Syria is in the midst of a bloody civil war. Lebanon is a shadow of its former self, no longer a vibrant, fully autonomous or inclusive nation. Iraq is beset by sectarian violence. And Egypt is economically and politically teetering on the brink of another popular eruption under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even where gradual, peaceful change is taking place there is no straight line from authoritarian rule to Western-style democracy. I spoke by phone today with Dr. Rachid Benmokhtar Benabdellah, a Moroccan governmental official deeply immersed in the civil and constitutional reforms ongoing. He puts it simply, “The biggest challenge? They are numerous!” he says cheerily. He gives some perspective on the enormity of tasks for countries emerging at a time of political and economic chaos in the region. Under the recently passed constitution, he explains the task is “to make people into citizens.” In Morocco part of the task involves devolving power to localities. He observes, “Auditing skills and expertise are very important. People need to be trained and to have some knowledge.” This is true, he cautions, for officials and ordinary citizens. That requires “young people with good education” and continued integration of “young women in private society [who can take] leadership in civil society.” One of the biggest challenges, he says, is that young people “are expecting something from government. We need to train them in entrepreneurship.” He adds that this is one area in which the United States can provide encouragement and assistance.
Morocco is unique in some ways. Unlike the modern states carved out of British holdings, Morocco is an old country with a respected monarchy that combines religious and political power. The present king, like his father, therefore can speak with religious and secular authority in moving the country toward a modern economic and political system. Interestingly he comments that what Morocco can teach its neighbors is that “even in the dark years we were able to find a way.” This is a lesson about endurance and patience, as he tells it. “We were able to make good assessments and to be critical,” he says. With each step forward, he notes, “We build on success. We don’t have to go back to the beginning.”
In addition to its internal challenges, Morocco faces regional threats from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the violent separatist group, the Polisario Front. Until the security situation is resolved the dream of an integrated, prosperous North Africa remains a distant dream.
The take-away from our conversation is that the transformation of a country is no easy matter. Morocco at least has the benefit of a reformist monarchy and a shared national history. Elsewhere the picture is more grim. What we take for granted — a concept of citizenship, respect for a constitution, competent governance and an independent judiciary — have to, in large part, be started from scratch after tin-pot autocrats are overthrown. That requires immense patience which is often in short supply after years of political repression and economic stagnation. And that in turn requires a long-term commitment by the West in money, technical expertise, diplomatic support and anti-terrorism cooperation.
If we want the final chapter of the Arab Spring to be the emergence of peaceful, stable and relatively free governments with functioning economies, then we need to give not speeches but sustained help. That’s not an easy sell when we and other Western powers have budgetary and economic problems of their own. But the alternative is widespread violence, the re-emergence of anti-Western leaders and humanitarian disaster.