Mauritanian Islamists Reject the Idea of External Intervention in Mali

Amid Mali’s ongoing crisis, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has proposed to send some 3,000 troops there to help Malian government forces retake the Islamist-held north. Other external actors, such as France, have indicated that they would support such an intervention logistically. Talk of interventions is drawing reactions within Mali but also from its neighbors.

Reactions in Mauritania, Mali’s neighbor to the west, are worth watching. Mauritania sent troops into northern Mali on several occasions in 2010 and 2011 pursuing fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This August, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz stated that his country will not intervene militarily in Mali. Mauritania is not a member of ECOWAS. Last week, Abdel Aziz met with General Carter Ham, head of US AFRICOM, to discuss the potential for intervention in Mali, but few details of the meeting are publicly available.

Some constituencies inside Mauritania strongly oppose an external intervention. One such constituency is the segment of Islamists represented by the political party Tewassoul (“The National Rally for Reform and Development”; Arabic site here). Yesterday, the party released a statement against intervention in Mali (Arabic). The statement partly blames Abdel Aziz’s regime for the current crisis in Mali, and has several key planks, paraphrased here:

  • The party supports the territorial integrity of Mali.
  • The party calls on neighboring countries, the African Union, and the United Nations to support negotiations and a non-violent solution to the crisis.
  • The party warns of “disastrous and negative consequences for the region as a whole from any foreign intervention guided by Western countries on the basis of their agenda and their interests.”
  • The party opposes any Mauritanian support, military or logistical, for a military intervention in Mali.

Mauritanian Islamists are far from being the dominant political players in the country – in the last presidential elections, Tewassoul’s candidate Jamil Mansour placed fourth in the official results, with around 5% of the vote – yet they have at times acted as a significant pressure group, particularly with regard to foreign policy. Analysts have cited Islamists’ street demonstrations and political mobilization as a factor in prompting Mauritania’s decision to suspend relations with Israel in 2009. Mauritanian Islamists have been effective in articulating popular sentiments against forms of perceived neo-colonialism in Mauritania and the region.

Tewassoul’s statement, then, has significance for understanding how Islamists of different stripes are reacting to the situation in Mali and how the issue is playing out in Mauritanian domestic politics. I don’t want to overstate the influence Tewassoul has, especially over Abdel Aziz. But Tewassoul may have some success mobilizing around this cause.

France, Morocco, and Mauritania on Intervention in Northern Mali

(For more context, see my previous posts on intervention in Mali here and here.)

France reiterates its position:

“It is not for France to take the military initiative in Mali,” [Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian] told journalists during a visit to Lorient in northwest France.

France, he said, “wants it to be the African forces, in particular those of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and possibly the African Union, that take the initiative,” he said.

He said an African military intervention in northern Mali was “desirable and inevitable.”

“France will support it and, I hope, the European Union also.”

Morocco:

Morocco supports a political solution to the crisis in Mali but the regional community will have to consider “other options” if diplomacy fails, the foreign minister said in a newspaper interview.
The kingdom is encouraging its allies in the UN Security Council to find a political solution to the crisis in northern Mali, Youssef El Amrani told Le Matin in comments to be published on Tuesday.

Mauritania:

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on Monday ruled out sending troops to Mali, where the embattled government has lost control of the north to Al-Qaeda-linked militias.

“There will be no Mauritanian military intervention in Mali,” he said overnight at a local forum in the northern town of Atar marking the third anniversary of his rise to power.

“The problem there is very complex and we don’t have the solution,” he said, adding however that his country, which borders Mali, would take part in the international community’s efforts to restore peace.

Sahel-based journalist Hannah Armstrong calls Abdel Aziz’s words “doublespeak.” Mauritania has sent soldiers into northern Mali in the past in pursuit of fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Two related items:

  1. For those who read Arabic, Magharebia reports on how insecurity along the Mauritanian-Malian border has hurt trade in the area.
  2. BBC Hausa reports on a recent meeting of Sahelian foreign ministers in Niger, where the ministers discussed the crisis in Mali. I have not found any other reports on this meeting, though.

Protest Currents in Mauritania

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.

Mauritania: Opposition Protests in Advance of Parliamentary Elections

Mauritania is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on March 31. The vote, originally slated for last fall, was delayed (French) in response to objections from an opposition coalition called la Coordination de l’opposition démocratique (COD, “The Coordination of Democratic Opposition”). The COD is still unhappy with the regime and with the political environment in Mauritania as a whole.

On Monday, the COD held a march in the capital Nouakchott to “press for an end to military rule.” This demand implies that Mauritania’s ostensibly civilian government, headed by former general – and now president – Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, is just a front for continued military rule (the military ruled Mauritania from 1978 to 2007, and then took power again in a coup in 2008, before organizing elections in 2009). The COD’s broader list of demands (Arabic) includes a call for President Abdel Aziz step down. The COD also affirms its commitment to Islamic values (not an unusual statement in Mauritanian politics) and its opposition to any threat against national unity, particularly racial divisions.

Participants in the march (French) included the major opposition party le Rassemblement des forces démocratiques (RFD, “Rally of Democratic Forces”) and the Islamist party Tewassoul. Messaoud Boulkheir, president of the national assembly, and his l’Alliance populaire progressiste (APP, “Popular Progressive Alliance”) did not participate. This split reflects Boulkheir’s decision to participate in dialogues with the president last fall, dialogues that the COD boycotted.

What does the COD hope to achieve? The marchers have not, from what I have been able to tell, openly tied their protest to the electoral calendar. Yet the timing seems no accident. Perhaps the COD hopes to delay elections again, or perhaps they are preparing for a boycott. Additionally, some of the demands expressed in this march are similar to those put forth by youth protesters last spring, particularly the idea that the military still has too much influence in politics. But it does not seem (again, according to what I’ve read) that the march on Monday was explicitly tied to the rhetoric of the “Arab uprisings,” but rather to complaints about local Mauritanian affairs. Whatever the case, the COD is saying that this march marks the launch of a larger struggle. Taking them at their word, it seems we can expect more moves from their side soon.

Mauritania and China

AFP:

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz called for closer ties with China on Monday during a visit to the Asian country, the official AMI news agency reported.

“The Mauritanian government wants more infrastructure and bigger involvement of the CTCE company in Mauritania’s development,” the agency quoted the president as saying, referring to the China Tiesiju Civil Engineering Group.

[...]

New China news agency said he was the guest of honour at a Chinese-Arab economic and trade forum in Yinchuan in the northwest.

China and Mauritania meanwhile signed an agreement granting the Mauritanian armed forces financial support worth 20 million yuan (2.3 millions euros, 3.1 million dollars).

As elsewhere in Africa, Mauritania’s cooperation with China at the government level has caused domestic controversy, as happened with a fisheries deal the two countries signed earlier this year. China may have an “apolitical” approach in Africa (though what, really, is ever apolitical?), but the more China’s involvement in Africa grows, the more China will become involved in local politics, whether it wants to or not. It will be interesting to see how the Mauritanian opposition, and the population as a whole, reacts to this new step in the country’s relationship with China.

Zooming out from Mauritania a bit, it’s also interesting to me to think about how China is winning vocal support from African heads of state who are not necessarily from the most powerful countries on the continent, but who wield substantial influence in their sub-regions. I am thinking of, in addition to Mauritania’s Abdel Aziz, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, both of whom have expressed strong pro-China leanings. China has not received universal welcome in Africa, but it has won, and is winning, influential friends.

AQIM: Western-Sahelian Cooperation Deepening

In recent days General Carter Ham of the United States’ Africa Command (AFRICOM) and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe have both visited Mauritania, signaling a positive Western response to Mauritania’s recent offensives against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as well as a continuation of the trend toward deeper cooperation between Western and Sahelian governments on counterterrorism. Mauritania, which has undertaken the most aggressive military campaign of the three Sahelian countries most affected by AQIM (the others are Mali and Niger), is receiving the lion’s share of the attention right now, but visits by top Western officials come as the entire region is asking for outside help.

AFP reports on Gen. Ham’s trip:

“I congratulated him for the success of the Mauritanian army in its fight against AQIM, in collaboration with Mali and other countries in the region,” Ham said after a meeting with President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in Nouakchott.

The general, who has been in the capital since Sunday, also welcomed the Mauritanian peoples’ rejection of the north African Al-Qaeda branch, and committed to work to “advance security co-operation between America and Mauritania.”

ANI (Ar) reports on Juppe’s trip to Nouakchott, which spanned Sunday and Monday. Juppe met with Abdel Aziz and affirmed French “solidarity” with Mauritania on counterterrorism. CBS adds that Juppe combined praise for Mauritania with pressure on other goverments:

Juppe told reporters on his visit to Nouakchott that Mauritania has “led an exemplary fight.” He said France wishes other nations in the Sahel “would be more engaged.”

Juppe and Abdel Aziz also discussed the crisis in Libya, an issue with broad political significance in the Sahel as well as direct significance – in terms of potential movement of Libyan weapons to AQIM – for counterterrorism.

Mauritania’s government is not the only one in the region exploring a deeper partnership with the West. Niger’s President Mamadou Issoufou recently visited France (Fr), and the crisis in Libya and security issues were major themes in his meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy. Mali, though Western powers have sometimes seen its government as less willing to engage fully in counterterrorism, has partnered with Mauritania in recent efforts against AQIM. Malian-Mauritanian relations have recovered substantially from the low they hit in February 2010 when Mauritania recalled its ambassador from Mali in protest over the latter’s engagement in negotiations with AQIM.

Mauritania, Mali, and Niger may not be on exactly the same page when it comes to AQIM, but they are moving toward greater cooperation. Regional cooperation may in turn facilitate deeper partnerships with the West. The existence of such partnerships is not new – all three countries have participated in US training exercises and counterterrorism programs for years, and all three are planning to attend a summit in Algeria this September where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to attend – but the degree of cooperation seems to be increasing. That could have diverse implications for Sahelian counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel: on the one hand, stronger partnerships with the West could enhance local military capacity; on the other hand, perceptions of ever stronger political ties to the West could generate local political opposition. For now, though, the Mauritanian military’s star seems to be rising, both overseas and within the region.

Sahelian Leaders Look to a Post-Qadhafi Libya

During his long rule Colonel Moammar Qadhafi has exercised substantial influence over Africa. The Colonel has aided client regimes, helped bring rulers to power or ruin, and intervened in conflicts as participant or peacemaker. As this map shows, his influence has been particularly pronounced in Sahelian countries like Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad.

The civil war in Libya has dramatically affected the Sahel: Niger and other countries are absorbing thousands of refugees, Sahelians are being accused of serving as pro-Qadhafi mercenaries, Libyan weapons have reportedly traveled south, and money flows have been disrupted or altered. Perhaps reflecting the interlinked fates of Libya and the Sahel, the latter has been well represented in the African Union’s peace efforts, providing two of the five members of the AU’s committee on Libya (they are President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, who chairs the committee, and President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali). This AU group, at least initially, tried to broker a peace that would have allowed Qadhafi to remain in power.

Given all that, it is significant to see several Sahelian leaders begin to speak about – and act to bring about – a post-Qadhafi Libya. Senegal appears to have led the trend, with President Abdoulaye Wade establishing relations with the Libyan rebels in mid-May. Last week, Wade met with rebel leaders in Benghazi and said that Qadhafi should step down. Gambia also recognizes the rebels. Wade’s call for a transition was seconded last week by Mauritania’s Abdel Aziz, who said that Qadhafi’s “departure has become necessary.” With this, Abdel Aziz seemed to speak for the African Union as a whole. Another Sahelian leader, Chad’s President Idriss Deby, soon added his voice to the chorus. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki met on the sidelines of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forum in Zambia last week, and afterwards Clinton announced that “the Chadian government does not support Gadhafi.”

To say there is an emerging Sahelian consensus against Qadhafi would be going too far. I have not seen a statement from Mali’s Toure calling for Qadhafi’s resignation, nor to my knowledge has newly elected Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou gone beyond calling for a solution to the crisis (without stating a preference on who rules Libya). President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, according to one source, has continued to proclaim solidarity with Qadhafi. And further east, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir has not demanded Qadhafi’s ouster either. So if the baseline position among Sahelian leaders three or four months ago was support for Qadhafi, or neutrality, many of them have not moved. But the movement that has occurred in the region has been toward breaking with the Colonel.

AFP has discussed the Senegalese and Mauritanian statements in the context of a larger African shift away from Qadhafi. Attention to the Sahelian context is also important, though, as Qadhafi’s departure could affect the Sahel more than any other region in Africa. The calculated risks that Wade, Abdel Aziz, and Deby are taking indicate that the political landscape in the Sahel has already shifted even though Qadhafi still clings to power. These decisions also suggest some confidence on the part of Sahelian leaders that siding with Qadhafi’s foes is a better bet than staying neutral, or continuing to support the Colonel on the chance that he might weather the storm. If and when Qadhafi does go, the relationships forged in this time of crisis, both between the Sahelian countries and the rebels as well as among the Sahelian countries themselves, will influence the direction of regional relations in the future.

Terrorism and Politics in Mauritania

The last two weeks or so have seen Mauritanian politicians positioning themselves in different ways with regard to the issue of terrorism and Mauritanian cooperation with Europe against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Mauritania remains committed to a largely military strategy, and in a sense nothing has changed since earlier this summer/fall, when the Mauritanian army clashed several times with AQIM forces. Still, the remarks of both the regime and parts of the opposition suggest that Mauritanian politicians of various stripes see potential benefits in continuing to politicize an issue that has already been the subject of much discussion in Mauritania.

Last Sunday, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz addressed the opening session of a five-day anti-terror forum. Abdel Aziz promised additional attacks on AQIM in Mauritania and northern Mali and praised Mali’s president, indicating a continued attempt to bridge a rift between the two countries that developed last February over disagreements about ransom payments to AQIM. Abdel Aziz’s support for further attacks found an echo in Defence Minister Hamadi Ould Hamadi‘s call last week for an “offensive and dynamic strategy” that will involve expanding the presence of the Mauritanian military “throughout the country including parts ‘which has not had a physical presence of our forces for 34 years’.” Hamadi said the military will soon receive additional funding.

The forum itself yielded a number of recommendations, including the creation of an anti-terrorism charter, a center for teaching moderation, and policies to fight poverty and other perceived root causes of terrorism. Participants also called for dialogue with terrorists who surrender and lay down arms. Proponents believe these policy measures will complement military efforts.

As the regime and its allies have been outlining their position, opposition figures have been expressing disagreement. “Most” opposition groups boycotted the forum, though some opposition leaders attended. And the Islamist party Tawassoul spoke out against Mauritanian cooperation with France, cooperation the regime had seemed to favor. Kal points out that Tawassoul “has a miniscule following among average Mauritanians,” but goes on to say that Tawassoul’s stance is a sophisticated exercise in positioning that could increase its political relevance.

The regime appears to have substantial political muscle when it comes to the terrorism issue, but it is interesting that opposition parties see an opening for making their own mark in the debate. I wonder if that will tie the regime’s fortunes partly to how it performs in the fight with AQIM. Kal writes,

Notice that Tawassoul, like the rest of the political class, is not opposed to fighting AQIM but rejects assistance from those with “colonial backgrounds” in the region. Most Mauritanians in the opposition agree with this position but see little to gain from such outright opposition and share the same fears over Mauritania not being able to afford an aggressive, pre-emptive campaign against AQIM outside of the country, which lends them to a less categorical view of foreign military assistance (my emphasis).

If the opposition supports the goal of dismantling AQIM but rejects the details of the regime’s framework for doing so, they get to maintain patriotic credibility while potentially gaining the chance to saddle the regime with the political cost of military failures. If upcoming battles go against the regime or prove inconclusive, opposition parties could find themselves in a stronger position than they are now.