West warms to shifts in North Africa

New leaders and new diplomacy draw West to improve ties with the neighbors of the Mideast.

Following years of tension and distrust as a result of terrorism and a rising wave of radical Islamic fundamentalism, the United States and Western European countries are moving quickly to rekindle diplomatic and commercial relations with Libya, Algeria, and Morocco in North Africa.

The intense diplomatic activity of recent weeks follows a series of unrelated events whose effect has been to raise hopes for defusing political tensions and consolidating democracy, and finally settling the long-standing problem of the Western Sahara. Further on the horizon lies the hope of establishing a Mediterranean free-trade zone.

During the past four months the complicated checkerboard of Mediterranean politics has been altered by the death of King Hassan II of Morocco, Libya's turning over of two suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and key steps by Algeria's new president to establish peace with Islamic fundamentalists.

In Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been extending an olive branch to the moderate Islamic opposition since his election last April. After years of violent civil strife that has cost the lives of 100,000 people, radical Muslim fundamentalists have failed to establish an Islamic republic along Iranian lines since the insurgency began in 1992.

Mr. Bouteflika's most important measure has been to call for a referendum Sept. 16 to approve an amnesty for political prisoners and a reduction of prison terms for Islamic militants not guilty of blood crimes. He is also considering freeing imprisoned leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front, Algeria's major opposition force. There is talk that moderate Islamic figures could participate in a future government coalition.

Bouteflika's openness has led France, originally a challenger to the president's legitimacy because he was the only candidate on the ballot, to change policy toward its former colony. During a much- remarked visit at the end of July, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine announced that Paris would reopen two consulates. More important, Mr. Vedrine said Paris would soften its tough stand on granting visas to Algerians.

"The French opening has simply responded to the fact that Bouteflika proved to be much more forthcoming than had been anticipated in moving forward with a plan to normalize conditions in Algeria," says Simon Serfaty of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The radical Islamic movements, which at one point threatened to engulf Morocco as well as Algeria and send as many as 1 million refugees into southern Europe, put North Africa on the map in Washington. Washington and Algiers carried out joint naval exercises for the first time several months ago.

IN another sign of defusing tensions in the region, Britain reestablished diplomatic relations with Libya last month after that country finally agreed to turn over two men suspected in the Pan Am jet bombing for a trial in the Netherlands. The United Nations Security Council has suspended economic sanctions against Libya.

The government of Col. Muammar Qaddafi also expressed its apologies and promised to cooperate in the investigation into the killing of a British citizen slain in front of the Libyan Embassy in London in 1984, allegedly by Libyan agents. The murder led to the 15-year break in diplomatic relations. Colonel Qaddafi, still considered by the US as a harborer of terrorists, has also embarked on a campaign to attract foreign investment to his oil-rich nation.

In Morocco, the sudden death of Hassan after 36 years on the throne has initiated a delicate period after decades of political stability.

The new king, Mohammed VI, comes to power at a time when few challenge the legitimacy of the monarchy. The military, occupied in trying to retain control of the Western Sahara, is no longer the threat it was to Hassan during the 1970s. Nevertheless, the young monarch faces the task of further democratizing the country, keeping Islamic fundamentalists at bay, and modernizing an economy that remains overly dependent on agriculture and has 23 percent unemployment.

The most perilous moment for Mohammed, however, is certain to be next July's UN sponsored referendum to determine the future status of the Western Sahara. Since Hassan led hundreds of thousands of Moroccans into the desert territory in a peaceful march in1976, annexing the region has become the monarchy's first priority. The issue has poisoned relations between Morocco and Algeria, which supports independence for the former Spanish colony.

"Essentially the king cannot lose the referendum, for that would threaten the future of the monarchy," Mr. Serfaty says. "I don't view Algeria's commitment to an independent [West Saharan] state as firm as it was five, 10, or 20 years ago."

Algerian acceptance of a vote annexing the area to Morocco could lead Western countries to quietly arrange for it to receive substantial help from organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, much in the same way that Egypt has benefited economically from its peace treaty with Israel. A final settlement of the Western Sahara issue would be yet another sign that political stability has come to North Africa, opening the way for broadening democracy and speeding much-needed economic development.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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