Polity: Presidential-parliamentary democracy (military-influenced)
Population: 2,700,000
GNI/Capita: $1,609
Life Expectancy: 51
Religious Groups: N/A
Ethnic Groups: Mixed Maur/black (40 percent), Maur (30 percent), black (30 percent)
Capital: Nouakchott

Political Rights Score: 5
Civil Liberties Score: 5
Status: Partly Free

Ratings Change
Mauritania's political rights rating improved from 6 to 5, and its status changed from Not Free to Partly Free, following the holding of general elections with the participation of opposition parties.


Mauritania took a step towards political reform in October 2001 when it held municipal and national assembly elections that included a range of opposition parties. The European Union said the polls were smoothly organized and allowed for proper participation in an atmosphere of normalcy and democratic openness. However, the ruling Social Democratic Republican Party (PRDS) was the only party to present candidates in every constituency, and the electoral law was modified to ban independent candidates, whose seats mainly went to the PRDS. More than a dozen parties participated in the elections to choose 81 members of the national assembly. The PRDS won 64 assembly seats, and opposition parties won 17. In the municipal polls, the opposition won 15 percent of available posts, which is its strongest showing to date. Harassment of some members of the opposition, however, was reported earlier in the year. New York_based Human Rights Watch in June condemned what it said was ongoing repression of opposition parties and human rights activists in Mauritania.

After nearly six decades of French colonial rule, Mauritania's borders as an independent state were formalized in 1960. A 1978 military coup ended a civilian one-party state led by Moktaar Ould Daddah. He returned to Mauritania in 2001 after more than 20 years in exile. A 1984 internal purge installed Colonel Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya as junta chairman. In 1992, Ould Taya won the country's first, and deeply flawed, multiparty election. Ould Taya's PRDS ruled the country as a de facto one-party state after the main opposition parties boycotted national assembly elections in 1992 and 1996. The country's narrowly based authoritarian regime has gradually become liberalized, but most power remains in the hands of the president and a very small elite around him.

Mauritania's people include the dominant Beydane "white Maurs" of Arab extraction and Haratine "black Maurs" of African descent. Other, non-Muslim, black Africans inhabiting the country's southern frontiers along the Senegal River valley constitute approximately one-third of the population. For centuries, black Africans were subjugated and taken as slaves by both white and black Maurs. Slavery was outlawed in 1980, but remnants of servitude persist. Mauritania is one of the world's poorest countries. Its vast and mostly arid territory has few resources. Much of the country's wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite who control an economy based on iron ore exports and fishing.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Mauritanians for the first time in 2001 were permitted to exercise their constitutional right to choose their representatives in relatively open competitive elections. The absence of an independent election commission, state control of broadcasts, harassment of independent print media, and the incumbent's use of state resources to promote his candidacy devalued Ould Taya's presidential victories in 1992 and 1997. In deeply flawed 1996 legislative elections, the military-backed, ruling PRDS won all but seven national assembly seats against a divided opposition. The umbrella Front of Opposition Parties dismissed the polls as fraudulent and boycotted the second round of the 1996 legislative polls and the 1997 presidential vote.

Mauritania's judicial system is heavily influenced by the government. Many decisions are shaped by Sharia (Islamic law), especially in family and civil matters. Opposition leader Chebih Ould Cheikh Malainine, of the Popular Front, was convicted in June with two others on charges of conspiracy against the state and was sentenced to five years in prison. Defense lawyers withdrew from the case, a fair trail could not be expected. Amnesty International said established court procedures were flouted during the trial and evidence tendered by the police was obtained from the defendants under duress. Prison conditions in Mauritania are harsh.

Numerous nongovernmental organizations operate, including human rights and antislavery groups. A handful of black African activist groups and Islamist parties are banned. The banned El Hor (Free Man) Movement promotes black rights, while widespread discrimination against blacks continues. A few thousand blacks still live in conditions of servitude. A government campaign against the mainly black southern part of the country in the late 1980s culminated with a massive deportation of blacks to Senegal, and relations between the two countries remain strained.

Prepublication censorship, arrests of journalists, and seizures and bans of newspapers devalue constitutional guarantees of free expression. About 20 privately owned newspapers publish on a regular basis. All publications must be officially registered. The state owns the only two daily newspapers and monopolizes nearly all broadcast media. Independent publications openly criticize the government, but all publications must be submitted to the interior ministry prior to distribution. Authorities in June 2001 censored an issue of L'Eveil-Hebdo. Article 11 of the constitution forbids dissemination of reports deemed to "attack the principles of Islam or the credibility of the state, harm the general interest, or disturb public order and security." Mauritania is an Islamic state in which, by statute, all citizens are Sunni Muslims who may not possess other religious texts or enter non-Muslim households. The right to worship, however, is generally tolerated. Christians and non-Mauritanian Shiite Muslims are permitted to worship privately, and some churches operate openly.

Societal discrimination against women is widespread but is improving. Under Sharia, a woman's testimony is given only half the weight of a man's. Legal protections regarding property and equality of pay are usually respected only in urban areas among the educated elite. At least one-quarter of women undergo female genital mutilation. The government has intensive media and education campaigns against this practice and the practice of forced feeding of adolescent girls, known as gavage. A family code adopted in 2001 sets the minimum age for marriage at 18 years, requires couples to marry before an administrative authority, and sets a minimum wage.

Approximately one-fourth of Mauritania's workers serve in the small formal sector. The constitution provides for freedom of association and the right of citizens to unionize and bargain for wages. All workers except members of the military and police are free to join unions.

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