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North African nations take different reform routes

Monday - 12/31/2012, 3:18pm  ET

FILE - In this Feb.18, 2012 file photo, a protester from Morocco's pro-democracy "February 20" movement holds a placard in front of City Hall Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, in Casablanca, Morocco. Two years after an itinerant Tunisian fruitseller set himself on fire to protest government injustice and ignited uprisings across the Middle East, the three nations of the Maghreb _ Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco_ have taken wildly different paths, from wholesale political change in Tunisia, to business as usual in oil-rich Algeria. Somewhere in the middle is Morocco, which has trumpeted what it describes as its third way of controlled change as a model for the region. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar, File)

PAUL SCHEMM
Associated Press

RABAT, Morocco (AP) -- Two years after an itinerant Tunisian fruit-seller set himself on fire to protest government injustice and ignited uprisings across the Middle East, the three nations of the Maghreb -- the former French colonies of North Africa -- have taken vastly different paths. Tunisia has seen wholesale political change. In oil-rich Algeria, it's business as usual. Somewhere in the middle is Morocco, which has trumpeted what it describes as a third way of controlled change as a model for the region.

These outcomes sum up much of the Middle East's disparate reactions to the Arab Spring -- and their success or failure may hold lessons for the whole region.

Morocco and Algeria seem remarkably stable, despite the social tensions boiling beneath their calm facade. Resource-strapped Tunisia seems to have fared poorly, with a struggling economy and dire predictions of chaos. Yet it's also the country that has made the most progress toward a more open society.

MOROCCO:

On the surface, Morocco seems to be the Maghreb nation that has fared the best in the Arab Spring, with massive protests by the pro-democracy February 20th youth movement bringing a swift promise by the king to reform the constitution, devolving more powers to elected officials. A referendum on the amended constitution was approved by 98 percent of the people and in early elections, a moderate Islamist party long in the opposition won the right to head the new governing coalition.

Abdelilah Benkirane of the Justice and Development Party became the strongest prime minister in decades and promised to root out corruption, while working to help the country's most needy.

"Our government is working in cooperation with the other institutions under the leadership of his majesty," Communication Minister Mustapha Khalfi told The Associated Press. "It's what we call a gradual reform with stability, a third path between revolution and the old way of governing."

Yet on Nov. 18, in Morocco's capital Rabat, a few dozen activists attempted to rally in front of the parliament to protest the king's $300 million personal budget, one of the largest for a monarchy in the world and a serious burden for the struggling economy.

Even before the protesters could gather, they were set upon by club wielding riot police and chased through the elegant art-deco streets of the capital. Yet, just a week earlier, thousands had been allowed to protest against the prime minister. Despite a new constitution and promises of reform, the hereditary monarchy ruling this nation of 32 million for the last 350 years remains in charge and above criticism.

None other than the king's first cousin, Prince Moulay Hisham, now a professor at Stanford, disputes the monarch's vision of Morocco finding the middle path to reform.

In a recent interview with France 24 news channel, he argued that the monarchy only changed the constitution under heavy pressure from the pro-democracy demonstrations and as the movement faltered, so did reform.

"In the absence of true, strong democratic force to carry on the project and guarantee that it was a stage and not a final step, the spirit of the new constitution has been frozen," he said.

After the elections, demonstrations petered out and a year and a half after the constitution was passed, most of its amendments have yet to be implemented.

Abadila Maaelaynine, an activist with February 20, said the economy and social inequalities haven't improved, and there are still daily human rights violations, especially against demonstrations.

"So the promise of real change on the ground is not yet there."

ALGERIA:

The energy giant has been referred to as the exception to the Arab Spring. Early protests calling for reform fizzled and were quickly repressed by highly vigilant security forces. While President Abdelaziz Bouteflika went on to promise a host of reforms, including in the laws governing the media and political parties, little has been achieved over the past two years.

Dozens of new parties were legalized but it made little difference in parliamentary elections in May 2012 or November's municipal elections, which were poorly attended and just strengthened the ruling party. For the most part life has returned to the way it was before the Arab Spring.

With its enormous oil and gas reserves, Algeria also has vast financial resources lacking to most Arab Spring countries, allowing it to douse potential unrest with large amounts of cash.

"There was an attempt to buy a social peace -- don't ask political questions and we'll sort out your economic needs," said Algerian sociologist Nasser Djabi. "The government ... played for time and it seems to have worked."

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