Prêcher dans le désert: islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie (Karthala, 2013) by Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, the preeminent scholar working on political Islam and religious social movements in Mauritania, chronicles the history of Mauritania’s Islamist sub-cultures and political trends from the time of independence through the present. It brings together two decades of work in the most understudied area of the Maghreb. There are few comprehensive treatments of Islamist politics and actors in Mauritania and Prêcher dans le désert provides scholars, researchers and students with a clear and eloquent tour of the sociological, cultural, intellectual and historical setting that brought Mauritania’s Islamists from the bare margins a generation and a half ago to being a relevant social and political category worthy of independent analysis and contemplation. It argues for a re-conceptualization of Islamic ‘radicalization’ militancy as one of several possible pathways resulting from a long-term series of negotiations over Muslim identity, agency and efforts to grapple with a wide palette of complex problems around statehood, ethno-racial and caste identity, rapid socio-environmental change borne from climate change, poverty, the struggle against slavery and the shari’ah. Prêcher dans le désert covers these topics in expert fashion, as expected of Ould Ahmed Salem, whose writings on most of these subjects should be considered essential to achieving a grasp on contemporary Mauritanian society and political culture. Broken into six sections, rationally and judiciously divided and providing readers with a well structured understanding of the arguments put forth later on. It provides a deep take on the emergence and political role of Haratine religious leaders in the abolitionist movement and in Haratine urban life, including fascinating case studies based on in depth discussions with the first Haratine imams in Mauritania. (The subject has been covered in several dissertations but in this case it is related to a number of interrelated trends and placed in a more accessible format giving it a unique value. Ould Ahmed Salem also touched on the issue in his chapter ‘Bare-foot activists: Transformations in the Haratine movement in Mauritania,’ in Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, Brill, 2009.) It additionally provides the most detailed discussion of the emergence of Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood (Tewassoul) and a unique presentation of the role of Islam in the Mauritanian public sphere. In studying the rise of political Islam in northwest Africa or the Sahel and Maghreb there is no substitute for this book, despite numerous monographs, white papers and articles. Few texts in recent years approach its breadth and granularity. Because the space for ‘Mauritanian studies’ is limited, especially in the west, it is a milestone and cornerstone in the literature on the whole and should be a first stop for those seeking answers to questions about political Islam, radicalism and radicalization in the Sahel, Islamist movements in the Maghreb, . Aside from prose that can sometimes be denser than preferable, there is little criticism for this volume. As yet the book is only available in French, though efforts for an English translation are underway and will hopefully bring this important volume to an even wider audience beyond scholars of west Africa and the Maghreb.
This blogger built a partial index of articles dealing with the Sahel crises in the prominent Algerian military journal El Djeich for the January-September 2012 editions.
One for 2013 editions and analysis are soon to follow.
This post provides a graphic overview of some of the internal bodies and features of the 2012-2017 Algerian National Assembly (Assemblée Populaire Nationale/al-Majlis al-Sha’abi al-Watani; APN) — the lower house of the Algerian parliament. The graphics included below include the members of the APN Bureau and Standing/Permanent Committees and Commissions in charts and graphs. The information here is taken from the APN website, which has a good amount of information about the delegates and their activities, but not enough. Information on membership of the APN ‘Friendship Committees’ for various countries is not yet available there as it is for past APN classes (see the Charts & Graphics page for the membership of the 2007-2012 friendship committees).
SUMMARY: This post is several posts originally written in January and February merged together. These posts were put off from being posted for reasons of time, attention deficits and levels of satisfaction. They were all originally experiments in ways of thinking about recent events to do with Algeria’s defensive posture (which has been the subject of so much writing lately). It is concerned with some of the public writing and analysis on Algerian foreign policy, especially with respect to Mali immediately before and during France’s intervention there. The main gist is related to Algeria’s strong attachment to its national sovereignty in foreign policy, its defensive (also called ‘paranoid’) posture overall, and the country’s self-image in world politics and their influence on its behaviour in the world. It is not concerned with evaluating or making a case for how Algeria or other ought to do one or the other such thing in foreign affairs. It is however interested in considering adjusting some common assumptions about Algerian foreign policy in general.
It also includes some thoughts on issues such as the assumptions and expectations seen in some public writing about Algeria’s military capabilities, its ‘success’ in fighting terrorism, the extent and scope of its ambition as a regional ‘hegemon’ mainly in the post-Qadhafi period, opacity in Algerian decision-making and its origins; it also includes some remarks related to the complications of Algeria’s ongoing generational transformation. It is not meant to be definitive or authoritative, just one grain of sand on a long beach. (more…)
Since the beginning of France’s intervention in northern Mali (Operation SERVAL), users of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum have posted continuous news updates on the situation in northern Mali. During much of 2012, forum users have seen Mali as an unqualified success for Salafi-jihadism in Africa, posting long essays and poems praising and theorising the potentials that an Islamist emirate in Azawad would offer their cause. Mali’s jihadist groups allayed suspicions over their legitimacy and authenticity by posting increasingly voluminous threads featuring videos, photographs and newsletters with news from the region showing the implementation of shari’ah in Timbuktu and Gao, and documenting the Islamist coalition’s battles against the MNLA and the Malian Army at various points. Previous analysis of jihadi posts on Mali on this blog focused on user produced content – poems, essays and so on. This post focused on the same in light of Operational SERVAL. Generally speaking, these user contributions focus on depicting France within the narrative of a ‘Crusader’ state seeking to oppress Muslims and stunt the practice of Islam in a Muslim country. the proliferation of posts by a number of different users points to a general expansion of interest since the onset of the French intervention; previously there was limited interest compared to Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia; threads discussing Mali have dominated the front three pages of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum since last week. Some posts feature links to articles or essays or announcements from groups based in Mali (AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine especially) or jihadist clerics (for example, Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti’s new essay on Mali – interestingly titled ‘The Battle for Shari’ah in Mali’). These occasionally produce interesting discussions but are beyond the interest of this post. (more…)
SUMMARY: Thus far Algerian press coverage of France’s military intervention in northern Mali (Operation SERVAL), in reaction to additional thrusts south by Mali’s jihadist coalition, is divided. Scepticism that has been prevalent in Algerian media coverage of calls for the internationalisation of the Malian crisis remains a strong thread in opinion and editorial writing nonetheless. While significant strands of elite opinion (especially at the political level) appear to have somewhat rallied to support military intervention in northern Mali. At the same time, the Algerian government’s longstanding position in favour of ‘dialogue’ and a ‘political solution’ to the crisis remain evident in press reports, government statements and scepticism over the prospects the intervention will successfully resolve Mali’s troubles persists. Comments from Algerian intellectuals (depicting the campaign as a ‘proxy war’ of the United States or as destined for failure) and highlights given to the opinions of certain French voices suggest some level of discomfort over France’s intentions and the Algerian government’s role in the crisis; this is to be expected to some extent given the background of distrust between Paris and Algiers over Mali as well as the nature of Franco-Algerian relations in general. Outside of the major dailies, some confusion does appear to exist over Algiers’s position in the ongoing struggle – a result of the government’s stinginess with public comments.
The Algerian government’s decision to allow over flight rights to the French Air Force, along with troop and helicopter movements in southern Algeria suggest Algiers will likely play an enabling role by opening airspace, attempting to block off escape routes, and intelligence sharing (the targets and locations hit by the French suggest Algeria and other countries may be assisting in this manner). The Algerians may also seek to assist in negotiating post-war planning, despite the [apparent] failure of its diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Ansar Ed-Dine and Bamako; the timing of Malian Prime Minister Diango Cissoko’s two-day visit to Algiers speaks to Algiers’s continuing desire to impact political conditions in Mali. France’s aggressive (speaking descriptively, not legally) moves in Mali appear to have given momentum to international and regional efforts to push forward an intervention in Mali and may be bringing along Algeria at the same time. The messages coming out in certain (especially French-language) Algerian press accounts, via anonymous security officials, is that Algeria decided to abandon dialogue with Ansar Ed-Dine and others in northern Mali in favour of an immediate armed campaign when its leaders renounced non-aggression pacts they signed at Algiers’s egging and participated in attacks in Konna and elsewhere with AQIM. This post only reviews French-language media, Arabic-language media will be covered in a separate post. It looks at perspectives through the beginning of the week of 13 January. (more…)
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.
Last year, this blog posted a selection of graphs and charts about the newly appointed cabinet led by Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal. Below is a PDF document with a listing of ministers and some biographic information, graphs and diagrams. This is mainly the same information as in previous posts, with some updates for accuracy and detail. The document can be viewed on the TMND Scribd account and referenced on the ‘Charts and Graphics‘ page on this blog.
SUMMARY: The following is an excerpt from a longer write up from summer 2012; it comes from the same write up as the post ‘Creative Responses to the Rebellion in Mali: A Look at the Forum Poetry‘ (06 July 2012). This post is one of two; a second excerpt will be posted in the future. The longer paper surveys posts dealing with the Mali criss on the Ansar al-Mujahideen Arabic forum, a top tier jihadist Internet forum. The focus is mostly on user-produced content — essays, columns and debates, as opposed to content posted by the Islamist groups in northern Mali (AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine, MUJWA, etc.) or their media groups. It describes posts on the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum from January through early August 2012 by summarising and analysing three general categories of user/member-generated content (essays, articles, discussion threads, etc.):
- News and Analysis of Northern Mali and Its Jihadis
- Northern Mali and Jihadi Strategy in Africa
- Creative Responses
This post addresses several threads representative of key narratives emerging among jihadist forum users regarding the conflict there. Generally, forum members view events in northern Mali as reinforcement for their existing political and religious views. Posters appear to percieve events in the region — from the arrival of Islamist armed groups in Timbuktu and Gao to corporal punishment for violations of shari’ah – as evidence of an unbridled ‘awakening’ to jihadism in west Africa in an international context. Some debate over the origins and legitimacy of the Islamist groups in northern Mali does take place, largely due to a lack of propaganda material released through conventional jihadist Internet media outlets; late in the summer of 2012 this began to change, as both MUJWA and Ansar Ed-Dine began posting more content to the jihadist forums in the form of videos and newsletters. (more…)
Several highly relevant articles have been published on the various troubles facing large parts of north-west Africa recently. Some of the ones relevant for this blog’s areas of interest are listed below; this includes articles from the summer which remain relevant for perspective or other reasons: (more…)
SUMMARY. This post surveys some of the public discourse on American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Algiers on 29 October 2012, looking at official statements and Algerian press coverage of the visit. It is the base from which this blogger’s recent article in the CTC Sentinel (‘An Algerian Press Review: Determining Algiers’ Position on an Intervention in Mali‘; the title is perhaps somewhat misleading) was written. As such it was mostly written in early November. This post is primarily concerned with the press coverage of the visit than with Algeria’s Mali policy as such.
After a month with President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in hospital in France, members of Mauritania’s ruling party, opposition and military appear to be growing impatient. Early November saw the first mass protests since the president was shot in early October and Mauritania’s generals met on 17 October in a reportedly tense meeting during which the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mohamed Ould Ghazouani came under pressure from some attendees to take a more assertive political role, which Ghazouani reportedly resisted. Articles in Essirage and al-Akhbar, two Mauritanian Arabic-language news sites, recently published reports describing parliamentary mechanizations that might lead to major changes in the political landscape in coming days and weeks. The report discusses efforts by members of parliament to find a way ‘out of the constitutional vacuum’. One should note how some external analyses of the situation in Mauritania over the last year have elided or ignored its constitutional dramas, set in motion largely by the president with the help of parts of the opposition (through passivity or inertia), not least the failure to hold parliamentary elections on time which has meant that the political system has been more or less extra-constitutional since about last October. (more…)
N° 29 of Journal Officiel de la Republique Algerienne (04 June 2008) lays out a directive for the organisation of the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s central administration. Translated into PowerPoint, it should look something more or less like this.
This can be compared with any subsequent re-organisations or changes made since 2008.
View the full PDF document, with charts of the various directorates and sub-directorates, here: Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Over the last few months the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has published several useful papers on security problems in the Sahel. The latest report, by Anwar Boukhars, ‘The Paranoid Neighbor: Algeria and the Conflict in Mali‘ is a useful introduction to the perceptions and questions at play for practical people approaching Algeria’s stance on intervention in northern Mali. Previous papers include Wolfram Lacher’s excellent ‘Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region‘ (September 2012) which follows up nicely with his previous paper on related subjects from January 2011, ‘Organized Crime and Terrorism in the Sahel‘. On the Algeria paper, some of the views expressed there have come out of Carnegie working groups, such as one from July 2012 (summarised in ‘Algeria’s Ambivalent Role in the Sahel’).
In general, this blogger believes more discussion needs to be had about Algerian foreign policy in general and that discussions about its Mali policy should be had within this framework in addition to the priorities of European and American regional interests (too often one gets the impression from western analysis and actors that Algeria has no foreign policy of its own other than to resist good ideas from Paris and Washington; this is changing though — although we probably need more studies on Algerian policy at the African Union and Arab League and with specific countries over time, such things interest specialists and not general audiences but one misses a lot as a result of the scanty attention these issues receieve); fortunately Boukhars spends some time in his paper going through Algerian assumptions about the problem in Mali and describing the Algerian perspective on the problem in Mali. Given the mood in Washington and much of Europe, the paper’s broad focus on what othercountries see as beneficial for the Algerians to do is understandable; and if the fallout from Libya is any kind of even vague guide, Algerian warnings about the consequences of intervention should not be ignored (a point Boukhars raises). The Moroccan angle, regarded with strong skepticism by the Algerians is dealt with in a fair manner, though when Boukhars writes that ‘as in the Libya intervention, Morocco is expected to play a discreet but active role in any military campaign in Mali’ the reader must wonder what this means and what it would mean for the Algerians (it is not hard to see this being no problem at all, but the point raises questions, especially given the well known méfiance between Algiers and Rabat). One does wish Boukhars used more Algerian sources.
For English speakers, and even Francophones, there are still not great deep studies or histories on Algerian foreign policy writ-large. This is particularly true of the post 1992 period — most of what is available are real time or journalistic accounts of Bouteflika’s policy. Prior to the civil war there is Mohamed Reda Bougherira’s dissertation (Algeria’s Foreign Policy 1979-1992: Continuity and/or Change, June 1999), which approaches Algerian foreign policy systematically from a theoretical perspective and outlines the key themes and movements in Algeria’s regional and technical policies up through the Chadli years. We also have Assassi Lassassi’s “Non-Alignment in Algerian Foreign Policy” (1988) and numerous articles by Robert Mortimer and Yahia Zoubir (who has been publishing quite a bit of late on these issues in the Maghreb), Judith Scheele (who for, for example, explains the rationale for the presence of the Algerian consulate in Gao from a logistical standpoint in Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, 2012 pp.97, note 3), Peter Tinti (on the Mali file) and by Alexis Arieff. There are others as well. More and more is likely to come out as a result of Algeria’s positions in Mali and Libya and during the Bouteflika presidency in general.
The bad press and pressure the Algerians have felt over the last several months regarding the ‘opacity’ and alleged ambiguity of their position in Mali — both their perspective of the armed groups in the north, the level and ease of cooperation with other parties, and the motivations behind their contacts with various actors in the north — appears to have led to some statements from Algerian officials and ranking officers that give the impression of an easing on their opposition or hard skepticism of intervention in the north. The position itself does not appear to have changed much and it is likely the Algerians would provide intelligence or other support to an intervention if only for fear of probable spill over. All yet to be seen, though.
Summary. Some confusion exists around the shooting of the Mauritanian president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. The post speculates about the possibility of a coup or assassination attempt on the basis of a number of rumors about potential motivations and scenarios behind the incident based on the current political environment and does not claim to offer a conclusive judgment. However, it is unlikely that the current situation does not present ambitious men with opportunities to take action and take what they want. Or not. (more…)
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.
It is well known that in Algeria lines of decision-making and even the broad outlines of specific foreign or military policies are generally opaque to outsiders. Finding and making sense of various official statements and interviews and reports about the activities, orientation and intentions of the Algerian government toward political change and instability in Libya, Tunisia and the collapse of Mali and the domination of its north by the armed Islamist groups is both time consuming and difficult; rumour and conjecture and disinformation from all quarters mingle with, distort and even illuminate the ‘truth’ for those seeking answers. What the state presents and says can hardly be taken entirely at face value but is of as much use as anything sitting in public or in the shadows. For sometime, the Algerian military has used official journals to publicise its ideological, strategic and political intentions for both internal and external audiences; these must of course be taken in context and for what they are and are not, as all sources must.
El Djeich is the premier journal for these purposes, to say nothing of technical and bureaucratic journals and bulletins. El Djeich is also relatively accessible: it is published in print and online (though issues before 2010 are harder to come by than more recent ones); most issues mentioned here can be obtained for free from the Algerian Ministry of National Defence’s (MDN) website. This monthly (published since 1963) provides the official rhetoric of Algeria’s general staff as communicated to an internal audience frequently (it is policy relevant); it also provides information on meetings between the Algerian armed services and foreign military and civilian delegations, military exercises and operations, training regimes and other elements pointing to the personnel and disposition of the moving parts that make up its armed and civilian element. It also provides context for major political decisions (for example, the February 2011 issue includes a long section detailing the rationale and implications of the lifting of the emergency law in place since the 1992 coup d’etat) and frequently provides the text of speeches, letters and messages from senior Algerian officers and diplomatic officials on various issues. It also includes interviews and articles by military and civilian subject matter experts from Algeria and abroad on various technical fields.
The spreadsheet linked below is an index of direct and indirect references to what might can be generally called the ‘Sahel Crisis’ (or crises) brought on by uprisings, rebellions, narco-trafficking and destabilising corruption in the Maghreb and the Sahel during the last two years in the journal of the Algerian armed forces, El Djeich. The first installment of the index includes the January -September 2012 editions of El Djeich, with titles (in French) and subject, section (in French), page and ‘key word’ references; the second installment will include the January December 2011 editions. These are meant to help the reader find articles by category and supplement his research. Several feature stories on criminal-terrorist activities on Algeria’s borders, humanitarian aid operations in Mali and other border regions (including Libya) give insight into the way the Algerian official discourse continues to juxtapose Algeria as a guarantor of stability and a bastion of stability in north-west Africa both to the public at large and to its own personnel; indeed the crisis in the Sahel was the cover story in October 2011, and the subject received heavy attention in the January 2011 issue as well. In the 2012 editions, comments, statements from Abdelkader Messahel, the minister delegate charged with Maghreb and African affairs are frequent and conspicuous, as are meetings between Messahel and foreign military delegates.There is an obvious emphasis on humanitarian operations within Algeria and in its immediate vicinity; at the strategic level emphasis is placed on the African Union, multilateral-regionalist ‘solutions’ and on bilateral military-military activities.
Since El Djeich habitually dedicates a large part of its articles to military sports (both within Algeria and on the continent), this section is ignored; thus in some issues one can find articles about Burkina Faso or Nigeria or some other such country of interest only in this section. These are omitted. El Djeich is published in French and Arabic (as many official things are in Algeria); this blogger assumes readers will have as easy a time or an easier time with the French version and thus the index refers exclusively to the French language edition.
This post is a follow up on a previous posting addressing mainly Algerian press reporting on supposed Qatari support for militant movements in northern Mali (‘RE: Canard Enchaîné, Qatar in northern Mali and Algeria‘). It particularly looks at the involvement of the Qatar Red Crescent in this context, which was taken by some observers as evidence (or non-evidence) of supposed Qatari ‘involvement’ in the conflict. This blogger viewed this as part of Algerian propaganda on the conflict mixed with natural paranoia in Malian circles over the role of powerful external actors in the conflict. Similar reports and suspicion about the presence of the Algerian Red Crescent appear to have fit into a similar narrative, especially for those supportive of the MNLA which has put out a large good deal of messaging accusing Algeria of undermining its activities or of supporting the Islamist terrorist and rebel groups in the region. There does not appear to be support for the view that Qatar has sponsored all or some of the main rebel and terrorist groups in northern Mali; and while Algerian involvement in the conflict behind the scenes or via established links to various elements in the region is probable it is unlikely that it is using humanitarian groups as agents of influence. In both cases, though many scenarios are possible and there is no reason to discount such possibilities.
Below is a guest post from Erin Pettigrew, a friend of the blog and a PhD Candidate in African History at Stanford University. She has been doing field work in Mauritania for the last several months and has long experience there. She offers her insights and thoughts on change in Mauritania from the ground level.