Progress and change prove hard-fought in the Maghreb

Some of the Maghreb countries are showing the way forward for how Arab Spring countries should navigate the future.

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Next month, Tunisia’s long-awaited Truth and Dignity Commission is expected to start work investigating human rights abuses under the old regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This will be the first such commission in the Arab world since the revolutions of 2011. At a time when some eastern Arab lands are in crisis or outright civil war, this is a small sign from the Maghreb that political change without bloodshed is possible.

Truth commissions – based on the experience of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission – are a key part of what is called “transitional justice”. In order for a country to move forward, past abuses by the state are investigated but the accent is usually on allowing the victims to speak, rather than on exemplary punishment of the perpetrators.

Though Tunisia’s is the first since 2011, it is not the first in the Arab world. That honour belongs to Morocco, whose King Mohammed VI set up an Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004. Victims of abuses before the king’s accession in 1999 were allowed to air their grievances to the nation on television and in some case receive compensation.

In Morocco’s case the term “transitional justice” is surprising since the king is no revolutionary but the heir to a dynasty dating back to the 17th century. But this gesture, half a decade before the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, is highlighted by the palace as a sign of the flexibility that has helped to ensure the regime’s stability.

The current king’s father, King Hassan II, ran a security state relying on the black arts of his ruthless enforcer, Driss Basri, the interior minister for two decades. Though political parties were tolerated, their freedom was so restricted that it often seemed they were puppets manipulated by Basri to give a veneer of democracy. His son is committed to moving towards a constitutional monarchy. If this is a revolution, it is one conducted in a very Moroccan way: the terms of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission forbade mention of the name of King Hassan II.

But there is more to come. The state once dominated by the all-powerful “makhzen” – the royal court and the security chiefs – is being decentralised, with some power flowing to the regions. By 2016, regional presidents are to be popularly elected, and enjoy some limited revenue-raising powers.

On the economic side, the coalition government is making financial progress, and the subsidy on diesel fuel is due to disappear by the end of the year. If this can be done without sparking popular protest, the share of subsidies in Morocco’s gross domestic product is estimated to fall from more than six per cent last year to 2.4 per cent. By contrast, in Egypt the share of subsidies in the economy is a crushing 10 per cent.

While these changes are showered with praise by the International Monetary Fund, they will only have meaning for the people of Morocco if they provide more jobs. No fewer than 51 per cent of the population is under 25. Young people are impatient for change, and with youth unemployment running at more than 20 per cent, who can blame them?

Still, Morocco’s youth unemployment rate is less than half that in Spain. The statistics on different sides of the Strait of Gibraltar may not be exactly comparable but one thing is clear: Morocco cannot rely on a vibrant economy across the Mediterranean to ensure its growth and stability.

The obvious answer suggested by the political progress in Morocco and Tunisia is to break down the barriers in the Maghreb and create a market of 80 million, along the lines of Europe. But that ignores Algeria, a country with a very different political culture and a state-dominated economy relying on oil and gas revenues. The inauguration last month of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, aged 77 and confined to a wheelchair after a stroke, for a fourth term as president could be understood as a search for stability after the horrors of the civil war, which ended in 2002.

But Algeria’s political stasis is not going to help the region. For decades Algeria has been the regional power, ensuring some kind of order in the vast swathes of desert it controls, through the murky connections of its DRS intelligence service with the jihadists, smugglers and other outlaws who roam the Sahara. The Algerians blithely told outsiders that they had the situation under control, but their credibility suffered a blow in January last year with the jihadist attack on the In Amenas gas facility near the Libyan border and the subsequent hostage crisis.

With Algeria’s grip on the region now questioned, and French troops in Mali to the south, Morocco has taken some steps to bolster its position in Africa. The King toured four west African states in February, talking of defence cooperation and hoping for new business for Morocco’s banks and telecommunications firms.

The border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed for years, thanks to the dispute over the Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony taken over by Morocco in 1975 in the teeth of opposition from Algeria. With rivalry still intense, any chance of reducing tensions in the interests of the local economies is out of the question.

Democratisation is a delicate process, requiring both secularists and Islamists in government to learn overnight the art of compromise. The passing of the Tunisian constitution last year was a notable success, after what seemed to be endless and debilitating squabbling. But it also requires revolutions in the dispensing of justice and provision of education, to turn out young people with the skills needed for new jobs. As one regional human rights activist notes: “We are trying to achieve in decades what the US and Europe took centuries to complete.”

Such transitions can only be achieved when there are more winners than losers, and that tends to require a buoyant economy. For all its political progress, the Maghreb still needs outside support.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps