Protests currently underway in Mauritania highlight the complexity of the movements that analysts have generalized as the “Arab Uprisings.” The relative lack of international coverage of Mauritania, meanwhile, shows the selective nature of how major media outlets have presented these uprisings to Western audiences. I have been hesitating for weeks to write a post about the protests in Mauritania because of how complicated the situation is there, but I want to offer a partial look at the protests today, hopefully as a basis for returning to the subject next week. Lissnup has written an indispensable background piece on the protests, and I recommend you read it before continuing with this post. Lissnup is also providing regular day-by-day updates such as this one.
I see at least four partly overlapping protest movements at work: one that the political opposition (especially the coalition called Coordination de l’opposition démocratique or COD) leads or claims to lead, one led by youth that defines itself specifically as an anti-regime protest movement (named after February 25, the date of the first major protest in 2011), one led by students, and one led by anti-slavery activists. The situation has presented Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz with plenty of challenges, but also with certain opportunities.
First, a look at the opposition-led protest actions this week:
Thousands of Mauritanian opposition activists staged a march and sit-down protest in Nouakchott Wednesday evening, calling for former coup leader President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to step down.
The turnout was larger than on May 2, when the demonstrators tried to occupy a square in the centre of the capital before being dispersed by security forces.
Read about the May 2 sit-in here, and an April 22 demonstration led by opposition youth here (both French). Protesters’ central demand has been that President Abdel Aziz, whom they regard as a military ruler with a civilian veneer, step down. Major political figures in the opposition, including Ahmed Ould Daddah, runner-up in the 2009 elections, and former military ruler Colonel Ely Vall (French) have called for Abdel Aziz’s departure. The country’s largest Islamist party, Tewassoul, as well as labor organizations, have taken part in these protests (French, with video); Tewassoul is part of COD. The February 25 movement and other youth movements, such as the Mouvement des Jeunes de Mauritanie (Movement of Mauritanian Youth or MJM) have been important participants in these protests.
Meanwhile, students have been protesting and boycotting classes at the University of Nouakchott. Police arrested sixteen students this week, and clashes between students and police took place at the campus (Arabic). The national students’ union or UNEM has been a key force in organizing student protest actions. Some of the students’ demands concern quality of life issues (French), but the clashes with authorities have added other demands to this list: the return of expelled students, the “de-militarization” of the campus, etc. As perceived mistreatment by police becomes one of the protesters’ chief complaints, in other words, the student protests are taking on a self-perpetuating logic.
Finally, there are the protest actions by anti-slavery activists. Slavery is a lingering problem within Mauritania’s racially complex society. In late April, Biram Ould Abeid, the president of an anti-slavery organization called l’Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste (The Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement or IRA-Mauritanie), staged the public burning of Islamic legal manuals that discuss slavery. Authorities detained him (French). In the resulting controversy, a leader of the Haratine or “black moor” community has warned of racial confrontation (French), while at least one imam in Nouakchott has called for Abeid to be punished (French). Haratine imams (French), meanwhile, are calling for a fatwa that would ban slavery.
Abdel Aziz is certainly under pressure. Opposition activists’ narrative that the country is in crisis seems to have real resonance, and gains strength from the existence and duration of the protests themselves. The protests have drawn large turnouts and have a consistent message, namely that the president should go. On the other hand, Abdel Aziz has some opportunities in the midst of crisis. One opposition leader (Arabic) says that Abdel Aziz has “exploited the recent issue of Biram Ould Abeid to defame the opposition and present himself to the public as Amir al Mu’minin,” or Commander of the Faithful, a title historically claimed by some Islamic political leaders. In a different but related vein, authorities’ recent claims that they foiled an Al Qaeda bomb plot may reinforce Abdel Aziz’s image as a tough figure on national security, an image that resonates abroad as well as at home. I would not count Abdel Aziz out.