RABAT, Morocco – 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.
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."
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."
The ruling party has only widened its control over the various elected bodies, and as neighboring Tunisia and Egypt looked more and more unstable, Algeria has come under increasingly less pressure from Europe and the U.S. to reform, he added.
The rise of radical Islamic groups in the Sahara and especially northern Mali has also made Algeria and its powerful military an attractive partner in the war on terror.
Meanwhile, talk of amending the constitution has been shelved for the near future. According to Nourreddine Benissad, head of Algeria's main human rights group, political freedoms are on the wane and the elections have been far from free and transparent.
"It's practically illegal to demonstrate or even gather," he said. "There is no real political will to carry out social, political or economic reforms."
Instead, any change in Algeria is expected to come only in 2014 when President Bouteflika's latest term ends and he is expected to step down. At that point, there should be an opening for a new political generation, and a power struggle between the military and members of the ruling party is expected.
Of the three Maghreb countries, the birthplace of the Arab Spring has appeared to be closest to the brink of violence and even a new uprising. Over the past few weeks, there has been a rising confrontation between the main labor union and the moderate Islamist party that won elections after the overthrow of the dictator.
There were days of rioting in one regional city that nearly culminated in a nationwide general strike on Dec. 13, which had been expected to degenerate into further violence until the two sides negotiated a last minute compromise.
Tunisia, a largely middle class republic of 10 million, was once one of the most repressive police states in the region under the 23-year rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, until his overthrow in January 2011.
After a relatively rocky transition, Tunisians surged to the polls in record numbers on Oct. 23 and gave the most votes to Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party that had been an implacable foe of the old regime. The Islamists went on to form a coalition with two other secular parties and promised democracy and jobs.
A year later, political tensions have soared to new heights. There is constant talk that the coalition is set to fracture; disaffected youths demanding jobs riot in town after town; and radical Islamism is on the rise.
Ghazi Gheriari, a political analyst at Tunis University, said the post-election period marking the second phase of Tunisia's transition — while having more popular legitimacy — has been marked by less consensus and more bickering.
There has also been the rise of an aggressive ultraconservative Islamist movement known as Salafism that has increasingly resorted to violence. "With the new government, Tunisia is seeing more tension and problems with freedoms," said Gheriari.
Part of the problem is that political opposition in the elected assembly has been weak, with little real support in the population, meaning it presents little effective counterweight to the ruling coalition.
Instead, the real opposition has been the unions and civil associations that have stood up to the government over issues such as putting references to Islamic law in the new constitution and describing women, in one clause, as complementary rather than equal to men. In both cases, the Islamist government backed down.
This, in fact, has been perhaps the redeeming hallmark of Tunisia's transition: Even amid periodic riots, political crises and standoffs, the tension has always been defused and a compromise reached between the feuding parties. That contrasts with Egypt, where each side seems at every stage to be ready to carry their stand over the brink and into violence.
The ability to achieve agreement amid searing acrimony may be what saves Tunisia's experiment in democracy.
Kamel Labidi, a long time campaigner for human rights and freedom of expression, attributes this strength partly to high education levels and the military's historical lack of a role in the country — as well as the presence of a labor movement to balance out the Islamists.
"The Islamists understood it was in their interest to make concessions," he said.