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The Middle East's new democratic model

Filed under: Africa ~ Middle East

Mauritania's military coup in 2005 yielded widespread international condemnation from all quarters of the globe. The United States, for example, unleashed a barrage on the junta by stating, "We oppose any attempts by rogue elements to change governments through extra-constitutional or violent means." Such statements were not only premature at best, but completely baseless and hypocritical at worse. The junta of colonels had just overthrown a tyrant that had himself curbed all constitutional laws, released hundreds of political prisoners ordered into jail by said tyrant, and promised a return to democracy under a more transparent constitutional system with a reinvigorated civil society. This was an opportunity, not a setback. And as the months pressed on, it became readily apparent that the promised reforms were underway with the inclusion of all segments of society.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, reforms have come to a halt in all but the most rapidly liberalizing countries. The hope brought by Iraqi elections has burned out for now, leaving the region's dictators legitimately ruling under the popular fear the democracy will breed civil war. Lebanon's Cedar Revolution is being crushed by the overbearing Syrian security state and Iran's imperialist ambitions. Egypt is cracking down hard on Islamic and secular activists alike. Algeria is effectively doing away with term limits for its very own strongman. The list goes on and on. Once sought after, the holy grail of a democratic and liberal Islamic world has disappeared out of reach.

Except for Mauritania. But you wouldn't know that because the media hasn't been reporting on its astounding moves toward democracy.


Mauritanian women stand in line to cast their ballots in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Sunday, March 11, 2007. Men in flowing white and ochre robes lined up under the light of the moon at voting booths Sunday with hopes that whoever wins Mauritania's first presidential election since a coup two years ago will not plunge the country back into totalitarian rule. Courtesy: Associated Press

A new constitution developed through the inclusion of all of society's major groups was widely approved. Just as we may be seeing some of today's leaders around 30 years from now, this new constitution guarantees that presidential terms will be limited to two five-year terms. They must also swear to Allah that they will not try to change this law. The legislative branch and judiciary have also been strengthened relative to the president -- good news for a loose opposition coalition that garnered 41 of 90 seats in parliament. The country is hosting an open presidential debate. Civil and political society have strengthened greatly without government interference. The rise of radical Islam is now on the decline.

This month's presidential election is the real test, though. Out of twenty candidates running, none had a majority in the first round, which means that a runoff will be held in just less than two weeks now.

For continuity and stability's sake, the military has favored Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdullahi even though his opponent, opposition candidate Ahmed Ould Daddah, is neck'n'neck with him. But what current government would not prefer that a certain candidate win? What matters is what they are doing about it, and up until now, the election process has been regarded as totally peaceful, transparent, and with every attempt to make it as fair as possible.

In fact, Reporters Without Borders, hardly an uncritical institution, had this to say about the first round of the presidential election: Presidential campaign being covered fairly by public media. Eghad! Is that milk that just flew out of my nose? And while RWB says that media coverage of the junta's favored candidate has been skewed, it admits that it is largely due to the amount of former candidates defecting to him which results in more media coverage. Aside from that, other imbalances have been corrected. Furthermore, there has been no intimidation of candidates or restrictions to their or their supporters' ability to speak and act freely.

How often does this happen in the Islamic world?

This isn't to say that Mauritania is a shining bright spot on the world. It's one of the only places in the world where slavery is still practiced to a large degree; racism has historically been extreme. Economic and cultural liberalization have been slow to take hold and in most cases outright suppressed since independence.

Yet politically, Mauritania is becoming generations ahead of its neighbors in the rest of Africa and the Middle East. The development of a more democratic system, complete with free elections and a newly found spirit of civil and political society, has clearly put the country on the path of liberalization. Its people will be able to drag themselves out of the same spiral of repression under backwater dictatorships that is only intensifying elsewhere.

While the media may not be paying attention to these historic developments, you can bet that regimes from Zimbabwe to Iran are paying attention. Mauritania's transition to democracy is predicated on a split by the country's own military with the government's corrupt officials, rather than an all out intervention from Western forces. They acted as a temporary stabilizing force rather than a new tyrant. The transition is therefore wholly its own rather than one overseen and partially illegitimized by a foreign power.

If successful, Mauritania's experiment will prove to be a landmark and precedent for other countries to follow. It shows one way that democracy can potentially be established while also stemming the rise of radical Islam. Most of all, it shows that democracy itself is not a dead idea and must be taken seriously by democrats and dictators alike. Iraq may have turned many off, but Mauritania's successes show that such reforms can work.

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Comments


James F. Trumm says:

Mauritania may seem like a peripheral place to encourage Islamic democracy, but some of its superficial disadvantages may be blessings in disguise.

Yes, it's located far from the Middle East--but that means that it is more insulated from the instability and fanaticism that plague that region.

Yes, it has a majority black population and only a comparatively small number of ethnic Arabs, but this fact may insulate it from the temptation to insert itself into the troubles of Arab states.

Yes, it is a poor country without much easily-extractable oil, but as many have pointed out, democracy does not grow well in oil-rich sands.


Paulsur says:

Be careful what you wish for. A popularly elected government based upon sharia law may noy be all that desirable a thing.


Dan Wismar says:

No, Mauritania is not any kind of a "model" for democratic governance. No society which literally enslaves some 40% of its population can lay claim to that mantle. (It's like praising Cuba for a 100% literacy rate without acknowledging that people are not free to read what they choose.) Elections do not make a democracy,(see Palestinian Authority). It's good to see that they are migrating successfully from a military regime to some form of popular self-government, but the fact that 40% of their people are born into, and die in slavery merits more than an asterisk as we praise their move toward political "enlightenment."

Arabs control the Mauritanian government and hold elections from which an entire "caste" of blacks are systematically excluded. Not only are these people denied political representation, they are denied most all basic human rights; they are bought, sold, tortured, raped, murdered and worked to death, all within the accepted societal norms...for centuries on end.

This is not a model, and it is certainly not "democracy", by any legitimate definition of the word.


David M says:

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 03/22/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.


Robert Mayer says:

Dan -- Do most people in America consider the United States a democracy around 1860? That's how they teach it in high school. By that time, for example, South Carolina had 140 slaves to every 100 white persons. Yet wasn't American democracy the best system that had yet come into being, though so much was at fault with it?

Yes, election do not make a democracy. I think I've been a proponent of that more than anyone else. According to Natan Sharansky's book, The Case For Democracy, there needs to be an interim transitional period where civil and political society is allowed to develop. This is what has just happened since 2005.

What happens next will be extremely important. There's no need to argue about that. It could make or break the new system. But while Mauritania may be historically behind on so many things, slavery being the most tragic, its new system and what has arisen from it shows more promise than anything else in the region. It holds the promise that, eventually, it will be much better off than the rest. And that's what I'm looking at -- potential.


Jonathan Edelstein says:

For what it's worth, slavery has been formally abolished in Mauritania since 1980, and the Haratins ("black Moors" or the traditional slave class) were allowed to vote. One of the presidential candidates, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, was born a slave, and a several ex-slaves became municipal councillors or mayors in the local elections.

Slavery does persist to some extent in Mauritania despite the abolition, as it does in other Sahelian countries. In addition, the Haratins remain politically marginalized due to poverty and low social status. But to say that 40 percent of the population are born and die slaves or that they are systematically excluded from the political process is ridiculous. In fact, this election has brought new attention to the problem of slavery - both candidates promised to increase the penalties for it during the recent debate - and may be one of the things that helps in eliminating that institution.


Robert Mayer says:

Good point, Jonathan. I also don't see a huge amount of polarization that's going to arise from this election as happens in most African countries. This one looks to be pretty clean, and the leaders seem to have agreed amongst themselves to accept the new system.


Adrian Whitsett says:

I am just not sure what this will do for the country in the eyes of the Arab world. Mauritania lies between two worlds, African and Arab, and is not completely accepted by either. What is going to happen if Mauritania decides that it needs to pick itself up even more, and while completely shutting out its African Muslim citizens, starts behaving the way that America already fears the rest of the Muslim world does?

Groups like the GSPC are already in this country training individuals to terrorize the world.

I wonder how long it will take for Mauritania to become another arena for America to get involved in and police like we try with the rest of the world.

I sincerely hope that the new president actually sticks to his plans. I hope that he has any sort of effect on the slavery still abundant in his country. I hope that Mauritania can be a democratic model for the rest of Africa.

But I don't see it happening.


Russ Mitchell says:

@Paulsur: A nation that freely chose to embrace sharia law would be a huge step up compared to a nation that wasn't free to choose anything at all. Even should Mauritania somehow wind up declaring itself enemies of the west, they would have done so voluntarily, and the pawns and knights would go honestly out on the board.

Which would be a vast improvement over the realpolitik that pays Mubarak while he stomps on both the people who would be our friends and the people who would be our enemies within Egypt.


Muhammad Rahmaan says:

I think your a jew supporter, your not a muslim and you fear the truth don't make statements to hurt a beuatiful country like mauritania, the media always making things llok ugly about Africa, and nice and clean for Europe. Mauritanians are black arabs, and you have light skinned featured arabs who came from morroco, all muslim thier is some slave pro\blem in Mauritania, The truth is Non-Arab tribes are treated like Niggers.

Not arabs slaving blacks all mauritanians are black


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