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.