Tripoli, Siham Ali in Rabat, Jamel Arfaoui in Tunis and Jemal Oumar in Nouakchott — Top diplomats from across North Africa gathered in Tripoli on Saturday (February 15th) to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA).
"There is no doubt that the results in terms of consolidating this entity are still much lower than the aspirations of our peoples," Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan said in marking the occasion.
Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdulaziz chaired the meeting in the presence of his counterparts from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania as well as UMA Secretary-General Habib Ben Yahia.
"What we face in terms of challenges and obstacles are too large and requires effort and hard work on a political level as well as a real, serious, and focused dialogue," Zidan pointed out.
"Compromise is essential and necessary, and relations between states and peoples cannot be consolidated without concrete initiatives in the fields of economy, trade, education, and culture," the Libyan premier continued.
Zidan also called for "co-operation in security, the exchange of information, border protection, experiences and the development of expertise".
"There is no doubt that the situation in which we live now is tense and dangerous," he said.
The union was formed February 17th, 1989 in Marrakech with the aim of promoting the free movement of people, goods and capital between member states and encouraging a common policy in all areas. Yet years passed without these goals being achieved.
Government officials seem aware of the need for unity. However, according to political analyst Jamal Farhan, there is a wide gap between the rhetoric and acts.
"We must develop concrete initiatives. The expression of good will alone is not enough," he said.
Speaking in Tripoli on February 15th, Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar stressed that political will was the only way to promote conditions conducive for understanding and co-operation.
"The best way to realise the hopes of Maghreb peoples is through unity, development, security and stability, in order to meet the challenges of globalisation and fight terrorism and transnational crime," Mezouar said.
In order to revive the union, Farhan said it was necessary for Morocco and Algeria to sit at the same table and first settle their political differences.
"Other Maghreb countries must ensure the resolution of the difference of views between Rabat and Algiers. A solution must be reached for the good of the entire region," he noted.
In Tunisia, Central Bank Governor Chadli Ayari also lamented the absence of real plans and solutions to achieve the dreams of the Maghreb Union.
Speaking at a Saturday conference organised by the al-Majd Foundation for Strategic Studies commemorating a quarter century since the birth of UMA, he said that "the Maghreb dimension for which the union was founded was absent at the level of developmental or economic achievements in the plans of the countries that are part of it."
"The crisis experienced by Tunisia and Libya after the revolution was an opportunity for the promotion of the union in order to cope with difficulties and achieve the aspirations of its founders. Unfortunately, this proved to be absent and empty and just a show," Ayari said.
Meanwhile in Mauritania, citizens await integration as security threats mount in the Sahel.
Filmmaker Ahmed Ould Al-Hassan said a unified bloc could serve the region's peoples and governments but added that "the problem lies in the different policies of the states composing it, especially the decades-old problem between Morocco and Algeria, the two biggest countries in the Maghreb."
"This problem limits the effectiveness of any security alliances between the countries of the Maghreb," he said.
Gallo Hamat, a Mauritanian journalist, said he had not seen "any concrete steps made over the past years for the sake of integration and union".
"Despite the lack of effectiveness, I think the fact that it remains in place even as a token is important," Hamat added.