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The successful visit to European Union headquarters in Brussels by Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi is the latest of several events brightening prospects for the Islamic countries of North Africa. Ties between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean have been stagnating, and Libya's mercurial return to the world community could lend a new sense of momentum to the Mediterranean dialogue.
Prague, 30 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, enjoyed a novel sight this week. It was a large tent, pitched in the green gardens of an official guest house. Its inhabitant was the visiting Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi.
Ghaddafi intrigued the Bruxellois not only with his tent-dwelling habits, but also with his phalanx of young female bodyguards, and by the colorful welcome local Libyans accorded him by playing various musical instruments.
There were also Ghaddafi's extravagant statements. In a speech alongside European Commission President Romano Prodi, Ghaddafi announced that his country is taking the lead in seeking global peace. "Libya, which was in the lead and led the liberation movement in the Third World and Africa, now has decided to lead the peace movement all over the world," he said. "The first step to prove that was taken voluntarily, out of [my] own will and volition, to discard all weapons of mass-destruction programs."
But despite the eccentricities and exaggerations, Ghaddafi had a concrete purpose for his visit. The man who not long ago was isolated by the world as a sponsor of terrorism was taking another important step toward rehabilitating himself and his country.
The process began last year, when Tripoli agreed to pay the families of passengers killed in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. It gathered pace and captured world attention in December, when Libya announced it would renounce all programs to develop banned weapons. Since then, UN economic sanctions on Libya have been lifted and U.S. sanctions eased.
In Brussels, Prodi pledged increased EU support for Libya. He is personally involved with the return of Libya to the fold, in that he has been quietly in contact with the Libyan leader for five years. An earlier invitation to Ghaddafi several years ago turned out to be premature, in that it caused an international outcry.
Prodi, in his speech with Ghaddafi this week, set out his own central thinking. "I welcome the Libyan statement towards the promotion of peace, stability, and prosperity in the Mediterranean-African regions," he said. "The European Union shares these objectives and wants to work on them together with Libya."
That is what interests the EU -- stability across the North Africa region, a huge and volatile area with under-performing economies and rapidly growing populations. The Maghreb region is seen as being at risk from Islamic extremism and is a primary source of illegal immigration into Europe. Prodi and Ghaddafi discussed the immigration issue, and Ghaddafi said he understands the problem.
Ghaddafi's Brussels trip shows that Libya will eventually become a member of the Barcelona Process, which is the forum for EU-Mediterranean cooperation. That process has remained generally moribund, with the authoritarian-minded regimes of North Africa reluctant to carry through genuine economic reforms that might undermine the interests of the ruling elites. Ghaddafi's promises of economic reform in Libya could therefore lend the Barcelona Process a welcome new impetus. He has pledged to reform Libya's ramshackle economy with privatizations and better conditions for foreign investment.
The warming of ties between Brussels and Tripoli coincides with a similar diplomatic thaw at the other end of the Maghreb, namely between Morocco and EU member Spain. Spain's new Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero last week visited Rabat. The visit to Morocco is traditionally the first foreign trip undertaken by a Spanish head of government.
Zapatero and King Muhammad reportedly had a successful meeting, managing to ease the tensions that had built up under previous Spanish Prime Minister Joe Maria Aznar. One Moroccan source spoke of the start of a "new era." Zapatero has talked of making an improvement of relations with Morocco a priority of his term in office.
Both countries have suffered incidents of terrorism, and Spanish authorities are now holding 15 Moroccans allegedly linked to the Madrid railway bombings in March.
Zapatero and the Moroccans have pledged to cooperate in opposing terrorism. And given the EU's intention to increase its intelligence sharing, Morocco could be drawn more closely toward Europe in this way.
There is positive news also from another key North African country, Algeria. Following his re-election, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has appointed a new government tasked with the job of carrying through tough economic reforms.
Reports from Algiers also say many Islamic militants who have been fighting a bloody war against the Algerian authorities for more than a decade are now willing to lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty.
Taken together, the developments could mean Algeria is moving to break out of a long period of stagnation.