* Warns that Regional Development is Only Road to Growth and Stability *
Against a backdrop of an uneven recovery in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is reaching out to its neighbors to support its transition to stability. Morocco’s response has been overwhelmingly positive as King Mohammed VI spent three days in Tunisia last week cementing a special relationship with Tunisia.
Beyond speeches, there was a bilateral business conference preceding the King’s visit, and he was accompanied by more than 90 companies and 11 ministers to launch 23 bilateral agreements across economic, social, financial, educational, and other sectors.
This can come none too soon for Tunisia as it struggles to attract outlets for its economic development. In a Reuter’s article on the latest Fitch Ratings report on the two countries, the diverging challenges for Morocco and Tunisia were described as reflecting “different developments arising from the political transition in each country and their impact on economic performance.” The article explained:
In Tunisia, the political transition has proved long and difficult with recurrent violence and popular protest. Marked political instability (with four prime ministers in three years) has undermined confidence in the economy and in Tunisia’s ability to reform and finance widening twin deficits.
In contrast, Morocco’s transition to a more open political system was smooth. A new constitution that gave more power to the elected Parliament was adopted in mid-2011. The elections that followed brought to power a coalition dominated by the Parti de la Justice et du Developpement. Social and political stability has allowed the authorities to implement potentially difficult reforms, as illustrated by the gradual increase in subsidised energy prices.
The smoother political transition in Morocco was aided by a tradition of political pluralism, the permanence of the monarchy (with King Mohammed VI seen as a reformer and legitimate among the population), and economic and social reforms started after the accession of the King to the throne in 1999.
A Very Special Relationship
It is no coincidence that Morocco was the first country visited by Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki when he took office in 2011. This common bond was reinforced in the King’s speech to the National Constituent Assembly in Tunis, when he referred to Tunisia as “my second home, Tunisia, a country bound to the Kingdom of Morocco by many time-honored historical and cultural ties as well as a longstanding friendship and a common destiny.”
The King emphasized human bonds the countries share, “Our common desire to consolidate the bonds of brotherhood and solidarity between our peoples, and to build fruitful cooperation ties, making our relationship a model for the Maghreb.” It is this last point—regional cooperation and integration—which was the key theme of the King’s speech in Tunis. He spoke of the “complementarity of Maghreb countries” that has the potential to undertake vital political, economic, social, and security roles “based on solid bilateral relations between the five Maghreb countries on the one hand, and on integration-oriented projects that enhance the standing and evolution of the Maghreb Union, on the other.”
It was in this context of regional integration based on transnational projects that the King and President presided over the signing of some 23 bilateral agreements, which, according to the Moroccan press, “cover various economic, social and security fields, and open up broad prospects of cooperation for the integration of the Maghreb. They are also marked by a significant openness on new areas of cooperation, including renewable energy, the environment, financial markets, and the promotion of human rights, as well as by the important involvement of the private sector represented by the General Confederation of Moroccan Businesses (CGEM) and the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA).”
Logic of North African Integration
Much has been written about the need for regional integration in North Africa. It has the lowest rate of intra-regional trade in the world (less than 3 percent). Its logistics and commercial ties are subject to political conflicts that undermine opportunities for cross-border economic development. Conscious of these impediments, the King said, “Those who believe a country can single-handedly address development issues and meet the legitimate aspirations of its people are wrong, especially when it comes to meeting the demands of Maghreb youth, who are our greatest asset.” Across the region, youth unemployment averages more than 20 percent, with the majority of the populations under 30 years of age. The King went on to describe the folly of not addressing opportunities from integration.
Those who think a country can deal with security and stability problems on its own are just as wrong. Experience has shown the failure of approaches that exclude others when seeking to address the security threats looming over the region; this is especially true when it comes to the development and security challenges facing the Sahel and Sahara region.
Wrong, too, are those who think the status quo can be maintained, or who believe that keeping our Greater Maghreb in a state of lethargy can somehow be a fruitful strategy; a case in point is the ongoing closure of borders, which is not only at odds with the Union’s founding charter, but is also inconsistent with the normal course of history and the requirements of geographic complementarity and cohesion. In fact, such a policy is against the very interests of the region’s peoples, who yearn for unity and integration.
…The Maghreb Union is no longer a mere option or a political luxury; it has become a pressing popular demand and an inevitable strategic goal in the region.
…Comprehensive development for the benefit of our peoples cannot be achieved [without]… completing the establishment of a Maghreb free-trade zone and building basic infrastructure and communication networks to facilitate the free movement of people, services, goods and capital between the countries of the Great Maghreb.
The success of this commitment to long-term development and progressive economic growth within Morocco and with its neighbors across the Maghreb and Africa is reflected in Morocco’s improving ratings as a regional base for business and investment. Yet achieving progress is not without its challenges. Dependent on imported energy supplies, troubled by slow growth in employment, and experiencing the growing pains of an emerging constitutional democracy, the King is committed to embracing and promoting Morocco’s role as a leader in the maturing of an integrated Maghreb.