May 1, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 348

New Mauritanian Democracy Inspires Arab Liberals and Unnerves Arab Autocrats, But Some Mauritanians Complain of the Race Card

May 1, 2007 | By D. Lav*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 348

On April 19, 2007, Sidi Ould Sheikh 'Abdallahi was sworn in as Mauritania's first president to be elected in free and fair democratic elections. While the ceremony was attended by many heads of state from sub-Saharan African countries, no Arab head of state was in attendance (the Arab League country with the most senior representation at the ceremony was Morocco, which sent its prime minister). This fact was noted in the Mauritanian press and by Arab liberals in the Middle East, who interpreted it as a sign of the autocratic leaders' fear of democracy. In contrast, Arab democrats praised the Mauritanian model, saying that it was the first time that an Arab country had, entirely of its own will, deposed a dictator and installed a true democracy.

The enthusiasm of Arab liberals was only partly shared by their Mauritanian counterparts. While most welcomed the elections and recognized the legitimacy of its results, many opined that the new government is in essence just a power reshuffle within the country's Arab-Berber elite, leaving the haratin – the Arabic-speaking former slave class[1] – and other black African ethnicities on the political sidelines.

The following are some views on the new democracy in Mauritania from the Mauritanian and Arab press:[2]

Mauritanian Nouakchott Info Daily: Mauritania Has "Aroused Anxiety Among Certain Totalitarian Arab Regimes"

Bakari Gueye, writing in the Mauritanian daily Nouakchott Info on April 20, 2007 the day after the inauguration of President Sidi Ould Sheikh 'Abdallahi, noted that the Arab heads of state had decided to take a pass on the ceremony: "The [democratic] process [in Mauritania], which was followed closely by the international community, aroused the admiration of all, and now they speak of the 'Mauritanian example.' With its new status, which is not to everyone's liking, Mauritania has made waves, perhaps arousing anxiety among certain totalitarian Arab regimes, who might look very unsympathetically at the establishment of a democratic regime [in Mauritania]…

"Colonel Qaddafi's recent outburst… translates well the malaise that has set in among the Arab leaders." (This was a reference to Qaddafi's public belittling of the budding Mauritanian democracy, which he called "a farce and a laughingstock," drawing an angry response from Mauritania's interim government.[3]) "In fact, the Libyan president – who despite everything sent his personal representative [to the inauguration] – dared to say out loud what all of the Arab autocrats are thinking… "

Gueye then notes the various levels of representation sent by the North African countries, and continues: "As for the other Arab countries, they shone in their absence – an absence heavy with meaning." Contrasting this with the presence of African heads of state, he concludes that Mauritania has devoted too much diplomatic effort to the Arab world, to the detriment of its identity as an African state.[4]

The Arab Heads of State Did Not Come to the Inauguration Because "They Feared Mauritania's Contagious Democracy"

Gueye's explanation for the absence of the Arab heads of state was echoed by Egyptian journalist Suleiman Gouda, who wrote in the independent Al-Masri Al-Yawm daily: "The new Mauritanian President Sidi Ould Sheikh 'Abdallahi took the constitutional oath the day before yesterday… This is the first time that an Arab head of state has committed, under oath, to defend democracy for the length of his term, and to not manipulate the constitution in order to prolong his period in power. This is also the first time in 50 years that the Arab world has seen a civilian head of state come to power through a peaceful transition, true elections, and debates between candidates, in the European fashion.

"What is truly saddening is the absence of all of the Arab heads of state from the new president's inauguration ceremony, which was attended by seven African heads of state, representatives from 20 countries, and regional and international organizations, and representatives from Asia and Europe…

"The absence of the Arab heads of state leaves a lot of room for wonder and is immensely astonishing. The Arab media's ignoring of the pioneering Mauritanian experiment arouses doubts… Mauritania is, at present, the only Arab state whose constitution defines a specific period for the president['s term]… and it is the only Arab state in which the Colonel Mohamed Ould Vall came to power and then left it voluntarily, of his own will, and decided to hold fair and transparent elections through which matters of state would be transferred from the military men to the civilians, in a peaceful manner, for the first time in any of the Arab states, from one end [of the Arab world] to the other, with the exception of Sawar Al-Dhahab in Sudan.

"Was this the reason the Arab heads of state were absent [from the inauguration]? Would their presence have caused them great embarrassment? Would their presence at the inauguration ceremony – which was carried by the international TV stations, but ignored by the Arab stations – have indicated to their peoples that a peaceful transition of power is possible, and that elections expressing the people's will are something of which we are capable? [Would it have indicated] that the claim that our peoples are not ripe yet for true democratic practices is an empty and false claim? They always told us: 'Don't compare us with England, France, and America. These are advanced countries, and their experience with democracy is deep and firmly established.' What will they say if one of us goes and compares what is going on [in our countries] with what is going on in Mauritania?

"Al-Jazeera TV asked Mohamed Fall Ould Oumeir, editor-in-chief of the Mauritanian La Tribune newspaper, how he and his countrymen explain the absence of all of the Arab heads of state from the ceremony… He said that [the Mauritanians] can't find any reasonable or logical explanation for this, but that apparently the Arab heads of state feared – as he put it – Mauritania's contagious democracy…"[5]

"Mauritania And Its Beautiful Democratic Experience is The Greatest Gleam Of Hope… In The Pitch-Black Arab Gloom"

Earlier, during the presidential elections themselves, liberals throughout North Africa and the Middle East had praised the Mauritanian experience and assessed its implications for the rest of the Arab world.

Saudi liberal Hussein Shabakshi, in a March 15 article in the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily, wrote that Mauritania was raising expectations throughout the Arab world and demonstrating that democracy is possible:

"…The Mauritanian experience powerfully refutes the claim that Arab societies are not prepared for and are not ready for democracy, for here we have Mauritanian society, men and women, participating equally as candidates and voters in this experience, in a society with a delicate mix of Africans and Arabs, but with the greater good of the country remaining the decisive consideration.

"Mauritania and its beautiful democratic experience is the greatest gleam of hope and illuminating candle in the pitch-black Arab gloom… Many [Arab] countries preceded Mauritania on the road of political reform, and they have much experience in parliamentary action and likewise in freedom of the press and freedom of opinion (though in a relative manner); but all of this did not inspire, in these Arab countries, a degree of faith in the political regimes… because the experience, in most cases… was limited and did not reach completion, a fact which convinced observers that these experiences were, in reality, limited, and for specific purposes.

"The Mauritanian experience raises the level of expectations and the prospects of what is possible and what is not possible, and leaves the experiments that preceded it far behind…"[6]

In the following day's Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Sayyed Wild Abah, in an article titled "Democratic Spring in Mauritania," wrote that Mauritania's experience compared favorably not just with the Arab world, but also with that of other African states. He attributed this to the emphasis on consensus-building during the transitional period, and to the fact that the interim military government had maintained its neutrality throughout the transition.[7]

The columnist Mustapha Hammouche, writing in the March 12 edition of the liberal Algerian Liberte daily, also praised the ruling interim military council (CMJD, Conseil militaire pour la justice et la democratie): "In truth, it took a real desire for national political emancipation on the part of the CMJD in order for a process of authentic and credible democratic transition to succeed in such a short time, in a country that had always 'reelected' its autocrats.

"The fact that the members of the CMJD undertook to not take part in any electoral competition [i.e. parliamentary or presidential], [to guarantee] liberty in proposing candidature, and to introduce anti-fraud measures… encouraged popular participation and discouraged, in the administration, the eventual temptation of cheating.

"Nobody can predict [with certainty] that the president who emerges from this beautiful adventure will stay the course of democracy, but [Ely Mohamed Ould] Vall and his companions will have proven that, when a military government sincerely wants it, a democratic transition is possible in the South."[8]

Editorial in Nouakchott Info: "The Much-Awaited Political Turnaround Did Not Truly Take Place"

In Mauritania itself, the introduction of democracy was welcomed, but some expressed disappointment that the political landscape did not change more than it did. In particular, many observed that the elections had not significantly altered the balance of power between the Arab-Berber elites on the one hand, and former black slaves and their descendants (known as haratin, sing: hartani) and Black African groups on the other. The new president, Sidi Ould Sheikh 'Abdallahi, acknowledged the salience of this issue when, in his inaugural speech, he listed as the first element in his program of reform "the consolidation of national unity so as to achieve harmony among the constituent elements of our people, to do away with negative after-effects inherited from the past, and to bring to all the Mauritanians… wide possibilities for participation in the building of their country…"[9]

Mohamed Ould Ahmed Elkoury, writing in an April 17 front-page editorial in Nouakchott Info, was less convinced that this was going to be the case. He wrote that at first the transition had inspired hope: "…The swiftness of action and the realism of the [CMJD], the national consensus that emerged from days of consultations with the political parties and civil society, and the more or less wait-and-see attitude of the international community all gave room for optimism…"

But Elkoury reproached the CMJD for deciding to allow independent candidates to run outside of party structures. In his view, this opened the door to the sort of backroom deals that allowed race to be a decisive factor in the elections: "Nonetheless, and contrary to expectations, a secret alchemy concocted among the military men [i.e. the CMJD] came… and sounded the death knell of the neutrality of the military men, which they had declared from every rooftop.

"The door was then opened wide to the independents, to the great detriment of well-structured political parties… At this stage of the evolution of the Mauritanian political scene, [one would have had to be] quite clever in order to imagine the future repercussions of this option for the entire process of democratic transition. In essence, nobody thought for a single moment that the independents were going to deliberately and shamelessly exploit that which most divides the country, and still remains in our days a deficiency on the path to economic and social progress – namely, the path of regionalism and tribalism…

"The new political map in Mauritania quite naturally took form in function of these occult alliances, something which is inopportune and anachronistic at the dawn of the 21st century – but remarkably efficient.

"The Mauritanian people stoically accepted the new rules of the game… even if they deserved a scenario much more in line with the ideals of justice and democracy…"

Elkoury holds up as an example the Mauritanian nationalism that accompanied independence in the early 1960s: "It is this Mauritania… that the CMJD's democratic transition should have put forward, instead of playing imprudently on the history and the myths of the collective unconscious of the people of the great sandy expanses [i.e. the Arab-Berber elite].

"Any way you look at it, the Mauritanians made their choice at the ballot box, freely and transparently. But the much-awaited political turnaround did not truly take place…"[10]

Black Activist Abou Hamidou Sy: "Today, at the End of this Transition-without-Rupture, Everything Indicates that the Old Demons Will Be Back"

The website of the FLAM (Forces de liberation africaines de Mauritanie), a movement founded in 1983 to fight for racial equality, was even more pessimistic. In a March 23 article titled "The Transition Fell Short," Abou Hamidou Sy, a FLAM journalist and activist living abroad, wrote:

"After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Paul Bremer… took a series of measures, the most spectacular of which was the dismantling of the Iraqi army and the prohibition of the Ba'th party. While these measures aroused much controversy at the time, they were nonetheless justifiable: [the aim was] to forestall any regression. It was these kinds of precautions that the CMJD did not want to undertake, and today, at the end of this transition-without-rupture, everything indicates that the old demons will be back.

"Of course in our case there was no need to be so radical and ruin all of our institutions. But the gangrene should have been extirpated, namely: the Arab chauvinism of the Ba'thist and Nasserist elements that have infiltrated all levels of the state…

"When Ely [Mohamed Ould Vall] says that there will be no witch-hunts… and proposes independent candidatures for the barons of the ancien regime, this says a lot about his intentions… What is going on [in Mauritania] is neither democracy nor its 'cousin.' It is nothing but an evolution of the mechanisms of distribution of power among the Arab-Berber tribes. We have gone from coups d'etat… to tribal alliances with a democratic unction, so as not to alienate the international community…"[11]

*Daniel Lav is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.

[1] Many would challenge the characterization of the haratin as a former, and not a current, slave class. The homepage of a group called S.O.S. Esclaves Mauritanie, an activist group which fights against slaveholding, notes that slavery has been abolished in Mauritania three times, but there has never been an attempt to implement these decrees or to punish those who violate it ( See also the Amnesty International report "Mauritania: A Future Free from Slavery?" November 7, 2002, and the website of the Association des haratine de Mauritanie en Europe:

[2] See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1304, "Mauritanian President Ely Ould Mohamed Vall on Reform in His Country: ‘It Was Necessary to Break... the Logic of Lifelong Rule,’" October 4, 2006, Mauritanian President Ely Ould Mohamed Vall on Reform in His Country: ‘It Was Necessary to Break... the Logic of Lifelong Rule’.

[3], March 10, 2007.

[4] Nouakchott Info (French edition) (Mauritania), April 20, 2007.

[5] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 21, 2007.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 15, 2007.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 16, 2007.

[8] Liberte (Algeria), March 12, 2007.

[9] Nouakchott Info (French edition) (Mauritania), April 20, 2007.

[10] Nouakchott Info (French edition) (Mauritania), April 17, 2007.

[11], March 23, 2007.

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