Happy Election Day, Djibouti

Why it matters that the tiny Red Sea country is holding an unprecedentedly-open parliamentary contest tomorrow.

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Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh receives a military salute before his swearing-in ceremony in the capital Djibouti on May 8, 2011. (Reuters)

Changes are brewing in tiny Djibouti, an impoverished postage-stamp of a country plunked atop some of the most strategic territory on earth. Tomorrow the country, which is home to a disproportionately-young population of around 900,000, will hold the most open election in its history. In the past few days, Djiboutians have witnessed their nation's first televised political debates, and the return of a long-exiled opposition leader. Thanks to the introduction of a proportional electoral system, their next parliament will be the first in the country's modern history to seat opposition candidates. 

Djibouti's autocratic president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, took over the country from his uncle in 1999 and amended the constitution in 2010 to allow him to stand for a third term the next year. It is unlikely that he would have held an election this open if he believed there was a chance his party would lose. But opposition supporters are rallying by the thousands, and citizens are engaged in an electoral process that isn't completely fraudulent, even if it's unlikely to be totally fair. Not even a country as small, or as blessed with decades of tranquil and stagnant one-party rule as Djibouti, is completely immune from the region's prevailing trends.

The Democracy Report

Electoral politics in Djibouti has historically been a delicate compromise between real political liberalization and an outright authoritarian sham; the country has had a multi-party system since 1992, even though parties allied with Guelleh currently hold all 65 seats in Parliament. The widely-boycotted 2011 election were preceded by major protests and accompanied by the arrests of opposition candidates. The 2011 election left a fragmented civil society pitted against a strong yet unpopular government. It revealed both deep divisions within Djibouti's polity, as well as the lengths to which Guelleh was willing -- and even able -- to go to maintain the veneer of calm. Tomorrow's contest will be unprecedented in its openness, but it's still taking place in a country whose less-than-independent judiciary convicted a leading opposition presidential contender for terrorism in 2011, and which ranks 167th out of 179 countries surveyed for Reports Without Borders' latest press freedom survey.

This election provides something of a substantive choice: Guelleh's bluntly-named Union for a Presidential Majority electoral bloc backs an ambitious, twenty-year program, called Vision 2035, of increased development and economic liberalization. The opposing Union for National Salvation alleges that their opponent's platform does more to entrench the ruling party than to tackle endemic unemployment and poverty. And they argue that the country itself is simply in need of fresh leadership, with a more legitimate popular mandate.

Friday will be one more chapter in a fairly obscure struggle between a standard-issue strongman and a fairly standard-issue opposition. More interesting than the election's result is the question of whether the rest of the world still has the luxury to think of Djibouti's political process as a purely local concern. As the international community rapidly learned in Mali, even the most stable and remote countries might not seem all that stable or remote for long -- they can rapidly turn into glaring reminders of the nearly-unforeseeable ways in which the regional and even global security balance can be tipped. The connection between the remote Malian Sahel, and security and political concerns in Sudan, Libya and Nigeria, is only obvious only now, months after the Bamako government's implosion and the subsequent Jihadist occupation of the country's Tuareg north. Could similar lessons be in store in Djibouti? Unlike northern Mali, Djibouti possesses a natural resource so scarce as to be utterly unique: 195 miles of coastline at the mouth of the Red Sea, real estate 16 miles from Yemen and right next to Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Even more crucially, it's under the control of a Western-aligned government that has deftly capitalized on its strategic location. For now.

***

Djibouti's importance to the west's security interests is difficult to overstate. From its perch at the mouth of the Red Sea, it is possible to monitor traffic through the Gulf of Aden, and every vessel traveling between the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal must pass within a few miles of the country's coastline. It borders Somalia, home to the Al Shabaab terrorist organization, and the staging area for pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean. Attacks originating from Somalia plummeted in 2012, undoubtedly because of naval surveillance efforts based in Djibouti -- even militarily-averse Japan has a counter-piracy task force based in the country. It borders both U.S.-aligned Ethiopia and neighboring, U.N.-sanctioned Eritrea, two countries that have been in a state of cold (and hot) war with one another for the past fifteen years. It is a short flight from Djibouti to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's strongholds in Yemen. It is also home to the largest French military presence in the world outside of France.

"I think it's one of the most underestimated assets the West has, military and intelligence-wise," author and former Israeli intelligence agent Michael Ross says of the foreign military presence in Djibouti. "We would be in so much trouble if we didn't have it." Ross, who served as a Mossad agent in East Africa, says that intelligence organizations operate with very little anxiety in Djibouti. They are virtually unharassed by the Djiboutian government, a situation that has made the country "the hub for intelligence operations in the Horn and East Africa."

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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