Conrad Black: Surveying the Muslim World

Roundup: Historians' Take

Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at

Most observers seem to be wearying of the Arab Spring, just as it is becoming interesting. The idea of a democratic contagion that would suddenly sweep away centuries of autocratic misrule and replace it with Tocquevillean civic-mindedness was too far-fetched for all but the most robustly wishful. But the notion that Mubarak in Egypt and Saleh in Yemen would be replaced almost magically by preferable people did enjoy wider currency than it deserved. Stretching the canvas across the Western and Near Eastern Muslim lands, more than a dozen countries can be seen, in snapshots, at widely differing stages of fermentation.

Morocco, always one of the most successful Arab countries, remains so. It was independent for many centuries prior to the French protectorate of 1912–56, and even signed Most Favored Nation trade agreements with Jefferson and Madison’s America. With a significant and influential Jewish population, it treats them quite well. King Mohammed, in response to rather gentle protestations, has just produced a new constitution that doesn’t give away much of his own prerogatives, but establishes a freely elected parliament and a range of civil rights, and the constitution was approved — without transports of popular enthusiasm, but without protest also — by 98.5 percent of the country. The Spring is not high summer in Morocco, but there are some green shoots.

In Algeria, where the constitution establishes the army as the guarantor of democracy — to prevent the triumph of the Islamist, anti-democratic parties required the imposition of a military dictatorship and the conduct of a long civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people died violently — the durable President Bouteflika has prevailed. There is the traditional Arab version of forcibly guided government festooned with a few trappings of popular influence, but it is progress from the long war of insurrection that preceded it....

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