In a recent comments on the future of democracy in Mauritania in Asharq Al Awsat, I indicated the African country faced the challenge of a peaceful transition of power if democratic transformation were to continue.
This situation is repeated across the Arab world where limited experiences in democracy have, so far, failed to create real choice. Without wishing to discuss the reasons that lead to this failure, let me mention two important causes behind the absence of real democratcy: the role of the military in Arab countries and the structure of political parties and organizations which usually have limited say in a political process dominated by groups affiliated with the ruling regime and a society where the government controls political, economic, and social developments.
The bloodless military coup against President Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, On August 3 rd, marked the end of a severe political crisis in Mauritania. Its root causes lie in the legal and organizational difficulties that have plagued the process of democratic transformation since its early days in 1991. More recently, in the past five years, a number of developments have compounded the crisis.
In the last few years, the government in Nouakchott has tried to curtail personal freedoms after it succeeded in besieging, weakening, and dividing the opposition. Three parties were dissolved by an oppressive government decree, the Rally of Democratic Forces headed by Ahmed Ould Dadah, Messoud Ould Boulkheir’s Popular Progress Alliance, and the Baathist Taliaa Party. Despite the return of the first two groups under new names, the decision to disband opposition parties was a sever blow to an already faltering democratic process.
In addition, the government suspended the licenses of several independent newspapers and tightened the rules governing the media which had been highly critical of the regime despite their limited capabilities.
To strengthen its grip on power, the deposed government in Nouakchott relied heavily on forging new alliances and strengthening its foreign relations, thereby ending a decade of intense international pressure which was partly responsible for the government embarking on democratizing drive. At the time, the Taya regime was regionally and internationally isolated and therefore released prisoners as a sweetener to international governments and bodies, especially western donors and funding organizations.
This goes some way to explain the ex- President’s strange decision to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, carried out to please the U.S government and the global Jewish lobby which is active in western countries and international finance organizations.
Despite the former regime paying a heavy price for this choice internally and with Arab countries, Nouakchott did score some economic and diplomatic gains as foreign governments eased their pressure and turned a blind eye to President Taya’s crackdown on the opposition. At the time, a number of observers exposed the democratic process as a cover for easing foreign pressures by creating a semblance of normality.
With the first shipment of Mauritanian oil expected to start in December 2005 and the race between major oil excavation companies for a piece of the offshore oilfields heating up, the former President believed he would reap the benefits of the new strategic importance of Mauritania. He hoped to shore up his regime and ally himself with the United States, especially after the attacks of September 11 made terrorism an American priority.
Yet, these seemingly perfect plans suffered from a major flaw, namely the lack of internal support for President Taya’s regime. Mauritania was lagging behind its neighbors; Senegal and Mali had seen a successful transition of power and Morocco and Algeria were in the midst of political reforms.
The former President gravely misread the situation after the failed military uprising that almost topple him in June 2003. He convinced himself it was an isolated terrorist act, even if he later admitted, in an unusual moment of honesty that Mauritania was in crisis because his instructions were not being followed, in his letter to the city of Kiffa, in July 2003
The elections held in November of the same year were a golden opportunity to redress grievances in the democratic process. Taya could have opted to withdraw from politics after twenty years in power or announce measures to reform political organizations and open up to opposition parties and civil society groups. Instead, the President preferred to exclude his opponents with his long-running oppressive methods. He imprisoned one the most important presidential candidates, former head of state, Mohammed Khouna Ould Hidala, shortly before the poll, leter jailing the main opposition figures after accusing them of being involved in a coup against him, which most observers doubt.
The trial of armed officers who lead a failed coup, known as the “Knights of Change”, in late 2004 was also another wasted opportunity for the regime to correct its mistakes in spite of the short sentences given to the plotters. Their trial exposed the rot of the institution of the military which is the main pillar of Mauritania ’s stability and security. It highlighted the dangers of halting peaceful political change which could lead to hazardous and unknown developments.
The latest coup by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, former head of national security, should be understood as a last gasp action to rescue the democratic process as it has been blocked at the level of civil liberties and transition of power.