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On the periphery of the Arab world, a quiet revolution is taking place, one that is making waves across North Africa. Mauritania's citizens went to the polls late last month to vote for their leaders in what is being considered a free and fair election, and the president-elect, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, is set to take office later this month.
The path to this transition, from dictatorship to democracy, is surprising.
In 2005, while the then-president went to Saudi Arabia to attend the funeral of King Fahd, the military, headed by Colonel Ely Ould Muhammad Vall, staged a coup and took the country over. The ousted authoritarian leader, Colonel Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, had himself taken power in coup in 1984.
Normally, in the Arab world and the rest of the world alike, military regimes do not give up power, in spite of the populist statements and promises they freely issue to that effect. General Pervez Musharaf, in Pakistan, for example, has only tightened his grip over the country, its institutions and its people since his 1999 military coup.
However, in Mauritania, the military government was a genuine transitional government, which worked diligently on the democratization process it set up for the country. So diligently, in fact, that it is actually handing over power several months early.
This process in Mauritania, a geographically large country that has only three million citizens and remains a mostly politically insignificant entity - although this also may change due to the start of offshore oil production in 2006 - is having an impact on all those who support free and fair elections in North Africa.
Last month, protesters from the liberal Egyptian Kifaya movement went to a central square in Cairo and demanded that Hosni Mubarak, the president of the great Egyptian Republic which is the messenger of Arabism and revolution, liken the regime more to that of Mauritania, a country many Egyptians most likely do not even know belongs to the Arab League.
Those demonstrators were protesting the constitutional changes Mubarak has since implemented, changes the opposition claims will help Mubarak and his party, the NDP, tighten their grip on power, and set the stage for Gamal Mubarak, the prodigal son, to take over sometime in the near future.
Egypt, which was liberated from its monarchy by a military coup led Gamal Abdl Nasser and his Free Officers movement, will now become another family dynasty, many Egyptians from all ends of the political spectrum fear. Of course, Nasser and the military never relinquished power and the country remains something of a police state.
That Mauritania is the model for democratization is not only surprising, but may also be educational. On the outskirts of the world, without foreign intervention, without a fuss and without violence, a military coup has led to proper elections and a changing of the system.
Mauritania, which gained independence from France in 1960, is hardly the model liberal society from which real people's revolutions spring forward. Slavery only officially became illegal in 1981 and the practice is still said to exist in some parts of the country. Race problems between black Africans and Arabs are still prevalent. The country in general was a late bloomer and, for example, only joined the Arab League in the mid-1970s.
However, if this is the race of the tortoise and the hare, the winner is just like in the children's story.
From an Israeli perspective, the ousted dictator, Colonel Taya, was an ally, as he established full relations with the Jewish state in 1999, even as the Arab League and major Arab states frowned.
Those relations have remained steady, more or less, even during the turbulent years of the second intifada. The new leaders have not broken those ties, and while remaining vague did not say, as part of their campaign, that they would break contact with Tel Aviv.
The runner-up in the election, Ahmad Ould Daddah, for many years an opposition leader, by contrast, harshly criticized his government for establishing full relations with Israel in 1999.
Mauritania is the only Arab country, besides Egypt and Jordan, to have full diplomatic relations with Israel. It is still unclear whether the president-elect, Abdallahi, will change his country's stance on this issue after taking office.
It also remains to be seen what effect, if any, the elections will have on the plight of the Polisario in the Western Sahara, who are still struggling for self-determination and independence.
In all, the regime change is an event worth noticing. Analysts say it will be best if the West lets the new regime stabilize, without intervention, while simultaneously ensuring that other states, particularly some of Mauritania's neighbors, do not try to undo the democratic process. In the past, some of those neighbors have allegedly been involved in previous coups or attempted takeovers.
Abdallahi, who is set to take office later this month, and the people of Mauritania have formidable challenges ahead. This is not yet a perfect democracy or regime, analysts note, and much work is still needed to make sure this is not the same old system under a different name. However, a chance for change now exists - a change for the people and by the people.
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