Crooked Sticks, Crooked Shades: A Critique

5 01 2013

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“Mon Dieu, gardez-moi de mes amis. Quant à mes ennemis, je m’en charge!”
Colonel Taya quoting Voltaire- in his first and last television interview ever- reacting to the news of Aziz’s 2005 coup.

One of my new years resolutions for 2013 is to write here more regularly about Mauritania instead of limiting myself to twitter as I did over the past year. I hope to help readers make sense of that area of the world as we race towards a certain war in Northern Mali. That war could have major consequences for Mauritania’s internal political crisis.

The US Ambassador to Mauritania Jo Ellen Powell gave a very little noticed talk two months ago at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. Initially, I was excited by the prospect of hearing from her given the current state of affairs in my birth country.

US policy on Mauritania is often a matter of interpretation and speculation given that few media inquiries are made given the low level of interest in that area of the world by the public globally. Thus, seldom do we get to hear a US official’s views on Mauritania issues, let alone candid views.  I was in for a major surprise as Ambassador Powell’s remarks were an explosive mix of uninformed commentary, culturally-insensitive inexactitudes topped with a ringing endorsement of Mauritania’s strongman General Aziz. Her unconditional embrace of General Aziz is an anachronism from a bygone era. Two years into the Arab uprisings it is astonishing to see that some official have not interiorized its main lesson: alliances with authoritarian and corrupt leaders under the guise of bringing stability and security are a mirage bound to failure.

The assumptions behind these remarks raise serious concerns about the long-term impact for Mauritania of eventual American policies informed by these highly problematic views. My critique of these views can be broken down into three categories: historical, political, and policy-related. The choice of these categories is not random as they encompass some of the common mistakes and biases prevalent among some Mauritania commentators.

 History: Past Glories and Present Wounds

The Ambassador’s tone when speaking about ethnic relations in the country will not win her many friends in any of Mauritania’s communities. Describing Afro-Mauritanians as “closer to Senegal than they are to Mauritania” is a talking point that was used by Baathist ideologues within Taya’s army to deny the citizenship of Afro-Mauritanians. Ultimately, the ethnic massacres and expulsions against them in 1989 were justified by Taya’s regime as: “returning foreign elements where they belong.”

The Ambassador moves on from there to assign the blame for these events collectively to “light-skinned Moors.” The least that can be said of that claim is that it is ahistorical: Taya regime’s responsibility for these atrocities is well-documented. Paradoxically, many of the people responsible for these crimes against humanity still populate today the very military she praises.

When discussing the so-called “Counter-narratives” component of prevalent counter-terrorism practices, Ambassador Powell informs the audience that “Mauritanians do not like to be told how to be Muslim..” and that “..they [Mauritanians] do not like to be told what to think..” These statements gloss over the country’s own narrative about its place in the world and Islam’s role in its power structures.

It is the main pillar of both its social and political history; the cast system both in Moorish and Afro-Mauritanian communities is a direct function of the monopoly and dispensation of islamic knowledge. Social ascension for individuals, clans and tribes in both communities could be achieved in pre-colonial times only through two ways: the gun for warriors, and Islam for Marabouts. In modern times, religion remains one of the fastest ways to climb to the top of Mauritania’s social pyramid in all communities.  Mauritanians- like any Muslims – will inevitably be suspicious when a foreign non-muslim tries to advocate the merits of a certain brand of Islam over another.After all, they are acutely aware that they produced most of the ulemas leading the main Sufi orders in all of West Africa over the last 4 centuries. The assumption in the remarks is that an American can “evangelize” Islam in a Muslim society. Any reasonable observer will not take too much convincing to see how counterproductive this attitude can be.

Politics: Shifty Sands, Constant Grievances and Fledgeling Institutions

In discussing the Mauritanian opposition, Ambassador Powell candidly channels wholesale General Aziz’s views of his own detractors– the very same talking points he uses to describe them. For starters, the gentleman she calls a “tired old elite whose time has gone”– Ahmed Ould Daddah, is the leader of the biggest opposition party in the country historically and as of today. His party, the RFD, got 16 seats in parliament in the country’s last free and fair electoral cycle in 2006 and 2007 placing it as the single largest opposition party.

Daddah got 47% of the vote against Aziz’s backed candidate in the presidential election that year.  A quick review of the electoral results of that cycle paint a more accurate picture of opposition parties electoral weight. Powell’s attitude towards Daddah and the non-participatory opposition reflects the challenge of fully appreciating the complex legacy of Mauritania’s last 20 years of politics and power dynamics. Many players have different motives, they cannot all be explained through ethnic, tribal affiliations alone.

Take for example her assertion that “the Haratine vote will go to Messaoud Ould Boulkheir” because he is the top Haratine in Nouakchott. Not so. Messaoud’s APP party saw the departure of two top Haratine leaders Mohamed Ould Bourbous, and union leader Samoury Ould Biya. Both said their motive of defection is that Ould Boulkheir betrayed the Haratine’s cause. Not to mention that the APP strictly speaking was born of the merger between Arab-nationalists (the Nasseriste flavor) with Haratine historical movement ElHor.

Another interesting view the Ambassador holds is that the Mauritanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Twassul, is the country’s biggest party. In the last free legislative elections in 2006, they got 4 seats, well behind the RFD, the leftist UFP (9 seats) and Parliament Speaker Messaoud Ould Boulkheir’s APP (5 seats). A serious handicap Twassul has to overcome is that almost all its leadership is made of Moors who hail from one district: Ouad Naga. Although the party makes a lot more noise on Aljazeera Arabic than its real weight, it still has a long way to go before it can replace the RFD at the top of the opposition. Mauritania’s ikhwanis have yet to capture crucial constituencies one needs to be truly a power to recon with in that society.

Daddah, and his fellow COD member parties do not contest Aziz as such, but oppose the system that allowed him to grow from a bodyguard opening his master’s car door to become the tsar of their destinies. For them, Aziz is only the newest avatar of military regimes rampaging through their country  and stifling any democratic institutions since 1978. The army’s hegemony over all matters in Mauritania is what they perceive to be no longer acceptable. For them to be Machiavellian in their dealings is only fair in a polity like Mauritania’s– at times, the instinct of survival trumps against overwhelming odds sound logic. for the Ambassador not to follow the shifting sands is also legitimate only if she were to keep an equal distance from all belligerents.

As of the country’s weak institutions, the ambassador does not fully address the causes of Mauritania’s lack of strong institutions and Aziz’s role in their desolate condition. That weakness played itself out brutally in the weeks following Aziz’s “friendly fire accident.” After the General’s courtiers accompanying him in Paris blocked the military and civilian’s access to him for over 10 days, it became clear that should he be incapacitated and if he refuses to relinquish office, no legal way was available to make a smooth transition. Tragically, a coup was the only way out. Matters were made worse as the state was paralyzed. nothing could be done without the President’s signature.

Articles 40 and 41 of the constitution (PDF link) gives the President, the head of the Senate and the Prime Minister the power to ask the Constitutional Court (supreme court) to declare a vacancy of the presidency. So, the first person on the list was unreachable for 10 days. Next in line, the Senate head, Ba Mbaré, took off with a diplomatic illness. The Prime Minister Ould Mohamed Laghdhaf turned off his phone after getting summoned by the Chief of Staff General Ghazouani to his office. He remained there for 72 hours. The third, and most important party in this process, is the Constitutional Council itself. Even had Aziz being truly incapacitated, it would not have been able to perform its role as 3 of its 5 members had not been sworn in yet. A telling sign was that after Aziz’s short return to Nouakchott, he signed into law a decree banning coups, then he took off back to France.

The lapsed Senate and parliament whose terms were extended (since October 2011) through dubious rulings of co-opted judges are not an inconvenience for Aziz: their strength would spell his doom. By definition, strongmen in our corner of the world do not build strong institutions, they thrive on their weakness. Aziz is no exception, or else, he would have never become president to begin with after launching two coups.

Policy: The Strongman Gambit 

The Ambassador’s embrace of General Aziz, and her vocal wishes for the opposition to fail in its attempts to unseat him is the undiplomatic moment par excellence in the talk. Here, the Ambassador of the United States of America is openly advocating for the survival of a corrupt dictator highly contested by the Mauritanian people.

Powell is equally adamant about Aziz being the man fully in charge. Her motives are clear: she believes him to be a responsible and valuable ally in the upcoming war in Northern Mali because he has a strong army. However, her calculus does not seem to include two main factors:  the Mauritanian army’s morale and the public opinion’s vehement opposition to any Mauritanian involvement in a war in Mali. The issue is politically sensitive because the war in Azawad is perceived as a war of choice.

On paper, Mauritania’s military is the most natural available choice for fighting AQIM. it is better trained and more disciplined than ECOWAS armies. It is also more experienced in fighting highly mobile hit and run battles inherent to desert warfare. Strong with some of the world’s best desert trackers; and its Saharan ethos of fighting hard, eating little, then going after the enemy as far as their Toyota pickups would get them. With such a romantic outlook, one almost feels nostalgic to the scenes of Lawrence of Arabia storming Aqaba’s fort at the head of an army of battle hardened desert warriors.

In practice, the September 2010 Hassi Sidi battle in Mali saw the Mauritanians ambushed and nearly defeated by AQIM. For days, the military refused to reveal the casualty list until the terrorists posted videos on the internet showing their war booty of large quantities of equipment seized from the Mauritanians. Mind you, these were new “elite” counter-terrorism units created for the purpose of fighting AQIM.

The Mauritanian army’s route in Hassi Sidi is a result of being poorly led by officers sitting in air-conditioned rooms hundreds of miles behind the front lines. Its NCO’s and troops have little motivation to spill their blood in a conflict they view to be of little consequence to them.

Uncertain of whether their families will be looked after, should they make the ultimate sacrifice like their fallen comrades over the last seven years, their own media tells them they would die not for their country, but on account of some far off Western official. After all had Spain, France, Germany and Italy for years not paid the terrorists millions of Euros to free hostages? If their enemies were armed to the teeth, it was certainly not their fault.

Plagued by a coterie of Francophone senior officers whose very language they can barely understand, Mauritanian grunts wonder why should they be spilling their blood as their bosses amass wealth and glory without ever setting foot in the desert’s scorching heat, let alone fighting along with them. For three decades, their officers were busy competing to outdo each other’s wealth and power.

General Aziz’s positions and commitment to any military operations has been somewhat of a work in progress. He first engaged in pre-emptive strikes at France’s behest against AQIM. Then changed his tone once the protest movement reached unprecedented heights last winter. Then stated more than once publicly that Mauritania will not participate, then the regime hinted that the country will offer logistical support. How come?

Mauritania’s strongman, General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, understood better than anyone that the Mauritanian army does not fight in shooting wars. He owes his very position of strongman to that maxim. his genius in toppling Taya was to play on the senior officers’ corps fears of a replay of the catastrophic Sahara war against the Polisario 30 years earlier: fighting a war was out of the question for them, even if it was a national interest.

in August 2005, then-president, Colonel Ould Taya gave a direct order to his military to hunt down AQIM’s precursor – the GSPC – after it attacked and killed Mauritanian soldiers in Northern Mauritania. That order was his last. his undoing was forgetting that in July 1978, after 3 years of warfare against the Polisario, he was among army officers that felt that a putsch was the only way to stop a war of choice. They swiftly deposed the country’s founding father Moctar Ould Daddah, then signed a cease-fire without any meaningful gains to justify the sacrifices made. However, let’s not forget that Mauritania’s entry in that war was in part a result outside interference– primarily fear of Morocco.

Plainly put, the psychological parallels between that period and today are fueling popular rejection of a Mauritanian intervention in Mali. All these factors account for the new Aziz Mali posture: if Mauritania’s borders are not attacked, and terrorist bases are not established within 200 km from its borders then Mauritania will not attack. All told, this is an elegant formula to reconcile the strongman’s internal needs with his needs for Western goodwill: Mauritania’s active involvement in the impending war.

A question worth considering for Western policymakers is: what is the potential political fallout in Mauritania from a military operation in Azawad? Will the Mauritanian military officer corps tolerate a high casualty count? Given that a good portion of the junior officers in the military are natives of regions bordering Azawad, what will their tribes do if they begin to die in big numbers? And the more important question of all: Do Western decision-makers have a Plan B in case things went bad for Mali’s neighbors during the upcoming intervention?

As we say in Mauritania: crooked sticks will always have crooked shades. Hedging so much on a strongman in the post Arab uprisings era is a risky policy. If the fallout in Mauritania from a war in Azawad is not realistically assessed on the basis of facts instead of wishful thinking about the regime’s considerable shortcomings, then we could end up with two failed states instead of one. A perfect host body for an already severe jihadi infection.





Mauritania’s Béni oui-oui

4 01 2013

 

Béni oui-oui

Béni oui-oui about to go to war..

 

Béni oui-oui is a North-African expression from the Frnech colonial period, it is based on the Arabic Beni (plural of Ibn meaning son of) and of the French oui. The term describes servile and automatic agreement of a group of people with any decisions by an authority.

During the recent vote in the Mauritanian parliament on the 2013 budget, MP’s from the UPR, Aziz’s majority “party” raised hell and demanded that the vote be repeated. They discovered that they had voted massively against their own government. Outraged that they backed an amendment introduced by the opposition to increase the Islamic Studies Institute (ISERI) which was exactly what the Finance Minister asked them not to do. Unfortunately for Minister Thiam Diombar, most Aziz’s majority party members did not understand his speech because it was in French. Apparently, the parliament does not have interpreters nor equipment to do the job. Once they got their way and the vote was repeated, they voted massively against the amendment. Noor info reports:

Retour à l’Assemblée Nationale, où les débats se poursuivaient avec des séquences dignes du “Guiness des Insolites”. C’est le cas de ce vote général par OUI des députés de la majorité et ceux de l’opposition en faveur de “l’augmentation du budget de l’ISERI” contre laquelle pourtant le ministre des Finances, Thiam Diombar s’était opposé. Se rendant compte de leur bêtise, les députés de la majorité demanderont à ce que le vote soit repris de nouveau.

Explication, certains députés de la majorité qui avaient voté “OUI” n’avaient pas compris l’intervention du ministre qui s’exprimait en français. L’absence de toute traduction des débats avait contribué à ce quiproquo. Revoté, l’augmentation du budget de l’ISERI a été rejetée cette fois par l’écrasante majorité des députés du pouvoir.

Democracy you say? Poor Mauritania and poor us for having a herd of Béni oui-oui commanding our destinies.





Fallen Heroes: Habib Ould Mahfoudh

4 01 2013

My generation of Mauritanians owes a great deal to the late Habib Ould Mahfoudh (1960-2001) His often censored French-language “Mauritanides” column in Le Calame were a rallying point for all of the country’s intellectuals. His writings were a study in irreverence, anti-conformism and a thorn in the military regimes’ side. Many of us classical liberal Mauritanians found solace and inspirations in his weekly columns. His beautifully written unflinching criticism of rulers, customs, tribes encouraged us to question the status quo.

His legacy ultimately is that he is one of the few truly beloved figures in the country. Affection for him crosses the ethnic divides. Moors love him for taking on their corrupt leaders, and tribal chiefs. Afro-Mauritanians remember him fondly as one of the few Arab intellectuals to denounce their oppression as it happened.

It is only befitting to embed above Maalouma Bint ElMeidah’s musical tribute to him. She is one of many he inspired to dissent. Her own journey ultimately led her to run and win a senator’s seat. You can find the entire collection of his Mauritanides columns here. It is a must read for anyone aspiring to better understand our part of the world.

His ringing denunciation of the logic and  opportunism of Mauritanian politicians who are always happy to support the ruler. The same people, the same names over thirty years remain unchanged. The only thing that changes is their party’s name: under Haidalla, it was the infamous Hayakil. Under Taya it was the PRDS, today under Aziz it is the UPR. Many of us tagged walls with his famous line: “to biscuit or not to biscuit, that is the pot’s bottom” mocking those who justify knowingly supporting dictators in order to feed their families.

To biscuit or not to biscuit, zat is le fond de la marmite. Une défense courante, la défense de ceux qui sont au pouvoir, quand on dénonce les abus, les incompétences, les insuffisances, les aberrations, est de dire: “Tous les autres pays sont passés par-là”. Oui. Raison de plus d’en tirer les leçons qui s’imposent. Quand votre guide tombe dans une crevasse, se foule le pied, se relève et continue en claudiquant, vous sentez-vous obligé d’en faire autant ou tout simplement d’éviter la crevasse? 
Il est désormais inutile de vouloir discourir à moins de sauver l’essentiel: nous-mêmes.





Arab Liberals and Gaza: Or Why We Must Re-Define Resistance

21 11 2012

“To be rational when everyone else is emotional makes you a traitor,” noted prolific twitterati Iyad El-Baghdadi after his Palestinian identity was questioned when he became critical of Hamas’ extrajudicial killing of five alleged Israel collaborators. Disturbed by the images of bodies dragged in the street by motorcyclists, Al-Baghdadi spoke his mind and paid the price on his twitter feed. Critics lashed out with nasty epithets of “house Arab” and “colonized Arab.”

Despite being the stateless son of refugees, El-Baghdadi is – in the minds of his fellow Arab Muslim detractors – not supposed to think outside of the box, or at least say his thoughts his out loud. Merely questioning Hamas’ behavior immediately became grounds for Al-Baghdadi’s core identity to be attacked and ultimately revoked. His transgression was to openly question the “wrong” side of the Israel-Palestine equation. The message, El-Baghdadi observes, is “you either uncritically adopt our narrative, or you’re not one of us.”

The outrage – so strong that it would brook no dissent – is ostensibly generated by the Israeli army’s attacks on Palestinian civilians. Yet, when Hamas or another faction blows up a city bus or fires rockets into a classroom it generates no outrage. Why? Many never say but the underlying rationalization of such overt war crimes is “resisting occupation by any means necessary and available” or the even more simplistic “we are oppressed.”

People thunder furiously about an op-ed by Gilad Sharon calling openly for Gaza to be leveled and holding Gazans responsible for their fate after having willingly voted in Hamas. And the Hamas charter that calls for all Jews to be killed? It cannot be explained – unless you actually agree.

El-Baghdadi’s example illustrates that delivering harsh criticism of Israel as well earns no immunity. In fact, he got himself in further trouble on Twitter for criticizing the cheapening impact of using words like “genocide” and “Holocaust” to describe the situation in Gaza. One notable Palestinian-American celebrity tweeted: “Every time I see Iyad El-Baghdadi retweeted my stomach turns and I feel sick.” (A separate but important discussion is exploring why so many Americans of Arab background can get even more riled up than folks on the ground – from the safety of America.)

As someone who frequently tweets in both Hebrew and Arabic, I know firsthand how group-think can become a form of tyranny that makes liberals remain silent whenever tensions flare with Israel. Any word or phrase can be used to level charges of being a traitor. Being re-tweeted by an Israeli can seal the verdict, allegedly providing ammunition for “hasbara” efforts (this is precisely what happened to Al-Baghdadi, compounding his ad hoc expulsion). Expressing genuine compassion for friends across the conflict line risks ex-communication from a community that one belongs to and cares deeply about.

But staying silent has its own terrible cost. It means acquiescing to Hamas’ values, which run counter to a moral core that holds sacred human life regardless of ethnicity or faith. It flattens multiple identities into an imposed internal stereotype of what an Arab is and believes. It also reinforces external stereotypes of Arabs as bloodthirsty barbarians stuck in a pre-modern clan mentality. Both stereotypes deny individuality and the essential human need to express compassion.

Across the Middle East and in the Arab Diaspora, there are millions who have cheered uprisings against repression, throwing off decades of stifling group-think and having the freedom to debate openly about the future. The last two years have been transformative precisely because old dogmas were finally challenged and discarded, at least in part. It is long past time to bring the same spirit to the Arab-Israeli conflict – and most importantly to how we talk about it to each other.

For some Arab liberals, this change has already begun. Arguably the most influential Lebanese blogger Mustapha Hammaoui recently published a post provocatively titled: “What is the proper ‘Arab’ way of talking about Gaza?” After criticizing commentators from across the Lebanese spectrum, his piece grew to a crescendo: “Does being Arab require that I protest loudly when innocent Palestinian children are killed, but that I completely give away my humanity and turn a blind eye when innocent Israeli children are killed?”

Hammoui’s rejection of this false choice offers hope and a way forward for Arab liberals. To avoid being held hostage to the whims of illiberal and obscurantist ideologues, we need a clear set of values for navigating the complex reality of identity and geo-politics. Here is my first attempt to articulate these values, which deserve a rigorous and open debate:

  • Be yourself and allow others to be themselves. Don’t impose ideologies.
  • Discussion is not treason – don’t expel people (Arabs have had enough of that).
  • Self-criticism and introspection are healthy because they help clarify the truth.
  • Criticizing and even denouncing Palestinian leaders does not mean abandoning the plight of Palestinians. In fact, it may be the best thing you can do for them.
  • Don’t let the Islamists set the agenda and use Palestine to delegitimize liberals.
  • Keep perspective: Bashar Al-Assad today has more civilian blood on his hands that any non-Arab oppressor.
  • Avoid whenever possible cheapening rhetoric like “Holocaust” and “martyrdom.” (And no need to be holier than President Morsi, who kept the Rafah Crossing locked, destroyed smuggling tunnels, and just certified the Muslim Brotherhood’s recognition of Israel.)
  • Stand up for liberal values with consistency, recognizing that reality is complicated and doesn’t always have simple solutions.
  • It’s okay to be friends with Israelis, Jews, athiests, gays, masons – as it should be with a conservative religious Muslim.
  • Feel free to disagree with me.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak out even if you feel alone and the mob comes for you. If no one else does, I still stand with you.

Arab liberals must avoid the temptation to take leave of our moral values whenever Israel enters the conversation. I do not have the solution to the conflict with Israel, but I know that having a sense of compassion and humanity can help lead the way. But in the end, our main challenge is not Israel, but rather our (in)ability to have a conversation without fear or self-censorship.

What we need now is a new resistance movement – to resist being co-opted by Islamists and nationalists whose price for belonging requires betraying core human values. Our resistance movement struggles to secure liberty of thought and to reject the false choice of barbarism or guilt. We need to set ourselves free. We have a third way: Be ourselves without fear.

Again, feel free to disagree with me.





Mauritania Water Uprising?

17 04 2012
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"Rest assured, it's either water or confrontation"
photo credit: Al-Akhbar.info

“Give us water or we will take you down” was the unceremonious welcoming General Aziz got today in Magta Lahjar (Brakna Province.) What was supposed to be another on-demand carnival tour of the Brakna province by Aziz’s loyalists, ended up with the strongman reduced to delivering a short speech on top of a car amidst “we want water” chants.

Magta Lahjar, like other towns in the country, saw a rash of protests over the government’s failure to provide drinking water, or basic services. For instance, Aziz was greeted with a wave of protests in Aleg (Brakna’s capital) culminating in arrests and beatings of the youth, many of them members of the UFP and Tawassul opposition parties.

Magta Lahjar’s protesters did not fair any better today; over 30 remain under lock. some were preemptively arrested earlier in the day after anti-regime slogans appeared on walls in the town.

The scene as reported in local media was one of an ambush quickly escalating into a classic street fight: protesters infiltrated the security ring pretending to be loyalists, then broke out in chants while fighting off the police’s attempts to flush them out.

Earlier this week, the authorities violently suppressed a February 25 youth protest in the capital Nouakchott, and a university student demonstration. Today, pro-regime thugs attacked opposition events in the northern cities of Atar (Adrar), and loyalists tried to sabotage an opposition event in the mining town of Zoueirate (Tiris Zemmour.) These attempts to interfere in opposition activities by regime loyalists are yet another warning sign that the crisis is rapidly escalating.

Overall, these events may not stand out in comparison to scenes from Mohamed Mahmoud street in Cairo, or even Sanabis in Bahrain. However, in a nation of 3.8 Million, they are unprecedented. This  trend is an entirely new phenomenon far surpassing the Kadihine (Maoists) golden age of street protests in the 70’s.

Far from being ephemeral, General Aziz is increasingly facing a comprehensive protest movement led by an emboldened opposition, and a population driven by the instinct of survival to demand urgent solutions to their most basic needs. Just to further complicate things for Mauritania’s ruler, the opposition is mobilizing for mass demonstrations on the second of May. Aziz will need more than water to put out these fires as he potentially faces either a generalized popular uprising, a coup d’etat, or both.

In Mauritania today, the equation is no longer democracy versus dictatorship, but rather water versus droughts.





#Mauritania: General Aziz’s image problem

14 03 2012
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Taqadoumy.com cartoon

Mauritania’s strongman was today in Nouadhibou to put on his own long-planned show of force. The crowd was estimated to range between 15000-20000 people.

This was no spontaneous affair. for months, government ministers and the UPR ruling party officials have been shuttling back and forth to Nouadhibou to prepare the rally. Originally, the visit was decided after local party bosses threatened to leave the ruling party a few months back in the fall of last year. The stakes became even higher after the opposition’s successful protests yesterday in Nouakchott.

On the form, the visibly tense General surrounded himself with his government ministers at the rally to present an image of a hands-on manager. Calling on each of them, or pointing at them throughout the one-hour speech, Aziz was intent on matching promises with faces. Without missing a beat, rattled off a series of promises of electricity, water, roads and civil state reforms. Visibly, the man was on a mission to show that he is a man of action and principles. This was a replay of his 2009 campaign theme of the “President of The Poor.” Only, this time, he is not facing any elections but a growing wave of protests after disillusionment with his policies, as well as, the lack of any tangible improvements to the country’s living conditions. 

On the substance, the General attacked vehemently his critics and opponents describing them as: “liars, thieves” and went further to simply state that they were “marginal, and inexistent opposition.” A strange thing for the strongman to say in the same breath as he claimed to be a democrat allowing opposition figures “to go on TV to lie and insult him.” In essence, this was a Qadhafiesque performance but on a shorter time schedule. 

Borrowing a page from Hugo Chavez’s playbook, Aziz’s message was a mix of populist grandiose promises of prosperity, and aggressive self-styling as a “man of the people.” However, lacking Chavez’s and Qadhafi’s oratory style, it still remains to be seen whether the man will win over his national audience with this performance. In his eagerness to mitigate the seriousness of the current crisis, the General went as far as denying that the country was on the verge of a famine claiming it to be “an opposition lie.”

Another singular moment was when the General attempted to stoke up nationalist and patriotic sentiments. Aziz alleged that Mauritania’s soldier, recently released by AlQaeda, was not free due to any negotiations. His explanation was that he, on principle, does not negotiate with terrorists but..that the soldiers was traded against a terrorist that was in Mauritanian custody. He further added that once handed over to the terrorists, the air force was prompt to bomb them. The raid was reported as having occurred over Malian territory, and to have missed its targets, hitting instead a truck loaded with goods.

The aggressive rhetoric is likely an attempt to repair the strongman’s tarnished image after a slew of corruption scandals since his 2008 coup. By far, the most serious among those was the scandal involving his own son Badr that sent shockwaves across Mauritanian society. 

The young man was released from police custody back in January after he shot a girl with a pistol lodging a bullet in her spine. The presidential family moved swiftly to save the son. it put immense pressure on the victim’s family and the Attorney General to avoid any legal pursuit of General’s son. Finally, the family’s victim received a substantial sum of money from the Aziz family in order to keep them quiet.

Arguably, today’s most awkward moment came just before the speech begun. A man was heard live on Mauritanian TV shouting: “Aziz we want jobs, Aziz we want jobs.” The sound was interrupted in the live broadcast, and the camera quickly shifted to people carrying signs praising the General. After all, one man in Mauritania can claim today that he gave the authoritarian ruler a piece of the people’s mind.





#Mauritania: Backdrop of An Anger Day Not on Your Media

13 03 2012

pic.twitter.com/kTpYRlPy

Photo Credit: @Billysidi


Today, the capital city Nouakchott has the largest opposition protest in the country’s recent history. Despite government attempts to limit participation in the protest by distributing free food in poor neighborhoods,  40000-60000 Mauritanians took to the streets to demand General Aziz’s departure from power. 

But before getting into the nitty-gritty of Mauritania’s political crisis, one has to understand why the situation is serious, and how the protest wave is not merely about political grievances, but rather about demanding speedy measures in order to preserve the very survival of a vast number of communities across the nation.

Average Mauritanians are railing from the relentless rise in basic consumer goods’ prices. Both the coastal urban centers (2/3 of the population) and the semi-nomadic communities in the interior  southern and eastern provinces. The latter are at the mercy of a drought threatening their very livelihood. Grain reserves are dropping to dangerous levels raising the specter of a famine in farming communities that in normal circumstances would sell, or trade, their excess reserves as means to get cash to provide for their other needs. Cattle-herding communities are equally vulnerable as they too are running out of grazing spaces for their livestock because of last year’s exceptionally bad rain season which normally start between August and October.

To further complicate matters, the ongoing Tuareg armed rebellion in Mali’s Azawad region, has effectively sealed off the traditional bad rain season alternative for Mauritania’s large camel herding communities in south-eastern Hodh region. In fact, 31000 Malians refugees crossed the border to seek refuge (1500 arrivals per day) thus adding to an already precarious food shortage crisis. The drought, and the refugee influx are the primary concern for Mauritanians, as opposed to foreign analysts (as evidenced by world media coverage) who seem to be more focused on the terrorist threat from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM.) To put it bluntly, it is seen in Mauritania as a “foreigners’ concern.”

Nouakchott’s mass protest were called for by the opposition parties after the regime’s so-called parliamentary brigades passed a constitutional reform with a series of amendments deemed illegal. Contrary to misleading reports on some foreign media,  the “reform” extends the parliament’s mandate after government’s failure to organize elections to renew it in October 2011 as mandated by the constitution

What is new today, as opposed to five years ago during the post-Taya transition, is that the demands of regime change are coming from the bottom of the social ladder, and not from the elites, as was the case before. This does not mean that the opposition parties are not active. it is rather about hardening attitudes, and a sense of impending catastrophe as General Aziz is seen by an increasingly vocal population as an obstacle to alleviating poverty and corruption.

The mood of defiance and self-confidence amongst protesters was best captured by one February 25 protest movement blogger. he pointed out that thousands of politically unaffiliated protesters turned out in the street despite the regime “deploying its secret weapon: Super Yayboy,” which is a type fish handed out today by the ruling party in poor neighborhoods to keep citizens away from the anti-government demonstration. This vignette aptly describes a regime that implicitly recognizes the extent of misery in the country, and yet is unwilling to take responsibility for its failures.  

The “Super YayBoy” strategy is likely to continue tomorrow Tuesday in Nouadhibou, where more fish is available, as General Aziz’s own party puts on a previously planned show of force for their boss. However, the problem for the General, and his party, is that the opposition too is hitting the streets there in a counter-demonstration to further drive the point home: it’s time to step down! 





#Mauritania #April25 Opposition MP’s Join Youth at Police Station Protest

26 04 2011

This video was shot today during the ongoing sit-in by the February 25 youth in front of the 4th district police station in Nouakchott where most of their detainees are thought to be held.
The protesters are joined by several opposition MP’s and leaders from the anti-slavery movement.
To an outsider this video is another banal protest, in fact, these very scenes show a new reinvigorated political discourse shaping the youth protest movement. The protesters have internalized the two main clean-break ingredients that allowed the Arab Spring to happen elsewhere:
- A post-ideological culture of civl rights
-A commitment to nonviolence
It’s worth also noting that the youth are camping up as we speak by the police station after they took over the plaza in front of the detention center. According to this blogger’s sources, the police is deliberately avoiding any direct contact with the protesters for fear of provoking a new round of mass protests as yesterday’s.
The government is rattled.




#Mauritania #April25 Detained Youth Leader in his own words

26 04 2011

AhmedJiddou.mp4 Watch on Posterous

Ahmed Jiddou, blogger, and February 25 movement activist speaking about his motives to come out to protest.He remains detained in an undisclosed location since his arrest yesterday during the April 25 Day of Rage.
He is a peaceful, nonviolent Mauritanian citizen who was exercising his constitutional right to express his dissent.
Video courtesy of @lissnup





#Mauritania #April25 Detained Youth Movement Members Pictures

26 04 2011
Freenouakchott7

These are photos of the February 25 youth movement members who were arrested yesterday April 25, 2011 by the Mauritanian government in Nouakchott during the Day of Rage protest in downtown Nouakchott. Some of them are held in an undisclosed location. The government still refuses to explain the reasons for their detention and their whereabouts.
Mauritania’s police has a long history of beatings, torture and mistreatment of political prisoners and detainees.
To date no human rights organization outside Mauritania has commented, covered or intervened on behalf of the protesters.
Picture courtesy of @Mauritanidem1








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