The rivalry in action

“These are just unimportant shenanigans, caused by Algeria.” 

General Ould Abdel Aziz, quotedL’Algérie est derrière les pressions sur la Mauritanie, selon O. Abdel Aziz,” Taqadoumy, 27 September, 2008.

Not quite a mirage.

Not quite a mirage.

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.


14 thoughts on “The rivalry in action

  1. Very nice post. A minor quibble: if I’m not mistaken, Haïdallah was not Reguibi, but from the Laaroussiyine of the Nouadhibou region, and I don’t think there was ever a significant Reguibi component of any Mauritanian regime apart from Boukhreiss himself & his cronies. (I might be wrong!) That said, there have been many junta and other strongmen with pro-Polisario, pro-Sahrawi or pro-Algeria sympathies, but perhaps not so much out of direct tribal affiliation.

    Good final paragraph also on Algeria’s lack of a firm tribal-social connection with Mauritania, although I think one cannot discount the interface with Mauritanian politics that Polisario creates for them. Tindouf obviously pulls its own tribal and economical environment in a pro-Algerian direction politically, and in all that, I think trade is a major factor since both countries want to enable stronger connections with their own economics and cultural/political scenes. Moroccan-Mauritanian ties have been growing stronger since the ould Tayaa/M6 rapprochement and improved infrastructure up there, and Algeria is now countering by financing a highway through northern Mauritania to Tindouf, which obviously intends to link the Algerian economy to Mauritania through Polisario and so increase the economical (= political) weight of “their” Moorish community inside Mauritanian society.

    Also good on how Algerian diplomats have cornered the issue. This puts into perspective how troublesome it is for Morocco not to be a member of the AU in situations like this — normally, it really doesn’t matter, but now for once, it does. The AU line is automatically supported by many African countries who are reluctant to expose themselves by taking an independent position, and also has some real influence on the rest of the world as a “bare minimum”. In this case, too, some major Gulfies seem upset about having lost out in business relations, which has kept the Arab League from supporting Morocco’s position as it normally tends to do. But we’ll see what happens…

  2. Thanks for the comment, alle.

    I was under the impression that the Laaroussiyine are part of a wider confederation with the Rgeibat; though this is from word of mouth, and I can’t provide a reference for it other than that. I agree, pro-Polisario or pro-Algerian orientations emerge outside of the tribal context, and that should be more clearly mentioned in the post.

    As for the Algerians’ socio-tribal relations with Mauritania, you’re right. But as it stands, Algeria’s leverage is weak. That might change, but as of present it’s weaker than Morocco’s is, outside of the Polisario context. Algeria in and of itself is not as integrated into Mauritania as Morocco is, and the actors they would work through seem to be out of the game relative to Morocco’s. That was my observation, and the projects you mentioned are duly noted.

  3. No, it is a separate tribe, one of the smaller in the territory. There are lots of tribes inside the Reguibat, though, which is made up of a full two confederations (Reguibat es-Sahel & R. ech-Charq), so that was a fair assumption.

  4. Hi. There was recently on French TV a documentary on Mauritanian victims of Polisario. There has been a Lebanese priest who tries to organize them (both in Nouakchott and in Paris and Brussels). Of course, Polisario spokesmen say that it is all Moroccan propaganda. And the documentary was far from objective, assuming that the Lebanese/anti-Polisario version was correct (fatality figures included). They claimed that about a third of the Mauritanians that tried to join Polisario after 1984 were executed summarily or detained and tortured. The documentary was also very weak in providing an explanation (other than saying that Polisario are paranoid killers). The documentary was just as weak in explaining why so many Mauritanians enrolled. Kal, I would be very grateful if you can explain a bit more about this, if you know it.

  5. Morocco is running a bunch of groups in Mauritania, this one among them. It has been featured in Moroccan regime press as well, and it clearly isn’t an independent effort. I don’t find it unlikely per se that Polisariod tortured or killed Mauritanian affiliates during the war years, just like they did with suspected enemies among Sahrawis — nasty things happened on their side as well, even if they try to deny it. But that would seem to be a tiny minority, since there are still tens of thousands of Mauritanians in support of Polisario, and at least several thousands living in Tindouf. This group is what, ten people? Fifty?

    The most high-profile Mauritanan activists in Polisario were Ahmed Baba Miské, a perennial opportunist in Mauritanian politics (still going strong, he is now pro-coup, after playing a role in Abdellahi’s PNDD/Adil party before), and Brahim Hakim, who served as SADR foreign minister (he is now aligned with the Moroccans, who, very coincidentally, have stopped questioning his Sahrawiness…).

  6. salamu alaikum,
    the last coup, and those incedents earlier linked to ALQAIDA( one of them took place near the presidential palace carried out by the presidential guarde itself , a french security person injured in that shooting),all this was staged by sertain mauretanian sides and the moroccan loby in mauritania. why? to demonstrate to the mauritanian people( and in the same time send a Bedhani message to the neighbooring and african countries who openly refuse the US AFRICOM) that the mauritanian security forces and army are too weak and not able alone to protect the country, this gives a clear justification for mauritania(= the gang) to allaw foreign military help (= Africom). the threats coming from ALQAIDA are seious,but not that danger that the pro american media or, let us say, those who benefit from it, try to communicate to us( in the toleran, (suffi) mauritania in particular). this pro maroccan gang dont have ethics or principles and will use all means possible ,even for money, no matter what will happen with the region( our region). of course, algeria will try to press mauretania and influence its politics according to algerian interests (even through tribal links,if any. or through the sahrawis), but the algerian are too smart and responssible, and their pressure will remain in the internationally accepted manner ,and will never try to destabilize maretania, morocco does . in fact, both algeria and polisario (= sahrawi people) are interested in a stable and secure mauritania, and will support it without conditions against any autside threats, including those coming from ALQAIDA.

  7. assalmu aleikum
    Laaroussiyine are not Rgeibat . they are sons and daughters of famous religious Seikh Sid Ahmed Laaroussi . Rgeibat refer to Sheikh Sid Ahmed Rgeibi. both sheikhs and on other Sid Ahmed el Mirdani(a close Talmidi of S. A. Laroussi) plus maybe an other Sid Ahmed , are known as Sid Ahmdat er Ridfa, means that they are buried together in the Saguia al Hamra region.they are like Sheikh Ma al Alainain and other sheikhs. people say : ya Mulana,ya Rassulul lah, ya Bubakkar ya Ithman, …., ya sh- sheikh Ma l Ainin, ya Sid Ahmed Laaroussi, ya Sid Ahmed Rgeibi or ya Sid Ahmdat er Redfe . Laroussiyine are a single tribe with few sub fractions, Rgeibat rather a large union of two big groups ( Sahel and Sharg) which for their part consist of smaller tribes and subfractions, so that you can not be sure that all of them are descended from Sid Ahmed Rgeibi only. I would like to point out that belonging to a tribe or religion does not necessarly mean that the people share the same political views( or that they are potential trairors). take Omar Hadrami and Ayoub Lehbib,they were top polisario members and both are Rgeibat Sharg (= Relatives of Mohamed Abdel Aziz ), but they shifted to morocco. Mohamed Mahmud Biyadil Lah( Known in the Polisario as Greigau) is a mil. general staff in the polisario army while his brother Mohamed es-Sheikh a moroccan Minister and very close friend of the king and Fouad ALi el Himma. there are money examples like Ahel Joummani or Ahel sh Sheikh Mel Ainin.

    such familiar relations can be only useful in times of peace and cooperation, otherwise these people will behave very loyal.

  8. the claims of morocco and the pro moroccan gang in mauritania that there is ALQAIDA in northern mauritania are really strange. because we know that region well,each small part of it, many people ( Sahrawis and Mauritanians ) know the Titis-region , lived there or lived their parents , travelled or have relations to people who know the area and the culture, lifestyle and attitudes. The Alqaida can,maybe, under certain circumstances launch small raids from the Sahara Kubra , like the last attack of Tourin. But to try to tell the world that the Tiris region became a dangerous Alqaida stronghold, like the tribal area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is absolutly nonsense. Both Sahrawis and Maritanians ( except the pro moroccan gang ) can invite people from all over the world ( Indians, Brasilians or Canadians) to extended open air parties in the moon shine, in any part of Tiris, to demonstrate that there is no Alqaida. Perhaps there is small group of poor Islam students who had a scholarship from Saudi Arabia in the 80th and 90th and maybe some of them idiologically influenced by the Wahabi Skeikhs and try to show their loyalty and thankfulness to their masters by carring out small attacks as a kind of Jihad . if there are any, they must be small groups who can easily be identified within the Hassaniyya open ,clever and wise society, either by their outfit or by their strange lifestyle. Morocco and its mauritanian gang ( junta,Batareen, opportunists), backed by Sarkozy- France, try to interrupt any serious political attempt to modernize and stabilize Mauritania. the aim of this catastrophical policy is to weaken the sahrawi position and to make any political convergence between Sahrawis and Mauritanians (= the same culture) impossible. The Sahrawis dont want that mauritania breaks its ties with morocco. they want mauritania to be independent. This high pressure from morocco and France ( and arab ?) can be seen in the conflictive mauritanian posision regarding the western sahara issue. officially mauritania recognizes the SADR. this implies( should) the mauritanian clear support of the right of selfdetermination of the sahrawi people .it seems that Mauritania stil has dificulties in expressing this.mauritanian officials say they support a solution accepted by both sides and repeat the necessity of settlemen of the conflict because its costs for maghrib countries are too high, and there are other threats (Terrorism, et al). this is true arguments , but mauritania as a neighbouring country , familiar with the conflict , has to emphasise the sahrawi right of self determination, or, if this too difficult to express, just support the UN resolutions concerning Western Sahara. at least since Morocco started to negociate oppenly at high level with the Polisario, did mauritania miss the opportunity to intensify its relations with the Polisario without bothering morocco.
    when look the history i have the feeling that mauritania was stronger before the french colonialisation in the late 19th century. there were several proud emirates , like the Adrar, and there was a glorious sahrawi mauritanian resistance and the religious influence and Jihad of Sh Sheikh Ma el Ainin who was a mauritanian , and who disappointed and betrayed by the Sultan of Morocco ( the Salatin betrayed every resistace , such as Jeish at Tahrir and Abdel Karim el Khattabi , and keep betraying us), allthough Ma le Ainin declared Trab al Bedhan as a maroccan, apparently to get the Sultans help against the european. After the western sahara war in the 70th, the mauritania did miss the chance again for establishing a functioning national political system and traditon to build(rebuild) the country. I hope that the mauritanian now get rid of the Junta and the pro moroccan gang and start , finally, build their country and democratise it.

  9. as salamu aleikum

    i dont say that the current mauritanian government led by Ould Abdel Aziz is worse than the previous governments.all came to power through a coup and all their politics failed. the quetion is why do the mauritanian military never learn from the other world? in modern and rich countries the politics can sometimes be seen as a hoby ar a fashion because there is a clear separation of power , free media, modern infrasructure and good living standards. for those reasons the country as a whole can afford the mistakes made by its political elite. this means that the political economical and social system is not going collapse if certain persons are corrupt. in our third world the political elite has to be willing to make some personal sacrifications and involve the mass in the political program. why has mauritania been in the mergency rule since the 70th? who are the enemies, given the fact that Alqaida problem is new and that Mauritania does not belong to the so called Axis of Devil? the moroocan officials talk sometimes of neighbourhood when refer to Mauritania. I am not going to comment this because the mauritanians know surely who are their real and natural neighboors. the quetion: is the 2000 km long sand wall, the landmines , barbed wire and more than hundred thausend soldiers with their equipment , signs of a good neighbourhood? for my part i dont believe that.both the officials in Morocco and Mauritania talk about the necessity of the Great Maghrib, arguing with with words like integration , globalisation and the fight against the cross border terrorism. Marocco used even the term of Balkanisation in case of an independent Western Sahara. Orginally, the leaders used to speak of Maghrib ash Shu’ub (= Maghrib of Peoples). I think we have to give priority to the end of suffering of the people , peace, freedom and democracy , otherwise we would have doubtless a Maghrib of dictatorships, Juntas and corrupt gangs. Morocco says repeatedly the conflict is a moroccan algerian one. on the other side, the Sahrawis when negociate with morocco often find themselves have to deal with the french,spain USA or even Israel. I thik Morocco has to stop profiling itself as a regional power, all the world know that Algeria is strong politically economically not to mention its historical reputation. Yes Algeria still has to strengthen the process of reconciliation and to push on the institutional and political reforms. Morocco is just an antiquated Sultanat with limited ressources supported by the western intelligence. Morocco can not be able to press Mauritania when the Mauritanians show independenceand self-confidence. its absolutly humiliating that mauritanian officials being received by the lackey Ould er Rasheed when viviting Morocco and blackmailed or bribed to support the moroccan position. i dont care if Morocco provides some Sahrawis with Green Tee and suggar and send them to Mauritania or elsewhere to confince other Sahrawis of his politics of AL WATAN GHFURUN RAHEEM. I find it shameful when genuine Mautitanians do the job for the Moroccans.

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