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Divergent democratization: the paths of Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania.

In late 1987, political scientists assessing the prospects for democratization in the Arab world hailed Tunisia as a frontrunner, proclaiming it to be on the brink of the first democratic transition in the region. (1) The new president, Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, though he had assumed power through a bloodless coup, immediately legitimized the regime change in the name of reform and democratization, promising open participation for all political parties and actors, including the Islamists. At the time, these same social scientists were less sanguine about the possibilities for similar transitions among Tunisia's neighbors, particularly Morocco's monarchy, notorious for its human-rights violations, and Mauritania's repressive military dictatorship.

Twenty years later, the democratization differential among Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia is surprising and dramatically divergent from earlier predictions. Moreover, 2007 has been a fateful year for all three states. In March-April 2007, Mauritania held the first free and fair executive-branch elections in the Arab world in which no incumbent candidates ran, following the approval of a new constitution and open legislative elections. Morocco's King Mohammed VI has continued to steer the country toward social and economic liberalization. On September 7, Moroccans voted in free, multiparty legislative elections (2) that attracted international attention because of the popularity of the country's legal Islamist party, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD). By contrast, this past fall Tunisia--once the beacon of democratic hope in North Africa--marked 20 years since President Ben Ali came to power on a campaign to abolish lifelong presidencies and the other authoritarian excesses of his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba. Despite these earlier promises, Tunisia under Ben Ali has become a repressive one-party state that prohibits political opposition and a free press, and limits Internet access and most associational life.

Why have poor and less-developed Mauritania and Morocco far outpaced their richer neighbor Tunisia in terms of democratization, often defined as a movement toward greater political participation and contestation, as well as civil rights? (3) This article assesses three likely explanations: the power of economic development to perpetuate stable authoritarianism; the relationship between ethnic heterogeneity and multiparty democratization; and the institutional differences among military, personal and one-party rule. After comparing the status of political and civil rights in Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia in 1987 with the status of such rights today, this article then assesses these three explanations and concludes by asking whether--and how--the Bush administration's democratization policies might have influenced the three states' democratization trajectories. Comparing the democratic deficit in Tunisia to the progress achieved in Mauritania and Morocco is not simply an academic exercise; the North African cases yield useful lessons to practitioners. Though many in the policy community have given up the notion that democratization in the Arab world should be a U.S. objective, the North African cases suggest that--with new perspectives and a great deal of patience--it still might be an obtainable goal.

1987-2007: WHAT CHANGED? Mauritanian Democracy: Brought in from the Barracks

From its 1960 independence from France to 1987, Mauritania cycled through four military governments, three coups and a series of internecine struggles within the military. In 1987, Maouiya Ould SidAhmed Taya had been ruling for three years and would stay in power for another eighteen. To legitimize his repressive military rule, Taya periodically held sham elections, boycotted by the members of the political opposition who were not in exile or in prison. Col. Taya and his ruling junta not only controlled all political power, they also instituted violent and discriminatory policies toward black, non-Arab Mauritanians, who constitute approximately 30 percent of the population and primarily reside in the southern Senegal River Valley. Taya's regime favored the Moors, the descendents of Arab conquerors and Berbers, as well as the so-called "Black Arabs," the former African slaves of the Arab, who have come to share their Moorish ethnicity but are often still marginalized. In 1989, ethnic tensions reached a new high, when Taya turned a blind eye to the killing of hundreds of black Mauritanians in the South. The fighting forced approximately 40,000 black Mauritanians to flee to refugee camps across the border in Senegal. (4) Moreover, according to Amnesty International and antislavery organizations, tens of thousands of Mauritanians remained enslaved by their conationalists despite the state's official abolition of slavery. (5)

In August 2005, a group of army colonels identifying themselves as the Military Council for Justice and Democracy (MCJD) overthrew Taya in a bloodless coup, dissolved the parliament and appointed a new transitional government. The coup, the MCJD announced, aimed to end "the totalitarian practices of the deposed regime under which our people have suffered." The new 17-member transitional government promised to restore civil rule through elections within two years. (6) Aware of Mauritania's legacy of coups and counter coups, none of which had installed democratic governments, the head of the transitional government, Col. Vall, urged skeptics: "Do not judge me by what I say, but by what I do." (7) In 2005 and 2006, the transitional government, the MCJD and the Council of Ministers held national consultations with the nearly 50 political parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and public figures to debate a roadmap to democracy. Subsequently, they released a timeline for the democratic transition that would be complete by March 2007. As his first steps toward this goal, Vall lifted all censorship laws and revised the constitution to limit presidential terms to two five-year mandates. The new constitution went further, taking an extra precaution unprecedented in the Arab world: it banned all future revisions to the presidential term-limit clause.

True to the junta's word, by March 2007, the new constitution had been drafted and approved by a national referendum; new governors and legislators had been elected from 21 of Mauritania's 29 political parties; and a lively and vigorous presidential campaign was underway. In the last weeks of the campaign, the two finalists debated each other on national television and blogs, airing their views on previously taboo topics such as ethnic persecution and slavery. (8) Over 1.1 million of the country's 3.2 million people voted, some using special ballots with symbols rather than letters because of widespread illiteracy. (9) In April, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi won 53 percent of the votes in a second-round runoff against veteran opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah. (10) True to their original promise, none of the military junta took part in the election, at least overtly. At the new president's inauguration in April, they quietly took their leave: (11) "We've fulfilled our commitment, and now it's time to go," Col. Vall told reporters. Although Mauritania's new democracy remains vulnerable, especially to future military interference, many Mauritanians are cautiously optimistic about their recent democratic progress.

Morocco: Liberalization without Much Democratization.

By 1987, Morocco's King Hassan had been ruling since 1961 with an iron fist, repressing political opponents and violently suppressing frequent rural and urban riots. Only later, in the 1990s, would King Hassan begin to moderate; for the first three decades of his reign, he was feared by his populace and notorious abroad for the human-rights violations rampant in his kingdom. King Hassan controlled all of the levers of politics; he appointed all the ministers, cancelled or called for periodic parliamentary elections when they suited his purpose, and constitutionally ensured that the parliament and the judicial system would have only limited independence from the executive. Hundreds of political opponents faced torture, disappearances, execution and detention without trial, often only because they had expressed opinions hostile to the government. (12) The prisoners, many of whom came from the two largest opposition parties, the Istiqlal and the USFP, were held in infamous megaprisons such as Tazmamaat. (13)

Citizens were not the only ones prohibited from criticizing the regime; the feared minister of interior shut down any newspaper critical of the king or the country's socioeconomic woes, and jailed the editors. By the late 1980s, the international community began to express alarm at the human-rights conditions in Morocco. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued damning reports, and the European Union and the United States Senate condemned the violations and threatened to withhold foreign aid. (14) King Hassan's human-rights abuses were so egregious that his son, King Mohammed VI, shortly after acceding to the throne, decided to compensate his father's victims, setting a precedent in the Arab world by paying reparations to 3,700 civilians. (15)

Twenty years have passed since 1987, and the Moroccan monarch no longer oversees a prison kingdom. King Mohammed VI, a young, Western-style leader, is managing a controlled liberalization experiment on economic and social fronts. He has invested in new infrastructure such as highways and ports, modernized the education and tax systems, and established a long-term National Initiative for Human Development. He has also attracted international corporations and investors through privatization efforts, while building new commercial and trade ties with the EU and the United States. Mohammed VI has won international acclaim for his social reforms, particularly the controversial 2004 revisions to the family-status code, or moudawanna, which made polygamy increasingly difficult and gave women the right to initiate divorce, share custody and inherit family assets.

The new king has thus far chosen reforms that have liberalized society without democratizing the state. The 1996 constitution, which remains unchanged, preserves the supreme power of the monarch, allowing him to veto legislation, dismiss parliament and appoint all judges. Yet, though the contestation of the king's supreme power remains impossible, Morocco's liberalization experiment has dramatically opened up the press and has encouraged one of the most vibrant civil societies in the Arab world. In summer 2007, for example, the popular French and Arabic weeklies Tel Quel and Nichane exposed the fraudulent dealings of one of the king's top advisors and a Ministry of Religious Affairs official. (16) Other articles have dealt with long-taboo topics such as Islam and sex) (17) Even the pro-government daily L'Opinion ran a story in July 2007 about the main legal Islamist opposition party, presenting an unbiased and factual account of the PJD's political positions. Civil society is bursting with Toquevillian associational energy, with hundreds of new organizations working on illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, human rights, women's rights and Berber rights.

While civil society, independent journalists and certain opposition parties are pushing the boundaries of the king's liberalization experiment, democratization seems to have lost its most important player: the voter. The record low turnout in the September 2007 Assembly of Representatives elections--37 precent--suggests mass disaffection with the political process. The electoral system combines a large number of parties (33 ran candidates in September) with rules that distribute votes among the large parties; as a result, many people dismiss an individual ballot as irrelevant. Moreover, the public is skeptical about the deputies' ability, once in Parliament, to change government policy. Yet democratizing reforms that institute checks and balances, thereby fragmenting the power that remains primarily in royal hands, would likely reverse some of this public apathy and cynicism.

Tunisia: Tightening the Autocratic Screw

On November 7, 1987, immediately after the coup, President Ben Ali made a famous declaration promising democratic reform, national reconciliation and a constitutional change that would mandate presidential term limits. At first, he legalized numerous political parties, unmuzzled the press, and decreased the military's power. His regime welcomed the previously imprisoned Islamists from the al-Nahda party, giving them a seat on the High Islamic Council in charge of religious affairs, legalizing the party and its student union and releasing many al-Nahda activists from prison. Furthermore, one year after the coup and six months before the 1989 presidential election, all political parties, including al-Nahda, signed the national pact, a document of reconciliation intended to uphold democratic principles, plan for the 1989 multiparty elections and leave religion out of politics. (18) Many Western observers considered the 1988 national pact to be a strong foundation for multiparty liberal democratization, especially because it recalled the pacts that had brought together soft and hardliners in Latin America and Southern Europe in the name of democratic transition in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ben Ali's initial political opening soon slammed shut, however. In the 1989 elections, though the ruling Rassemblement Democratique Constitutionale (RCD) won the majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the Islamists came in second, garnering approximately 20 percent of the votes (though some estimate much more). Concerned about the Islamists' show of strength, Ben Ali reversed his previously flexible attitude toward them. He began sending Islamists back to jail and in 1990 banned al-Nahda as a terrorist organization and sent its leader, Rachid Ghannouschi, to jail and then to exile.

The Islamists were only the first members of the political opposition targeted by Ben Ali. Today, the RCD and the Ben Ali regime have achieved total political hegemony, thereby weakening or obliterating all possible opponents. While there are nine legal political parties besides the RCD, these opposition parties together compete for only 20 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies. They are weak and divided, and the state often deliberately restricts their funding and campaigning. Most civil-society organizations, including the once powerful and independent UGTT union, have been co-opted by the RCD as state enterprises. The government claims there are 8,000 NGOs active in Tunisia, but only four or five are genuinely nongovernmental. (19) Their activities are deliberately hampered by the state through legal restrictions, such as the necessity of applying to the Ministry of Interior for permits to hold meetings (permits are given out sparingly). The Tunisian Human-Rights League (LTDH), the oldest human-rights organization in the Arab world, still exists, for example; but it has no offices and rarely plans activities. It is too busy fighting the 34 civil-court cases the government has indirectly filed against it. The press is entirely state-run; Tunisia ranked 148 out of 168 countries in the 2006 Reporters Without Borders annual ranking of press freedom worldwide, in the same category as the most repressive states in the world, such as Cuba, China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. (20) Individuals who dare speak out about political oppression, such as Zouhair Yahyaoui or lawyer Muhammad Abbo, end up in jail, while journalists who publish critiques of the government routinely lose their email access and their licenses. (21) Internet use is tightly monitored. Internet cafes are under police surveillance, and the Ministry of Interior filters web content and blocks over 10 percent of web sites, including web pages dealing with Tunisia on the sites of international human-rights groups such as Amnesty International or Human-Rights Watch. (22) By contrast, the Internet remains uncensored in Morocco and Mauritania, and in both countries the political opposition (including illegal Islamist groups) actively uses the web to spread their messages. (23)

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Ben Ali's coup, initiated in the name of democratic reform. Since 1989, he has retreated from all of his earlier promises, most egregiously in 2002, when he once again amended the constitution, this time eliminating the three-term presidential limit that he himself had mandated in 1987. The authoritarianism of Ben Ali, enabled by the total dominance of the RCD over Tunisian political life, is no longer surprising. It remains enigmatic, however, why Tunisians have not protested the erosion of their freedoms, particularly their right to free press, speech and association to which they were accustomed in the 1970s and 1980s.


Many policy makers and academics once subscribed to Seymour Martin Lipset's 1959 observation that "the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chance that it will sustain democracy." Yet the opposite notion--of an inverse relationship between economic development and democracy--offers a more convincing explanation for the North African democratization trajectories. Lipset primarily observed a correlation: indicators such as average wealth, the degree of industrialization and urbanization, and the level of education were much higher in democratic countries. (24) Many liberal development institutions tend to infer a causal link as well, taking Lipset's and subsequent "modernization theories" one step further. The policies of the World Bank, USAID, and NGOs, for example, reflect the belief that economic development and. growth might facilitate democratization. More recently, diverse policy makers and pundits--ranging from the regional authors of the Arab Human Development Report of 2002 to the officials of the Bush administration who created the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI)--have espoused a corollary to the modernization thesis Rather than focusing exclusively on economic development, this recent version posits that the direct effects of economic development--such as literacy and the advancement of women--encourage democratization. (25)

Socioeconomic conditions today in Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia challenge Lipset's assumed positive correlation between economic wealth and democratization. Democratic Mauritania is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of $2,600 and 51 percent of the population living in poverty. (26) Morocco's GDP per capita at $4,600 is not much higher. Tunisia, however, has a GDP per capita of $8,800 and has graduated from most IMF and USAID assistance. (27) Moreover, the modernization thesis regarding the social effects of economic wealth also does not accurately predict these three countries' democratization progress. In Morocco, 47 percent of adults age 15 and above are illiterate, with women's illiteracy rates on average 60 percent. (28) In Mauritania, adult illiteracy rates are 56 percent for women and 40 percent for men. (29) In Tunisia, illiteracy rates are less than 26 percent. (30) Similarly, women in Tunisia are the most advanced in the Arab world in terms of their legal rights (to divorce, to inherit, to own property) and their educational and professional achievement (more than 50 percent of Tunisian university graduates are women). The social and economic rights of Moroccan and Mauritanian women lag far behind. (31)

Echoing the prevailing academic critiques of modernization theory, many Tunisian dissidents now directly blame the state's economic success for the persistence of authoritarianism. (32) Most Tunisians, they lament, have acquiesced to a social bargain: in exchange for a middle-class lifestyle, social services, employment, land and real estate ownership--opportunities that Ben Ali sometimes dubs "economic rights"--most Tunisian citizens have accepted limited political rights. Moreover, Tunisia's educated and empowered women, rather than champions of democratization, are among the greatest defenders of a regime that has created myriad state-run organizations to address women's rights, health, education and advancement. Many women are more loyal to Ben All now than they were 10 years ago, and much more reticent to push for any democratic opening, particularly elections that might usher in illiberal and non-secular political forces.

By contrast, the poverty and unemployment rampant in Morocco might actually contribute to the momentum of opposition political forces. In the 1980s and 1990s, economic discontent triggered the periodic civil unrest that forced King Hassan to make his greatest political concessions, such as amending the constitution, calling for elections and releasing political prisoners. Today, economic and social ills such as unemployment and illiteracy galvanize civil society. One of the most salient symbols of the freedom of expression in Morocco is the daily demonstration that occurs in front of the Parliament in downtown Rabat, where hundreds of university graduates can be found on most afternoons peacefully protesting the dearth of high-skilled jobs. In short, weak economic development creates dissatisfaction with the status quo, important for challenging authoritarianism. (33)

If there is an authoritarian social contract sustaining Ben Ali's regime in Tunisia and preventing society from demanding greater freedom, it is entirely dependent on the state's continued economic success. Any economic downturn could undermine the current acquiescence of Tunisians, as well as the loyalty of the elite allies of the regime, to the autocratic state. Tunisia has experienced a limited economic decline since September 11, but today the greatest concern of most Tunisians is rising unemployment, estimated to have reached an unprecedented 20 percent. It is too soon to tell whether popular discontent over unemployment might upset Ben Ali's rule. (34)


A second explanation challenges the conventional view that ethnic or national unity must always exist as a precondition for democratization. (35) Academics and policy makers treat ethnic heterogeneity warily, considering multinationalism an impediment to democratization. (36) Yet in Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia, the conventional logic about democratic transitions in multinational states does not hold. While Tunisians descend from a combination of Berbers, Europeans, Arabs and other Mediterranean people, today the country's population is mostly homogeneous, comprising Arab Muslims. (37) In Morocco and Mauritania, the population is less ethnically homogenous, and both states have recently experienced ethnic tensions and violence. In Morocco, for example, the Alawite kings, including King Hassan, had violently suppressed Berber revolts for the past 200 years. (38) Until recently, the state's policy of co-opting and assimilating Berbers made it illegal to teach the Berber language (Tamazight) in the public schools or to give identity cards to children with Berber names, though Berber speakers represent approximately 35 percent of the population. In Mauritania, as noted above, there are three main blocs of ethnic/racial groups, with a long history of ethnic oppression by Arab-Berbers since French colonial rule. Even within the black African population, the largest ethnic groups--the Haalpulaar, Soninke and Wolof--each have their own distinct language and ethnic background.

Today, however, in both Morocco and Mauritania, advancing ethnic and minority rights has become a key civil-society issue ranking at the top of the democratization agenda. In Morocco, the Berber-rights movement is peacefully lobbying the state and mobilizing constituents. It has recently succeeded in winning concessions, such as the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture, which King Mohammed VI established in 2001, and the recent agreement to teach Tamazight in public schools. (39) Many Moroccan democracy activists predict the king's next revision of the constitution might be triggered by Berber demands for constitutionally enshrined linguistic rights. (40)

In Mauritania, despite continued inequalities between the Arab-Berber Moors and the black Africans, as well as inequalities within both groups of citizens, the country's ethnic diversity might explain how strong multipartiysm survived decades of military dictatorship. During the 21 years of Taya's rule, most of the opposition parties were periodically banned; yet, within months of the 2005 coup, 29 parties began organizing, ready to contest the parliamentary elections of 2006. This endurance of multipartyism during a dictatorship contrasts sharply with Tunisia, where after 20 years of Ben Ali and RCD dominance, even if flee multiparty parliamentary elections were held today, the ruling RCD party would still win in a landslide. No other party would be able to compete in terms of resources, name recognition and professionalism.

Many Mauritanian parties are built loosely along ethnic lines, and therefore, because of these cleavages, party identification reflects real, divergent interests. (41) Though the Arab Mauritanian minority has long been overrepresented among the political elite, the fact that no one ethnic group represents a majority creates a system that fosters political deliberation, bargaining and coalition building. The ethnic splits necessitate vote trading and compromise within the Parliament. Mauritanian activists are still concerned that the new president, Abdallahi, and his party come from the same pro-Army elite and ethnic group as that of Taya's junta. Yet, during the presidential debates, the rights of black ethnic groups emerged as the key campaign issue, as each candidate pandered to the black vote. In general, Mauritania's recent democratic experiment suggests that ethnic rifts, rather than always impeding democratic institution building, might be able to sustain strong multipartyism. If the institutions offer different groups electoral incentives to forge political alliances that cut across cultural lines, ethnic conflict can be mitigated and diverse groups forced to compromise during the democratic transition. (42)


Recent research suggests that different types of autocratic regimes might have dissimilar propensities for democratization. Statistical analyses of the longevity of military, single-party and personalist regimes worldwide, for example, reveal that each regime ideal-type has a different average life span. Military regimes are governed by an officer supported by the military establishment, which in turn often influences policy. Such regimes last on average only 8.5 years. (Taya beat the average with a 21-year rule.) Personalist regimes, where one man consolidates power over the policy-making and the security apparatus, marginalizing the military and any one party, survive on average for 15 years. In single-party regimes, one main party influences policy, controls political access and government jobs and is represented by local-level organizations. Single-party regimes are the longest lasting, surviving on average 24 years. Of course, most real authoritarian regimes represent a hybrid of these types, including Ben Ali's Tunisia, which could be characterized today as a hybrid single-party and personalist system.

What accounts for these divergent average longevities? As Barbara Geddes has argued, one explanation is that there are institutional differences among autocracies in terms of the conflict-resolution abilities of the elites, the different factions that have a stake in the regime. For example, when disagreements emerge among military elites in power, they tend to be less inclined to resolve them. Because they have equal access to instruments of force, one group might try to topple the other when conflict between rival factions becomes intense. Therefore, splits within the military often lead to the demise of a military regime. Col. Vail decided to overthrow President (and former Colonel) Taya, for example, despite once-close relationships between the two military officers. (44) Sometimes the old regime is simply replaced by a new military one, which is why so many were skeptical of the MCJD's promise in 2005 that it would oversee a democratic transition. Yet sometimes splits among the ruling military elite foster democratic transitions, as the experiences of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina demonstrate. (45)

In single-party regimes such as Tunisia's, by contrast, the omnipotent party dominates access to political office and controls policy making and patronage. Therefore, rival factions exist less frequently (most of the powerful elites are loyalists of the dominant party), and, where factions exit, there is a greater incentive to resolve conflict and for everyone to hold on to power rather than to defect. In Tunisia, for example, if differences arise among members of the ruling party, there are no tangible benefits to leaving the party and forming a new one. Instead, the relevant elites in the RCD try to negotiate. Therefore, while internal splits often undermine military juntas and lead to regime change, internal differences almost never break apart a dominant one-party regime.

In personalist regimes such as King Mohammed's Morocco, access to power, such as through ministerial appointments, depends on the discretion of an individual leader. Neither the military nor any one party exercises independent decision-making authority. The whims of the ruler prevail, and this individual or family seems to sit above the petty squabbling. Most elites who want power find themselves currying favor with the ruler. Factionalization does occur in personalist regimes such as monarchies, but typically it is the ruler himself who is strategically encouraging competition among opposition parties to keep them weak and divided. (46) King Hassan notoriously played different parties off against each other, even creating a new pro-regime conservative party, the Mouvement Populaire (MP), for example, when it was necessary to balance the increasingly popular leftist parties . (47)

Thus, while splits within the military account for Mauritania's coup--and therefore its democratic transition--new military splits could yet emerge to threaten the fledgling democracy. Until the military is legally and institutionally subservient to civilian control, the country's new democracy is still extremely vulnerable. (48) Therefore, the new Mauritanian government's top priority should be to institute strong civilian checks on the military.


It is also possible that international democratization pressures affected Mauritania and Morocco, while failing to pressure Ben Ali. The Bush administration is the most recent in a series of international actors that have fleetingly focused on democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Have recent U.S. policies, the Bush administration's so-called "Freedom Agenda," made a difference in North Africa? Most recent assessments of the Bush administration's efforts in the region from 2002 to 2005 suggest that these policies have led to elections that brought illiberal forces to power, have unintentionally strengthened the autocratic state, or have had little effect. (49) Yet a comparison among the recent U.S. democratization policies toward Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia reveals that how the United States government pushes democratization in the region might be more important than whether it is a top priority. United States democracy-promotion policies typically combine two components. Top-level diplomatic pressures on government officials are coupled with foreign assistance toward local democrats, typically opposition parties and civil-society organizations such as women's-rights groups human-rights groups, and independent journalists. The following section demonstrates the divergence in the Bush administration's democratization strategies toward the Mauritanian, Moroccan and Tunisian regimes.

Mauritania's Colonel Taya had been an ally of the Bush administration, particularly after September 11, 2001, when he agreed to cooperate on counterterrorism. Encouraging democracy in Mauritania had never been a top U.S. priority, and there was neither a USAID mission in Nouakchott nor much foreign assistance allotted for democracy and governance in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (50) Upon Taya's being deposed in August 2005, the White House--in a terse two-line press release--condemned the coup and called for the peaceful return of the Taya government, echoing statements by Kofi Annan (51) and other world leaders. At the time, most countries perceived the MCJD's promises to oversee a democratic transition as empty rhetoric and therefore responded by isolating the transitional government through late 2005 and into 2006. Ironically, this isolation, particularly by the U.S. government, might have actually augmented the popularity and credibility of the transitional government in the eyes of the Mauritanian public. Many perceived the democratic transition as free from foreign interference, a truly local initiative. Moreover, because many in the Arab world are skeptical of democracy when it is encouraged by the distrusted Bush administration, American disapproval of the Vail transitional government might have ironically bolstered its populist credentials.

By 2006, the Bush administration increasingly warmed up to Vail and his progressive democratization. First, democracy-promotion NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which claims nongovernmental status but is heavily subsidized by Congress, was sent to Nouakchott on technical assessment trips. In spring 2006, NDI opened a facility in Nouakchott to serve political parties, offering them a neutral venue to share information, network, and access resources such as high-speed computers, reference libraries and photocopying services) (52) Other international NGOs soon followed, and for the first time, the United Nations sent $12 million to assist in the election preparations. (53) By late 2006 and early 2007, as the MCJD continued to meet the deadlines it had set for the country's democratic transition, the U.S. government changed course and actively, though quietly, supported the transitional government. On April 19, 2007, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte led a delegation of Bush administration officials to President Abdallahi's swearing-in ceremony?(54) Surprisingly, neither the Bush administration in speeches nor Congress through resolutions publicly lauded the democratic transition nor took any credit for its success.

In Mauritania, U.S.-funded civil-society as well as diplomatic support for the transitional government only kicked in once the transition was underway. The United States helped Col. Vail and his junta stick to their timeline and confront the technical challenges of planning elections in an illiterate, impoverished and fractious nation. The U.S. democracy-promotion approach toward Mauritania starkly contrasts to that exerted toward Morocco. The accession to the throne of the young, Western-educated Mohammed VI in 1999, as well as his initial wave of social and economic reforms, immediately attracted Washington's attention. When the Bush administration began to focus on democratization in the Arab world, Morocco's new king offered a possible poster child. Between 2002 and 2005, democratization and governance funding from USAID, the newly established MEPI and the multilateral Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, poured into the kingdom. (55) In fact, after only two years, Morocco, dubbed the "MEPI test case," received over $20 million from this new account, among the most of any regional state and far more than either Tunisia or Mauritania. (56) The funding supported women's-rights groups, local NGOs, political-party training programs, and initiatives aimed at strengthening the parliament and judiciary. (57) Moreover, the Bush administration publicly lavished praise on Mohammed VI for his reform-minded and heaped tangible rewards on the state. In 2004, the United States designated Morocco as a major non-NATO ally and signed a prized free-trade agreement (FTA), the first such bilateral FTA ratified with an Arab ally. Morocco's champions in Washington were so busy celebrating King Mohammed VI's aura of reform that they failed to immediately notice that his social policies, such as liberalizing women's and Berber rights, and his liberal economic policies were not accompanied by equally dramatic political change. Some opposition activists lament that the chances of a constitutional change limiting the power of the monarchy remain unlikely. (58) Finally, Western democracy promoters have celebrated the recent explosion of the open Moroccan press, while keeping mum about continuing human-rights abuses, which often target Islamist opponents.

Whether intentionally or not, the United States has helped King Mohammed VI achieve near celebrity status as a modern North African Arab reformer. Given the international benefit of the doubt, the king now has wide latitude, ironically, to stop or attenuate his reform experiment. With the Mauritanian democrats, the United States demanded results before praise. In Morocco, however, it has gushingly praised the Moroccan monarch without demanding political change. Moreover, some of the king's liberal social and economic reforms that are heavily subsided by the United States, such as the recently changed personal-status code, might advance liberal ideals but also strengthen the monarchy. Because liberalization and democratization are not always mutually reinforcing, social and economic reforms in Morocco can paradoxically "de-democratize." Such reforms increase the gaps in power, prestige and credibility between the monarchy and putative democratic challengers.

While the timing and method of U.S. democracy-promotion strategies toward Mauritania and Morocco differ, in Tunisia, despite all the Freedom Agenda rhetoric, the Bush administration is mostly resigned to persistent authoritarianism. Most Western diplomats believe that the Tunisian state and its allies (the elites, the RCD officials and technocrats) are so self-confident in their dominance that they are impervious, beyond the reach of any international democratization pressures. Even threatening Western sanctions that could hurt Tunisia's booming international trade, they argue, could not weaken Ben Ali's tight-fisted rule. (59) Because of the perceived futility of democratization efforts (and also Ben Ali's counterterrorism cooperation), attempts to push Ben Ali to reform are sporadic and half-hearted. For example, in one rare instance, when Ben Ali visited the White House in 2005, President Bush publicly criticized the lack of press freedoms in Tunisia. (60) The speech never reached Tunisians, however, as the government-controlled press spun the visit as unequivocal American support for the Tunisian head of state, leaving out this critique. (61) Other states with closer ties to Tunis have been even more derelict in promoting political reform. When Jacques Chirac visited Tunisia, he proclaimed that since "the most important human rights are the rights to be fed, to have health, to be educated, and to be housed," Tunisia's human-rights record is "very advanced." In other words, Chirac not only articulated but also affirmed Ben Ali's social bargain. (62) International democratization NGOs are not welcome in Tunisia, and MEPI and other foreign-government democratization initiatives typically focus on economic projects. Most Western states have thrown up their hands and called democracy efforts in Tunisia futile, but the futility is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The shocking dearth of international democracy promotion or pressure on the Tunisian regime disempowers the few remaining political dissidents. A handful of opposition leaders are willing to brave the plainclothes police and the risk of illegal detention to start blogs and web sites and publish underground newspapers critical of the state. Many of these activists are quick to criticize international--especially American--concern with democratization as inconsistent and hypocritical. Yet they will also admit that the absence of any significant foreign interest noticeably weakens their cause, as well as further ostracizes them. Moreover, the absence of international NGOs such as NDI and its partner, the International Republican Institute, and the technical assistance and training that they typically offer opposition groups, perpetuate the uneven playing field. Because the RCD and the state infrastructure control so much of society, independent voices and groups are desperately in need of technical support, funding, and training, as well as encouragement to boost their morale.


Finally, looming above all other explanations for democratization outcomes is a more obvious truism, often resisted by social scientists but embraced by historians: "great men" can irrevocably change politics. Committed individuals or groups might be necessary engines for democratic transitions. Such individuals could be ideologically committed to democratic and liberal ideals. It could be that Col. Vall of Mauritania is such a rare leader, someone who genuinely believes in the alternation and contestation of political power. Explaining the new clauses inserted into the June 2006 constitution that took particular precaution against authoritarian presidents, Col. Vall publicly condemned familial secession. "If the president remains in power for 18, 20 or 30 years and plans to pass his position on to his son or another person of his choice, this would be personal power and a way of ruling that does not take into account the interest of the country or its citizens.'' (63) Despite his long history of supporting military rule, Col. Vall might have changed his opinion and come to believe in the alternation of power.

More often, the intentions of the "great men" behind democratic transitions are less noble. Individuals or elite groups might decide strategically that democracy is the best of all alternative systems and will further their political and material interests. Likewise, individual leaders reach the opposite conclusion. President Ben Ali might have come into office with genuine intentions to liberalize and oversee a gradual democratization path. Yet, as a novice politician confronting political opposition for the first time, he might have considered autocracy a safer and easier means of ensuring power. Moreover, during the course of his tenure, Ben Ali's own fortunes and those of his supporters have grown, while his public legitimacy has diminished. The longer he waits to democratize and pluralize, the less likely it will be personally advantageous to himself or to the ruling RCD party. The rampant corruption during his 20-year rule increases his fear about his own future, including possible legal problems as an ex-president, thus further encouraging him to stay in office as long as possible. (64)


The above analysis challenges conventional views, pointing to more subtle factors that might facilitate or hinder democratization. The North African cases discussed here--and each country's surprising democratization outcome since 1987--offer lessons to those interested in promoting democratization, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. First, while stable and consistent economic development might sustain authoritarian legitimacy, a relative decline in economic conditions might provoke mass demand for change targeted against the regime. To Ben Ali, buying society's complacency through sustained economic wealth might be a clever short-term strategy, but it might also someday be his downfall.

Second, ethnic and linguistic diversity need not always stymie democratization. Confronting multinationalism with political institutions such as multipartyism and constitutionally enshrined minority rights can advance liberal democratic ideals. A new Moroccan constitution making Berber a national language might set a precedent for protecting minority rights, while vote-trading among ethnic blocs in the Mauritanian parliament might force greater cooperation across deeply divided groups.

Third, waiting for an autocratic regime to self-destruct is much more realistic when confronting a military dictatorship. By contrast, counting on internal factions to emerge from within a personalist or a one-party state might be an unrealistic democratization strategy.

Finally, if outside actors want to encourage democratization in the Arab world, they might be more effective if they wait until a democratic transition is in the offing and then offer low-profile technical advice and support. Too much Western public support for democratic reformers might actually impede their progress, undermine their legitimacy or give them a free pass to liberalize without democratizing.

The above comparison among the 20-year democratization trajectories in Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia might seem artificial. These are different states, with dissimilar histories, geographic and demographic sizes, and types of rulers. Yet the regimes of the region are themselves making comparisons similar to those offered here. The non-r semi-democratic states of the Arab world and Africa are cautiously observing each other's experiences with democratization. In the 1990s, for example, the North African regimes all uneasily eyed Algeria, worried about the spillover effects, first from its brief democratization experiment and then from its vicious decade of bloodshed. Now North African leaders are curiously monitoring one another's domestic politics, such as the PJD's fate in Morocco. Of course, regimes in the Middle East and North Africa are more interested in mimicking their neighbors' strategies when it comes to preserving, rather than sharing, power. Thus, the Mauritanian experience is not likely to set off a copy-cat effect. Nevertheless, if the past two decades are any guide, the next 20 years offer the possibility of unforeseeable prospects for democracy in the region.

(1) Lisa Anderson's early optimism about the 1988 Tunisian pact exemplifies these academic views. See her article, "Political Pacts, Liberalism, and Democracy: The Tunisian National Pact of 1988," Government and Opposition, Vol.26, No. 2 (1991), pp. 244-60. To her credit, she subsequently revised her earlier position, most notably in Lisa Anderson, "Politics in the Middle East: Opportunities and Limits in the Quest for Theory," in Mark Tessler, Jodi Nachtwey and Anne Banda, Area Studies and Social Science: Strategies for Understanding Middle East Politics (Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 1-10.

(2) Suleiman Gouda, Al-Masri Al-Yawm, April 21, 2007.

(3) This definition of democratization is taken from Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (Yale University Press, 1991).

(4) "Mauritania," Human Rights Watch Report, 1989,

(5) "Mauritania: Q and A," Coalition against Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan, American Friends Service Committee, 1998, See also "Mauritania Still Practising Slavery," BBC News, November. 7, 2002.

(6) "Military Coup in Mauritania," Guardian Unlimited, August. 3, 2005.

(7) "The Mauritanian Case," Business Day, March 30, 2007.

(8) Ibid. Acknowledging the country's diversity, the candidates spoke both in Arabic and French in a gesture to the Black African community.

(9) "Mauritania: Landmark Presidential Elections," Africa Research Bulletin: Political Social and Cultural Series Vol. 44, Issue 3 (April 2007), p. 16995A.

(10) Hadmine Ould Sadi, "Mauritania's First Freely Elected President Takes Office," Agence France Presse, April 19, 2007.

(11) "Mauritania: Landmark Presidential Elections," op. cit.

(12) Michael M. Laskier, "A Difficult Inheritance: Moroccan Society under King Mohammed VI," Middle East Review of International Affairs Vol. 7, No. 3 (September 2003), pp. 1-20.

(13) OMDH, Observations de l'Organisation marocaine des droits de l'homme au sujet du rapport gouvernemental au Comite des droits de l'homme des Nations-Unis (Rabat: Editions maghreBenes, 1990), p. 87.

(14) U.S. Senate, Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, Report to Congress 101-131, September18, 1989, pp. 47-48.

(15) "Morocco's Truth Commission: Honoring Past Victims during an Uncertain Present," Human Rights Watch, Vol. 17, No. 11 (2005).

(16) See Driss Bennani, "Affaires. Majidi dans l'oeil du cyclone," TelQuel, July 7, 2007; and Hassan Hamdani and Fahd Iraqi, "L'empire Akhennouch," TelQuel, June 29, 2007.

(17) See, for example, Nadia Lamlili, "Virginite. Est-ce encore un tabou? TelQuel, August. 3, 2007.

(18) Aziz Enhaili and Oumelkheir Adda, "State and Islamism in the Maghreb," Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 7, No. 1 (March 2003), p. 73.

(19) Personal Interview, Ministry of Women, Children, and Family Affairs (MAFFE), May 14, 2007, Tunis; and Personal Interview, Moktar Trifi, President, Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), May 23, 2007, Tunis.

(20) "Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2006," Reporters without Borders, rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=639.

(21) "U.S. Concerned over Harassment of Tunisian Political Activists," Current Issues, U.S. State Department International Information Programs, April 4, 2006.

(22) Tayeb Mali, "Fukku al-Riqaba 'an al-Internet!" ("End Censorship of the Internet!") al-Mawqif, January 1999. In 2005, in preparation for the UN World Summit on the Information Society, held in Tunis, the Open Net Initiative (ONI) tested 1923 sites from within Tunisia and found 187 (10 percent) blocked.

(23) The only web sites in either Morocco or Mauritania that have been repeatedly blocked by the authorities are those of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the Western Sahara. See "Morocco," The Initiative for an Open Arab Internet,

(24) Seymour Martin Lipset, "Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 53, No. 1 (March 1959): pp. 69-105.

(25) Steven Fish, "Islam and Authoritarianism," World Politics, Vol. 55, No. 1 (October 2002): pp. 4-37.

(26) "Mauritania," The World Factbook, CIA, and "Mauritania: President Calls on Nation to Pray for Rain," IRIN Humanitarian News, United Nation Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, August. 1 2007.

(27) "Tunisia: Background Note," "Morocco: Background Note," and "Mauritania: Background Note," U.S. Department of State, updated June 2007.

(28) "Morocco: Data and Statistics on Gender," The World Bank web site, 2005 figures.

(29) "Mauritania: Data and Statistics on Gender," The World Bank web site, 2005 figures.

(30) "Tunisia: Data and Statistics on Education," The World Bank web site, 2005 figures.

(31) For the past five years, there have been more female graduates of institutions of higher education in Tunisia than males. Even with the recent Moroccan reforms of the personal-status code, Moroccan women's legal and social rights lag far behind those of Tunisian women. Polygamy, outlawed in Tunisia in 1956, two years after independence, is still prevalent in Morocco and Mauritania.

(32) The recent democratization literature shows that if governments manage the economy well over the long term, regime allies remain loyal and citizens supportive or at least acquiescent to the status quo. As the level of development rises, authoritarian regimes become more stable. See, for example, Adam Przeworski et al., Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-90, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), and John Benedict Londregan, "Does High Income Promote Democracy? World Politics, Vol. 49, No. 1 (October 1996), pp. 1-30.

(33) This finding is consistent with that of Londregan (1996), who finds that the best predictor of coups, in both democratic and authoritarian regimes, is poverty. This finding is inconsistent with the idea that the citizens of more affluent countries are more likely to demand democratization.

(34) A historical overview of the liberal democratic reforms initiated by Arab leaders since 1970 suggests that economic crises have been the most important triggers of real regime concessions. This is true both in monarchies, such as Jordan, where King Hussein called for free elections in 1989, and in dictatorships, such as Algeria, where President Chadli initiated reforms in 1988-89.

(35) Dankart Rustow famously pointed to only one precondition necessary for democratization--national unity. See "Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model," Comparative Politics, Vol. 2, No. 3 (April 1970), pp. 337-363.

(36) See, for example, Jack Snyder, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict (Norton, 2002).

(37) There are some distinct Berber communities in the south of the country. President Bourguiba deliberately tried to instil this sense of cultural homogeneity.

(38) Daniel Byman, "Forever Enemies? The Manipulation of Ethnic Identities to End Ethnic Wars," Security Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2000).

(39) "Morocco's King Sets Up Berber Institute," BBC News, October 18, 2001.

(40) Personal Interview, Berber rights activist, Rabat, Morocco, July 6, 2007.

(41) According to an election monitor from the National Democratic Institute, the presidential candidates went so far as to cross over the border into Senegal to register refugee Mauritanian voters and to appeal across ethnic lines.

(42) For the academic argument that ethnic parties can sustain a democratic system if they are institutionally encouraged, see Kanchan Chandra, "Ethnic Parties and Democratic Stability," Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 3, Issue 2, (June 2005), pp. 235-252. For examples of cross-cutting cleavages that augment moderation among ethnic groups, see Daniel L. Horowitz, "Ethnic Conflict Management for Policymakers," in Conflict and Peacemaking in Multiethnic Societies, ed. Joseph V. Montville (Lexington Press, 1990), pp. 115-130.

(43) Data set includes authoritarian regimes that lasted three or more years between 1946 and 2000 in countries existing prior to 1990 with a population of more than one million. The above research relied on a data set that eliminated monarchies, thus making the averages less relevant to some Middle East and North African cases. See Barbara Geddes, "Authoritarian Breakdown," Working Paper, UCLA, January 2004.

(44) Vall and Taya had,--ironically--once worked together to overthrow the Daddah regime in 1978.

(45) Ibid. See also Stephen Haggard and Robert Kaufman, The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions (Princeton University Press, 1995).

(46) Geddes (2004) and Juan Linz and H. E. Chehabi, eds., Sultanistic Regimes (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

(47) Personal Interview, Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) party official, July 9, 2005, Rabat, Morocco.

(48) Some analysts are concerned with the power and influence of Colonel Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, given that he is the only member of the Junta who holds a position of power in the new government; he is both the head of the Presidential Guard and the president's Military Chief of Staff, answering only to President Cheikh Abdallahi and not to Parliament.

(49) Stephen Knack, "Does Foreign Aid Promote Democracy? International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 48, Issue 1 (March 2004), pp. 251-266; and Tamara Cofman Wittes and Sarah E. Yerkes, "The Middle East Partnership Initiative: Progress, Problems, and Prospects," Saban Center Middle East Memo, No. 5, Brookings Institution, November 29, 2004.

(50) "USAID Assistance to Mauritania," USAID Fact Sheet, July 25, 2001,

(51) See Tom Casey, acting spokesperson, "Coup Attempt in Mauritania," Press Statement, U.S. Department of State, August 3, 2005 and "Mauritanian Officers Seize Power," BBC News, Augustust 4, 2005.

(52) "Middle East and North Africa: Mauritania," National Democratic Institute web site,

(53) "MENA Election Guide: Mauritania," Konrad Adenaner Stiftung,

(54) "Presidential Delegation to Attend Inauguration of His Excellency Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, president-elect of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania," White House Press Release, April 11, 2007. http://

(55) Marina S. Ottaway and Meredith Riley, "Morocco: From Top-Down Reform to Democratic Transition," Carnegie Paper No. 71, Carnegie Endowment, October 2006.

(56) "Morocco and MEPI," Middle East Partnership Initiative fact sheet, U.S. Embassy Rabat, Morocco, http:/ /

(57) "MEPI in Morocco," Middle East Partnership Initiative web site, mepi_morocco.html.

(58) Personal Interviews, Faculty of Law and Political Science, Mohammed V University, Agdal Rabat, June 20-July 13, 2007.

(59) Personal Interviews, officials from the U.S., French, and Canadian Embassies, Tunis, Tunisia, May 7-25, 2007.

(60) "President Bush Meets with President of Tunisia," White House Press Release, February 18, 2004. http://

(61) Neila Charchour Hachicha, "Tunisia's Election Was Undemocratic at All Levels," Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3 (summer 2005).

(62) For an account of this remark, see Anne Applebaum, "So Farewell Then Jacques Chirac," Slate, May 8, 2007.

(63) "Mauritania's Constitutional Elections," BBC News, June 23, 2006.

(64) Among the illiberal changes Ben Ali made to the Tunisian constitution in 2002 is a provision granting former presidents judicial immunity. This change, as well as the elimination of three-term presidential limit, suggests that Ben Ali fears his personal fate after he leaves the presidency.

Ms. Hochman, a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University, is conducting field research in North Africa. She is a former foreign-affairs adviser in the United States Senate.
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Author:Hochman, Dafna
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Date:Dec 22, 2007
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