In just three weeks, North Africa has witnessed the overthrow of a brutal dictatorship in Tunisia and the beginnings of a popular uprising against the military junta in Algeria and political opposition in Egypt. Neither piece of news should come as a surprise.
For decades, Tunisia's strongman stifled every kind of freedom and brutalized his people, all in the name of a form of economic development that only benefited a privileged class. The country's young people, cut out of politics and excluded from economic opportunity, took to the streets and called for democracy. But they are still searching for leaders of their own, and so short-term prospects for this spontaneous social movement to coalesce into a viable government are dim.
Algeria's regime, unlike Tunisia under the former dictator, has a small public space for political opposition to the reigning president. That said, it is very small, closely monitored by the intelligence and security services; and the country slides into ever greater dependence on oil and natural gas reserves, its own economic prospects are sinking.
Like young Tunisians, Algerian youth dream of democracy but live in a dystopia, in this case dominated by a corrupt military oligarchy. Both Algeria's junta and the former Tunisian regime, moreover, have long played the "Islamism card": presenting themselves to Western powers as a bulwark against extremist groups. But in the age of YouTube and Twitter, anyone anywhere can see through this deception: current challengers to both regimes have, for the most part, been young people genuinely committed to democracy.
The regime of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak proffered the same line to Washington: It is us or the Islamists. Mubarak took the same tack for three decades. Ruling under an endless emergency law, he has crushed the moderate opposition while the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has thrived underground and in the mosques. Mubarak, in effect, created a two-party system - his ruling National Democratic Party and the Brotherhood - and then defended the lack of democracy by saying that a free election would bring the Islamists to power.
Meanwhile, what about neighboring Morocco?
Along the jagged shoreline of North Africa's Atlantic coast, Morocco – a poorer country than Algeria or Tunisia with no oil wealth of its own – has largely been spared the likes of the fiery youth protests that have been destabilizing the neighborhood. The question is: why? And what might other Arab states that are also teetering on the brink of collapse be able to learn from the answer?
Some of what stabilizes Morocco cannot be emulated. Unlike the young military dictatorships that dominate the region, the Moroccan kingdom has a caché in the country that is centuries old. The kingdom's history is woven into the cultural fabric of the country, which means that it enjoys a form of legitimacy that any of its neighbors would be hard pressed to match.
But beyond this unique advantage, Morocco has taken many steps toward political and social development that can and should be followed by other Arab governments – because they appear to be working.
The country's democratization process is slow and unspectacular, but it is real. Since taking power in 1999, King Muhammad VI has increased press freedoms, created openings for political opposition, and poured billions into new institutions of civil society. He has created the Arab world's only truth and reconciliation committee designed to redress the injustices of his father's regime. Under the new king, local human rights groups increasingly form a check against the excesses of the security services; and there is a widespread belief that the king loves and cares for the poor – as he well should, as they are the vast majority of the population. Like every Arab country, to be sure, corruption is endemic in Morocco. That said, new anti-corruption institutions have been formed with official backing and the authority to begin to address this challenge.
When Moroccan youth want change, they do not have to take to the streets: opposition parties are popular, robust, and always on the lookout for new members. Few Moroccans call for the fall of the regime, and most of the ones who do, do not live in Morocco. Witness Prince Hisham, the king's cousin: from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, he dreams of taking over the country, but he is no fan of democracy; and Moroccan youth by and large do not support him.
The Obama administration has been slow to respond to the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, much like its slow response to the Iranian uprising of 2009. The Western democracies, spearheaded by the United States, must live up to their own values at this historic and troublesome juncture. Before it is too late, they must try to inaugurate changes that do not permit chaos and mayhem to come to this most strategic sphere in the world.