Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Gulf Crisis Tests Maghreb's Unity

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Gulf Crisis Tests Maghreb's Unity

Article excerpt

From its first day, the Gulf crisis has put the unity of the two-and-a-half-year-old Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) to a serious test. Faced with Arab-world divisions elsewhere, the challenge has been to keep the union of North African Arab states tight. As a result, although the five Maghreb states have not been able to manage a common stand on the Gulf crisis, neither have they split.

Five Positions on the US Presence

At the Aug. 10 Arab League summit meeting in Cairo, UMA member states Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia each took a different position on the US military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Algeria abstained, Libya voted against, Mauritania expressed reservations, Morocco approved, and Tunisia did not attend the meeting. The group of five, however, ensured that their differences did not have lethal consequences on their union. Within the UMA each government acknowledged from the outset that the others had their own constraints and self-interests.

For Rabat, it was clear from the first hours of the Gulf crisis that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the threat it posed for the oil monarchies of the Gulf area, also threatened the stability of the Moroccan regime. Morocco was the first Arab state to officially condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

So far, Rabat's decisive stand has created few problems at home. Political parties and the press on the whole support King Hassan's insistence on Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and the return to power of Sheikh Jaber Al-Sabah. Some political groups, however, have expressed deep reservations concerning the presence of US military forces in the Gulf area. There was an agreement that no solution to the crisis is possible before the return to the status quo ante in the Gulf, and Rabat did not hesitate for long before deciding to send 1,200 troops to participate in the "Desert Shield" operation.

In Algiers, the government officially condemned both the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia. Various political parties ranging from Ahmed Ben Bella's Movement for Democracy in Algeria to Abbassi Madani's Islamic Front of Salvation organized marches to protest the US military presence.

In fact the crisis embarrassed many Algerian leaders. For example, the leadership of the Islamic Front, the main opposition party, was torn between two contradictory stands: it condemned the "US military presence in the holy sites of Islam," but it also tended to back Riyadh against what it considers the leftish and atheistic Baghdad regime.

In Tunis, the situation was similar to that in Algiers. Perhaps even more than the Algerians, the Tunisians have absolutely no sympathy for any foreign military presence in the region.

Tunisians vividly remember Israel's aircraft attacking the PLO headquarters in Tunis, and American aircraft attacking Muammar Qaddafi's residence in Libya. Not surprisingly, a poll conducted by the newsweekly Le Maghreb found that 79 percent of Tunisians supported Baghdad's policy in the Gulf. At one point, however, the government warned journalists against excessive praise for Iraq, and excessive criticism of the Gulf states.

In Tripoli, the Libyan government condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and, for obvious reasons, the presence of the US military in the Gulf area as well. On Sept. 1, President Muammar Qaddafi presented his own peace plan, calling for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait in exchange for the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia. Libya was the only Maghreb state to announce it would not respect one aspect of the trade embargo of Iraq -- that on foodstuffs. …

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