Manipulating Mauritania's militants
"Let everyone here know, Mauritania has severed its diplomatic relations with the state of Israel in a complete and definitive way," Mauritanian Foreign Minister Naha Mint Hamdi Ould Mouknass announced this week. She defended her country's decision on the grounds of Israel's atrocities and "barbaric policies against the Palestinian people". She also added that the decision was irreversible.
Egypt and Jordan, which border Israel and fought several debilitating wars, were essentially forced to concluded peace treaties in 1979 and 1994 respectively. Mauritania had no pressing need to do so. Eight years ago, the Northwest African desert nation of Mauritania established full diplomatic ties with Israel in a surprise move that raised eyebrows in many a Muslim and Arab capital. The then-president Mouawiya Sidi Ahmed Ould Taya decided to recognise Israel in October 1999 in a desperate bid to curry favour with Western powers, and especially the United States.
As a military ruler, Taya was able to do so against the wishes of the vast majority of his people. More recently, however, there were telltale signals that Mauritania intended to cut off all ties -- economic, political and military -- with Israel. Mauritania suspended ties in January 2009, and last March the overwhelmingly Muslim nation froze diplomatic relations with Israel in response to the 22-day air and ground assault by the Israelis on Gaza that claimed the lives of 1,500 Palestinians, mostly innocent civilians.
No other African nation severed diplomatic relations with Israel over the Gaza assault. Other neighbouring non-Arab predominantly Muslim nations have lambasted Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians but have stopped short of severing diplomatic ties with Israel. Even so, a number of countries, including Venezuela and Bolivia -- two South American countries that have consistently expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people -- also suspended ties with Israel because of the Israeli assault on Gaza.
But what are the regional implications, if any, of this week's official Mauritanian severance of diplomatic ties with Israel? Mauritania is a full-fledged member of the Arab League as well as the African Union and the Organisation of Islamic Conference grouping Muslim nations. Public opinion in all of Mauritania's neighbours, Arab and African, are bitterly opposed to Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, Mauritania's Arab League neighbours to the north such as Morocco and Algeria have adamantly refused to establish diplomatic links with Israel -- even though Morocco maintains low-key unofficial economic and cultural ties with Israel because of its small but significant Jewish community.
Mauritania's non-Arab African nations neighbours, however, have maintained diplomatic ties with Israel even though their populations are predominantly Muslim. Non-Arab Muslim nations to the south and west of Mauritania maintain diplomatic ties with Israel. Senegal, Mauritania's immediate neighbour to the south for instance, has full-fledged diplomatic links with Israel and there is an Israeli embassy in the Senegalese capital Dakar.
Public opinion in Mauritania broadly identifies with the dispossessed Palestinians and considers Israel and expansionist settler colonialist state intent on exterminating the Palestinian people, the indigenous inhabitants of the Holy Land. Recent events have exacerbated feelings of hostility towards the Israelis. The Palestinian struggle for national self- determination is viewed in Mauritania as a crusade against infidels, notwithstanding that the Israelis are grudgingly acknowledged as People of the Book. In non-Arab African nations public sympathy for the Palestinian cause is based not so much on religious grounds, but on solidarity with a people widely viewed as the underdog, the dispossessed.
This turnabout in Mauritania's political stance towards Israel is hardly a technocratic decision. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel-Aziz must break with the mistakes, bullying, brutish oppression of opposition and political manipulation of the past. He must also face realities and play realpolitik.
Mauritania, a poor nation of three million people with little political clout in the international arena, is incapable of playing an intermediary role between the Palestinians and the Israelis. More to the point, the underdeveloped desert nation has not benefited in any significant economic, political or military sense from its establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. Abdel-Aziz needs to build consensus and the closure of the Israeli embassy is a first and crucial step.
Mauritania is running out of time. Danger signs abound. The impoverished, albeit resource-rich, nation's economy is currently based on fishing and the exploitation of vast phosphates deposits. With some iron and possibly lots of oil in the offing, the country's economic fortunes look promising. However, unemployment rates are high and restless youngsters are turning towards Islamist militancy.
The continuation of a "cold peace" with Israel had become untenable. The presence of an Israeli embassy on Mauritanian soil did nothing to ease the prolonged political crisis in the country. The ousting of the Israelis had become imperative. Mauritania's rulers openly proclaim that the nation's political stability now virtually depends on it.
Anti-Western animosity is running high in Mauritania. Not so long ago, an American aid worker Christopher Ervin Leggett was assassinated in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott when two young men overpowered the middle-aged American preacher. Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the "execution" of Leggett because he was "trying to convert Muslims to Christianity." AQIM spokesman Salah Abu Mohamed said in a televised audio statement to the Qatar-based pan-Arab television channel Al-Jazeera that Leggett was proselytising among the poor in the low-income neighbourhood of Al-Kasr, Nouakchott. AQIM is gaining steady support among the jobless youth.
The military rulers of Mauritania could in the past often look forward to lucrative political careers. Taya and his ilk are discredited. Instead of spending on improving social services and poverty-eradicating schemes, Mauritania's military elite have focussed on enriching themselves, much to the consternation of the country's marginalised masses.
Yet the politics of the vilification of Israel in Mauritania is driven less by fights over pork-barrel spending than by fears of AQIM and the ramifications of closer collaboration with the Israelis. No wonder Mauritanian politicians would rather rant about Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people than face the deplorable realities at home.