Mauritanian public opinion remains dead set against their country’s involvement in Mali. Across the political and social spectrum, not a single meaningful voice called for Mauritania to intervene militarily. Worse, Mauritanian Salafis implicitly endorsed the Jihadis in Mali with an incendiary fatwa. Thus, it is no longer possible to present the Malian war as a foreign matter, it has become an internal political battle. Despite all of this, The “president” General Aziz unilaterally put the country on the path to war.
In the best tradition of a tribal chief, General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz made a potentially fateful decision in a meeting with his French counterpart. He told the Gauls’ chief François Hollande, that should the chief of the Malians ask for his help, he shall oblige. So is the mindset governing the country’s destiny. This should be a cause for serious concern for anyone contemplating a Mauritanian entry in the conflict.
General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz’s meeting on Tuesday with François Hollande in Abu Dhabi shook the country’s political class out of its wait-and-see posture. Till that point, only the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood had declared -unsurprisingly- its vehement opposition to what it calls “the French invasion” of Mali.
As customary with General Aziz, he did not bother issuing any communiqués about the substance of his meeting with the French president. He even excluded his press adviser from the meeting altogether. Mauritanian state media reported the meeting as a routine discussion. It was rather François Hollande who dropped the bombshell during this own press conference: “Mauritania is ready to take its responsibilities vis-à-vis the terrorist threat should the Malian state issue such a request.”
I wonder how this all works with the Maghrebi regional dynamics, with Mauritanian being allied with Morocco, vis-a-vis Algeria.
Mauritania is voting for a new president today, after elections were postponed last month to allow for a political compromise between the junta that seized power in a coup nearly a year ago and the main opposition. The main opponent of junta leader Mohammad Ould Abdel Aziz is Ely Ould Mohammad Vall, who led the 2005 coup (known as the better coup), although Ahmed Ould Daddah is also a possibility and Kal's favorite. Kal also has more analysis.
Yes, no one cares about Mauritania, but the elections may allow for an easing of sanctions in place since the coup, more foreign investment in a growing oil industry and more. Which might, if there is some balance of power rather than junta rule in what appears to be a genuinely politically divided country, be good for Mauritanians.
Mauritania formed a transitional national unity government on Friday (June 26th) in Nouakchott, Journal Tahalil reported. International mediator Habib Kabachi was quoted as saying that the rival political poles had successfully reached "an accord on all points". In the presence of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, deposed president Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdellahi officially resigned and signed the decree for the installation of a new Mauritanian cabinet. Mohamed Ould Moulaye Laghdaf was chosen to lead the transitional government. After signing the decree, Abdellahi called for unity among all Mauritanians and affirmed that the country would hold presidential elections next month.
Worth remembering that this was a mediation that did not significantly involve the West. Iran's Post-Election Uprising: Hopes & Fears Revealed | The story of Iran's elections, from the dissenters' viewpoint, told in the same comic book form as Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Very, very cool. Mousavi remains defiant – Tehran Bureau | Letter from Mousavi to Guardian Council calls for annulment of elections on the grounds that electoral law was violated multiple times.
So much for what we had grown used to thinking of, half-jokingly, as the Arab world's only democracy. Three years and three days after the coup that deposed a much-hated and brutal dictator, Mauritania's generals decided they would get rid of President Sidi Mohammed Ould Cheikh Abdellahi, an ineffectual politician and undoubtedly bad leader who nonetheless had the merit of having been fairly elected.
For the past six weeks, Mauritanian politics (which you will only hear about in the Western press when there's been a coup, which may be why they have them so often -- 10 in the last 50 years) had come to a standstill as MPs from the ruling party rebelled, governments fell or resigned, motions of no-confidence were threatened, and financial improprieties by the first lady were investigated. Outlandish claims of corruption were made (one I saw reported is that Abdellahi spent $2 billion on his family's travels, a figure which even the notoriously profligate King of Morocco doesn't reach), and more generally many Mauritanians appeared to be unhappy with problems such as rising jihadist violence that caused the cancellation of the Paris-Dakar earlier this year, poor handling of rocketing food prices (Mauritania regularly suffers from droughts and imports 70% of its food), and other ills. Dissident MPs were reportedly courting the military about doing something about all this, which did not please Abdellahi, who responded by firing the top four generals in the army.
It so happened that there were the same people who had carried out the 2005 coup -- and indeed charged with protecting the president and the constitution -- so they were not about to let that happen. They arrested him and his prime minister, and repeated the same scenario as three years ago: formed a temporary "state council" to govern the country while they promised free and fair elections and the eventual restoration of normal constitutional rule.
Except that this time it is a lot less easy to accept the military coup as a form of positive intervention. Even if Abdellahi was corrupt and ineffectual, so much symbolic capital has been spent on legitimizing the previous coup as democratic that justifying this one will be difficult. The suspension of foreign aid by the US, and probably soon the EU, are one sign that things are different. One thing that is important to remember is that the people behind the coup are not only the same ones as in 2005, but that they were also part of the ruling elite under the previous president, Ould Taya. One might even say that they are the same people who've been ruling for decades, more or less. It now seems that the legitimacy the 2005 coup has gone to their heads, and that they think they can intervene every time there's been a hiccup. So even while Mauritania was given an unlikely veneer of democracy, the army remained capable and willing to intervene at any point rather than let politicians (no matter how inadequately) resolve their problems among themselves. Abdellahi could have been ousted by constitutional means, and chances are that if he had not taken the ill-considered move of sacking the military's top brass (presumably to replace them with allies) he would have lost his post one way or another.
In the meantime, should they want to become more robustly democratic, Mauritanians need a military with less itchy trigger-fingers, new mechanisms to defuse political crises (and, realistically, prevent politicians from too arbitrarily interfering in military affairs). But it would also help if Mauritania's neighbors (who have been very silent on all this), its distant backers like Saudi Arabia, France or the US, and the international community more generally were to coax the military junta into a deal whereby Abdellahi is restored to power in return for the cancellation of his order sacking the generals. Then, Mauritania's politicians can decide for themselves whether they should relieve Abdellahi or call for fresh presidential elections.
For the rest of the Arab world, there is the usual perplexing scene of illegitimately elected autocrats and monarchs-for-life voicing their concerns for democracy. Perhaps they are secretly rejoicing that dirt-poor, peripheral Mauritania has not turned out to be as democratic as everyone thought and that the sarcastic columns penned by the likes of Fahmy Howeidy, who in 2005 wondered whether "the Mauritanian option" was the solution to the Arab political predicament, will no longer appear.
Above: Al Jazeera International reporting on anti- and pro- coup demos in Nouakshott.
More news from Mauritania. Word on the street is that two people have died and fifteen people have been hospitalized in a massive fire-fight in the chic Tavregh Zeina neighborhood of the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott today. The fighting is linked to the massive manhunt going on in search of the escaped Islamist accused of killing four French tourists late last year, Sidi Ould Sidna. There is speculation that Ould Sidna may have been killed in the fighting (Correction: Ould Sidna was among the wounded, operated on, and then taken into detention). It is unclear as to what the composition of wounded has been (in terms of soldiers, police, militants, or civilians). The government is describing the clash as one between the government and â€œSalafists,â€� a descriptor easily exchanged for â€œterrorists.â€�*
Mauritanian sources suspect that there is French involvement on the governmentâ€™s side (French intell. has been in the capital for the past two weeks and the French were hopping mad to hear that Ould Sidna had escaped so quickly). According sources in Nouakchott, it is believed that four militants have escaped, and that police casualties are high because they attempted to arrest the militants, as opposed to killing them. Two wounded terrorists have been arrested. It is also being reported from the capital that the head of Mauritaniaâ€™s elite anti-terror unit was killed in the fighting. Here is the Reuters report. The story remains ongoing.
SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, Canary Islands - A fast-thinking pilot with passengers in cahoots fooled a hijacker by braking hard upon landing, then accelerating to knock the man down. When he fell, flight attendants threw boiling water in his face, and about 10 people pounced on him, Spanish officials said Friday.
If there is one thing 9/11 has changed "forever" amidst all the hyperbole, it's that you don't hijack planes anymore! (Incidentally, the guy was reportedly only seeking political asylum -- he wasn't going to blow himself up.)
Mauritania -- yes, the poor, backward, drought-stricken, desert state of Mauritania -- has voted for constitutional amendments in a national referendum that imposes term limits on the presidency. Early results on the 25 June referendum indicate that Mauritanians approved by 97% the reform, with at least 76% of eligible voters casting their votes.
The reforms they voted on included limiting presidential terms to two five-year terms and preventing the president from holding on to his post if older than 75. While the former reform, while not a first, is rare enough in the region (and in places like Tunisia, Ben Ali amended the constitution to remove term limits), the latter is the first time anywhere, as far as I know, that age limits have been placed on a president. If this rule was applied, neither Egypt nor France would be able to hold on to their current presidents!
Explaining his motives for the referendum, the leader of the junta that staged a coup in August 2005, Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, said:
If the president remains in power for 18, 20 or 30 years and plans to pass his position on to his son or another person of his choice, this would be personal power and a way of ruling that does not take into account the interest of the country or its citizens.
He's not going to be popular at the next Arab League meeting.
There are also further precautions in the constitution: presidential candidates must pledge that he will not back any revision to the constitution that would change the provisions on presidential terms. The constitution's article 99 also states that no constitutional amendment of presidential terms can be made at all.
Naturally, all of this can be changed by a despot who comes along later. But Mauritanians did suffer under Maaouya Ould Taya, the ousted leader who ruled from 1984 to 2005. Perhaps they've learned the hard way that these rules are valuable. If it works out, they'll be putting to shame Arab autocrats and giving new legitimacy to palace coups -- as I remember Egyptian columnist Fahmi Howeidy predicting last August.
Jonathan Edelstein over at the Head Heeb is less sanguine about the referendum and points out that the constitution still remains strongly presidential, with the president having considerable power over the prime minister and the cabinet. While I agree with him on that point, I still think the insistence on term limits is quite a step forward. Now we'll have to see how parliamentary elections this Fall and presidential elections next Spring will be carried out.
Mauritanians wish to break with the way power has been concentrated in the hands of a few tribal groupings, a syndrome that reached unprecedented levels under Ould Taya. However, the country’s new strongman and some of his colleagues are pillars of the old power structure and almost certainly will want to turn the page rather than examine it, redress past injustices and shed light on the practices of the previous regime. That Ould Mohamed Vall and Ould Abdel Aziz belong to the same tribal group, one which was highly privileged under the old regime, raises the question whether they truly intend to change its clientelist patterns and could fuel political tensions before long.
The Military Council has promised to organise a return to legitimate institutions within a reasonable timetable: a constitutional referendum is scheduled for 26 June 2006, municipal and legislative elections for 19 November 2006, and senatorial and presidential elections for 11 March 2007. Over its first months, the regime has taken welcome steps. Political parties are consulted; the electoral calendar is neither too short (which would have prevented parties from organising) nor too long. An electoral commission whose independence is widely acknowledged has been established. Still, more is needed...
More when I get time to read the full report. Hope to be able to go there in June, inch'allah.