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.