AMERICANS learned from Afghanistan that neglect of impoverished, out-of-the-way places can be costly. This is especially true of Islamic Africa--where Osama bin Laden has been known to take refuge and in whose vicinity his followers have found both recruits and targets for their bombs. So it is worth keeping an eye on the likes of Mauritania--never mind the desert vastness of a country more than twice the size of California with only as many inhabitants as Chicago. Mauritania has an unusual, pro-American president, and he's up for reelection on November 7.

Just how unusual Maaouya Ould Taya is can be measured in his response to last summer's attempted coup--hardly the response of a typical regional strongman. A 62-year-old former army officer who himself seized power in a bloodless coup in 1984, President Taya was on the defensive in the months leading up to the clash. His recognition of Israel in 1999--making Mauritania the third Arab League nation to establish diplomatic ties, after Egypt and Jordan--and his signing on to the war on terror were widely unpopular, and his program of political reforms was considered too cautious in some quarters, in others too bold.

On June 8, some army officers disgruntled with the boss's reform policies and nursing personal and tribal grievances overran the presidential compound in the capital, Nouakchott. Rallying his personal guard and loosening his tie, Taya shot his way out of the trap and dug in a few blocks away, at police headquarters. He sustained a 36-hour siege against an elite tank battalion, until the main army corps arrived and overwhelmed the mutineers.

Courage under fire is not an attribute of the pampered kleptocrat. Taya, who was born in a tent and never saw indoor plumbing until he attended advanced military school in France, is personally incorruptible, even if some in his entourage have taken advantage of their positions. The remarkable thing is that, though le putsch, as it is known, gave him every excuse to clear unwanted debris and announce, in effect, "No more Mr. Nice Guy," President Taya has stuck to his reformist guns.

Far from canceling the upcoming election, he'll face a field of vigorous challengers--none of whom has defended the coup. Responding in kind, Taya has left all who stay within the constitutional framework free to be as anti-American and anti-Israel as they want. This includes about 60 leaders of various Islamist currents whom Taya jailed briefly last spring and summer on suspicion of subversive activities. Mauritania enjoys political pluralism, though as in many Islamic countries the constitution bans openly religious or tribal parties. The conditions under which previous elections were held always gave rise to protest by opposition leaders.

The domestic issues the country faces have to do with development, of course, but also with the country's three population groups. At the top of the heap are the "white Moors," or bedayin, of Arab extraction and economically and politically dominant since the French empire retreated in the late 1950s. Warriors and merchants--they led the historic trans-Sahara commerce--they are scholars as well. Their breathtaking desert city of Chinguetti, with its ancient libraries and priceless manuscripts, is one of the treasures of Islamic culture.

Another third are the "black Moors," or haratine, former slaves of the first group, who can be compared, without stretching things too much, to black Americans in the period just after segregation was outlawed. Legally equal to the bedayin, the haratine are functionally a lower class that carries the additional burden of a heritage of humiliation. But they are in many respects the coming class in Mauritania. Upwardly mobile, with an edge of anger, their population increasing faster than the other groups', they must be integrated into the political and economic system if the country is not to head into class war. Racially and culturally, the haratine and the bedayin are the same people. The poorer members of the family are now asking for their share.

Finally, there are several sub-groups of black Africans--principally the Sonike, Wolof, and Pular peoples of the Senegal river valley, whose ancestral affinities lie in Senegal and Chad, while the Moors' are in the Sahara and Arab North Africa. Just as Islamic as the Moors, the black Africans have a different tradition of slavery, internal to the tribe and closer to what we would call indentured servitude but far more entrenched than the archaic Moorish system, which in effect was subverted by the ongoing 30-year drought that has destroyed the Moors' traditional desert economy.

Ironically, the human rights activists' alarums about Mauritania's "slavery problem" all have to do with the haratine, whose situation is evolving neither more nor less haltingly than African Americans' position did in the post-civil rights period. The activists tend to ignore the persistent and unchanging functional slavery found in the Senegal river valley.

Against this backdrop, President Taya wants to go down as the Moor who took Mauritania into modernity. While a majority of its people still live on a dollar a day, Mauritania's economy has grown steadily under Taya, the drought notwithstanding. And oil is arriving soon, according to the Australian prospectors who have found substantial offshore deposits. If it does, the issue of managing sudden riches could become more critical than that of managing persistent poverty. "We've put in place one of the most investment-friendly regimes in this part of the world," a businessman tells me. "And if Taya stays on course, we are arguably the most favorable port of entry to the whole region."

Skeptical observers respond that the government does not understand the meaning of opportunity, and that wealth remains concentrated in a small circle. Yet the haratine prime minister, a longstanding Taya opponent named Sghair Ould M'Barek, who only this year decided to try joining 'em instead of fighting 'em, insists that poverty-eradication is possible and depends on economic growth rather than redistribution. This too is a rather original approach in an oil-producing country in the Third World.

"Taya is a modernizer," says Moussa Ould Hamed, editor of Le Calame, a local French-language weekly. "He is also out on a limb, in the sense that he wants to integrate the haratine and he is adamant on his foreign policy, like a convert." The reference is to the fact that until the early 1990s, Taya was an Arab-nation man, entertaining good relations with Saddam Hussein. "In a sense, he has no choice but to go forward. The question is how he can manage this, and how much change our society can tolerate."

Many in Mauritania agree on the desirability of change, but what they mean by it varies. Policies, like ideas, have consequences, and signing on for the anti-terror war has brought not only U.S. military assistance but also training and upgrading opportunities that young officers may appreciate. (The would-be putschists were trained in Saudi Arabia and spoke no English.) A high-level Western diplomat says U.S. military assistance cannot go unnoticed in a country where everybody knows everybody. "They will soon see there are benefits," this source says. "But so will the United States benefit from being here: Keep in mind that if you are not watching, before you know it the bad guys can buy a place like this--that's what they did in Afghanistan."

Every candidate against him in the November election has stated that reversing Taya's pro-West foreign policy is the first order of business. Prominent among the eight registered candidates are Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, a bedayin hard-liner distrustful of Taya's reforms, and Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, who is demanding the functional equivalent of affirmative action for the haratines. Also noteworthy is the presence of a woman candidate, Aïcha Mint Jeddane. Women's emergence in recent years as more active players in politics and business may be due to the Taya regime's encouragement, or it may be a result of the inevitable flow of things.

At present, pundits are predicting a victory for Ould Taya. If the election is demonstrably free and fair, and Taya, win or lose, abides by its results, his record as a modernizer will be secure. Now or in the near future, a peaceful transfer of power from a longtime incumbent to an elected successor will vindicate Ould Taya's model of regime change by gradual reform and set a welcome example for Muslim Africa.

Roger Kaplan is a writer in New York.

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