GIVEN the stark differences that exist between the five North African countries making up the Maghreb region, it's little wonder that the phrase ``Maghreb unity'' has come to be viewed as a contradiction in terms. Maghreb leaders will seek to confound skeptics by breathing life into the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) that they proclaimed last February in Marrakech, Morocco.
At that planning meeting, the five leaders set up a joint administrative structure for the AMU. The goal will be to abolish barriers to the movement of trade, capital, and labor. But skeptics say that in this diverse region, ranging from oil-rich Algeria to underdeveloped Mauritania, there are few complementarities to build on.
``The only exceptions are Tunisia and Libya,'' notes one European ambassador in North Africa. ``Libya is rich in everything and produces nothing. Tunisia is poor in energy and produces nothing. The economic union is already made.''
The five countries disagree even on what kind of union February's agreement implies. Efforts by Tunisia and Libya to push farther with steps toward full political integration have been resisted by Algeria and Morocco, which favor a go-slow approach.
So far there has been more talk than action. ``Skepticism is understandable,'' says Lakhdar Brahimi, undersecretary of the Tunis-based Arab League. ``What has been achieved so far is nothing to write home about.''
Attempts at Maghreb economic unity date back to the early 1960s. They were bedeviled by frequent local conflicts, the absence of roads and infrastructure to accommodate trade within the region, and the inflexibility of state-run economies which made real integration impossible.
What makes the latest attempt different, say various economists in the region, is the compelling economic need behind it, as the Maghreb states struggle with problems created by high birth rates and underdevelopment.
``It's a must for us - a difficult must - but a must,'' says Ibrahim Khalil, the head of Tunisia's central bank. ``We have to start the process.'' Few, including its biggest boosters, give the project much chance of achieving very much very soon.
Optimists point to the gradual liberalizing of state-controlled economies that could make it possible in time to coordinate trade and monetary policies.
The biggest unifier is the threat posed by European integration in 1992, jeopardizing access to a market that absorbs two-thirds of Maghreb exports.
``Before, we had political differences to starting the process, but now all the countries are ready for it,'' says Ismael Khalil of the galvanizing effect the approach of 1992 has had on Maghreb leaders. ``Since the political will is there we can make up for lost time.''
Due to editing errors, a story on North African economic unity on May 11, Page 3, misnamed the head of Tunisia's central bank. He is Ismael Khalil. The story also misquoted a European ambassador. He said, ``Libya is rich in energy and produces nothing. Tunisia is poor in energy and produces everything.''