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.





Dad Blogs About Azawad

29 12 2012

My father (1st from left) meeting Egypt’s Nasser during first Mauritanian official state visit to Cairo in July 1963

It is not every day that one can call their own dad a fellow blogger! My father, a retired diplomat and historian has been blogging more than I have of late. He produced a 12-part series on his Arabic-language blog “Ewrag Mussafir” (Travelers Notes) about the Azawad province in Mali. The series covers in short format the history, politics, sociology and ethnography of that troubled region.

It is a very useful contribution for Arabic-language readers explaining the background of the current upheaval in that region. Very few has been written of late in accessible language explaining a rather complicated and profoundly unfortunate fate of the peoples of Azawad.

Given the current context,  these writings also offer insights into how Mauritanians think of Azawad and their perspective on its affairs. My father’s views were informed by his diplomatic and journalistic career spanning over 4 decades, as well as, translating into Arabic of some of early 20th century French colonial sociologist Paul Marty‘s books about today’s Mauritania and Mali. Marty’s work was instrumental for France’s colonization of that area and informed its policies aiming to dominate that space.

the impending war in Azawad remains a highly unpopular prospect among Mauritanians who fear that the conflict would spill over into their own territory. Alas, I do not have much time to translate these posts. Hopefully, someone else would.





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
Image

"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 Opposition 43-page Rebuttal to General Aziz

18 03 2012

Mauritania’s opposition: National Unity Government, Now!

 

 

Mauritania’s Democratic Opposition Coordination Committee, a coalition of parties allied against General Aziz’s rule, issued on Thursday a 43-page document detailing the current regime’s failures across the spectrum. This document should be read, and viewed, on the basis that represents the views of the biggest factions of the country’s opposition. it provides fresh insights into the thinking of Mauritania’s super politicos on a host of issues, and the hierarchy of problems the country faces from their perspectives.

The authors summed up their views of Mauritania’s dire straits in the on the document’s first page: Political deadlock, institutional crisis, collapse of the Mauritanian State, impoverished citizens, rampant corruption, systematic pillaging of the country’s natural resources, military adventures, and diplomatic incoherence.

The information contained in the document is not new per se, what is new is that the opposition is demanding a national unity government and elections to remedy the unconstitutional parliament that lapsed back in November 2011. Additionally, the last chapter of the document (page 36) has a detailed discussion of the the fact that Mauritania’s institutions today are outside of constitutional legality. A fact, that very few outside observers have either picked on, commented, or even acknowledged.

That constitutional void has consequences beyond the internal political power struggle. For example, It would be worth pointing out to foreign investors that their recent agreements with Aziz are null and void– particularly mining companies that signed any deals with the current government after May 2011.

This is good news to Mauritanians because the current regime had previously signed egregious, and blatantly exploitative deals with foreign companies like Kinross Gold Corporation. That agreement leaves Mauritania with only %4 of the total proceeds of proven reserve of 7.46 Million Ounces of the Tasiast mine. This kind of deals is what is ultimately running the country to the ground by creating a Congo-like formula: Rich Country, Poor People.

It also would be very hard to argue that such deals are corruption-free. Conversely, the problem is that no one is scrutinizing any of these companies’ dealings in Mauritania.

In the final analysis, the facts about Mauritania’s reality speak for themselves: %69 of women, and %51 of youth between 18-24 are unemployed. This is a recipe for a disaster in the making if there are not political solutions to the current crisis.





#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! 








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