March 31, 2007

Mauritania's new Democracy

Professor Hassan Nafaa raises in Al-Ahram the interesting case of Mauritanian democracy and its implications for the Arab world. Professor Nafaa argues that Mauritania is distinct from most Arab countries in setting up a true democracy- and suggests that it is because the army, a force that he beleives most within the country stand behind, has stepped into politics to back the new democracy that Mauritania has succeeded where so many others have failed. He suggests that this fits a recent trend where it is not the great regional powers- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq- that lead the next developments within the Middle East, but increasingly its in the smaller countries- Qatar in media, the UAE in finance, Mauritania in democracy where all the most exciting political developments are taking place.

Professor Nafaa in my view is both wrong and right in his assessment of the development of Middle Eastern Politics. Its worth remembering that Mauritania has only faced one set of elections and them only in March- the status of its democracy is uncertain- and as the experience of Pakistan over the fifty years since independence would demonstrate once the military acquires a taste for intervention, its difficult for the generals to go back to their barracks. Armies often are the only meritocratic or vaguely meritocratic structures in some societies- but that doesn't make them invulnerable to all the weaknesses that we attribute to men in general- a lust for domination and power, corruption, and all the weaknesses of civilian politicians. The example of Egypt, where the revolt of the Colonels in the fifties led to Nasser's regime and then on to the present dictatorship today, would suggest that things aren't that simple.

Professor Nafaa is right though to look outside the Arab 'core' for inspiration. It often is true that the smaller countries of a region develop in order to keep up with their bigger neighbours, institutions which allow them to do things more efficiently. Thinking of European development, the Netherlands, Britain, Prussia and Switzerland were all places where constitutional and financial innovations took place, largely in all four cases motivated by the presence of a much larger, populous and threatening neighbour (in the cases of Britain, the Netherlands and Switzerland, France, in the case of Prussia and Switzerland Austria). What is interesting about Professor Nafaa's article is that the focus is very regional- and at that very ethnic- it is limited to members of the Arab League. Staring at him in the face is possibly the leading example of the effects of military intervention in the politics of a democracy- Turkey- but such an important case for his thesis is never mentioned. Parochialism in political science is not a virtue, crossing ethnic boundaries to understand the politics of one's own country or region is not a vice.

Professor Nafaa's article is interesting though. Throwing attention back upon the army as a force for stability within many Arab countries is definitely worthwhile. However in my view Professor Nafaa is too naively optimistic about military dictatorship, about the prospects of democracy in Mauritania. He needs to stretch his horizons both Turkey and Pakistan have struggled with the role of the military in politics since the second world war. Many African countries have fallen under the seductive lure of the principle that the armed forces can do no wrong and have discovered that that axiom is not neccessarily as true as it would appear. Despite that it is true that the Arab militaries are an underrated part of the regimes and often one that is anti-Islamist and popular, if we are to understand the development of the Middle East and the wider developing world into the future then the militaries and the way that they engage with different regimes will be part of the story.

LATER Can I apologise profusely- for some reason my classical education led me to suppose that Mauritania was spelt the same way as the Roman province Mauretania, it isn't and I made an idiot of myself. I have no altered all the spellings to the right spelling and I apologise for any offence or confusion caused.


james higham said...

May I ask a learned question, Tiberius? Where is Mauretania?

Gracchi said...

Its in North Africa but i had spelt it wrong you are right its actually Mauritania- and a map is on Wikipedia. Sorry about that James.