The Maghreb after the Putsch in Mauretania

Long Live the Military's Democracy!

For many, the March 2007 elections in Mauretania represented a hopeful democratic awakening for the entire North African region. But the dream swiftly came to an end with the August putsch and the renewed dominance of the military, as Slim Boukhdhir describes in his essay

photo: picture alliance/dpa
Mauritanian police forces patrol in a street of Nouakchott, Mauritania, right after the putsch. A military junta seized power in Mauritania on 6 August following the arrests of the President and Prime Minister

​​For Mauretania, as in the other Maghreb states, the putsch which the country experienced on 6 August was anything but a novel event; it only brought back the military. No one had anticipated, however, that the putsch in Mauretania would take place so soon after the country's democratic awakening.

After the colonial powers withdrew from the Maghreb states in the second half of the twentieth centuries, none of these countries came to enjoy a democratic government. From Libya to Mauretania, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, repressive military regimes formed, using the state institutions to cement their hegemony.

Fear of democracy

For this reason, the March 2007 elections in Mauretania were an unusual occurrence, an example that was greeted with enthusiasm throughout the entire region. Stunned, the neighbouring regimes feared that the "democratic virus" could now infect their states as well.

But the military had robbed these peoples of their democratic dreams early on. After achieving independence, they were ruled by leaders who seemed to have come out of nowhere, so possessed by the will to power that after the withdrawal of the occupiers people began to ask themselves what was better, a colonial overlord or a local tyrant.

In this context it is not surprising that the expression "demand for a second independence", coined by the Tunisian writer Munsif al-Marzouqi, began to appear in the writings of these peoples' intellectual elite. The powerful military figures took over the leading roles in the governments of these five countries in different ways: some in civilian clothing, some hiding behind civilian leaders.

"Inspired leaders" and "leaden years"

In Libya Qaddafi clothed himself in the garb of an "inspired leader", but this did not change his true face: he is a military colonel who seized power in a putsch and for 40 years has been refusing to give it up. At the same time, some observers look at his bright sides; recently his protégé Saif al-Islam spoke of reforms, of a battle against corruption and a fair distribution of wealth.

Map of Mauritania (Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin)
Mauritania gained her independence from France in 1960. The country has a strong tradition of military rule (Map: Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, Austin)

​​In Tunisia General Ben Ali has been ruling for over 20 years. At present he is preparing for a fifth term, even though he promised to do away with presidency for life after his putsch on November 7, 1987. And though he dresses in civilian clothing (and calls himself "saviour of the nation"), it is impossible to overlook the fact that he heads a police state, ruling it with an iron fist and postponing the dream of democracy until kingdom come.

In Algeria not a day has passed without the generals operating behind the scenes of the government. Since the time of Boumedienne's government they have hidden behind civilian rulers. Evoking the "fear of the spectre of Islam", in the 1990s they called off the elections and, hand in hand with the religious extremists, plunged the country into a horrific civil war.

The dream of democracy was buried along with the innocent victims, although President Bouteflika's government has recently made efforts to encourage the formation of new parties and promote political pluralism in the country.

The Mauritanian head of presidential guards, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, new leader of Mauretania (photo: dpa)
The military is retuning to the government in Mauretania – but when did they ever actually leave it? Is it possible to speak of a "return"?

​​In Morocco a civilian inherited the leadership position from his father, making him the third generation of rulers. He does not hold a military office, but just ask Moroccans about General Oufkir, who was responsible for the so-called "leaden years" in which the Moroccans suffered the worst imaginable human rights abuses under the rule of King Hassan II.

What one must give the Moroccan rulers credit for, in contrast to the other countries in the region, is the "Commission for Equality and Reconciliation", established by the young King Mohammed VI, which aims to investigate the wrongs that have been committed and recompense the victims. This ruler is also to be thanked for the fact that he has permitted fair parliamentary elections after which the government was formed with the candidates who had actually been elected.

The execution of democracy

Finally, we come to Mauretania, where the country's history has been shaped by four military putsches. After democracy saw the light of day at last, the military reemerged, as if from Alladin's magic lantern, to hoist their flag once again.

When Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall tried to launch a new era and give the power of government to the people instead of keeping it himself like his predecessors, the hardliners in military circles hastened to conquer back their territory.

Slim Boukhdhir (photo: &copy Global Voices Online)
Slim Boukhdhir lives in Tunis as a writer and journalist. He was released from prison in July after serving seven months of a year-long sentence. His arrest and conviction resulted from the writer's criticism of the Tunisian government

​​Some observers felt that President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi had personally presented the generals with an excuse for a putsch on a silver platter. They claim that he "provoked" the military with his famous decree on the morning of the putsch in which he ordered the dismissal of Ould Abdel Aziz and his deputy. One should recall, however, that Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi approved of sharing power with the generals from the very beginning.

It is more the case that he handed the newborn democracy to the generals at the very beginning and was then unable to regain control himself. When the Mauritanians elect a civilian leader who from the outset allows generals following only their own interests to hide behind him, the dream of democracy that intoxicated the Mauritanians is in fact a false dream.

The general tone of the commentators was that the military had returned to the government in Mauretania – but this raises the question of when they ever relinquished power, making it possible to speak of a "return".

One need only recall the state of Mauretania under the government of Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, when the generals could clearly be seen operating in the background. Just as they do throughout the Maghreb, ruling over the heads of all the others – long live the democracy of the military...

Salim Boukhdhir

© 2008

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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