By Paul Balta. Paris : La Découverte, 1990. 304 pages, 150 FF
Reviewed by Ammar Bouhouche(**)
On February 17, 1989, the 5 leaders of North African countries (Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania) met in Marrakech for their second Maghreban summet (after the first one on June 10, 1988 in Algiers) and signed the new agreement which gave birth to: l’Union DU MAGHREB ARABE (UMA). For Paul Balta, correspondent of the leading French newspaper Le Monde in North Africa in the1960’s and 970’s, this union is very important and that is why he was motivated to write this interesting book on the 5 countries which needed this union badly after the unity achieved by the 12 states of the European Economic Community which takes effect on January first 1993. In reality, this book is very useful to journalists who are interested in obtaining some information on countries which are in the process of creating a regional organization to facilitate the process of bringing them together in order to face efficiently coming challenges from the EEC. An academic researcher may be disillusioned or disappointed with the vague essays on very sensitive issues and supporting documents as well as the shallow analysis. But for the news media, I suppose the 12 essays will be very useful in the sense that the author has been able to present facts to the reader and help him to have general knowledge about the 5 North African countries.
What is interesting about this book is the approach used by the author to present facts on each country and show how each country avoided to work closely with its neighbours, either because of fear from domination or because of differences in ideology and style of running the political system. But the unity of the 12 members states of EEC, has induced the 5 Maghreb countries to come together and develop common policies toward these European nations which have achieved economic and political unity inspite of the big differences in languages, religions and cultures. In his judgement, the 5 North African countries have more things in common, like the advantage of speaking one language or sharing Islamic culture and having one religion, and therefore, it is easier for them to create unity between them than the Europeans. In fact, the author mentioned several factors which are supposed to facilitate the process of unity and integration in North Africa, like one entity different from the Middle East, common culture and understanding between the people of the area who embraced Islam and learned Arabic, the language of the Coran, but all of them remained Immazigh.Furthermore, there has been always interaction between European civilization and North African culture, and as a matter of fact, the North African nationalist movements have aready taken a united action against the European colonials and succeeded in liberating these countries from colonial rule. The author gives the impression that the people of North Africa always wanted unity but regimes declined to convert this dream of Maghreb unity to become reality. However, the necessity of creating one strong front to defend their interests in any future discussion with the 12 members of the EEC, forced the North African leaders to put aside their differences and speed up the process of creating the Union of Arabe Maghreb (p.31).
In his first chapter on myth and reality about the drive toward unity in North Africa, Paul Balta advocated the principles of establishing multilateral co-operation between the 5 countries. But he did not hesitate to reveal the negative attitude of the leaders toward implanting this unity for different reasons. He accurately pointed out that the North African leaders have always paid lip services to the idea of political integration, but the political discourse of these leaders did not correspond to the reality. In order to prove his point, the author mentioned the fact that the rate of trde between the Maghreb countries did not
exceed 2% in 1988, and that by itself reflects the bitter reality (p.30). If this trend will continue, the Union of the Arab Maghreb which was created on February 17, 1989, may become another dream to be achieved or a union on paper keeps waiting for better circumstances to transform it into tangible results.
In chapters 2 to 7, the author described the political systems of each country and went as far as devoting chapter seven of his book to the Arab Democratic Republic of
Sahara (POLISARIO). What is very interesting about the facts presented on each nation is the detailed information on each country. In one page on each country, the author gave a summary of information which is very useful to journalists and readers who are interested in taking a glance at the economic and political conditions of each nation. The diffusion of such facts makes it easy for the readers to find out what are the currencies, the political parties, urban population, rate of growth, literacy, national GNP, international debts, rate of inflation and the strength of the arm forces of each country. While the author failed to go deep and analyze the real economic and social problems confronted by each country, he was able to describe the different stages of political development in each country. In short, it can be easily detected that Paul Balta was unwilling or was trying to avoid making any critical comment on the genuine problems of each nation in North Africa.
It was in chapter nine and chapter ten that the author began to indicate the dilemma of North African countries and their leaders who wanted to create a united Maghreb, but each one on his own terms. In a way, he seems to suggest that territorial disputes divided them, but France played an important role either in creating harmony between them or acting as arbitrator when its interests are compromised. The author accurately pointed out that the conflict between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara has, in reality, ruined any chance for political unity in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The death of Houari Boumediene in December 1978 had raised the hope that an honourable settlement to this conflict could be found so that the issue which has been a detrimental to the
unity of the Maghreb states will be removed from the way. But it turned out that neither Algeria nor Morocco was willing to make any sacrifice which may have an adverse effect on its policies.
It can be concluded from reading this book that in the era of regional alliances and decentralization, the 5 states of North Africa have sensed the need to create multilateral institutions and face the 12 states of the European common market. What induced the leaders of North Africa to create this union is, undoubtedly, the question of economic cooperation. They have realized that they must share investment and open
borders for goods to be sold in a market of 70 million inhabitants. Paul Balta seems to be convinced that the Maghreb states have no choice but to work together on policies concerning diplomatic matters, migrant workers in Europe, exchange of information and establish strong links with the European countries. If they work together, they can exchange goods and raw materials with the European countries, and eventually, strengthen their position by pursuing a common strategy in the economic and political fields. What is very interesting about co-operation between the UMA countries in North Africa and the EEC countries in Europe is that France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece, are in the process of creating a miniature organization for co-operation between those 5 countries and the 5 North African countries. The French and the Spanish are leading the way for such co-operation between the states of the two shores of the Mediterranean sea because the French and the Spanish will find it very difficult for their products to compete with German and British goods in Europe and the best way out of this dilemma is to create a small common market in the area around the Mediterranean sea.
In the absence of scholarly work on the North African countries, this book is going to fill the vacuum and gives chance to readers interested in North African politics to become familiar with current events and the new tendency to reinforce co-operation between the 5 countries which are at cross roads.
(*) A Published Study at The Middle East Journal, in the jear, 2000.
(**) Ammar BOUHOUCHE is Professor of Political Science at the University of Algiers.