Tunisia president in drive to revive Maghreb union

Tunisia's new President Moncef Marzouki is preparing for a major drive to unify the Maghreb on his first foreign tour as the birthplace of the Arab Spring seeks to recover lost diplomatic prestige.

Seven weeks after taking office, Marzouki will on Wednesday kick off a six-day trip to Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania in a bid to revive the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), a dormant body that also includes Libya.

"This visit is aimed at reviving the Arab Maghreb Union and discussing the holding of a summit that Tunisia proposes to host," Marzouki's spokesman Adane Moncer said.

The UMA was created in 1989 as a trade agreement meant to eventually achieve deeper political integration but has been inactive since 1994, mainly because of the dispute between Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara.

According to the spokesman, Marzouki already broached the issue of a regional summit with Algerian Prime Pinister Ahmed Ouyahia on the sidelines of the annual African Union heads of state meeting in Addis Ababa last month.

Marzouki is due to meet Morocco's King Mohammed VI and his new moderate Islamist prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, before holding talks in Mauritania and wrapping up in Algeria, where is due to meet President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The new Tunisian president was a prominent opposition figure and human rights campaigner under the 23-year-rule of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was brought down by a popular uprising in January 2011.

He envisions a "Maghreb of freedoms" modelled on the European Union inside which citizens of the five member states could cross borders, reside, invest and buy property freely.

"2012 will be the Maghreb's year," Marzouki said.

The main obstacle to reactivating the UMA has been the row over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony which has been annexed by Morocco since 1975 but where separatist Saharawi rebels are backed by Algeria.

The United Nations is leading negotiations aimed at resolving the dispute. Western Sahara has a population of barely half a million but is recognised by dozens of states and is a member of the African Union.

Marzouki argued that making a resolution of the conflict a pre-condition to further economic and political integration in the region was no longer the right approach.

The region's foreign political and trade partners often point to a lack of regional exchanges as one of the reasons for the poor economic growth and rising unemployment that are driving millions to seek immigration.

Marzouki is also expected to discuss security issues as the region grapples with protest movements inspired by Tunisia's uprising as well as the scattering of slain Libyan despot Muammar Qadhafi's considerable arsenal.

Countries such as Algeria and Mauritania have been affected by the surge in activity of Al-Qaeda's north African branch.

"A reactivated UMA would allow the drafting of a common security policy for member states," Moncer told AFP.

Soon after Ben Ali's collapse, the conflict in neighbouring Libya between Kadhafi's forces and Western-backed rebels began. Heightened insecurity and arms trafficking forced border posts ro remain closed for long periods of time.

Marzouki's first foreign trip was to Libya in early January.

Speaking at the AU summit in Addis Ababa 10 days ago, Marzouki said he was keen to see his country regain its rightful place in world diplomacy.

"Tunisia had no diplomatic role, including in Africa where it had completely vanished from the scene," he said.

"Tunisia lies where three worlds meet," he said, in reference to the Euro-Mediterranean zone, the Maghreb and Arab world, and the African continent. "We intend to live up to this dimension."

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