AT present North Africa is the great unsolved problem of Western diplomacy. France is spending a billion and a half dollars a year and deploying nearly three-quarters of a million men to fight a war in Algeria which she alone cannot win, and which is draining her financially and psychologically; at the same time, she is unable to exploit the 100 million tons of oil recently discovered in southern Algeria which could help recoup her world economic position. Her relations with Tunisia and Morocco have been strained, at times to the breaking point, because of the latter's support for the Algerian cause, and the two former protectorates have received little of the economic assistance they need from France. And, although Tunisia and Morocco have the most pro-Western governments in the entire Arab world, the United States has refused them long-term assistance out of deference to French fears that we seek to "replace" her in North Africa. The Algerian issue has aggravated our relations with France at the same time that it has exposed us to charges of supporting "imperialism," weakened the appeal of the Eisenhower Doctrine throughout the Middle East and Africa, and provided powerful propaganda for those who would like to oust Western influences from these areas.

There is, however, a rational solution to this problem on which much planning has already been done: a confederation of North Africa, which would include Tunisia, Morocco, an autonomous Algeria, and Libya. It would be organized independently--in fact, in defiance--of Cairo, and would be linked with France economically in what President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia has described as "a French-North African community," a pro-Western bloc at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The implications of this project are immense. First, its mere formation would be a stunning blow to whatever remains of Nasser's pan-Arab ambitions. It would effectively wean Libya away from the Cairo orbit. It would mean that the six American air bases in Morocco, the Bizerte naval station in Tunisia, and the Wheelus Field base in Libya would be on safer political ground. Finally--and probably most important in the long run-- it would have a powerful impact on the policies of other newly-independent or almost-independent countries of the Middle East and Africa. For it would provide the opportunity to prove that dignified ties with the West are indeed possible, and can be a more productive course of action than neutralism.

It might be well, then, to examine the plans for the confederation of North Africa, and see what can be done to establish, for the first time, a positive Western policy towards this crucial area.

II

The idea of North African unity is implicit in the very concept of "North Africa" itself. Geographically, ethnically and--particularly in the last century--historically, the Arab-Berber peoples of the traditional Arab Mahgreb (west) have long been linked in every sense but the political. They are now, however, being drawn together in this sense also--a process in which France, ironically, has been the catalyst.

In attempting to maintain her hold over North Africa, France always stressed the differences between "integrated" Algeria and the protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco, and even between the latter two. Thus she would temporarily pacify one area (most often Tunisia, which she considered the most advanced) by giving it some concessions, at the same time suppressing the other two. In this way she hoped to prevent concerted nationalistic activity, and until the Algerian conflict reached war proportions, the plan worked well enough. Yet, apart from the policy of divide and rule, the very fact of French control created elements of unity which could be seen as early as the 1920s.

In the first place, the opportunity to attend Parisian schools brought together young people from all parts of North Africa who otherwise would probably never have met. France, through her educational policy, was hoping to make Frenchmen (or at least pro-Frenchmen) out of all of them. What she produced in fact, however, was a group of young people who felt they were as educated and capable as their French comrades, but who were none the less often discriminated against in the metropole simply because they were "North Africans" or "Moslems." Common problems, coupled with common interpretations of Rousseau, Voltaire and other Frenchmen who wrote of the dignity of men, led to the formation of North African student associations. For example, the Moslem Student Union, or Union nord-Africaine, founded in 1930, was dedicated to the proposition that:

1. North Africa is one and indivisible.

2. North Africa is a single nation and ought to become one forever.

3. North Africa is one single people whose language, culture, customs ought to be the same.

4. North Africa is a single country whose sons should, in order to defend it, form a united front.

The members might well have added that they now shared a common second language, second culture and second set of customs (and, of course, common opponent), factors which set them apart from other Arabs and joined them together more closely than most of them realized at that time.

Much of this early idealism concerning "united fronts" was soon lost in the shuffle of strictly national movements. Tunisia's Neo-Destour party, following a program of Fabian nationalism, tended to feel it could accomplish more by unilateral action; the French were willing to negotiate with them and to grant concessions which they never would have considered granting to Morocco--let alone to "assimilated" Algeria. Why, then, felt Tunisian leaders such as Habib Bourguiba, Mongi Slim and Hedi Nouri, become associated with the haphazardly organized, more extremist groups in Morocco which could only give the Neo-Destour a bad name? Meanwhile, the Moroccans were spending most of their energies in trying merely to interest their young Sultan, Mohammed V, in the cause of independence. And although a small group in Algeria was striving for independence, the outstanding political leader in the country, Ferhat Abbas, was pushing in the opposite direction--toward complete assimilation.

Nevertheless, contacts were still maintained between the rising nationalist leaders, and on several occasions they even engaged in concerted activities against France. For example, the arrest of the Moroccan leader, Allal al Fassi, in 1936 caused sympathy strikes in Algeria and Tunisia.

World War II bridged many of the divisions between the three parts of the Mahgreb. First, promises by Allied leaders of freedom to "oppressed peoples" after the war encouraged Morocco's two leading nationalists, Ahmed Balafrej and Allal al Fassi, to join forces and form Morocco's first important nationalist movement, the Istiqlal, which received the open support of Mohammed V. Promises of freedom also led the majority of politically minded Algerians to think in terms of becoming not better Frenchmen but independent Algerians. Second, disappointment with the paucity of France's postwar reforms, and a belief that France had reneged on her promises resulted in a conviction that French tactics could be thwarted only by presenting a common front. Thus, in February of 1952, all the parties of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria presented a joint statement of grievances to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, protesting against repressions in Tunisia. In December of that year, native unions in Morocco staged sympathy strikes and mass demonstrations of protest against the assassination of the Tunisian union leader, Ferhat Hached. Finally, there were several declarations of common aims, such as the agreement signed in Cairo in 1953 by North African leaders, promising that no one of them would make any arrangement with France which might be detrimental to the others.

The whole tenor of these agreements, however, was negative rather than positive: they aimed at thwarting France rather than uniting North Africa. And many of the old points of disagreement still existed. Bourguiba, although in exile, was prepared to negotiate separately with France if acceptable terms should be offered. Thus he signed the internal autonomy conventions of 1955, even though this freed French troops for duty in Algeria and Morocco. For this he was promptly excoriated as a traitor by the Moroccans and Algerians, who in October of that year placed their forces under joint command and swore to fight until both should be free. The Moroccans, however, forgot this pledge one month later, and laid down their arms when France promised them complete independence and the return of their exiled sultan. The Algerians were then left--officially, at least--to fight alone.

Until the end of 1955, in other words, unity existed between the North African areas only when it was convenient. And for the next few months the newly independent governments of Tunisia and Morocco were too busy setting their own houses in order to care much about each other, or about the struggle in Algeria. Furthermore, both Bourguiba and Mohammed V felt Algeria was too delicate a legal issue with which to become involved during a period when they were trying to iron out their own relations with France. But it soon became evident that Algeria could not be ignored.

III

From the very beginning of their rebellion in November of 1954, the leaders of Algeria's Front de Libération Nationale decided they would get nowhere without foreign diplomatic support. And this, they felt, would not be forthcoming unless they could accustom people to think of Algeria not as "a part of France" in "rebellion," but as "another part of North Africa fighting for independence." This approach could be successful only by persuading other Mahgrebian leaders to stop speaking of "Tunisian" or "Moroccan" freedom, and to start urging "freedom of all North Africa, which is indivisible." They were particularly anxious to swing Bourguiba to this way of thinking. For, though angry with him for making what they felt was a premature peace with France, they realized that he was the only North African leader to whom the French would listen seriously.

Bourguiba at first rejected this approach, and even tended to scoff at the young fellaghah leaders, most of whom had been until recently Parisian students, lacking political experience. But he was soon forced to conclude that North Africa was indeed indivisible, and that the security of his own country depended upon a settlement being reached in Algeria. For one thing, although the French granted Tunisia full independence in March 1956, they insisted on maintaining 35,000 troops in Tunisia on the grounds that they were needed to guard the Algerian border. Their presence led to several unpleasant incidents and charges by Tunisians that "independence is only a sham so long as we still have French troops here." This situation was aggravated by instances of French troops in Algeria chasing fellaghahs across the border into Tunisian territory. Emotions were further stirred by the presence of Algerian civilian refugees, eventually totalling nearly 200,000, who streamed into Tunisia with tales of atrocities committed by the French. Bourguiba was soon convinced that real stability in Tunisia would be impossible without peace in Algeria.

Thus, in the late spring and summer of 1956, he worked as intermediary between the French Government and the Algerian fellaghahs. Assisted by the Sultan, he urged the Algerians to moderate their demands for full independence and to accept internal self-government, and he was instrumental in persuading Premier Mollet to accept the principle of administrative autonomy. After preliminary contacts had been established a conference was scheduled for October in Tunis, where a cease-fire might have been arranged. Due to an unfortunate faux-pas, through which five Algerian leaders were captured without Mollet's prior knowledge, the conference miscarried. But Bourguiba has not given up his efforts to end the Algerian War; on the contrary, he has been working at it harder than ever. For until peace is achieved, he cannot realize his grand scheme for the unification of all North Africa under his political leadership.

Habib Bourguiba, the undisputed "elder statesman of North Africa," is a great man who wants his small country to be doing big things. He has always felt that Tunisia, as the first North African country to begin the struggle against France, was destined for leadership in the area. To this has been recently added the conviction that, because Tunisia has for 3,000 years been at the cultural crossroads between the Middle East, Africa and the Occident, it is peculiarly suited to become a political meeting ground as well. These ideas, vague before Tunisia achieved independence in March 1956, have since taken definite shape.

Bourguiba's plans for North Africa crystallized under the impact of events around him. While his own country was able to hold elections and start a development program one month after independence, Morocco, despite its greater natural resources, was floundering for lack of experienced technicians and administrators, and was unable to obtain much foreign aid because Western sources feared the political instability there. Algeria was engaged in a war of destruction directed by young and inexperienced men; they would need the guidance of seasoned politicians in negotiating a peace settlement with France, and in organizing a new government afterwards. Finally, Bourguiba looked seriously for the first time at Tunisia's eastern neighbor, Libya, a country heretofore ignored but none the less part of the Mahgreb. Lacking adequate resources of any kind and pitifully poor despite years of United Nations spoon-feeding, Libya was being infiltrated by Egyptian professors, civil servants and technicians who were trying to weld her to the Arab League, which she joined for lack of any real alternative. Clearly the economic viability and political stability of all four countries would be enhanced if they pooled their human and material resources in a confederation.

But there are other considerations behind Bourguiba's wish to unify the Mahgreb. One is the need for more effective means of combatting Communism. Another is the desire to keep Egyptian influence out of North Africa, and to pursue a foreign policy independent of the Arab League. Even the politically uninformed Tunisian tends to dislike the Egyptians for what he considers a presumptuous attitude of superiority. The Tunisians feel their own civilization is at least as highly developed, their leaders as great, and they see no reason why they should look to Cairo for guidance. This general dislike has been intensified in the last two years by Nasser's open support of Bourguiba's bitter rival, Salah ben Youssef, whose extremist tactics were rejected by the Tunisians.

But above all, Bourguiba and the men around him are out of sympathy with the neutralism of the Arab League, which seems to lean always toward the Communists. Denouncing Nasser's foreign policy, "for which moderation is hardly a fundamental characteristic," Bourguiba declared last January: "We feel that this policy is adventurous and non-realistic, and we believe that its excesses run the risk of harming not only all Arabs, but also all peoples struggling for their liberation." Referring later to the talks last spring between Nasser and King Saud, he said:

Their position in regard to the two blocs which share the world remains badly defined. Ours, on the other hand, was clearly defined in 1952 and is well known. I believe, in all sincerity, that real neutrality is impossible. . . . It is illusionary, and certainly not in harmony with our interests. . . .

I believe that the doctrine which constitutes the basis of the Communist world could never be a good thing if applied to our country. I think that it is a necessity for us to coöperate with the democratic West.

IV

North African confederation, except in the case of Algeria, would entail no change in present governmental structures--at least not in the near future. It would involve merely the removal of customs barriers, the integration of development programs, and the coördination of foreign policy on major issues affecting all the members. Several momentous steps have already been taken toward these objectives.

First, a far-reaching "treaty of fraternity and good-neighborliness" was signed in Tunis on January 6, 1957, by Bourguiba and Prime Minster Ben Halim of Libya. Following a preamble stressing their solidarity and obligations for mutual defense, it provided for concrete measures to bring the countries into closer harmony: ending customs and police restrictions on tourists, simplifying laws and tax regulations, building up transportation and communications, providing mutual aid and assistance in matters of teaching, health and techniques. Mixed commissions were immediately formed to put these provisions into operation and, in May, Bourguiba, eight members of his cabinet and numerous technical experts visited Libya to observe their progress. Since then, Tunisian professors, technicians and engineers have rapidly begun to replace their Egyptian counterparts on the Libyan scene.

During the ceremony at which the treaty was signed, Bourguiba said:

We have the conviction that in the Arab countries of North Africa, there exists a Mahgrebian solidarity imposed by economic, historical and geographic imperatives. . . . Our efforts have led us to harden that solidarity not in order to direct it against any other power, but in order to make of it an instrument of coöperation with the rest, particularly with the Western world of which we form a part. . . .

The only thing holding back the full realization of their goal, he added, was the Algerian crisis. Independence "is a necessary condition for achieving North African unity, and for establishing real coöperation between the Arab west and the rest of the Occident."

Devoting virtually the entire issue to the treaty, the official government weekly, L'Action Tunisienne, noted with obvious satisfaction that "on the banks of the Mediterranean, one can advance more quickly than in the salons of the Arab League or at Strasbourg," and it decried the fact that Paris "is unable to see the privileged position that France would have" in relation to a unified North Africa.

Fortunately, the desire to pursue a Mahgrebian, rather than a pan-Arab, policy is shared by the now King of Morocco and most of the Bekkai régime. They feel that His Majesty, who is a world religious leader as well as a nationalist hero, should remain above the mêlée of Arab League politics, and they see in Nasser's claim to leadership of the Arab world a direct threat to the King's position. They also feel that for their country, the farthest west in North Africa, the only sensible course of action is to establish strong economic and cultural ties with the Occident. Finally, close coöperation in North Africa would help solve some of Morocco's internal problems.

Many Moroccans, suffering from hunger and unemployment, have been following the pan-Arab, anti-Western exhortations of Allal al Fassi, Cairo-trained president of the Istiqlal Party. Refusing to take a post in the government because the other ministers, particularly Foreign Minister Ahmed Balafrej, do not share his pro-Nasser sentiments, he has agitated against the government. In order to combat his destructive influence, the King wants to obtain Western aid with which to provide food and jobs. He is also anxious to encourage Moroccans to think in terms of solidarity with "fellow North Africans," rather than "fellow Arabs." Therefore, despite some evidence of jealousy, he has coöperated closely with Bourguiba in the plans for confederation.

Negotiations which began with the King's visit to Tunis in October 1956 culminated on March 30, 1957, when Bourguiba made a personal visit to Morocco and signed, with M. Balafrej, the Treaty of Rabat. This "treaty of friendship and solidarity" is not as comprehensive as the treaty with Libya; it avoided anti-Nasser overtones because of the widespread sympathy for Egypt in Morocco, and it could not seek the immediate removal of customs restrictions simply because Tunisia and Morocco are not next-door neighbors. However, in addition to confirming "the solidarity between the two countries," and underlining "the ties of friendship which unite them," the treaty provided for consultation on "international problems of common interest to both countries," and "collaboration in cultural and commercial matters." Finally, it emphasized the "solidarity of all countries of North Africa" and "insisted on the necessity of finding a just solution to the Algerian problem which would conform to the principles of the United Nations Charter in respect to the rights of peoples to self-determination." There was also an understanding that Morocco would soon sign a treaty with Libya.

Perhaps even more significant than the signing of these treaties, however, is the method by which the Algerian problem has been handled in a "strictly North African context" in the recent United Nations debate. This time, instead of the Arab-Asian bloc countries presenting Algeria's case, Tunisia and Morocco have been speaking for the Algerians--not simply as sympathetic observers, but as official port paroles for the F.L.N. "The Algerians will be committed to anything we say," announced the Tunisian Secretary of State and Defense, Bahi Ladgham, on the eve of the debate, and the Algerians then confirmed their desire to have the other North Africans speak for them both in the United Nations and in possible subsequent negotiations with France. (They also declared, during the course of the debate, that the viewpoints expressed by the Arab-Asian bloc were not to be considered as theirs.) Thus France was at last forced to deal openly with the fait accompli of North African spiritual, if not yet physical, unity.

V

The plans for the North African confederation, then, are already well laid. They cannot come to fruition, however--nor can a real Western policy vis-à-vis all North Africa take form--as long as the Algerian conflict continues. Fighting has been protracted because the F.L.N. leaders, embittered after the capture of their five negotiators in October 1956, have reverted to their demand for a promise of complete independence before they will lay down arms. They have categorically opposed the loi cadre, passed by the Gaillard Government on November 29, which envisions a complicated federal system for Algeria, and, on the grounds that French promises cannot be trusted, have rejected all French proposals of a cease-fire followed by free elections. At the same time, no French government wants to accept the responsibility of "abandoning" Algeria to the F.L.N.--whom the French, on their part, claim they have no reason to trust--thus placing in jeopardy the lives of more than a million French colons and the tremendous French investments in Algeria. This determination to hold onto Algeria has been strengthened by the discovery of oil in the southern territories, which France is unwilling to see fall into "unfriendly" Moslem hands.

Confederation offers a way out of this impasse. If France would grant Algeria independence, or internal autonomy with a promise of complete independence at a given date, the safety of French citizens and investments could be guaranteed under a system of confederation not merely by the Algerians but also by Bourguiba and the King, in whom most Frenchmen do have confidence. Algeria's inexperienced rebel leaders could learn the more subtle art of self-government under the tutelage of their neighbors, particularly the Tunisians. Even the transportation of the oil would be facilitated by the laying of pipelines through Tunisia, which offers the best route to the Mediterranean.

The confederation scheme is important, however, not only as a means of solving the Algerian problem, but of answering other long-perplexing questions in the entire North African area. The strategic benefits the West would obtain from this arrangement have already been mentioned. But there are many other benefits, economical and political, to be derived.

North Africa at present suffers from chronic droughts, famine and unemployment. This is a tragic situation not only because it openly beckons to Communist offers of help, but because the area contains a wealth of untapped resources--oil, uranium, phosphates, iron--which, if developed, could not only make North Africa viable, but could be of tremendous value to the West. The separate independent governments have thus far been able to accomplish little in the way of development because of an uneven distribution of assets, a lack of trained technicians and, above all, a lack of foreign capital.

Confederation would allow a pooling of skills, and their use where they are most needed--as is already taking place between Tunisia and Libya, for example. It would also permit regional development planning and common marketing, rather than competition in the marketing of resources, such as phosphates, which are common throughout the area. Most important, it would establish for the first time a suitable framework for foreign aid.

Thus far, foreign assistance to Tunisia and Morocco has been grossly inadequate. Upon granting them independence, France announced that she would assume the responsibility for their development, and warned other countries--particularly the United States--that they should not try to supplant her interests there. But of promised French aid, amounting to some $28,000,000 for Tunisia and somewhat more for Morocco, little has been delivered, and the constant threat of withdrawing it has been used as a means of obtaining political concessions. The political strings were obvious when France interrupted aid to Tunisia in May, after Bourguiba refused to retract his statements that Algeria should become independent.

The State Department, reluctant to antagonize France, has done little to ameliorate the economic situation; whatever aid the United States has given has been of a stopgap nature, donated strictly as a supplement to French aid. Thus Tunisia, as of June 30, 1957, had received $5,000,000 in credits for merchandise to be sold in Tunisia, with the profits going into development, and $500,000 for technical assistance. In addition, she was given $6,500,000 in wheat. Morocco, as of the same date, had received some $20,000,000, all of it in consumer items such as edible oils and sugar, although the proceeds are to be used for agriculture and irrigation development. The Richards mission also was marked by deference to French wishes; Tunisia received the ridiculously small sum of $3,000,000, and Morocco $10,000,000. Even the much-publicized delivery of arms --worth merely $92,500--to Tunisia was accompanied by statements of hope that France would supply the rest of Tunisia's defense needs.

Peace in Algeria would make it possible to divert billions of French francs to constructive purposes. Confederation would make it possible for the United States to help in establishing those conditions of economic and political stability which could only benefit France and French investors. Economic and technical assistance in developing irrigation plans, modern farming methods and basic industries such as refineries and canneries need not conflict with French interests, which deal mostly with banking and mineral extractions. Furthermore, private investors from other Western countries would probably be encouraged by the prospect of developing a potentially rich area without the fear of nationalization or other sudden caprices by an unfriendly régime. North Africa could thus become a show window of Arab-Western coöperation.

A successful confederation of 26,000,000 people having close ties with the West could not only demonstrate to the Arab states the relative sterility of Nasser-type neutralism, but also would be in a position actually to counter the policies of Nasser. Furthermore, it could have a direct effect on the policies of newly emerging states in Africa south of the Sahara. The leaders of these countries, who like to regard the Mahgreb as part of Africa, have already shown a willingness to follow the advice of "fellow-African" Bourguiba, for they feel he has acquired the international respect they too would like to achieve. For his part, Bourguiba believes that the way to combat the appeals of Communism or neutralism is to establish an all-African bloc "stronger than the Arab-Asian bloc," but with "solidarity between Africa and the Occident, a true solidarity based on peace and prosperity."

While personally heading a large delegation to the ceremonies marking Ghana's independence, Bourguiba convinced President Nkrumah of the desirability of interesting other West African leaders in his plan. Their objective is to persuade each African nation, as it approaches independence, to cast its lot with other Africans and to coöperate with the West in modernizing their countries. For this purpose, an all-African conference is scheduled to take place in Ghana in 1958. Whether it degenerates into another Bandung, or whether it writes a new chapter in the history of Western relations with former colonies, may depend greatly upon the status of the Algerian problem at that time.

In sum, not only North Africa and France but the entire free world could benefit from a North African confederation. Fortunately, an increasing number of French leaders of varying political affiliations are beginning to realize this and to advocate independence for Algeria within such a unified framework. In the Radical Party Congress of October 1956, M. Mendès-France asserted that this solution "would advance the path of progress in North Africa so rapidly that the pole of attraction of the Arab world would quickly shift from Cairo toward the West." Others who have supported confederation are Socialists André Philip and Gaston Deferre, and Independents such as Raymond Aron, influential commentator for Le Figaro. Probably the most consistent advocate of confederation, however--and the man mentioned by Bourguiba as being most likely to put the idea across in France--is Charles de Gaulle, whose influence is reappearing on the French political scene. As early as April 1947, he stated that "the Algerian territories can never be assimilated into the metropolitan departments." And in June 1955, he proposed a French North African community, advising that "no policy except one which substitutes association for domination will be workable or worthy of France."

Whatever the outcome of the United Nations debate, it seems increasingly evident that the Algerian problem cannot remain a "family affair" indefinitely. Fortunately, the French appear to be considering the renewal of contacts with the Algerians-- either in the context of the "North African Round Table" discussion suggested by Bourguiba and Ladgham in October, or through the "good offices" more recently proffered by Tunisia and Morocco. Through whatever channels it is arranged, the West has good reason to hope that such a conference materializes, and leads to a final settlement. The present situation can give comfort only to the Kremlin, whereas the alternative of a North African confederation having intimate ties with France offers conspicuous advantages to all concerned. It represents the last best hope of keeping the Mediterranean basin and possibly all of Africa in the orbit of the free world.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now