In his first post-victory press conference Mauritanian President-elect Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdullahi called for a broadly inclusive national unity government. He will indeed need a great deal of support to face Mauritania's many political and economic challenges.
The Mauritanian elections, concluding in Abdullahi's second round victory on March 25, took on exceptional importance as the final step in the transitional phase the country has been in since the August 2005 overthrow of Ould Taya, who had held power since 1984. This transition included a new constitution issued in July 2006 that imposed a limit of two five-year terms for the president.
The resulting presidential election was distinguished by heated competition between ideologically distinct political forces as well as many independents, revealing the richness of the Mauritanian political arena. The elections also laid bare the division between two major camps nearly evenly dividing the political sphere. The first is that of the former regime, which supported President-elect Abdullahi, and the second consists of the former opposition forces, which stood behind the runner-up Ahmed Ould Dadah, an economist and brother of a former president. The first round's electoral results failed to give any of the nineteen candidates a winning majority, while the second round showdown between Abdullahi and Ahmed Ould Dadah ended with Abdullahi winning with 53 percent of the vote. Curiously, women did not play as prominent a role in the elections as they do in normal Mauritanian political life; two parties are headed by women and there are three female ministers in the current government.
Perhaps most encouraging was the high voter turnout: nearly 71 percent in the first round and 66 percent in the second, reflecting Mauritanians' confidence in the electoral process. Mauritanian and European observers gave the elections high marks for fairness. The African Union, which had suspended Mauritania's membership after the 2005 coup, readmitted the country on April 12.
Although the election was the final stage in the transition from coup to democracy, challenges abound to consolidating the election's success. The most urgent of these is building a national consensus on the priorities of the upcoming period. Mauritania has long suffered from internal division, and the current climate of political liberalization could bring unproductive political chaos. There is also the challenge of rebuilding Mauritanian society by the standards of a modern state, as it is still ruled by tribalism, provincialism, and patronage. The army's political role will remain an essential issue; although the army handed over power to civilians, there will still be questions over how meaningful the handover is, and whether the army will stay on the sidelines or intervene once again. Above all, Mauritania faces staggering economic challenges; recent statistics suggest that more than two-thirds of the population live in poverty.
Also looming over the Mauritanian experiment are fears about the newly-elected leadership. Undoubtedly the most important concern is that Taya's regime could return to power via democratic practices—meaning not so much the return of individuals from the former regime, but rather its practices, such as poor governance and financial corruption. Such fears are legitimate, given that Abdullahi attained power with support from a pro-Taya coalition. But for now, the new president begins his term with a surge of local and international good will.
Azza Galal Hashim is an Egyptian scholar. This article was translated from Arabic by Paul Wulfsberg.