglehold with the Covid-19 pandemic. These countries are suffocated. Morocco is being strangled economically, as is Tunisia and potentially Algeria. And the Moroccans have found, through this agreement, a way out of the trap. Morocco will certainly benefit from aid from Israel, but also from the United Arab Emirates and the United States. This is very important for Morocco.

Moroccan opinion is sensitive to this economic dimension, but it is also sensitive to the fact that Western Sahara is recognized by the United States. For Moroccans, it is a question of nationalism: they do care about the Western Sahara more than the Algerians do. In fact, human ties have been forged over the decades with the tens of thousands of Moroccans who live in the Sahara.

The war in Syria had already brought Algeria closer to its former Russian and Syrian allies. Cold War alliances had played out again. In the case of Morocco and Israel, this time it is on the Western side. Morocco is intensifying its relations with the so-called “Western” forces, if one speaks in terms of the legacy of the Cold War. And in the same way that Algeria has moved closer to the Russians, Morocco is repositioning itself in the wake of the United States and its closest allies, like France and Israel. When one looks at the long term, one can say that in the end, it remains very classic. 

Conclusion: Necessity of greater regional integration

Greater regional integration would be a source of growth for the five North African countries. But will the Maghreb countries have the courage to put aside their rivalries and fratricidal conflicts to build a common future or will they continue to go it alone in a world where regional integration is not an option but a necessity for survival?

As international trade tensions escalate and regional economic blocs in the Americas and Europe struggle, it remains clear that the integration of neighboring economies is mutually beneficial and an important source of long-term growth.

The Maghreb countries share history, culture, and languages. They are strategically located between the advanced economies of Europe to the north and the high-potential economies of sub-Saharan Africa to the south. As diverse as they are, the economies of these countries all face the same challenge: providing opportunities for everyone. Growth in the region has been too low for too long and has not created enough jobs. 

The Maghreb countries have each made considerable progress in trade, but the region remains one of the least integrated in the world. Trade within the Maghreb accounts for less than 5 percent of the region’s total trade, far less than in any other regional trade area in the world. In Asia, for example, where average annual growth over the past decade has been close to 6 percent, intraregional trade accounts for 51 percent of the total. Indeed, geopolitical considerations and restrictive economic policies have hampered regional integration in the Maghreb.

As a result, none of the five countries has a neighbor as its main trading partner, and intraregional trade is limited to a few goods, mainly commodities. Trade in services, particularly tourism, is growing, but slowly. Business investment among the countries of the region is also low, compared to other regions. Financial integration is modest and formal migration within the region appears to be minor.

The issues of inclusive trade and economic integration are becoming increasingly important. About a year ago, representatives of Middle Eastern and North African countries, including all Maghreb countries, met in Marrakech to discuss how best to promote growth, employment, and inclusion in the Arab world. Trade was identified as one of the priorities.

According to some estimates, regional integration could raise growth in each Maghreb country by an average of one percentage point in the long run. Our analyses show that almost every Maghreb country can find new product categories that it could export to neighboring countries. In fact, intraregional trade could double through integration, further accelerating growth and creating more jobs.


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  2.  Fakir, Intissar. ‘’ What’s driving the escalating tensions between Algeria and Morocco?’’, in Middle East Institute, September 1, 2021.
  3.  Fabian, Atilla. “Constructivist Views of Cooperation along the Border”, in Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Economics and Business 1, 2013, pp. 39-51.
  4.  Is there a new vision for Maghreb economic integration? Main report (English). Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.
  5.  Is There a New Vision for Maghreb Economic Integration? Volume 1. Main Report, 2021. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.
  6.  Malka, Haim. ‘’Maghreb Rising: Competition and Realignment’’ Chapter 7 in Jon B. Alterman (ed.) Rocky Harbors: Taking Stock of the Middle East in 2015, CSIS, 2015, pp.57-76.
  7.  Bakrim, Tilila Sara & Agnès Levallois. ‘’ Tunisie : le coup de force de Kaïs Saïed, un « coup d’État constitutionnel » ?’’, in FRS n°38/2021, November 3, 2021.
  8.  Meddi,Adlène. ‘’ In Algiers, the ‘revolution of smiles’ spreads everywhere’’ in The Middle East Eye, in March 19, 2019.
  9.  Babuta, Alexander & Cathy Haenlein. ‘’ Commodity Smuggling in the Maghreb: A Silent Threat””, in Policy Center for the New South, May 17, 2018.
  10.  Danish Institute for International Studies. Europe and the Sahel-Maghreb Crisis. Copenhagen, Denmark: Danish Institute for International Studies, 2018.
  11.  Hanlon, Querine & Matthew M. Herbert. Border Security Challenges in The Grand Maghreb. United States Institute of Peace, 2015.
  12.  Dris-Ait-Hamadouche, Louisa. “Women in the Maghreb: civil society’s actors or political instruments?” Middle East Policy, vol. 14, no. 4, winter 2007, pp. 115+. Gale Academic OneFile, u=anon~e22905b3&sid=googleScholar&xid=8f94f9e4. Accessed 30 Jan. 2022.
  13.  Ghurayyib, R. “The women of the Maghreb”, in Al Raida, 10(57), 1992 Spring, pp. 13-16. PMID: 12317570.
  14.  Boudraa, Nabil & Joseph Ohmann Krause. Women and Resistance in the Maghreb. Remembering Kahina. London: Routledge, 2021.
  15.  Arfaoui DK. “Women on the Move for Gender Equality in the Maghreb”, in Feminisms, Democratization, and Radical Democracy. 2011, pp. 85-115.
  16.  Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. “Women, Islam, and the Moroccan State: The Struggle over the Personal Status Law.” Middle East Journal, vol. 59, no. 3, Middle East Institute, 2005, pp. 393–410,
  17.  Gribaa, Bouteina; Georgia Depaoli & Malek Baklouti. State of the situation of women’ s participation in political life in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Tunisia: Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR), 2009.
  18.  Lalami, Laila. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Boston, Mas.: Mariner Books, 2006.
  20.  Barbier, Christophe. ‘’Le Maghreb, c’est aussi notre problème’’, L’Express, December 1, 2011.
  21.  United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Being Young in the Maghreb, 2010.
  22.  Halverson, Jeffrey & Nathaniel Greenberg. Islamists of the Maghreb. London: Routledge, 2019. 
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  26. Ünlü Bilgiç, Tuba. Islam in the Maghreb: Between Sufis and Salafis. 2020, p. 22,
  27.  Tozy, Mohamed. ‘’Islam et Etat au Maghreb’’, in Maghreb Machrek: monde arabe, 129, 1989, pp. 25-64.
  28.  International Crisis Group. ‘’ Islamism in North Africa I: The Legacies of History’’, in International Crisis Group, April 20, 2004.
  29.  Babès, L. (1991). ‘’L’islam pluriel au Maghreb’’, in International Review of Community Development, 26, 1991, pp. 119-128. Doi:10.7202/1033898ar
  30.  Jolly, Cécile. ‘’Ambitions américaines en Méditerranée’’, in Arabies, September 1999. The author argues that the region is moving forward to become an American Maghreb ‘’Maghreb américain’’ and that the Americans are doing all they could to separate the Maghreb from the Europeans, their traditional partners in this region ‘’les Américains font tout pour écarter du Maghreb les Européens, partenaires traditionnels de cette region”.
  31.  Stramer-Smith, Janicke. ‘’ Socioeconomic Factors and Political Mobilization in the Maghreb. Lessons from the Arab Spring’’ in Julius Dihstelhoff, Charlotte Pardey, Rachid Ouaissa, Friederike Pannewick (eds.) Entanglements of the Maghreb: Cultural and Political Aspects of a Region in Motion, Verlag, Bielefeld, p. 224, 2021: pp. 194-235.
  32.  The Maghreb press supports the same thesis. Examples abound in the Maghreb press. See, in particular, Hamida Ben Salah, “le Maghreb suscite l’intérêt grandissant des États-Unis,” Le Quotidien d’Oran (Algeria), February 3, 2004 ; Sarah Raouf, “Maghreb: les regards identiques de Paris et Washington,” Le Quotidien d’Oran, December 8, 2003; Moussa Hormat-Allah, “USA-Maghreb: les dessous des cartes,” L’Opinion (Morocco), Part 1, January 16, 2003 and Part 2, February 11, 2003.
  33.  Stuart Eizenstat, talk with Doris McMillon sur WorldNet « Dialogue », June 8, 1999, in United States Information Agency, Washington, DC, June 16, 1999. See also, Stuart E. Eizenstat, « Undersecretary for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs », Third Annual Les Aspin Memorial Lecture, Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 8, 1999.
  34.  Brunel, Claire, & Gary C. Hufbauer. Maghreb regional and global integration: a dream to be fulfilled. Washington, DC: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2008.
  35.  Zoubir, Yahia H. ‘’Les États-Unis et le Maghreb : primauté de la sécurité et marginalité de la démocratie’’, in L’Année du Maghreb [Online], II | 2005-2006, Online since 08 July 2010, connection on 29 January 2022. URL : ; DOI :
  36.  Saâdoune, M. « Estimant que face aux États-Unis, la France n’a pas le même poids, Bedjaoui confirme le cap américain de l’Algérie », in Le Quotidien d’Oran, April 15, 2006.
  37.  Zoubir, Yahia H. “Algeria and U.S. Interests: Containing Radical Islamism and Promoting Democracy “, in Middle East Policy, vol. 9, 1, March 2002, pp. 64-81.
  38.  Mundy, Jacob. “Algeria and the Western Sahara Dispute,” in The Maghreb Center Journal, Issue. 1,2010.
  39.  Ouchenane, Amal. ‘’ The North African Region (The Maghreb): Dynamics of Cooperation and Conflict’’ in Vist, March 29, 2020.

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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