A Way of Thinking About Algeria and Mali

SUMMARY: This post follows other posts that have looked generally at Algeria’s perception of the Mali crisis and its role in its resolution. It examines the role of the Algerian press and the availability of public sources for analysts trying to make sense of a vexing problem. Pleased by Peter Tinti’s writing on the subject of late (see ‘Understanding Algeria’s Northern Mali Policy,’ Think Africa Press, 05 October 2012; which is great because it is concise which this blog never is), which tracks closely with this blogger’s own view expressed in the past, this blogger has decided to continue to dump thoughts and analysis on the subject in hopes of advancing a better analytic understanding and approach to the situation insofar is this is possible until time allows for more detailed and aggressive treatment elsewhere.

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On the Dismissal of Naha Mint Mouknass

Mauritanian Foreign Affairs Minister Naha Mint Mouknass(R) poses with Libya's Secretary of the General people's committee for Foreign Affairs Moussa Koussa in Tunis during the opening of the meeting gathering five Foreign Affairs ministers of the Arab Magreb Union (UMA) and five from the European Union.Naha Mint Mouknass was dismissed from the post of Foreign Minister last week. This is significant with respect to Mauritania’s relations with Libya, one of its principal Arab patrons as well its overall foreign policy.

Background: Foreign Minister since August 2009, Mouknass was the first woman to hold the post in Mauritania. Mouknass came to the office with excellent political credentials: the daughter of a celebrated Foreign Minister whose business savvy made their small El-Guera’a tribe an important political force in the country’s north. She was an advisor to the country’s pre-2005 strongman Maaouiya Ould Tayya and headed up the small political party Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès (UDP) and sitting on the parliamentary Foreign Relations Commission. She also had and retains extremely close ties to Libya.

During the 2005-2007 transition Mouknass spent a year in Tripoli where she cultivated extensive ties to Mu’amar al-Qadhafi’s inner circle. She became particularly close with Nouri al Mismari (later a representative to Paris), a chief Qadhafi advisor who became her key link to Qadhafi. Following the 2008 coup, then-general Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz sought Libyan support to balance off western sanctions and gain critical financial support. After Ould Abdel Aziz cut Mauritania’s ties with Israel, Qadhafi became Mauritania’s main backer in North Africa (along with Morocco, whose motivations were separate) and Mouknass’s appointment following the 2009 election reflected these close ties. Mouknass, like others involved in the Libyan portfolio, gained political clout and wealth from her proximity to Qadhafi and Libyan investment in Mauritania’s politics and economy. Her dismissal is thus significant. The day after the UNSC-backed bombing campaign began in Libya, the Mauritanian government seized land sold to Libya to build the al-Fatah Hotel. Thus might lead one to deduce that her removal may signal a move away from Qadhafi on the part of president Ould Abdel Aziz but this is most likely not the case (recall Ould Abdel Aziz’s call to Qadhafi at the beginning of the crisis and the measured tone of the Foreign Ministry statement on the crisis last month).

Sacked: During the Paris Conference on the Libyan no-fly-zone, Mauritania hosted (at Nouakchott) the Meeting of the AU High-Level ad hoc Committee on Libya, made up of Mauritania, Mali, Congo, South Africa and Uganda as well as AU Commission chief Jean Ping. The Paris summit included representatives from the UN, Arab League, US and a host of NATO countries contributing to the no-fly-zone — and France had invited the AU. The Nouakchott meeting may thus been seen as an important snub by the African Union against the mainly US-European backed effort against Qadhafi — which does indeed feature symbolically important Arab support from the Gulf countries and the Libyan resistance (it should be noted that the unanimous Arab League resolution endorsing the no-fly-zone passed with only 11 countries (according to early reports, which would mean there was oddly no official quorum) present and the infamous abstentions from Algeria and Syria; the absences are perhaps more important than the vote itself; readers are invited to clarify/confirm the list of attendees at the meeting).

The Nouakchott communique called for an “immediate cessation” of violence in Libya and called on the government in Tripoli to allow humanitarian aid to reach those in need and to consider necessary political reforms. It stood in direct distention from the consensus represented in Paris, noting in dissatisfaction that the Commission requested permission fly to Libya to “deal with” the situation and was “denied permission” to enter the country. In terms of Mauritania it showed that Ould Abdel Aziz was confident enough in Qadhafi to shun France, still Nouakchott’s major patron with significant leverage, in a time of crisis. Thus it was critical for all things to go well and for all segments of the policy process to be in sync.

Enter the Foreign Minister. Mint Mouknass withheld the policy statements she wrote for the president from the rest of his entourage and presented it to him directly on the day of the meeting, breaking protocol and causing friction within the inner circle which attendees detected. This is the reason given to queries regarding her dismissal. Rumors and press reports say she will continue to serve as an advisor on Libya, Iran and Palestinian issues though this is not independently verified. It is additionally postulated, and very probably accurate, that she was dismissed as a result of Nouri al-Mismari‘s defection from the Libyan regime which came at the same time as other Libyan diplomats were resigning their posts in protest of atrocities committed against the resistance (al-Mismari was a counselor at the Libyan Embassy in France and chief of protocol until the crisis; his son resigned as a representative to Ottawa on 23 February). Al-Mismari’s defection cut out Mouknass’s key link to Qadhafi, reducing her value politically, and her dismissal likely reflects messaging from Ould Abdel Aziz to Qadhafi with respect to his stance on the defections. This does not represent Mouknass being ejected from the regime but rather a situational adjustment. It does, however, represent the potential impact of the defections that have rocked Libya’s diplomatic corps.

Otherwise: Mauritania’s post-2008 foreign policy has relied heavily on three important factors: 1) Mauritania’s centrality to the AQIM problem in the Sahel and western governments’ perceptional bias for stabilizing forces “tough on terrorism,” which makes military men like Ould Abdel Aziz strategically useful against international terrorism and violent extremism. This has helped to securitize western policy toward Mauritania and led to hesitance to cut off military and economic aid and the linking of internal political consolidation to security issues generally (this is more persuasive to foreigners than Mauritanians in general); 2) The leveraging of favor from wealthy Third World powers such as Libya, Venezuela, Iran and Qatar against western efforts to force political action and/or reform by slashing aid or political ties, thus allowing the junta and then government of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to consolidate himself internally and wait out western (primarily US and French) efforts to pressure him politically ahead of the 2009 elections and the Dakar process and; 3) International business networks with interests in Mauritania linked to and overlapping with powerful western, mainly French, political actors. The downside of this has been that it does not endear him to France and positioning himself so close to Qadhafi and against the French position in the current crisis — at a time when France has been attempting to be a conspicuous leader. This may reduce Paris’s willingness to engage or reach out to Ould Abdel Aziz in the event of a crisis in Mauritania, which could arise from recent protests that have only escalated in the last two weeks (Ould Abdel Aziz’s relationship with Qadhafi is also increasingly unpopular domestically). Thus the Mauritanians for the time being are more vulnerable at this stage in the Libyan crisis (and their own) as a result of their relationship with Qadhafi than they were at the beginning and the level of political risk associated the current protest movement has slightly increased.

Experiments in Map-Making

Previously, this blogger complained about popular maps of North Africa as it related to AQIM, particularly in English-speaking media. Below are some rough, experimental maps that attempt to show some of the priorities discussed last week’s post on some of the politics between the various actors in the Maghreb-Sahel region. Nothing here is perfectly depicted or with total accuracy, but they are a start toward … something. [UPDATE: Another map, after the jump.]

1. In the first map represents the priorities discussed in the posts referenced above.  Algeria, Libya and Morocco are colored blue as key actors while other relevant local actors are colored tan. Senegal is not included, though it might be advisable to include that country (as well as Gambia). The black arrows indicate “geopolitical thrusts” and are highlighted to indicate priorities according to understandings of political, economic, social and military efforts as expressed in the posted mentioned above (under “intra-regional squabbling”). The yellow arrows indicate indirect influence or the independent influence of secondary actors.  Because this map is concerned with intra-regional priorities and interests, it does not include the behavior or priorities of western actors directly. The large number of vectors make it … potentially quite confusing.

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Thoughts on “Open” Space and AQIM

The map at right is attached to an AFP article titled “Freeing Sahel Hostages by Force is too Risky — Experts“. It depicts the travel warnings issued to citizens by France (and other foreign powers) in the wake of recent AQIM activities, especially in Niger and Mali. It makes obvious some points that have been made here less overtly: Continue reading

UPDATE: Another Summary of the Hassi Sidi Events

AQIM claims to have defeated the Mauritanian Army in last weekend’s series of clashes in Mali. The Mauritanians, of course, deny any such defeat. AQIM claims to have killed close to 20 Mauritanian soldiers while the Mauritanian Ministry of Defense has announced only 6 of its own fatalities while killing 12 AQIM militants (AQIM acknowledges this) and taking 6 as prisoners. More contentious, perhaps, are AQIM’s claims to have spooked the Mauritanians so badly that they caused those they did not kill to flee, leaving their vehicles and equipment behind. AQIM’s version of “the Battle of Hassi Sidi,” complete with a summary has been posted online (there is no link here for the same reason as in the previous post on AQIM KIA; the information comes from the same forum). Highlights are below. Following this are some thoughts on a report that Mokhtar Belmokhtar was found dead in Mali. Continue reading

Update RE: Raids against AQIM in Mali

Here is the text of the update added to the previous post regarding the Franco-Mauritanian raid near the Malian-Mauritanian border. It was added as point 5 in the original summary and is reproduced here to make it more readable. The only difference between the text here and in the previous post is its organization. Below the numbered information are maps showing the vicinity of the two raids mentioned — Araouane (the Franco-Mauritanian one) and the area around Tessilit and the Tighaghar Mountains (the Franco-Algerian one). Continue reading

More Fast Thoughts

Nouakchott seems to be awash with rumors of a deal with France regarding a possible prisoner exchange. According to knowledgeable sources in and outside of Mauritania, rumors that Joyandet’s visit to Nouakchott would be used to press the Mauritanians to  to meet AQIM’s demands over a Frenchman kidnapped in Niger are credible. These sources say that a prisoner swap was at the top of the agenda at Alan Joyandet’s meeting with president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and that the two reached some kind of an understanding on this early. It is said that this came with assurances of French solid support (including financial aid) for Ould Abdel Aziz pending his compliance with this request. Ould Abdel Aziz would release (presumably) Salafist prisoners and AQIM would release the French citizen currently held. Additionally, other sources say that Ould Abdel Aziz planned to leverage his relations with Mohamed Hassan Ould Dedew to manage Islamist opinion regarding last week’s verdicts. He was initially embarrassed by Ould Dedew’s comments but after the Aleg 3 may be more comfortable.

The French also registered their opposition to the death penalty, which may help the government in maneuvering away from Sidi Ould Sidina, Mohamed Ould Chabarnou and Maarouf Ould Hiba’s death sentences; executions are highly impolitic in Mauritania, as they risk upsetting tribal relations. Given that at least one of the killers comes from a large tribe, and that all three have launched appeals, it is seems possible for their sentences to be commuted in the future. But, as many in the media have noted, the episode is the first of its kind in Mauritania and many things are in play.

Ould Abdel Aziz’s visit to Khartoum for the inauguration of Omar al-Bashir was a demonstration of support and gratitude (for al-Bashir’s advice and backing earlier). He is now preparing for a visit Paris (as well as Nice, for independence celebrations). Also abroad this week was General Mohamed Ould Ghazouani (the second most powerful figure in the regime) has been in discussions with French and Chinese officials. His mission to Beijing includes military and economic issues (with emphasis on the economic side; think fish). The outcome of both Paris visits will be especially relevant, as will be the results of the Brussels donors meeting. The economic situation (especially in agriculture) will make this summer a rough one and the government knows that it will need as much help as it can get. Workers’ strikes are threatened, staged or obstructed almost weekly (more on that later) and the opposition has capitalized on several of them thus far. More are likely to come as the summer progresses.

UPDATE: Ould Abdel Aziz’s original plan was to travel directly from Khartoum to Paris; he re-routed his travel arrangements so that he could head to Paris from Nouakchott. According to local sources this was a quick and abrupt return and its purpose is still obscure.

O. Abdel Aziz in Tehran: More thoughts

Mauritanians place a high value on pragmatism. The Essentialist would have it that they are “by nature” pragmatists; the country’s politics and foreign policy would support the claim.  When Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz traveled to Iran and met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei predicted the destruction of Israel and described a united Muslim effort against it, one would assume that in sitting so closely to so polarizing a leader the Mauritanian President was getting something substantial in return. Ould Abdel Aziz has used anti-Israel language to great effect since seizing power in 2008; this was justified as a means of gaining financial support from wealthier “radical” states — Libya and Iran especially — because western governments cut aid in protest of his coup. Since the 2009 election, though, Ould Abdel Aziz has been rehabilitated by Mauritania’s major partners, notably France. He was given classical treatment during his visit to Paris last autumn. But he has consistently moved to engage and bring in other actors into his patch of Francophonie; not just Libya, but Venezuela and Iran as well. The French are not happy about his visit to Tehran; there is a rumor among some diplomatic circles that Ould Abdel Aziz received a bitter message from the French, so worrisome that he departed more hastily than planned. Knowledgeable people believe that the process leading up to that visit, with all the Francafrique cash-flow it entailed (which is too much to get into here) convinced Ould Abdel Aziz that he could buy off the French and carry on however he would like; the French do not seem to be one of mind with him there.

Three agreements were signed at Tehran, all related to development or finance; notably a guarantee of 500 taxis and 250 buses (to help reduce urban congestion). Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will visit Nouakchott sometime in the near future. The pragmatists would seem to be utterly unimpressed. Ould Abdel Aziz has been an annoyance to many in Washington, not simply for his coup, but for his anti-Israeli rhetoric and action. But because this is a small country largely irrelevant in the actual goings on of the Palestinian issue, it is not difficult to shrug it off and offer a little less money to its government. The whole thing carries the double mantle of Islamic solidarity and south-south cooperation. It forces more consideration. Continue reading

Mauritania: “Business as usual,” the business of failure

“It’s a new hour in our history,” Chavez said today. “We have many great leaders, many of them here today.”

Chavez, Qaddafi Seek Africa-South America NATO, Bank,” Bloomberg, 27 September, 2009.

Yesterday, the Venezuelan president hosted a pow-wow of African and Latin American leaders, dressing themselves in the language of South-South cooperation, Third Worldism and all the rest of what today’s dictators and despots use to form perversions of what were once “progressive” ideologies. Mauritania was in attendance, its delegation said to include among others Sid Ahmed Ould Taya, the former president that sitting Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz deposed in 2005 — a mistake on the part of the Venezuelans, showing the depth of their solidarity with Mauritania and Mauritania’s own marginality even among the most pointlessly rebellious of marginal states. Mauritania’s participation in the summit, which Ould Abdel Aziz’s government hoped to hold up a success, came after Venezuela’s Chavez announced plans to build an oil refinery in Mauritania. Things are not quite so sunny, though. Continue reading

Qadhafi at the UN: the face of everyone’s misdeeds

Muammar al-Qadhafi is most diplomatically called problematic. In his grand exposition of his foreign policy, the Stream of Consciousness Policy, he succeeded, as his diplomatic corps and conduct has before, the Brother Leader ably turned the world away from pressing issues facing the developing world. Rambling on about a host of issues, some more relevant in 1969 others more relevant today, he offered the world community perhaps the greatest fit of foolishness yet seen on the world stage. And he, together with the Western and African leaders who coddle him, has done more damage to the cause of the disenfranchised than any other man this year. It makes one consider that it may be true that “to do and suffer evil is the universal human condition.” Continue reading

Mauritania bombing update

Some updates on the attack in Mauritania. All things are pointing to AQIM, and it indicates a greater level of integration of the Mauritanian branch with the GSPC mainframe. It also shows the danger of the Mali camps and how poorly prepared the Mauritanian security forces have been for this kind of challenge. Continue reading

Suicide bombing in Mauritania

Yesterday a suicide bombing — Mauritania’s first — seriously injured one Mauritanian and wounded two Frenchmen in Nouakchott. The attacker detonated at the foot of the “corner of death,” a spot known for traffic accidents, an uphill turn heading toward the French Embassy, but  closer to the UAE and Libyan ones. His target was the French Embassy, and the two wounded Frenchmen were embassy security. The culprit, Ahmedou Ould Sidi Ould Vyh al-Barka, hailed from Arafat (though it is disputed at this point whether he is from Arafat near Nouakchott or Arafat near Boutlimit) and was 22. He had no record with the security forces. Al-Akhbar has published images of his remains along with a story about the damage done. On the ground, it is said that it took authorities half an hour to respond, with neighbors and other locals meandering through and contaminating the site. On al-Arabiyya, Aljazeera and France24 reports one can see locals easily strolling through the crime scene between barricades. No group has yet claimed responsibility.

Politically, the attack is something that President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will want to use to his benefit. His election was hotly disputed and there is some skepticism around the legitimacy and legality of his rule in Washington, Europe and parts of the AU. Certainly, his toughest critics are at home, where oppositionists accuse him of setting up a dictatorship. In his terse remarks at his inauguration last week, he renewed his vow to combat terrorism. This line of speech is aimed at winning the support of Western governments, paranoid about the spread of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and worried that poor, hungry and Muslim Mauritania might find itself in a heap of trouble if that organization were to gain serious ground. So here is his opportunity to curry the favor of such governments: a suicide bombing, hardly minutes from both the French and American embassies. Surely Mauritania requires the support of all nations in combating terrorism and extremism. The French, understandably and predictably, have extended their hand to the government, reaffirming their support for Ould Abdel Aziz.

The French Secretary of State for Cooperation said it was unclear that the attack is linked to AQIM or that the Embassy was actually the target; instead he believes it may have been related to last month’s election result. He added that “of course, France welcomed the results, so we cannot deny that France is a target.”

The Secretary has a point. The transcripts of interrogations of Mauritanian AQIM operatives indicate in multiple places that the Mauritanian branch explicitly rejects the use of suicide bombing as a matter of principle, because it holds the potential to kill too many civilian Muslims. In their view, the tactic would alienate AQIM from Mauritanian Muslims. Thus, the organization has made  a very concerted effort to attack only non-Muslim foreigners and the security forces. Yesterday’s attack marks the first use of suicide bombing in Mauritania.

The attack and its vicinity.

Not everyone has been eager to accept the new government, suicide bombings and al-Qaeda or not. Former French Ambassador to Nouakchott, Bertrand Fessard de Foucault, wrote an essay titled simply “I am ashamed,” cataloguing the rather dingy color of France’s involvement in Mauritanian affairs of late. Viollette Daguerre,  head of the same Arab human rights organization that came down harshly on just about everyone immediately after the election, issued another report slamming France and others for turning the blind eye to violations of the political processes. Hanafi Ould Daha, jailed editor of the popular internet newspaper Taqadoumy, was prevented from reading his opening remarks at trial. He is charged with using the website for slander. It is biting, written in real bedouin style, talking up free speech and slamming his jailers — putschists, generals and even the court. Its text is on Taqadoumy. Mauritanians take these things quite seriously.

Responses to articles on the attack in the Arabic internet media are telling. A response to an initial report on the attack exclaimed “rid us of the General and then we will call you a shahid (martyr)!” Others decry the attacker’s stupidity, mocking his Haratine origins. The Mauritanians are angry, as they have been in the wake of just about every terrorist attack over the last however many years. As much as there is disgust and frustration with the bombing, much of that is channeled back at the regime. While the bombing is the biggest Mauritanian “story” to catch western media attention since the election Mauritanians are more concerned with other troubles related to legitimacy and creeping despotism.

Post-election Mauritania Brief

http://www.middle-east-online.com/pictures/big/_32414_mauritania-coup-leader.jpgBrief analysis of and thoughts on the 18 July, 2009 elections as things stand on 20 July, 2009. Corroborated through contacts in Mauritania, Algeria and the US. Continue reading

Scoundrel or Statesman? The case of Ely Ould Mohamed Vall

It was a stirring start. Before some two thousand supporters, many of them former ministers and high power business people, fmr. Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall began his address. Immediately, the power at the convention center cut out, leaving the entire venue without light. Through the darkness, Vall announced to his supporters that not even electrical failure would stop him from being elected president of Mauritania. Continue reading

Bigotry dressed as gallantry: Sarko and the burqa

France’s strict secularism, entrenched by law since 1905, keeps religion firmly out of the state sphere. There are no religious studies (let alone nativity plays) in state schools, nor may public workers sport the headscarf. The government denies that such policies constrain religious freedom or are especially aimed at Islam. France welcomes private Muslim schools. Mosque-building is widespread. The 2004 headscarf ban outlawed “conspicuous” religious symbols of all faiths. Yet there are growing worries about the spread of hard-line Islamism in the heavily Muslim banlieues.

Now that Mr Sarkozy has publicly condemned the burqa, the chances of a ban have risen sharply. Parliament has launched a cross-party mission to report back in six months. In fact, few women wear the full garment in France. But mayors of cities with big Muslim populations report a steady increase in numbers, due not to immigration but to its adoption by French-born women—often from North African countries where the burqa is not traditionally worn.

France ponders a burqa ban: No covering up,” The Economist, 25 June, 2009. Continue reading

On Obama’s Cairo speech

Official and unoffficial reactions to Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University are out, and the minds of many have been made up. Here are this blogger’s reactions to some of its major points, thematically, with emphasis on criticism, not genuflection (for the former is more valuable than the latter). Continue reading

France First

Various European envoys are heading to the region, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy as well as a separate group led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. The Czech government took over the rotating presidency of the European Union from France at the start of 2009.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana is traveling to the region as well, as is Tony Blair, the envoy of the powers sponsoring Middle East peace talks. Russia has also dispatched an envoy.

Critics have accused Sarkozy of seeking attention and impeding EU efforts to broker a cease-fire.

Middle East Crisis: Israel Continues Assault as Europe Struggles to Mediate,” Der Spiegel, 5 January, 2009.

France is the chair of the Security Council. Though I think Sarkozy is certainly looking for attention and prestige, he has a place in the mediation efforts. I’m not sure I’d say that France’s president necessarily ought to be speeding to the region, as it would seem to weaken the notion of a unified European effort, but this is Sarkozy’s style. It may not be especially productive, but it adds to his personal prestige and France’s at large; And it makes the Germans grumble. It’s all about perception. It is not all that dissimilar from Kissinger’s “secret meetings” with the North Vietnamese in Paris. They accomplished very little from a policy angle, but made Kissinger appear much more powerful in the United States.

Month end Mauritania runthrough

Nouakchott or Lemden?

A recent skit by a Mauritanian comedy team satirized the life and times of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. After being sent home as a gift to his native Lemden, the former president settles in and begins hosting members of the opposition (i.e. the FNDD) and soon foreign diplomats follow. Sidi is pleased but others are not: “Thank you so much for visiting,” his brother tells them in exasperation, “but stop telling this guy he is our president, he’s not!” Continue reading

A bad few weeks for the junta

Things do not seem to be looking up for the Mauritanian junta, especially in foreign affairs. The junta continues to avoid shrewd politics on the African continent, and to make major PR blunders on the human rights front. General Abdel Aziz’s hunger for power and his stubbornness seem to be hindering progress: he might have avoided much of the drama by declaring that military personnel would not run for the presidency and speaking of the military as a mere facilitator in setting up elections. Instead, he has attempted to use his time in office like a campaign add, and earned the ire of the international community in the process. Still, though, there seems to be less popular desire for the ousted president’s return than for normalcy.


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