In the May 7 issue of the Weekly Standard, James Kirchick nominated Mauritania as the surprise contender for democratic model for the Arab Muslim world.
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.”
In in a path reminiscent of Chile and Turkey, the road to a peaceful transition to democracy was paved by a military junta.
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.
Mauritania is bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, Senegal beyond the Senegal River to the south, Mali to the south and east, Algeria to the northeast, and the Western Sahara to the north. Mauritania was the original home of the Moors who overran Spain. After the Reconquista freed Spain the Moors settled down in Mauritania and Morocco, only to be conquered by France in the early 19th century. Mauritania became independent in 1960. Troubles with Morocco ensued. Mauritania finally banned slavery in 1981. Offshore reserves of oil and gas have been discovered. Mauritania is an American ally in the Global War on Terror, and one of three Arab nations that has diplomatic ties with Israel.
The BBC summarizes Mauritania thus:
Full name: The Islamic Republic of Mauritania
Population: 3.1 million (UN, 2005)
Area: 1.04 million sq km (398,000 sq miles)
Major languages: Arabic (official), French, others
Major religion: Islam
Life expectancy: 51 years (men), 54 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 ouguiya = 5 khoums
Main exports: Fish and fish products, iron ore, gold
GNI per capita: US $560 (World Bank, 2006)
Internet domain: .mr
International dialling code: +222