Democracy's Long Road

July 17, 2009

By Todd Pitman

LEMDEN, Mauritania (AP) _ At the end of a long road that disappears in a scrub-brush desert where camels trek across orange ribbons of sand, the first freely elected president in Mauritania's history believes he is watching a democratic revolution unfold.

And so, too, does the man who overthrew him.

This Islamic republic straddling the southern edge of the Sahara votes Saturday in a presidential election that will restore civilian rule for the second time in two years.

The vote epitomizes a half-century-old struggle still being waged across Africa against the ever-strong reign of autocratic strongmen. At stake is whether Mauritania can really turn its back on an era of military rule and become a democratic example on a continent where democracy is still struggling, while at the same time taking a hard line against an encroaching al-Qaida presence spreading south from Algeria.

"The military has always believed it has the right to intervene in government," said 72-year-old former president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who was toppled in August by Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz _ a former general who resigned from the military and the junta he led to run in Saturday's poll.

"We're trying to put an end to that. And we're seeing more resistance than ever before," Abdallahi said during an interview at his home in Lemden, the tiny, native village where he has lived since being released from house arrest in November.

Abdallahi's fall made clear the military wields real power, no matter who is president. That reality is casting a long shadow over Saturday's vote, and raises a fundamental concern for whoever wins: what assurance is there that Mauritania's next leader will be able to govern freely without fear he, too, will be toppled if the military isn't content?

"That's the million dollar question," Abdallahi said, sitting barefoot on an ornamental Arabic-style couch in a traditional gold-trimmed flowing white robe.

Last year's coup _ Mauritania's fifth since independence in 1960 _ was met with typical condemnation abroad: the African Union suspended the country from its continental body, and international donors froze aid pledges worth a staggering $2 billion.

But atypical for this desert nation of 3.5 million people: the coup met strong opposition at home. Abdallahi joined a political coalition that forced the junta to dissolve in June in exchange for Abdallahi giving up his claim to the presidency.

As part of the deal, a government of national unity was formed to oversee the ballot, which had previously been set to go ahead without the opposition. Their absence would have given Aziz certain victory, but deprived his win of any legitimacy _ and with it, the prospect of restarting vital aid.

The impending vote amounts to "a choice between despotism and democracy," said journalist Mohamed Fall Ould Oumeir, who works for the independent Tribune newspaper. "People will have to say whether they want a strongman or a true civilian ruler."

In Mauritania _ where many believe strong, forceful personalities govern better than laws _ it could go either way.

Though many African nations have successfully evolved from dictatorships, others are "backsliding," in the words of President Barack Obama. In the last year alone, the continent has seen coups in Guinea and Madagascar, the assassination of Guinea-Bissau's president, and Niger's leader fighting to stay in power past his legal two-term mandate.

Hundreds of international observers will monitor Mauritania's election, and most expect it to be free and fair. Though nine candidates are contesting, only four are considered serious contenders. None is likely to win the 50 percent majority needed to avoid a runoff, and the vote is almost certain to go to a second round Aug. 1.

The most prominent candidate is Aziz, who was vital to engineering the 2005 coup, a transformational and widely praised turning point that ended two decades of harsh dictatorship and opened the way for unprecedented freedoms. As a result, Aziz sees himself as protecting the nation's nascent democracy.

Also running is Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who led the 2005 junta, and Ahmed Ould Daddah, a popular civilian opposition leader who was runner-up in 2007.

All three are so-called white Moors _ Arabs who make up 30 percent of the population but who overwhelmingly dominate the government, the military and business sectors. Black Moors, who are darker-skinned and consider themselves Arab, account for around 40 percent, while black Africans, some of whom speak languages common with southern neighbor Senegal, account for the rest.

Parliament speaker Messaoud Ould Boulkheir _ a black Moor whose parents were slaves _ is also on the ballot. Backed by Abdallahi, he is also thought to have a chance at winning _ another sign Mauritania is changing.

"There has been an awakening within our society," said Cheikh Saad Bouh Kamara, a sociology professor and former human rights leader. "People are fighting for democracy and their rights like never before. People are becoming aware, speaking out. Women's groups, the media, unions, politicians. This is a major change."

Still, many are skeptical.

"They all promise to bring jobs and electricity and feed the poor," said cafe worker Pape Daouda Ba, who will not vote. "But when they are in the chair, they are there for themselves and their people, not for Mauritania."

The post-coup isolation imposed by Western powers has forced Mauritania to look for support from the Arab world. One casualty in doing so: Mauritania severed ties with Israel in the wake of the war in Gaza this year. Mauritania had been only one of three Arab League nations maintaining diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, a stance taken in the 1990s to woo the West.

Washington, for its part, has walked a tightrope: it never recognized the junta, but it needs to keep the country from sliding toward extremism. The U.S. sees Mauritania as a bulwark against growing al-Qaida activity in North Africa, which has spread south of Algeria in recent years. In June, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the shooting death of an American professor in the capital, Nouakchott, the first attack of its kind here.

Abdallahi was criticized for reaching out to Islamists, and many here do not view him as a democratic hero. Aziz says he toppled Abdallahi because he had become an autocrat and was turning the country backward _ cracking down on the media, and assigning senior posts to Islamists and officials linked to the old dictatorial regime. Abdallahi says he was exercising his democratic rights and being inclusive.

The next president will face the profound challenge of developing a nation that ranks 137 out of 177 on the U.N.'s Human Development Index, which measures general well-being. In Abdallahi's village, water only comes from wells and electricity comes only from solar panels and generators.

"Mauritania is still a feudal society with slaves and masters. We're still in the middle ages," said Abdallahi, a gentle, bespectacled economics expert. "But this country is in the midst of an extraordinary revolution ... democracy is taking hold."

Copyright 2009 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.