Mauritania’s campaign revolves around three candidates: Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Ahmed Ould Daddah and Messaoud Boulkheir. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall is also in play, but from at a Plutonian level relative to the others. Jamil Mansour (of Tawwasoul, the Mauritanian branch of the Muslim Brothers) and several other minor candidates float as well. Between these personalities there is a distinct difference in style between Ould Abdel Aziz and the others: pure and utterly shameless populism of a variety befitting of other times and other places. Playing on his record of routing the Israeli Embassy staff last winter (a victory which will put him in the annals of Arab military history), as well as popular sentiments in the country contra things Israel, Ould Abdel Aziz has made his distaste for Zionism part of his campaign persona. Not only has he attacked the opposition — Ould Daddah, but especially Ely Vall — but he has gone out of his way to bring the campaign to a place far off from what anyone in the Mauritanian electorate would ever describe as relating to their daily struggle. To recount some memorable moments in this facet of the campaign:
- Ould Abdel Aziz has been keen to make the breaking of ties with Israel a priority since last fall. There was his move towards the Libyan-Iranian camp last winter which resulted in the recall of the Mauritanian Ambassador in Tel Aviv and the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador in Nouakchott, and the “replacement” of the American Jewish Committee’s sponsorship for a cancer facility in Nouakchott with Iranian patronage. Ould Abdel Aziz actively made efforts to court Iran and Libya, with some success, during the Gaza bombardment and has played the anti-Israel tune since the Arab summit in Doha where he personally met with Iranian representatives on the sidelines with an eye towards this arrangement. This is a break with previous Mauritanian policy post 1999 when the country established relations with Israel; after the 2005, engineered by Ould Abdel Aziz, nothing was said of Israel and ties were kept up; in 2008, due to popular distaste for the coup and changes in the international structure, this change became profitable as the junta became internally isolated. The effort failed on the part of the truly radical states, who hoped it would embarrass moderate Egypt and Jordan, the other two Arab states with full and normal relations with Israel at the time (they needed no assistance in this). But it was successful securing in the junta short-term goals in terms of replenishing its cash supplies. This utility remains primarily short term, though.
- Pro-Ould Abdel Aziz cohorts have publicized his cousin and rival Ely Vall’s remarks on the Holocaust, made at a conference in Paris, where the former transitional leader (after the 2005 coup) said that “those who died in Nazi death camps were my brothers and sisters [. . .] in humanity.” (See here.) Vall’s campaign was quick to respond, “clarifying” the candidates previous statements and confirming his outrage at Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and downplaying his “sympathy” for the “enemy.”
- A letter, addressed to one Maria Solomon, regarding anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic tones and language in Ould Abdel Aziz’s campaign was circulated in the press, accusing Ould Abdel Aziz of taking on Iran’s posture and rhetoric in exchange for financial support while Mauritania was under sanction following the coup and of working against Mauritanian national interests by attempting to align the country outside of its own interests and inciting “hatred of US foreign policy and anti-Semitism in various ways”. The letter specifically called attention to Ould Abdel Aziz and did not mention the “army” as an institution outside of the context of the immediate coups of August last and 2005. This prompted a response from Ould Abdel Aziz himself, who told a crowd that some in the opposition accuse him and the military (though only he was mentioned in the letter) of being anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish but that “this is an honor for us, for we are against Judaism” (ضد اليهودية). Accusations from Ould Abdel Aziz and his supporters that the fellow associated with the letter (a prominent Nouakchott businessman and members of the opposition) have ties to the American Jewish community or other “Zionist” outlets have circulated as well. This in a country where the number of Jews is perhaps below ten — and none of them are indigenous.
Those familiar with Mauritania’s geography and history might ask themselves: Why is this part of the discourse in a Mauritanian presidential election?
- Populism: At one level this entire part of the discourse is a part of Ould Abdel Aziz’s general campaign style, which is reliant on a populist appeal, generally crude but in many ways innovative as far as Mauritania’s politics are concerned. He began this late last autumn, addressing audiences in Nouakchott’s poorest slums and by raising the issue of Mauritania’s (almost a) decade-old ties with Israel. He has also made corruption, rife under Ould Tayya and the transitional period under Ely Vall (now a rival candidate), and under the deposed Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi. He has accused both of the main opposition candidates, Boulkheir and Ould Daddah, of involvement in corrupt deals. This comes without any explanation as to the origin of the funds that finance Ould Abdel Aziz’s lavish lifestyle. He has attempted to rile popular anger over inequality and elite remoteness under the last president (many recall the lavish concerts thrown by Abdellahi’s wife, Khatou) to his advantage, though this has met limited success. Taking on the remnants of what was a popular cause lends legitimacy to a candidate who seized power illegally in what is now a rather widely unpopular coup. All this is in view of the fact that while Ould Abdel Aziz enjoys strong institutional support from those hoping to win jobs or ministries (especially among certain tribes and the military), he has little genuine appeal for most, beyond those seeking to maintain or expand their power by means of joining with those who appear most powerful at the moment. One will notice the bombast in Ould Abdel Aziz’s speeches as compared to Ould Daddah’s or most of Boulkheir’s, which many Mauritanians associate with a despotic impulse. Many would distinguish Ould Abdel Aziz’s populism from forms less homespun. In this case demagogy has proven the refuge of a reprobate.
- Undercutting the Islamists/Muslim Brotherhood: One will notice that outside of al-Jazeera and certain newspapers (like al-Akhbar) Jamil Mansour is scarcely a topic of discussion. His party, the mainstream Islamist party Tawwasoul has lost much ground as a result of Ould Abdel Aziz’s maneuvering with respect to Israel. Part of this was set on its own prior to the coup: after making Mauritania’s relations with Israel as a campaign piece in 2007, the joined the Abdellahi government on the condition that those ties would be put up to a referendum. It never happened, and the party remained in the government long after the promise was clearly broken and no movement was being made in its direction. This was the first blow. The second blow came when the party opposed the coup, and Ould Abdel Aziz moved forward with the dismantlement of the Mauritanian-Israeli relationship with the men who had made these very actions their plate of grievance for so many years. Given the long standing unpopularity of the relationship, and that Tawwasoul then looked inept and incompetent on this front, it makes sense that Ould Abdel Aziz would continue to coopt a major piece of their platform while their party chief stands in the elections.
- Patronage: As mentioned above, the shift against Israel came in exchange for support from Libya and Iran. What is ironic is that, as was written here earlier, Ould Abdel Aziz is moving to the camp of countries whose influence is tied to the price of oil, which was high when the realignment began, but is now somewhat lower. It is a gamble that promises to make Mauritania more vulnerable and less stable within the international system. It is also one that is unpopular: Libya‘s role in backing the junta was and remains massively unpopular among ordinary Mauritanians. Israel is not the first on anyone’s list of priorities in the country and making it an issue or bone of contention is not going to win or lose anyone the election. The Iranians might hope to make Mauritania an allied country, as hungry for friendship as they are, but the country is too far removed geographically for the Iranians to project any real force to or from there. At the least, the Iranians could send off Shi’i missionaries, and this would earn them to ire of the staunchly Sunni and Maliki Mauritanians; at the best it would provide a logistical base for the Iranians in West Africa, both in terms of those missionary efforts and their asymmetrical financial activities (which could tie into other Lebanese networks in West Africa). When the shift began, it was promising: it got the junta quick cash as they crossed red lines with the Americans and Europeans; but now, it simply makes Ould Abdel Aziz appear like, as one Mauritanian put it, a “tinpot Ahmadinejad” — without an ocean of oil.
In any event, given this, there is one sure thing that will result from the Mauritanian presidentials, regardless of who wins or loses. The Foreign Minister the junta recruited from Harvard, Mohamed Mahmoud OuldMohamedou , has practically no future in the Ivy League, if certain circles in the United States catch wind of his boss’s pride in anti-Judaism.