Does the Arab Spring Wither on the Vine?

Crowd of people

I am just back from a week-long conference hosted in Morocco focused on skills building and advocacy for Legacy International’s Legislative Fellows from Egypt, Libya and Tunisia – countries which have had their own version of the “Arab Spring.”  While the hurdles facing fledgling democracies in North Africa were also evident in Morocco’s capital of Rabat, those obstacles to development came into sharper focus as the delegation ventured into Fez, a good sized city in the country’s interior.

In Fez, we visited Centre Chourouk, nonprofit housed in a shiny new building located in the middle of a poor neighborhood.  The Centre works with local women, teaching literacy, work skills such as cosmetology and sewing as well as computer skills.  The women who come to class can bring their children to the pre-school.  The nonprofit (or NGO as most nonprofits are called internationally) also reaches out to men in the community to talk to them about domestic violence and the rights of women.

As in other North African countries, many women in Morocco don’t have the officially recognized papers – birth certificates, marriage certificates, and national identity cards - that are needed receive government services, including inscribing their children in school. After a tour of the facility and a presentation about their programs, we sat down with some of the women who attend the Centre’s programs for mounds of delicious food, and eager conversation.  I sat with 3 Legacy Fellows and 4 Moroccan women studying literacy at the Centre – one in full black burkha, covered head-to-toe with only a small mesh which allowed her to see out. A fascinating meal followed by traditional Moroccan songs from the women.  We also visited a pottery factory that received funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) followed by a trip to the famous medina (market) of Fez.

This glimpse of Morocco, governed by King Hassan, underlined the challenges facing these ancient cultures as they attempt to modernize and throw off long vestiges of authoritarian rule.  As I prepared for this trip, I was wary of how the U.S. delegation would be received by the young professionals from Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.  What I discovered was engaged, intelligent and brave adults in the late 20’s and 30’s facing daunting and even dangerous challenges in their countries.  They keep a critical eye on the U.S. and especially the actions of our government.

Whether fighting corruption, helping treat traumatized children who witnessed or experienced violence of riots, empowering the disabled, or teaching children in refugee camps to read, these Legacy Legislative Fellows from North Africa should give everyone hope for positive change in their home countries, even as they struggle with many of the same issues facing young professionals the world over.   They are the new generation of leaders moving their countries toward a new kind of citizen engagement following “the good, the bad and the ugly” following the “Arab Spring.”  Whether Egypt, Libya or Tunisia can emerge from their recent turmoils will largely depend on the fate of these young patriots.  Only if they are allowed -- or find a way -- to share their commitment to constructive change will the Arab Spring give hope for a true North African renaissance.