It all started in Tunisia three years ago and has gone full circle. The Arab Spring has blossomed into progress with the passage of a new Tunisian constitution by an assembly representing an overwhelming majority of citizens and without the exclusion of political parties. Initially foreseen for 14 January, the anniversary of the fall of former strongman Ben Ali, the final vote on the new constitution on 26 January is a potential watershed.
The path to democracy is still long and strewn with obstacles. The next steps for the technocrat interim government are an election law and the appointment of an election commission, followed by general elections. The reason for optimism is the constitutional assembly itself, which has passed a compromise text involving all deputies elected in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. In the time since, the process has been in danger of derailing a few times, when the main Islamist party abused its position in the assembly and when two prominent secular politicians were assassinated.
Yet Tunisia has no history of army strongmen taking the reins when they consider the ship of state in danger. And this for a good reason: the army has been kept small since independence and the two authoritarian rulers, Bourguiba and his successor Ben Ali, always relied on the police for propping up the regime.
This hated repression apparatus was swept away in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. Rather than risking civil war, and jolted by violent eruptions around them, Tunisia's politicians chose to compromise, proving that it is possible in the Arab world.
This is the first and so far only example of its kind. The rest of the picture, in the Maghreb and elsewhere in the Arab world, is bleak. The contrast is especially stark when compared with the simultaneously adopted new constitution in Egypt, where only a third of the population chose to (or indeed was allowed to) vote and the Muslim Brotherhood was banned as a terrorist organisation.
As Arab anchor state, Egypt has a constant place in international headlines. The Maghreb less so, whether in its smaller (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) or larger (these three countries plus Mauretania, Western Sahara and Libya) form. There are occasional exceptions for Libya, with an instantly recognisable former strongman and major oil export capacity.
And yet the key country of the region is Algeria. Whatever happens there has major implications for the region, for the Arab world and for Europe, for its energy resources and immigration from Africa but also with regard to Islamic terrorism.
We tend to forget that an Arab Spring of sorts happened there long before that expression was coined, in the form of a relatively fair and free election in 1991 which might have led to the first democratic government in any Arab country dominated by Islamist forces. This experiment was nipped in the bud and followed by a ten-year civil war which cost tens of thousands their lives. The trauma still lingers both in the political consciousness of Algerians as well as in a terrorist legacy, in the form of groups such as the AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).
Today Algeria is administered rather than governed by President Bouteflika, who is practically on his deathbed, allowing the people around him to rob the country blind. There is plenty to rob. The country is a major producer of gas and oil with around 2% of global production of both.
As a young firebrand of the main independence party, FLN, Bouteflika became foreign minister at the tender age of 26. (On a lighter note, he figures prominently in the outrageous 1971 story ‘The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase: Stories from the Diplomatic Bag’, which gave its name to the recently published second volume of Matthew Parris' Parting Shots series, containing some of the best tales from diplomatic life since Lawrence Durrell.)
When Bouteflika became prime minister in 1999 he enjoyed widespread popularity as he was credited with stomping out lingering remnants of extremism from the civil war and for putting the country back on a growth path, fueled by its mineral resources. Yet since then he seems to have gone down the well-trodden path from pater patriae to pater familias, head of one of these privileged clans which with their greed hollow out any budding civil society in mineral-rich emerging countries.
By now he is so sick that, although nominated by the FLN for yet another five-year presidential term at upcoming elections on 17 April, it is unclear whether he will survive until then. Rumour has it that just in case he is preparing his much younger brother to succeed him. The latter's popular nickname, 'Monsieur le frère' (Mr the brother), says it all. There is the 'oil curse' and then there is the 'clan curse', which appears to befall countries such as Algeria with dispiriting regularity.
There is at least one serious candidate who wants to take on the Bouteflikas. Ali Benflis, a former PM under Boeteflika, has officially declared and is doing the election rounds in the country. Yet he is not exactly a new face, since he was a Bouteflika ally and basically designated by the ruling party to follow Bouteflika ten years ago, only to see the latter run himself and trounce Benflis with 85% of the popular vote.
Looking further west from Algeria, not much has changed in and around Morocco since my last report on the 'African Islamic world in turmoil'. If anything, the turmoil has spread and in its wake Islamist terrorism is 'on the march', as the FT overview has it. According to the FT, the al Qaeda terrorist presence arches from Afghanistan to Nigeria, the African part including Al-Shabaab in the Horn, AQIM in the Maghreb and the Sahel, as well as Boko Haram south of the Sahel.
It is a threat that cannot just be 'droned out'. The winning of young hearts and minds is the key to sustainable success against Islamist extremism. In Tunisia a promising start has been made for the second time. Its big neighbour to the west should now be following. Sadly, no such silver lining is apparent in Algeria.