A Mauritania Outlook

SUMMARY: In December this blogger spoke to small audiences about some of the issues facing Mauritania going into 2013. This post is built on the bullet-point notes prepared for these presentations, which were open to the public and represent only his views. This blogger is often more pessimistic than others (bias, admitted) and anticipates an eventful year in Mauritania. Protest movements are likely to grow in size and intensity. In thinking about Mauritania at this stage it is important remember that in trying for the best case it is possible to produce the worst. Much depends on whether fair elections are held and if the government fulfills its responsibilities to fill constitutionally mandated offices. At the same time, elections or appointments regarded as suspect by opposition currents may reinforce stalemate and gridlock. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that increasing western support for Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will feed into existing opposition sentiments that regard the current regime as illegitimate and the international community as more or less complicit in its exploit and excesses. The strong likelihood that Mauritania will be drawn into the French/ECOWAS-led intervention (this construction is deliberate) in northern Mali increases this possibility as Ould Abdel Aziz is likely to continue be seen as a basically reliable partner in regional counter-terrorism efforts (for a summary of this view in the American press see here; for a Mauritanian rebuttal of this line of thinking see here). Furthermore, the president’s reputation and relationship with the military may be a source of further instability emerging from potential war casualties, internal personal and political disagreements and potential shifts in the political scene. Trouble can be avoided but outsiders have serious challenges to ponder and should not assume away or downplay the very significant risks in the country stemming from basic qualities in its leadership and political system.

Tension between the opposition and Mohamed Ould Abdel Aizz’s government will continue. The continuation of the country’s constitutional crisis — its legislature and judiciary are both either beyond their mandates or await key appointments the government has simply not organised or made — suggests that opposition currents will continue to radicalise and protests will continue and intensify. The government will likely continue to treat the youth (the 25 February movement, which looks to imitate the Arab spring protests), ethnic (‘Touches pas à ma nationalité,’ which grew out of concerns over the conduct of the census), labor and other protest movements that emerged from 2011 with a kind of rigid contempt. These groups will probably continue to seek more aggressive concessions from the regime. The RFD, UFP and Tawassoul will all likely seek to appeal to growing populist currents in the country.

The political opposition, especially in the COD will likely continue to call for the president to step down and will likely find agreement with ex-military leaders who have already encouraged him to leave office. It is unclear that the opposition will coalesce into a credible, unified bloc that can force the president’s hand on elections or on reform in general. Instead, it is likely that the regime will seek to play certain COD parties against one another (as it has in the past), with some potential for success. Still, popular dissatisfaction with deteriorating socio-economic conditions and resentment over corruption will incentivise these parties taking more and more hostile positions toward the president. Messaoud Ould Boulkheir — Mauritania’s most prominent Haratine politician and president of the National Assembly — will face increasing pressure to distance himself of the president. Over the last year Boulkheir’s participatory strategy has been seen as less and less effective and increasingly frustrating or younger Haratine leaders, among whom his reputation has suffered. It increasingly appropriate to write ‘if elections’ are held in 2013 to make up for the absence of scheduled parliamentary elections in 2011 and provide the ruling bloc with more public legitimacy; still, legislative elections may help the government recover some lost credibility. Youth and the formal political opposition will probably identify foreign countries — especially France and possibly the United States with supporting Ould Abdel Aziz when a military intervention in Mali eventually takes place. Reforming the country’s lopsided civil-military relations will continue to be a major focus for opposition currents. Indeed, demonstrations in November called for an end to French ‘tutelage’ and it is not impossible that such sentiments could turn to other western governments as Ould Abdel Aziz’s style of rule is seen as increasingly intolerant of dissenting currents. The rigidity of certain lines of dissent in the opposition — especially those calling for the president’s removal from office — also contributes to this situation and is unlikely to change without significant moves on both sides that increase basic trust in the system overall.

Leadership qualities in president Ould Abdel Aziz will complicate the political process. Ould Abdel Aziz views his opponents with contempt and is unlikely to put himself at risk of losing power — . Mauritanian contacts sympathetic to the opposition view him as seeking to establish a long-term political arrangement with himself at its centre. This prospect would appear to have appeal for some western policy makers, who view Ould Abdel Aziz as an ally against terrorism capable of staying in office into the foreseeable future. Yet Ould Abdel Aziz’s style of corruption is seen as too narrow even by members of his own party (which has seen internal dissent and defections in the last year), and his personality, as some have argued, assists him in making enemies. He has abandoned (or been abandoned by) significant allies who now reside overseas over what are reportedly relatively minor personal squabbles. And the fact that most seem to believe his October shooting was the result of a personal spat between the president and an officer suggests that these qualities have serious political implications for his ability to stay in power through the end of his term, and his ability to quell unrest. Added to this is the president’s tendency to centralise and overwhelm his subordinates in decision-making processes. Rash decisions could severely alienate even close allies.

The Mauritanian military is seen by many westerners as among the most competent in the region when it comes to fighting AQIM — it has been willing to engage its enemy in Mali and take casualties. It has received training and assistance from France and other western governments. Its performance in clashes with AQIM has been variable, though probably unmatched in scale by other militaries in the region (including Niger and Mali). Nonetheless, political uncertainty in Mauritania and the region should cause those who see the Mauritanian armed forces as the ideal tip of the spear in Mali to tread cautiously. Mauritanians remember the disastrous war with the Polisario and its massive political consequences well.

The relatively high probability that Mauritania will be drawn into the conflict in Mali through an international intervention makes it more likely the country will see political instability resulting from military and/or civilian causalities in Mali and potential retaliation from the armed groups there. Mauritanian participation in a war in Mali is politically controversial and particularly unpopular with certain parts of the political elite who are ambivalent about the prospects for success, however defined. The men who will likely do the bulk of the fighting in an intervention hail the zones along the Mauritania-Mali border; if casualties are high, as they have been in some of Mauritania’s significant encounters with AQIM, there is a potential for this to contribute to instability inside Mauritania. The military’s morale is likely to be vulnerable to fluctuation as a result of performance and the country’s internal politics. Major changes in Mauritania’s politics have been strongly linked to shocks in the military: the humiliations and casualties in the war with the Polisario precipitated the 1978 coup, which brought the army to the forefront of Mauritanian politics; the 2005 GSPC attack on the Lemghiety outpost had then president Maouiyya Ould Tayya calling up his generals to hunt the terrorists in the desert. They overthrew him instead, led by Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Ould Abdel Aziz has said on multiple occasions that Mauritania would not participate in an intervention, later changing his tone or his commitment later, recently saying in interviews that Mauritania would only fight if attacked. Here he is playing to domestic constituencies, civilian and military, who are skeptical of whether the risks of backing a western-backed ECOWAS intervention are worth the potential costs. France’s strikes in Mali are likely to drive the Islamist coalition there out of the big cities and toward the frontiers, probably near to Mauritania. Because of its consistent posture over the last several years, Mauritania and its president are high value targets for AQIM and its allies for retaliation at symbolic and directly reciprocal strikes. The stakes are higher than the amount of attention most media accounts of events in Mauritania allow. Things will not get easier or less complicated in 2013.

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