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The West should focus on North Africa

Making the Maghreb a development partner would promote human rights and reform.

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Even in Morocco, where King Mohammad VI has some popular legitimacy, record lows in voter turnouts in 2007 suggest increased apathy and disillusionment with the voting process.

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Both Tunisia and Morocco have been the target of jihadi attacks in recent years. Although Tunisia performs well economically, there are indications of an increasingly conducive environment for recruitment into AQIM – which has been trying to develop a presence across North Africa. Indeed, US National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair recently noted that AQIM "represents a significant threat to US and Western interests."

The explosive combination of political repression and a dearth of economic opportunity has fueled fears of long-term instability in North Africa. These concerns are exacerbated by an aging leadership and uncertain succession mechanisms. While the departure of Ben Ali and Bouteflika may not be imminent, in the absence of legitimate institutions, successors will enter their offices with even less credibility and historical legitimacy, potentially fueling further disaffection.

This may prove to be a problem for the US, which has serious business interests in the Maghreb. Although the US created a country assistance strategy plan for Morocco which focuses on "mitigating drivers of youth disaffection" and will bestow $110 million on the country in 2009, it lacks such a long-sighted approach with Algeria and Tunisia. In those two countries, despite the Bush administration's "democracy agenda," little real benefit or US commitment to reform has been perceived.

In these countries, the US must take concrete measures to promote human rights and reform. In conjunction with European partners, a far more detailed and extensive program of scholarships, technical expertise assistance, civic education, English language programs, and other development programs should be offered to Tunisia and Algeria. Such efforts must be teamed with further impetus on economic regional cooperation and forward movement on the Western Sahara conflict.

It is now time for a policy that takes into account the region's stability issues and makes all of North Africa into a development partner, rather than a potential time bomb, and ensures that having an election season actually means something.

Dana Moss is the Next Generation fellow at The Washington Institute, and focuses on Libya and North Africa.