Are Arabs Fit for Democracy?

Khalil al-Anani
Khalil al-Anani Senior Fellow - Arab Center Washington DC

August 12, 2008

A year and a half ago Mauritania witnessed the first free democratic elections in the Arab world. This was not only because there was real competition between more than one candidate, but also because it came after a military coup led by Ould Mohamed Fal that ended the rule of former Mauritanian President Maaouiya Ould Taya, and Fal was committed to achieving the first peaceful democratic transition in the country.

Less than two weeks ago, Mauritania witnessed another military coup led by Mohamed Ould Abdel-Aziz, ousting elected President Mohamed Ould Abdullahi, in a move that was unexpected by even the pessimists inside and outside Mauritania.

The question many of my American friends are asking is: Are the Arabs really fit for democratic rule?

What happened in Mauritania, and is happening in other Arab countries, raises questions about Arab faith in democracy as the only guarantee of political balance, social satisfaction and economic welfare.

Democracy is definitely not just about ballot boxes, election campaigns, advertisements and competition among candidates. It is essentially a political culture taking root in society through daily practice in all facets of life, ranging from education facilities to government performance. It is not just ‘coffee’ prepared and given to people overnight, but is rather a long-term process that needs continuous and gradual steps in order to bear fruit.

For example, Europe reached democracy after centuries of civil wars. The same also took place in the United States, which experienced a four-year civil war between the north and the south which was spurred by a genuine democratic goal to liberate slaves in the southern states, as Abraham Lincoln, who was the head of the northern states, announced the “Emancipation Proclamation.”

The military coup in Mauritania is a good example of Arab societies’ need for radical reform, not just analgesics and partial reforms. Mauritania had not held any genuine elections since 2007; the rotation of power took place through military coups, five of which took place since Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960.

Ironically some Mauritanians have supported the recent coup, as though they were declaring their rejection of democracy and their backing for military rule.

Some may not be interested in what is going on in Mauritania on the grounds that it is a marginal country located on the outskirts of the African continent, but it certainly reflects an ailing Arab culture.

The African countries neighboring Mauritania hold periodic elections, which may not be ideal, but we have not heard about military coups in these countries.

What happened in Mauritania makes us rethink the call for democratic transition in the Arab world, before a cultural, social and value revolution paving the way for a sound democracy without fear of coups like what happened in Mauritania.