The presidential guard in Mauritania, an
impoverished Islamic nation in north-west Africa, seized power in a
coup yesterday, deposing president Sid Ahmed Taya, who was away at King Fahd’s funeral in Saudi Arabia.

Taya’s government had moved closer
to the US recently, supporting the “war on terror,” opening full
diplomatic ties with Israel and undertaking some economic
liberalisation. But in terms of political rights and civil liberties
things had been going backwards. According to the most recent Freedom
House report, the 2003 presidential elections “were held in an atmosphere of
intimidation and were not conducted fairly.”

We know from long
experience, however, that American indignation about dictatorship is
highly selective. A royalist coup in Nepal earlier this year, for
example, passed with only muted protest, since the king was seen to be
on “the right side” of what President Bush now calls the “global
struggle against violent extremism.”

Opposition to Taya, who has weathered a number
of coup attempts, seems to come mostly from Islamic
extremists angered by his policy changes. It’s not yet clear whether
yesterday’s coup can be attributed to this source, but many
fundamentalist movements across the Islamic world have gained strength,
ironically enough, by claiming to fight for political liberty
against authoritarian regimes.

Professor Michael Walzer, one of America’s most
distinguished political philosophers, spoke at Melbourne University
last night on “The Paradox of National Liberation” – specifically, how
nations liberated by avowedly secular movements (his examples were
India, Israel and Algeria) have subsequently fallen prey to religious
extremism. If Mauritania follows the same path, it may be that
America’s tolerance of rigged elections is more to blame than the
opening of an Israeli embassy.

Peter Fray

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