North African leaders sought to reassure Europe at a summit in Malta on Friday that the upheaval in their countries would ultimately generate more stability and investment opportunities.
Transitions in North Africa “are not a threat for Europe,” Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, who came to power last year after long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled and the country held its first democratic vote.
“Don’t be afraid of Salafi Islamic groups,” Marzouki said following a wave of anti-Western protests across the Muslim world over a US video offensive to Islam and satirical cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed published in France.
“Non-democratic Islamic systems would not be accepted by people. We want Islamic democracy, not autocracy,” said Marzouki, who has come under criticism in Tunisia for not doing enough to keep radical Islamist movements in check.
Marzouki also said there were “lots of opportunities” for European investment, adding that the region was “in bad need” of infrastructure.
He said Arab Spring states were “paying a heavy price” for democracy — a reference to the plunge in foreign investment and public finances woes.
“Europe is our destiny,” said Marzouki, one of five Maghreb leaders at the talks with five European leaders including French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
“We have to rebuild the Maghreb,” he said, adding that Tunisia was planning to host a summit of the regional Arab Maghreb Union by the end of the year.
Mauritanian President Ould Abdel Aziz said at the talks: “We are meeting after our region has seen political developments that will help stabilise it.
“Our countries are trying to reconcile democracy with good management.”
The meeting is part of a diplomatic forum known as “Five-Plus-Five”, which was launched in Rome in 1990 and held its last summit in Tunis in 2003.
It brings together five European countries (France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain) and five Maghreb states (Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia).
Libya’s new President Mohamed al-Megaryef was one of the leaders present. His predecessor, dictator Moamer Kadhafi, was toppled in August last year, then captured and killed two months later after a bloody conflict swept the country.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh have also been ousted, but their countries lie outside the Maghreb region.
The summit was expected to adopt a declaration later on Friday but no binding decisions and the talks are then set for a second day on Saturday.
“The events in North Africa are historic and they have consequences for every other country,” said Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi.
“People in Misrata and Tripoli have given their lives for democracy… Our long-term objective should be a democratic North Africa, to see people there living in prosperity and peace,” Gonzi said.
A Maltese official told AFP that the informal nature of the forum “permits a more frank discussion” of themes expected to include security and immigration issues and new areas of cooperation like education, environment and energy.
On immigration, Marzouki said Europe should be “patient and understanding in this critical period of transition” over the flow of tens of thousands of undocumented migrants from North Africa to Europe since the Arab Spring.
The summit will allow the West to show its determination “to maintain an ambitious Mediterranean cooperation in spite of economic difficulties and the eurozone crisis,” a spokesman from the French president’s office said earlier.
Paris also wants to declare “its renewed confidence in the political process on the south shore of the Mediterranean and Maghreb in particular following the Arab Spring”, and “create productive, confident and varied ties” in the region.