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Saharawi troops in Western Sahara
Saharawi troops in Western Sahara
Isabelle Mandraud

CASABLANCA - For a Moroccan tomato to be sold on the Algerian market, it first has to pass through Marseille. This sounds like a joke, but it describes a well-known reality: While in all other continents, countries group themselves in a common market or free trade zone (ASEAN in South-East Asia, Mercosur in Latin America, NAFTA in North America, and of course the European Union), the Maghreb is left behind.

It will soon be 20 years that the border between Algeria and Morocco has been closed, and 38 years since the Saharawi conflict began -- preventing any kind of North African unity. Regardless of the "Arab Spring."

Only two months after becomingTunisia's first post-revolution president, Moncef Marzouki began a series of visits to the neighboring countries in order to revive the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). Officially established in February 1989 in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, the organization includes Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia. But after a few summits, no council to bring together heads of state has been held since 1994.

In the wake of the liberation of his country from dictatorship, Marzouki's dream was to establish the five "freedoms" throughout the Maghreb region: Freedom of movement, residence, work, investment and vote in municipal elections. But he had to quickly abandon his mission, as the meeting of Heads of State of the UMA announced in spring 2012 in Tunis never occurred.

In turn, International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde has tried to encourage North African countries to cooperate in economic matters, praising the model set forth by the "Arab Spring" opening.

"The Arab awakening has also lead to a revival of the private sector," Lagarde said "A Maghreb that ensures the free movement of goods and services offers endless possibilities to a market of 90 million people."

Announced in 2010, the Maghreb Bank for Investment and Foreign Trade (BMICE) has been slow to take root. All the Maghreb countries suffer from the same problems: demographic pressure, housing problems, low levels of direct foreign investment, endemic youth unemployment -- especially for university graduates.

This is forcing countries in the region to negotiate individually with Europe, sometimes in competition with each other. The World Bank has estimated at 8 million the number of jobs that must be created between 2010 and 2020 in order to meet the needs of the new entrants in the labor market. A study published in 2008, carried out by the Moroccan Ministry of Economy, estimated the commerce across borders in North Africa countries at 1.3% of overall trade, "the lowest regional rate in the world." A European study that year calculated that Algeria imported 0.6% of its food products from Morocco, while 40% came from France and Spain. Since then, very little has changed.

Wall in the sand

Western Sahara remains the Gordian knot of a region stuck in a protracted Cold War. A wall of sand of more than 2,700 kilometers physically separates the Saharawi territory, dominated by Morocco, and the one controlled by the Polisario Front, on the Algerian side.

Since 1991, date of the cease-fire between the two belligerents, the UN Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was created, and has been automatically extended every year. But among the violations registered by MINURSO are the regular constructions by the Moroccan army of twelve new observation posts between 2012 and 2013, bringing the total number up to 326 since 2009. This is the most tangible sign that the tension is clearly not decreasing.

In the Algerian region of Tindouf, thousands of Sahrawis -- their number is not known precisely -- have been crammed since the 1970s in the camps supplied by the United Nations. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that between March 2012 and March 2013 the World Food Program provided 90,000 food rations, and more than 35,000 additional rations to the most vulnerable each month. On the other side of the "wall", in Morocco, schools, hospitals and roads were built, but the Sahrawis have becomea minority in comparison to North Moroccans inhabitants.

In October 2010, a tent camp hosting up to 15,000 people demanding jobs and "dignity" had been erected outside of Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara. The clashes that took place during the dismantling of the camp left 11 dead, including security forces and two Moroccan Sahrawi civilians, one of whom was a child.

American left-wing activist Noam Chomsky once cited the Sahrawis camp clash, which came only a few weeks before the beginning of the uprising in Tunisia, as "the first seed of the Arab spring."

The non-stop conflict taking place in the territory of the former Spanish colony -- annexed by Morocco in 1975 and contested by supporters of self-determination under the banner of the Polisario Front -- still deeply divides the international community. Year after year, however, everyone is eventually satisfied with the status quo. But the situation in northern Mali, the increasing of black market traffic and armed groups have changed the equation and increased the urgency.

The Secretary General of the United Nations is raising the alarm bell in order to find a solution to the Sahara conflict. Frustrated by a situation that is not improving, Ban Ki- moon worries for the young people, as they could easily become recruits "for criminal or terrorist networks," despite the vigilance of the Polisario. But also in terms of security, operational cooperation between the Maghreb, the United States and Europe, including France, does not work bilaterally between Morocco and Algeria, which makes many fear the worst.

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