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Mauritania and the Presidential Dilemma - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In light of current events and debate on constitutional affairs, which represent one of the key concerns of the ruling Military Council, a Mauritanian political party had offered a partial approach for the Military Council to achieve fundamental constitutional reform.

The reforms that were put to public referendum related to the election of a president were the only articles to be amended. These reforms suggest that the presidential term would be limited to two non-renewable terms, each no longer than 5 years, in addition to the removal of all limitations of freedom of expression and of basic structure. However, the mentioned amendments revived the fundamental dilemmas concerned with the formation of the political system and its constitutional structure.

It is well known that Mauritania is like other Arab countries in that it had adopted the presidential system since independence. In Arab countries and Mauritania alike, the president has key roles in the decision making process whilst the roles of the government and Prime Minister are limited. Furthermore, presidents are given the right to dissolve parliament temporarily and at the same time, retain their authority in matters of defense and foreign policy.

With regards to constitutional affairs, it is clear that the majority of Arab countries were inspired by the contemporary French experience or what is known as the French Fifth Republic. The Fifth Republic was designed by General Charles De Gaulle after World War II to ensure political stability in a country that had long suffered from political chaos during the Fourth Republic in which parliamentary governments had witnessed turmoil for a long time.

The alternative presented by the mentioned Mauritanian party, the Sawab Party, is the replacement of the current presidential system with a semi-presidential system. Within this system, the President, the elected parliament and local municipal councils would share authority and specializations to avoid the presidential post becoming a mechanism for autocracy in a country where no democratic customs have been established.

The suggested reform aims at conserving the presidential post, preserving its formal status and liberating the president from direct burdens of governance. At the same time, the proposed alternative redesigns the roles and forms of regional councils that previously balanced the tribes. (The reform proposes a change in the electoral system of the councils by transforming a governorate into a single constituency.)

We are not deeply concerned with the constitutional debate that would take us away from the main point that has been highlighted in the Mauritanian political field and the Arab political field in general, which is the dilemma of “governance” according to new concepts.

“Governance” as a concept is not only affiliated to the sensible use of economic resources according to the terminology of international financial institutions but rather, it is directly concerned with managing the affairs of the country including the ruling system and the relationship between society and the state.

There is no doubt that the main dilemma of governance in Arab countries is largely associated with legal and systematic limitations on powers of governance that are usually caused by the presidential position.

This phenomenon has a dual background, a cultural one that is attributed to the model of “ultimate authority” and a modern one that is associated with the concept of “ruling leader”.

In both cases, the ruler is in complete control of authorities that are affiliated to the general framework of the state.

It is true that all Arab states had accredited the constitutional and legislative mechanisms that had been endorsed by established democratic systems to limit the authority of the executive powers, yet these mechanisms remain unused and ineffective in light of the absence of a strong countering authority (legislative, judicial and informative).

The constitutional and actual privileges that the president enjoys, which cause political life to suffer, enables him to restructure and rebuild other countering authorities according to his practice of absolute powers. It is for this reason that we observe in many Arab countries how parliamentary majorities and the nature of the political and partisan structures change in the face of government.

In Egypt, only two years after the death of President Gamal Abdul Nasser, the late president Anwar Sadat established an alternative political system whilst the Nasserite Party became a small body that suffered from conflict between minor leaders over the party’s leadership.

In Algeria, with the beginning of democratic openness, in 1991, President Bouteflika had restructured the liberation front that had been eliminated from power and accordingly witnessed the limiting of its role in parliament. Thus, he was able to restore the Liberation Front to its central location through his powers.

It is also clear that the presidential post, which is pivotal to political life and public affairs, represents a key obstruction to democratization in our Arab countries. This is clear through two main aspects: the dominance of he who holds power in all aspects of political mobility, which in fact could impede all opportunities for change by weakening opponents and competitors by limiting the methods available to them. Secondly, the transformation of position of presidency into a position for competition and rivalry, in that, making it a point for polarization. This simply incapacitates the political fabric, and subjects the country to a state of disorder.

This political dilemma could never be solved by formal legislative and constitutional mechanisms; however, such mechanisms would help to solve the dilemma if they were to be empowered within national political unanimity.

What is required is the normalization of governance in Arab countries, so that one day, we would have an Arab ex-president who was not ousted and imprisoned or exiled.