July 18, 2009

Elections in Mauritania. Who cares? You should.

By: AFF Editors

Nice overview of the situation in yesterday’s WSJ:

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — Mauritania’s elections Saturday following 10 months of military rule will mark a return to democracy — and determine whether this vast West African desert nation returns to the camp of Arab moderates or retains its recent alliance with radical regimes.

Gen. Aziz, leader of the coup d’etat that ousted an elected government last year, turned to Libya and Iran for friendship (and began denouncing “Jewry”) only after a failed attempt to cozy up to George W. Bush.

To justify the coup, Gen. Aziz accused President Abdallahi, who had legalized a moderate Islamist party, of being complacent about the al Qaeda threat. The junta openly said at the time that it expected U.S. support, which has often been extended to authoritarian rulers in other countries facing Islamist insurgency.

Washington didn’t take the bait. Insisting that Mr. Abdallahi remained the legitimate president, the U.S. and its European allies refused to deal with the Mauritanian putsch leaders. Gen. Aziz even reached out to Israel, both Israeli and Western officials say, hoping that the Jewish state, to preserve a rare Arab friendship, could convince Washington to soften.

But different considerations were in play. “The country has been touted — and touted itself — as an Arab democracy worthy of support, a model for others,” a Nouakchott-based diplomat explains. U.S. acquiescence to a coup would have validated Arabs’ worst stereotypes about American intentions.

Another naive attempt at democracy promotion by President Bush?

The U.S. slapped a travel ban on Mauritanian officials, pulled most of its security assistance, and froze economic aid. The junta, under international pressure, backed down. Under an agreement signed in Senegal last month, Gen. Aziz stepped down as president and a transitional government, equally split between opposition and coup supporters, was established to supervise new elections.

The outcome of today’s election is up in the air. I’m hoping the Obama administration will maintain the US commitment to democracy in Mauritania.