- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Mauritania, an Islamic nation in Africa’s far west that is now Western as well in its international orientation — including close ties with the United States and Israel — votes tomorrow in a presidential election viewed as a referendum on its current political direction.

At least that is the way it appears to be viewed officially.

“President [Maaouyah Ould Sid Ahmed] Taya is confident that the people of Mauritania will support his commitment to a market economy and a pro-Western foreign policy,” said Ambassador Mohamedou Ould Michel.

In an interview late last week, the Washington-based envoy noted that the election comes several months after the government crushed a coup by military officers bitter over Mr. Taya’s shift from a nationalistic policy anchored in Islam to its present course.

“There were voices in Mauritania urging the president to postpone the balloting because of the risk involved in a vote coming so soon after the disturbances last June,” Mr. Michel said. “But the president decided to go ahead anyway.”

One measure of the political distance Mauritania has traveled in the past decade or so is that during the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, President Taya was an unabashed supporter of Iraq’s now-deposed leader, Saddam Hussein, Israel’s mortal enemy.

In 1999, Mauritania recognized Israel, only the third state in the Arab League to do so. Egypt and Jordan are the other two.

The United States obviously is pleased with the support it has received from the present government, both before and after September 11, 2001, but Washington officially is neutral regarding the Mauritanian voting.

“Since we are seeking worldwide to advance democracy, we are looking for fair, clean elections,” said a U.S. official who asked not to be named.

The comment came before yesterday’s troubles were reported by news agencies.

On June 8, a group of Mauritanian army officers opposed to the new course revolted and seized the presidential compound. Within days, forces loyal to the Taya government ended the siege, defeated an elite tank battalion and crushed the coup.

Mr. Taya followed up by placing leading Islamists in detention.

In August, he released 41 detainees — a move that gained support for his candidacy from more than 2,000 of the country’s imams. The clerics endorsed him as the right man “to lead the country toward a better future.”

In a sense, the transformation of Mauritanian policy is part of the same passion for Western-style modernization expressed up and down the Atlantic coast of Africa after the discovery of vast deposits of offshore oil.

So far, oil exploration off Mauritania has been the preserve of Australian oil firms. Their efforts promise to bring a large jump in Mauritania’s gross domestic product. The desert nation’s economic scorecard already shows solid and steady advances.

The petroleum discoveries and rigorous adherence to the structural-adjustment prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund have yielded predictable results. External debt has been reduced from $2.7 billion to $1 billion. The United States has chipped in with a military-assistance program centered on military training.

This has generated sorely needed income in a country where the average pay hovers at a dollar a day. Still, these rewards for the government in Nouakchott’s lining up with the West have done little to reduce the overall level of poverty in Mauritania.

In addition to its efforts to cope with the challenge of economic development, Mauritania appears to be finally trying to free itself from age-old social problems.

Historically, Mauritania served as the takeoff point from which the Arabs, fresh from their conquest of Berber people in the Maghreb — the northern African lands lying west of Arabia — drove north into Spain and southern France. They also pressed south toward present-day Senegal.

Today’s social structure reflects the contact between Arabs and blacks in the Saharan and sub-Saharan states of Africa, not just Mauritania.

Present-day Mauritania has “white Moors,” or “bedayin” — the country’s aristocrats who have held power traditionally by dominating trans-Sahara commerce.

There are also “black Moors,” called “haratine,” who until recently were enslaved. Now they are legally equal, but as a group are struggling to convert legal equality into social equality and economic empowerment.

And there are the black people on the northern side of the Senegal River valley in the southernmost reaches of Mauritania — Wolof, Sonike and Pular — who reportedly suffer inequities even greater than those of the haratine.

The candidates vying against Mr. Taya in tomorrow’s balloting are a microcosm of Mauritania’s history and also reflect current trends toward a more open society.

But all have one thing in common: Although they all condemn the June coup, they want to reverse the course that Mr. Taya has taken in favor of one reflecting Islamic nationalism.

This gives tomorrow’s balloting the flavor of a referendum on the president’s commitment to Western-style policies. His strongest challenge is likely to come from Muhammad Khouna Ould Haidalla, the man Mr. Taya deposed as military strongman in 1984.

Another prominent candidate is Ahmed Ould Daddah, half-brother of independence leader Moktar Ould Daddah who died last week at 88.

A third contender is Messaoud Ould Boulkheir — a representative in the National Assembly and descendant of former slaves, the first person in that category to run for national president.

Mr. Boulkheir is the candidate of the Progressive Popular Alliance and has declared his “firm will” to end the Israeli connection.

Also a first for Mauritania is the candidacy of Aicha Mint Jeddane, the first Mauritanian woman to run for president.

Tomorrow’s vote will be the third in the country’s post-colonial history, all under the Taya presidency. The first, in 1992, was a landslide for the incumbent. In 1997, the election was one in name only, as it was boycotted by the opposition. It remains to be seen whether tomorrow’s vote will confirm Mauritanian democracy or serve merely as a fig leaf for claims of legitimacy.


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