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US Policy Should Refocus On Strategic North Africa

Preoccupation with Arab-Israeli ties shuts out new opportunities

IN the aftermath of the Rabin assassination, the world's attention has once again been refocused from Bosnia, Central Europe, and Russia to the frailties of the Middle East.

Rightfully so. By almost every objective measure, the Middle East occupies a principal part of the American foreign-policy agenda, and its stability is essential to US national-security and economic interests. The expose of Israel's extremist strain and the violent manifestation of internal fissures surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are cause for enduring concern. A fractious Israel trying to forge peace with a wary Arab world portends a protracted worst-case scenario that few hope to see.

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United States foreign policy in the Middle East has centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shifting intermittently to the Gulf whenever US oil interests were threatened. While the success of the Oslo accords ultimately will affect and perhaps determine the future of the Arab world, the western branch of the Middle East - North Africa - is also extremely important. The overall stability of the region and the ongoing ability of the US to play a central role in the Middle East is directly tied to what happens in North Africa.

North Africa's significance

Geography determines North Africa's importance. Straddling the threshold of three continents - Europe, Asia, and Africa - North Africa reflects the cultural foundations inherent in all. It remains a part of, yet distinct from, the Mediterranean, Arab, and sub-Saharan African worlds in which it exists. The pace and intensity of political and economic developments, with implications that extend beyond the region, make North Africa significant to American foreign-policy interests.

In Morocco, King Hassan II's monarchy endures. Democratic reforms have been slow, the regime faces strong domestic opposition, and conflict in the Western Sahara continues. Despite this and the worst drought in years, Morocco remains stable. In fact, it recently negotiated a free-trade-area agreement with the European Union (EU).

In Algeria, presidential elections were held last month, resulting in victory for retired Gen. Liamine Zeroual, head of the transitional military government. Despite a boycott by major opposition parties, the government claimed Mr. Zeroual received 60 percent of the votes, with an estimated 75 percent turnout. The long-term impact of these elections is yet unknown. France, the US, and other Western countries hope that President Zeroual will view his victory as an opportunity to negotiate with moderate Islamist and other opposition groups and not as a mandate for the status quo. The government's ability to peacefully engage moderate opposition groups will determine whether the spiral of violence continues.

Tunisia, occasionally likened to Asia's economic tigers, continues to move toward privatization and economic reform as President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's government seeks greater stability and prosperity. It, too, recently entered into a free-trade agreement with the EU.

In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi has simultaneously pursued rapprochement with the West and a crackdown on Islamic extremism. As Libya's economy worsens under stiff US and United Nations sanctions, Mr. Qaddafi has taken a hard-line view on radicals seeking to destabilize his regime. His security alliance with Algeria and Egypt signals a change in Libya's accommodation of extremists in the region. This change, and Libya's willingness to resolve the Lockerbie matter, albeit on terms unacceptable to the US and Britain, were Libya's justifications in seeking a Security Council seat last month.

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Egypt is the US's principal Arab ally, receiving $2.1 billion in US economic and military assistance annually. The Egyptian government faces a deteriorating economy, marginalization in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and an Islamist near-insurgency at home. Although Egypt has been historically identified as more of a Mashreqi (eastern) country, there are clear signs that it is now turning west, toward the Maghreb. Two primary reasons for Egypt's westward turn are security concerns and economic interests; for these same reasons the US should expand its foreign-policy gaze westward as well.

Crossing national boundaries, Islamism, moderate and radical, is a security concern for all North African states because it challenges the legitimacy and stability of current governments. Because Islamism advocates changing the status quo, it warrants careful observation by the US. Islamism will not subside. Effective handling of both moderate and radical Islamist movements will have implications far beyond the region. A radical regime could foster instability in the Middle East, Europe, and North America. The resolution of Islamist aspirations will shape politics in the region for years.

The most significant Islamist movements are in North Africa - in Egypt and Algeria - a fact frequently obscured by the Palestinian-Israeli focus of the US media. While future elections in Israel and the occupied territories are important, those in Algeria and Egypt (including Algeria's upcoming parliamentary elections), are no less significant for the region.

Don't forget economics

Although economic developments in North Africa are of great importance, most economic discussions evidence the same myopia that places the peace process at the center of the region's political discourse. An overview of North African economic developments is instructive: According to EU governments, Algeria and Egypt could be included in the European Economic Area if their economies demonstrably improve.

Such economic arrangements and similar security measures make up the basis of the North African-EU axis that was developed further during the November conference in Barcelona, Spain. Invitees included Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon, Malta, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. The conference emphasized the importance of cross-Mediterranean ties for regional development.

The suggestion that the US refocus on North Africa does not mean it should disengage from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In fact, the region has a role to play in the peace process. Israel has participated in anti-Islamist Mediterranean security groupings of which North African countries form the crux.

Two of the staunchest Arab supporters of the peace process are Egypt and Morocco. Both allied with the US in the Gulf war and have consistently supported US interests.

As the peace process advances, Arab-Israeli reconciliation will require overcoming the rhetoric of hatred developed over a half-century of conflict. North Africa's history of Jewish culture can be useful. Morocco, for example, has cited the significant history of Jews there to put its current relations with Israel in context.

If the peace process succeeds, Israeli-Arab relations will normalize, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will no longer dominate Middle Eastern politics.

In anticipation of these eventualities, the US should focus more on North Africa, where economic and political realities present new challenges and prospects for enlightened US engagement.

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