“These are just unimportant shenanigans, caused by Algeria.”
General Ould Abdel Aziz, quoted “L’Algérie est derrière les pressions sur la Mauritanie, selon O. Abdel Aziz,” Taqadoumy, 27 September, 2008.
This is from a cabinet meeting during the course of which, Mohamed Ould Maaouiya, the Mauritanian Interior Minister, was interrupted by General Abdel Aziz while he began to offer recommendations as to how the country should respond to the international pressure aimed at the country, from all directions except Morocco. Abdel Aziz, evidently believes that negative reactions to the coup are being driven by Algeria. This comes after Morocco offered to provide military assistance to the Mauritanians against AQIM. The Moroccans initiated a large deployment of special forces to the border with Morocco immediately after the Tourine attack. In a letter to General Abdel Aziz, King Mohamed VI explained that “Mauritania’s security can not be separated from the security of Morocco and the Maghreb and Sahel.”
One must look at “Algerian connection” from the perspective of the relevant international organizations. In Abdel Aziz’s mind, there are three organizations making things rather difficult for him: the United Nations, the African Union, and the Arab League. In the case of all three of these organizations, there are Algerians dealing directly with the Mauritanian file: Said Djinnit, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in West Africa, Ramdane Lamamra for the AU’s Peace and Security Council, and Assistant Secretary General Ahmed Ben Hali of the Arab League. According to relevant sources, Abdel Aziz had a particularly coarse meeting with Lamamra. And given that the AU has remained stalwartly opposed to the coup, the United Nations has been in the same vein and the Arab League characteristically useless for all purposes, this saturation of Algerians within the international superstructure appears to be a part of some deliberate plot. Algeria has not supported the coup and has backed the AU’s position, in no small part because of Morocco‘s support for the junta. And it is no mistake that Algerians are in no short supply in the international infrastructure — it is indeed the result of a concerted effort by the Algerians to lend prestige and leverage on the Sahara.
Abdel Aziz has a close relationship with the Moroccan military establishment, having studied in the Meknes military academy and kept up contacts with high level elements in Morocco ever since. Early on, the Moroccan press praised the coup, and highlighted Abdel Aziz’s Moroccan schooling and familial connections (his grandfather was from Morocco). Abdel Aziz, Col. Vall, and General Ghazouani are all members of the powerful Ould Bou Sbaa tribe, with its strong ties to Morocco and its rivalry with the Rguibat. While the coup itself was the result of particularly Mauritanian circumstances, Morocco’s special interest in it is the result of the country’s tribal complex. Had the coup been led by members of the Rguibat, it is doubtful that Morocco’s position would have been so unapologetically supportive so quickly. The recent offer for military support likely came in exchange for some kind of change of attitude towards Algeria on the part of the junta.
Mauritanians traditionally hold an institutionalized weariness of Morocco, resulting from King Hassan’s initial desire to absorb the country into its southern frontier, and from Morocco’s backing of the bloody 16 March coup attempt against Haidallah in 1981, which led to a cut off of relations between the two countries until 1984. The Moroccans had assumed that since Haidallah came from the Rgeibat he held automatic sympathy with the Polisario and worked to undermine him after Mauritania withdrew itself from the war with the Polisario. High ranking members of the officer corps of Rguibat extraction (who are known to hold pro-Polisario sentiments), had their initial prejudices against Morocco confirmed by these events. Traditionally from the northern border regions, the Rguibat declined in power during the Ould Taya regime, as persons from Taya’s Adrar region were pushed into ascendency (though Ould Taya’s notoriously corrupt Chief of Staff, Moulaye Ould Boukhreisse was of the Rgeibat, the last of the CSM holdouts to serve under Taya). The well respected Ould Bou Sbaa, through trade and military service rose, due to their geography and large numbers. So large are the Ould Bou Sbaa that the internal politics of the tribe greatly affect Mauritania’s politics as a whole.
There are important divisions within the Ould Sbaa of the junta. At the outset of the coup, Mohamed Ould Boumatou, a wealthy businessman long close to Col. Ely Vall, courted France for the junta. Having started out as an Abdel Aziz supporter, he is said to have moved closer and closer to Vall over time. Vall, a longtime Francophile seen as a “France’s man” in Mauritania, is believed by some to be contemplating a run for the presidency. General Abdel Aziz is of course in the same boat with his cousin in that respect, hoping to run for president when the junta’s time is up. Vall, it should be remembered, did not leave office in 2007 of his accord, he was pressured to leave by Abdel Aziz. France, it is said, would be comfortable with a consensus outcome in which Vall somehow found himself as the country’s leader (electorally, or perhaps not).
The French position is of high importance in Mauritania. The French trust Vall as a result of his 20 years working as head of intelligence in Mauritania, his tough stance against the Islamists, his mindfulness of French interests in the country, his handling of the 2005 coup, and his French education and linguistic orientation. The French view Abdel Aziz as reckless for having ignored their entreaties to remove Abdallahi through constitutional means, and for his lack of credentials within the French institutional context.
The Algerians are for the most part socially divested from Mauritania — there are a few Moorish tribes living in the country and the Polisario have strong connections in northern Mauritania but Algeria as a whole does not have a major link to the country in the way that Morocco or France do. This means that their policy is more the result of political considerations based on state-state relations alone. They view Mauritania in the context of the Sahara and of Morocco, and not much else. If Mauritania positions itself within Morocco’s orbit, the Algerians will do what they can to reverse that or to bring them more closely into the Algerian context. Given that the Algerians have relatively few cards to play in Mauritania (aside from their ability to work within international organizations), they will continue to embrace the French policy, which would lead them to favor Vall over Abdel Aziz should such a contest arise. But in that case, given that they are of like minds with the French, they would defer anything beyond caucusing within the AU or rhetoric and leave the work up to France.