Your blogger has been absent from this space for some time. This is unintentional; other projects have taken up much time. This post tries to touch on something the things this blogger has been considering in the interval since the last regular post went up — on Algeria, Mauritania and MUJWA in very general terms. It is incomplete, more posts will continue on a more or less regular basis from now on.
Since the last post, which drew many comments because it was incomplete and was written more or less on a time crunch. The comments left by readers are worth reviewing as they clear up confusion on some important points on what were then recent events in Mauritania. That post was trying to get at something that still stands: Mauritania is facing many structural political problems at several levels and these almost certainly take first place when compared to issues like the terrorism file (which is important on its own and in its own way and more so when added on to these other troubles). The last two months saw impressive and in some cases unprecedented manifestations of popular protest; this week Nouakchott saw what was perhaps the largest single demonstration in its history, numbering, depending on what source one looks at, 40,000 people (and possibly more) a number which speaks for itself in a country of roughly 4m people, close to a quarter of whom live in or near the capital city. The discontent mentioned in the last post and several others before has grown over the last several months, owing to the standard inequalities and injustices suffered by Mauritanians and others in north-west Africa, not to mention the relatively dire food security situation, the upsetting of grazing patterns in the eastern part of the country brought on by the conflict in Mali, the not so special style of corruption preferred by the current president and leadership which is more narrow that in the past and less satisfying to key parts of the tribal and business and social fabric. This blogger has more thoughts on the last part of this and has written about it before (and will put more on the blog soon); in the meantime there are multiple fine resources for some of the recent events in the way of protests. The youth movement, which looked as if it were going to petter out a few months ago has increased its online presence and has put up much in the way of images and videos on Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media board. The trouble likely to come from the election fiasco will be a key flash point soon enough (probably more so than in Algeria, for some comparison). It used to be said that nothing ever happened in Mauritania (aside from coups), that it was a “quiet” country. This idea is less and less appealing. Great coverage of recent events, including Nasser Weddady’s recent posts here, here and especially here where he has posted the opposition coalition’s 43 page manifesto demanding a national unity government (in Arabic), on the grounds that the government has been essentially extra-constitutional since the government pushed back last year’s elections (this situation sort typifies the kinds of challenges facing Mauritania this blogger has tried to emphasise in the last several months) and Lissa Hunt’s recent tweets and posts. Right now is a critical time for Mauritania.
Your blogger no longer agrees with himself in whole when it comes to the Algerian elections. He wrote a piece for Fair Observer at the end of December (which was published at the beginning of January) regarding the prospects for Islamist parties in the May elections there. The view was the elections do not particularly matter; at that point it was difficult to say what “might” happen other than that one can say it is likely few Algerians will vote with relative confidence. It is now clear the consensus in the regime is that some iteration of Islamists, be it the MSP-led coalition of Islamist parties taking seats from parts of the FLN and RND or some of the small secular parties or the several recently formed Islamist parties getting seats on their own and thus making up a divided but more numerous stake out for the religious trend generally. Whatever the case the lower house less important than much foreign press coverage and commentary has made it out to be — do not forget the upper house, the Majlis al-Ummah, a third of which is appointed by the president and which has veto power over the lower house. What will come out of the constitutional reforms that are being ginned up for this year may change this, though it is doubtful. And if “Islamists” perform in line with the trend seen elsewhere in the Maghreb the outcome will probably look more like Morocco, with palace Islamists (the MSP, which as this blog and many, many Algerians have noted, has been in government for close to a decade and its members still serve in the cabinet in important and lucrative posts such as public works; meaning there are probably thick files on them held by the security services which may help regulate them if they attempt to get out of line as has happened in the past), than Egypt or some such. There are plenty of other trends more interesting than the elections to watch in Algeria and to take as indicators of the mood in the country; some of these overlap with the elections (or will do so) and some of them stand on their own. The succession issue at the top of the regime and in the deep state probably matter more than how the lower house get rearranged. There was the notable resignation of Sa’id Sa’di from his post as the chief of the Rally for Culture and Democracy which has earned a bum rap from many for various reasons — its more or less supporting for the military, its aggressive secularism, its ideological direction, whatever one wants. This blogger wrote about its (ex-)leader’s links with the head of the security services last spring and its participation in the February protests. That well known relationship is yet another dingy point on Sa’di’s reputation with many Algerians who pay attention to him. Rumours after his resignation, though, suggest he probably suffered some pressure from the regime as a result of his activities and rhetoric in 2011; realignments and subtle shifts look likely for small factions and cosmetic elements supportive of or tolerated by the regime.
The Movement for Unity and Jihad (MUJWA) has been described in various ways: a “splinter” from AQIM, a reorganisation of the group’s southern front, a victory for Algerian or some other intelligence service in infiltrating and splitting up AQIM, and other things. There is not enough information available on the group or its membership to assess the validity of such claims. One has to start up with certain assumptions in order for most of these theories to work out. Some of these have more support based on what is known of MUJWA’s leaders and recent AQIM activities – or rumours and reports of AQIM’s activities – other have less support. As yet not many of them are particularly convincing based on the available information about the group.
The narrative in the group’s initial (and thus far only) propaganda video does not jive easily with the theory that the group is a “reorganisation” of AQIM’s operational structure and that the group is not really a splinter faction — it announces a break with AQIM, and essentially rephrases and reframes AQIM’s narrative against western powers and jihad for its own purposes. The group’s first operation, the kidnapping of European aid workers in October 2011, and its first announcement in December suggest it may have formed in the early autumn or that the group’s members went rogue from AQIM after the October operation. Relatively little is known about the key individuals associated with the organisation: Virtually all of them, from the group’s reputed leader, Hamada Ould Mohamed Khayrou to Sultan Ould Badi appear to be Arab Mauritanians or Malians from the Azawad (from north of Gao especially). And their attacks thus far, the October 2011 kidnapping of European aid workers and the recent suicide bombing at Tamanrasset, suggest a north-ward orientation, not surprisingly done in a fashion similar to AQIM itself. At present the group’s objectives and trajectory appear contradictory and even confusing. This blogger is not prepared to make conclusions as his friend Andrew Lebovich has in terms of the group’s true motives or nature based on such little information at this stage, though his analysis has important points, for example on possible coordination/communication between MUJWA and AQIM make some sense and are compelling. His point on both groups demanding the release of Major Abderrahmane Ould Meidou is also worth considering; and as he reocognises in the update to his original post on the issue, social and personal relations between the group are somewhat inevitable given MUJWA’s genealogy. This is one of the more important elements — Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou (also Khayrou/Khayri/Kheiry) is an individual whose background and relations with AQIM’s leadership is worth considering and comparing with other Mauritanian leaders of late such as Khaled Chinguitti, who was promoted at some point in 2011 and had taken on important operational leadership roles and was reportedly killed some months ago fighting with MNLA men in Mali, though his death was reported by only one source (ANI; though readers may be aware of other reports that do not rely on the ANI account, if they exist). As more information stacks up a more or less clear picture may materialise. Or it may not. At this point this blogger does not agree or disagree with any particular analysis of the matter per se.
The group presents interesting questions: What tensions exist in the relationships within and between AQIM’s southern katibat and suryiat in terms of their ethno-national composition? Much attention goes to supposed tensions between two of AQIM’s southern commanders, Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid; what about tensions at lower echelons? What personal factors would contribute to driving a group of Mauritanian and Azawadi Malians out of AQIM into a new group oriented southward (at least in its rhetoric)? (This could speak to their area of operation and potentially their relationships with other groups operating in the area.) What kind of longevity will this group have in a competitive environment where it must compete with groups such as the MNLA and Ansar ed-Din in addition to AQIM? What will AQIM’s ultimate response to MUJWA be? At present there are more questions than answers.