The non-incentive to cut ties with Israel
Student demonstrations over the violence in Gaza have turned violent. The protests began at the University of Nouakchott and proceeded quickly to the Israeli embassy. The protesters were pushed towards the Palestinian embassy by police, where skirmishes began, according to Taqadoumy. The windshield of a vehicle in front of the Palestinian embassy was smashed. The protesters demanded that the Israeli ambassador be expelled from the country, and that the country’s “disgraceful” relations with Israel be discontinued. Such wild fracases are uncommon in Mauritania. The influence of the inflammatory Gulf satellite networks and the Islamist movement have led to boiling blood among a people with a traditionally high tolerance for warm weather. This outburst will probably end up having been for naught.
There is ample sympathy for the Palestinians to be found in Mauritania: One can easily find pictures of demonstrations featuring Mauritanian parliamentarians, opposition figures, young people, etc. in keffiyahs, shouting pro-Palestinian slogans and all the rest. This is especially true of Tawassoul (the MB) demonstrations. As has been mentioned before, Sidi promised to put relations with Israel up to a referendum, in exchange for the support of Islamist factions: He did not, and the junta has been using this to pan Sidi and to establish a modicum of popular support in that regard — pulling street cred away from the Islamists specifically and adding to the public perception of Gen. Abdel Aziz as a sound leader. Maaouiya Ould Taya made a similar move when he came power, playing to Islamist sentiments by banning alcohol (rather ironic, for a sharib).
Perhaps more importantly, if the junta cuts relations well before the end of the current Gaza crisis, there will be massive boon in popularity for Abdel Aziz. Not only will it contribute to his credibility among the Islamists, whose influence is growing because of the Arab satellite networks and the growth of eastern-educated religious figures, but it will also win him the admiration of the common man. Clipping ties with Israel would help bring AbdelAziz’s presidential ambitions within closer reach. Mauritanians are primarily watching the Gaza tragedy and not the junta-opposition wrangling. Abdel Aziz could capitalize on this by breaking off relations with Israel. But he won’t.
Cutting ties with Israel might help Abdel Aziz press through his presidency in the up coming elections. One might think that Abdel Aziz would gain significantly in this regard for breaking with he Israelis. But that is unlikely. Politics as usual will continue. As of present, the democratic consultation session — which has been boycotted by much of the opposition, save the RFD (though, Ahmed Ould Daddah recently pulled out) — has not been especially productive in producing consensus. By the end of it, there will likely be an outcome favorable to the junta, especially if it carries the support of Ould Daddah. This will not necessarily mean that Aziz or the military will gain at a popular level. If it does not have the support of Ould Daddah or other important opposition figures — he has from the beginning objected to the allowance of members of the military being able to run in the elections, a major bone of contention — the wave of support Aziz gets from the Israel option could quiet popular resistance to his constitutional amendments and electoral candidacy.
Still, when rage over far away Gaza fades, Abdel Aziz will have to deal with local maters which trump any Levantine happening in relevance. This is, afterall, the land of couscous: Mauritanians will know if their plates are poisoned, regardless of whether or not Aziz makes a statement by cutting off relations with Israel. The primary motive in doing so is not political, but financial — he wants the money from Libya — and Aziz is unlikely to do it. He cannot risk irritating the United States, let alone the moderate Arabs who are likely to be displeased by such a move. The Israel issue is a red line which Aziz is not prepared to cross. Relations with Israel will stay.
I am told by people in the close vicinity of RFD that Ould Daddah is preparing to cut off his relationship with the junta in toto. From this he will regain his moral authority, which will make him the most formidable and credible opponent of Aziz in 2009 and onwards. Ould Daddah — who it is known was robbed of the presidency in 1992 and arguably 2007. As it stands, Aziz has held meetings with individual RFD members, seeking to parse and split Ould Daddah’s political base, as was done in to the opposition at large 2007.¹
Abdel Aziz still needs Ould Daddah more than Ould Daddah needs him. Why? Because Ould Daddah is the historic leader of the opposition; As such, he is the only major opposition figure not have palled around with Ould Taya. Aziz has depended on Ould Daddah to lend some semblance of legitimacy to his leadership; Ould Daddah has used the junta to diminish the influence of Belkheir and his crowd who undermined his presidential bid in 2007. Because Aziz has risen to power so quickly and largely on his lonesome and because the junta’s funds are running thin, some feel that 2009 may indeed see another coup, before or after the elections. General AbdelAziz came in without the backing of France, most of the opposition, and on the opposite side of the law. He has his faction, but as a man of the army his pursuit of power has alienated many within that institution. Strong personalities tend to encourage enmity, jealousy and competition andAziz will surely face competition from within his own institution and from Ould Daddah. If Aziz ascends to the presidency without Ould Daddah’s backing he will not be able to establish popular legitimacy. And this is what may lead to his eventual down fall, regardless of the country’s relations with Israel.
1. [ It is said that the tribally influential Mohamed Abderrahmane Ould Moine (aka Dahamane), presently of the RFD, is very actively considering joining the junta. He hails from the Tajakanit stronghold of Gurerou in south central Mauritania, and is of tremendous political importance. His sons, Mohamed Ould Moine (currently Minister of Communications) and MP Yaqoub Ould Moine have joined the ranks of the junta, against father’s will. As a major power broker, it is sometimes said that where Dahmane goes victory follows. ]