The Magazine

Hail Mauritania!

An unheralded experiment in Arab democracy.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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Americans are right to be worried about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East. In Egypt, elections have done little to loosen five-term president Hosni Mubarak's grip on power or to stop his plans for turning power over to his son Gamal upon retirement. Whatever degree of democracy exists in Lebanon is threatened by Syria's not-so-secret meddling, and dour headlines about Iraq fill international newspapers on a daily basis. But now, in a remote corner of the Arab world, an elected government has suddenly bloomed.

On March 25, in the rural, undeveloped, west African nation of Mauritania (population: 3,270,000), Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, a sometime government minister, defeated rival Ahmed Ould Daddah, a prominent economist, in a runoff election for the presidency. Both sides campaigned vigorously and participated in a live, televised debate. Ould Daddah even had his own website, an impressive feat in a country where agriculture accounts for half of the population's livelihood. Election observers from the European Union, African Union, and Arab League--as well as non-profit civic groups like the U.S. government-funded National Democratic Institute--all praised the process as free and fair. Turnout for preliminary balloting on March 11 was 70 percent, and it remained high at 67 percent for the March 25 runoff. Parliamentary elections and a referendum on the country's new constitution had been held last year. All of these ballots went off without a hitch. Abdallahi was sworn in April 19 and claimed that the peaceful transition to democratic rule makes Mauritania "an undisputable model of a peaceful ending to a monolithic era." Unfortunately, coverage of this noteworthy international development has been scant.

The good news out of Mauritania contrasts starkly with democracy efforts elsewhere on the continent. In Zimbabwe, on the very same day as the Mauritanian general election, President Mugabe unleashed a torrent of violence against peaceful protestors holding a prayer meeting outside the capital city of Harare. This he followed with a nationwide crackdown on the opposition, in which his secret police abducted hundreds of democracy activists from their homes for brutal beatings and interrogations. Zimbabwe watchers may take heart from the fact that Mauritania used to be as turbulent.

From 1984 until 2005, Mauritania was ruled by Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, a military dictator. His government actively discriminated against minority black Africans and black Moors. He survived an attempted coup in 2003, but in August 2005, while he was visiting Saudi Arabia for the funeral of King Fahd, a group of soldiers calling itself the Military Council for Justice and Democracy took control of the government and announced their plans for a democratic transition.

"The armed forces and security forces have unanimously decided to put an end to the totalitarian practices of the deposed regime under which our people have suffered much over the last several years," the coup leaders said in a statement issued upon taking control. The military named Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall head of the transition government, promising elections soon. Vall vowed not to run for office himself and barred members of the junta from participating in the election. Mauritanians, given their country's history, had reason to be skeptical. But events over the next two years showed the coup leaders meant what they had said.

Taking shelter in Niger, Ould Taya fulminated against the coup, calling it "senseless," and tried to order the military to restore his premiership. But even his own political party renounced him. The African Union initially suspended Mauritania from the organization and the United States at first condemned the coup, but now both have waxed enthusiastic about the progress Mauritania has made.

Abdallahi, the new president, had served briefly as a minister under Taya, but was later imprisoned on corruption allegations. From 1989 until 2003 he lived in exile in Niger. Nevertheless, opponents seized on his association with the previous dictatorship during the campaign. The tactic was perhaps inevitable, given that Abdallahi's rival, Ould Daddah, had been a vocal critic of the regime and was imprisoned multiple times for his dissidence. But rather than contest the election and pledge to undermine it--a common tactic among electoral losers in fledgling democracies--Ould Daddah has committed himself to seeing his country's peaceful transition succeed.