Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 August 2008
Issue No. 910
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Dangerous flirtations

Mauritania's penchant for coups, seen locally as a panacea to the country's political ills, is condemned by the outside world, writes Gamal Nkrumah

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, like the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, is a vital strategic ally in the war against international terrorism led by the United States. And, like Pakistan it is facing grave challenges as far as democracy is concerned. The democratisation process in Mauritania has proved to be tremendously difficult and fraught with almost insurmountable barricades.

Of all the newfangled democracies of the African continent, Mauritania is the least susceptible to the vagaries of the whirlwind democratic change sweeping Africa south of the Sahara.

Moorish lust for tribal and clan squabbles has once again reared its ugly head and played a prominent part in the latest coup. President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdullahi hails from Aleg, the provincial capital of the ancient emirate of Brakna. The generals hail from rival clans.

Popular discontent, however, has been the major stumbling block to democratisation. Mauritanians, on the whole, are disdainful of the civilian politicians whom they view as corrupt and self-serving. The jubilating crowds greeting the new ruling military junta were proof that the vast majority of the Mauritanian people were fed up with the civilian politicians.

Moreover, many Mauritanians see an opportunity in the debacle. Neither group really foresaw that the coup would be accompanied by a blustering chorus of international condemnation.

This week, the military junta that runs the country decided to release all senior political detainees including Prime Minister Yehia Ould Ahmed Al-Ouakef, but barring the ousted president. However, as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, Abdullahi was still under house arrest. Democracy dictates that as much as they may have loathed him in private, Mauritania's top notch military chiefs should have shown public respect for the first democratically elected president. In the event, they sought revenge for his disregard for their authority and powers when he dismissed the head of his presidential guard and the army chief in the space of a week. That was an unforgivable affront.

This time round, the generals have stopped short of ridiculing the democratic process. They promised early elections -- in two months time. Western powers, however, have insisted that any fresh elections should be declared null and void. They argue that the elections that brought Abdullahi to power are the only valid ones. On 11 March 2007 the first presidential elections in the country were held. The country has made some strides towards democracy in recent years. The presidential poll was won in a second round of voting by Abdullahi with Ahmed Ould Daddah, son of the first president of Mauritania Moukhtar Ould Daddah coming a close second.

Both civilian politicians and the military are now taking stock. So this period of uncertainty could drag on. The ousted civilians are talking tough. The military, on the other hand seem a little jittery. They seem to be running scared. The Mauritanian people, not the military, will decide the fate of the country. There are many Mauritanians who conclude that the rule by the military is likely to be safer and more orderly. If the generals can crack down on corruption, then they are favoured to lead the nation. There are other Mauritanians who strongly believe that a military leader should, nevertheless, be popularly elected. However, the prickly questions remains: who will be at the helm in the event of fresh elections? Would it be one of the coup leaders?

The coup was led by the head of the Presidential Guard General Mohamed Ould Abdul-Aziz who was sacked by President Abdullahi days before the coup. Abdul-Aziz was implicated in the last Mauritanian coup in 2005 that ousted the former Mauritanian strongman Mouaaouya Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya. The national mood is one of retrospection. It was Taya who first broke one of the most sacred taboos regarding Muslim sensibilities and established diplomatic relations with Israel. Successive Mauritanian governments, military and civilian, have retained diplomatic ties with Israel in spite of widespread revulsion at the very notion by the vast majority of Mauritanian people.

The crucial question is: why do wide segments of the three million people of Mauritania seem to be supporting the coup? Abject poverty, income inequalities, rampant inflation and crippling unemployment especially among the restless youth -- these are some of the more obvious reasons for public rage. The down-trodden Haratin, the exonym with pejorative connotations of a people who make up a numerical majority of the country's population, are yearning for a bigger share of the national cake. The Haratin, descendant of slaves who identify ethnically with the Moorish elite, are now asking pertinent questions regarding their political future, social status and economic well-being.

The Mauritanian military have another selling point. Pro- democracy parliamentarians in Mauritania are overjoyed at the prospects of generals running the country. This is the sad irony of Mauritania. Yet this, however difficult, seems to be the way forward. All of this raises a frightening prospect: the generals defiantly hold to power in Mauritania.

Mauritania's African and Arab neighbours were far more reconciliatory than its Western benefactors. However, the African Union (AU) threatened to suspend Mauritania's membership because the military deposed a democratically elected president. The Arab League, on the other hand, adopted a less hawkish stance. "We received guarantees that the parliament, the democratic institutions, the political parties and freedom will continue to exist," Arab League Assistant Secretary-General Ahmed bin Heli told reporters.

The generals might prefer to retire in revered remoteness, playing king-makers. The key coup plotters -- General Mohamed Ould Al-Ghazwani, General Philippe Swikri and Brigadier General Ahmed Ould Bakri as well as General Abdul- Aziz appear determined to stay the course. There are powerful interest groups in the country who want to bolster the generals at the civilian politicians' expense.

Influential military figures held sway for much of Mauritania's history. Since independence from France in 1960, Mauritania, a vast arid land roughly the size of Egypt, is one of only three Arab League member states that recognise Israel and Mauritania maintains diplomatic relations with Israel.

France promptly suspended all but humanitarian aid to Mauritania. The United States followed suit. Washington has withheld $20 million in non-humanitarian aid to Nouakchott in the wake of the coup. Western countries have stepped up pressure on Mauritania to return to democracy.

The end is not yet clearly in sight. Abdullahi's kith and kin are up in arms. The Presidential Security Battalion (BASEP) are likely to play an even more pivotal role in Mauritanian politics in the weeks ahead. "The security agents of the BASEP came to our home and took away my father," Abdullahi's indignant daughter Amal Mint Cheikh Abdullahi told reporters. Behind this spat is an elaborate dance involving the military and the civilians.

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