Mauritanian MPs duke it out: Thoughts

Yesterday, Jamil Ould Mansour and Slama Ould Abdellahi broke into what has been variously described as a “brawl” and “a violent fight lasting several minutes” after a back and forth of insults and profanities during a parliamentary session on the civil status law. Al-Akhbar, which tends to give favorable coverage to Ould Mansour’s Tawassoul party (relevant because other accounts are more ambiguous about which MP made it physical), described the incident as an “attack” by Ould Abdellahi. According to their account, Ould Mansour exceeded his time limit while making a speech. Ould Abdellahi made an intervention to protest the excess. The two began to bicker and the committee chairman called a recess for the two to cool off and reconcile. Reports are unclear as to who began the pushing and shoving but after a few minutes of struggle, parliamentarians from the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR, which also happens to be Ould Abdellahi’s party) “urged Ould Mansour not to respond to what he considered an insult”. The same report paraphrases Ould Mansour as expressing “his regret at the tendency of some parties toward violence rather than dialogue or discussion.” CRIDEM writes that Ould Abdellahi made an intervention during which various MPs called out at in opposition; Ould Mansour then made a series of comments deriding the composition of a committee looking at the marital status law which “did not take into account the different components of Mauritanian society.” During the recess, Ould Mansour come upon Ould Abdellahi “n a very tense discussion interspersed with malicious comments, before coming to blows.” Beyond the personal dimension, there are likely other factors at work.

Informed Mauritanian sources speculate that Ould Mansour’s efforts to work with the ruling party have been less successful than he anticipated. Ould Mansour, who has spent a great deal of time assisting in attracting and organizing Islamists for dialogues with the government on terrorism and ideology, for which he and his cohorts expect reciprocity on legislative items. That the leader of the Islamist tendency in parliament has been disrespected and had his policy suggestions directly challenged publicly on issues his constituency considers important is evidence of this. This is likely the result of their small size and the fact that they jumped ship from the opposition coalition to join the UPR’s bandwagon early on, which means they are politically vulnerable. According to a Tawassoul party activist, there is a growing sense that their cooperation with the president’s agenda has been in some way one-sided, though there is still a consensus that the party’s posture has been beneficial generally, but they see the government as not having responded to their efforts in kind. The party’s leaders put out statements critical of the government in recent weeks, evidence of their dissatisfaction.

The party’s move toward the president has proven more difficult than its strategists originally thought. Being a small party with fewer than five MPs and a marginal ideological base (which according to some accounts is narrow dispersed tribally and geographically), the party lacks the political weight to press forward their program alone. This makes them dependent on coalitions and alliances with larger parties for publicity, agenda setting and follow through. Consequently, breaking or altering the terms of cooperation with Tawassoul carries relatively few political consequences for a large or even medium-sized faction in parliament or elsewhere unless a question is exceptionally close. This is the opinion of some Mauritanian analysts as well. All this is goes to say that when looking at the writing on this blog and elsewhere (especially in the pan-Arab media) about the influence of Tawassoul or the Islamist tendency in general in Mauritania — even considering AQIM — there are myriad other issues aside from religion or ideology at stake and at play in Muslim societies.

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