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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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