It is easy to be too hopeful or too pessimistic about the possible outcomes in Mauritania’s upcoming election. The real significance is not that there will be “democratic elections” in the wake of the coup. It is instead that the 6 June elections were scratched and that since 6 August, 2008 the junta has not had an easy day. The process is more remarkable than the outcome, thus far. There was so little time spent contemplating whether or not to back the coup, to keep aloof or to do something else: there was constant militation against it both from within the country and from without.
Creativity helped to gain some quick cash and to allow for cheap but short lived victories over what had rapidly become consensus in the relevant corners of the international community. Still, running off to Libya or Iran or other conspicuously disruptive elements only served to worsen the junta’s isolation. In the end, there could be no fast track to pacification for Ould Abdel Aziz and friends. Now that the negotiations are through, we can reflect that Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi’s presidency really was over on 6 August; that the coup d’etat is going the way of American Express — widely known but less often accepted for its high price to the merchant or here the citizen; that the RFD’s shift away from the junta marked a turning point in this process; that it was rejected directly by all relevant actors, save of course China, and opposition to it met challengers only in the most predictably derisible of quarters, such as the stream of consciousness foreign policy of Libya. The French, via the Dakar settlement, are likely feeling more enfranchised in Mauritanian politics than they have in some months.
The campaign period is short, too short for a real battle between the various factions. There really are two sets in this process: those for Abdel Aziz and those against Abdel Aziz. The level of cooperation among the opposition parties looks at first to be high. Yet one must consider that the settlement has changed little substantively within the country. Ould Abdel Aziz stands a formidable presidential candidate, but less so than he did on the eve of the tin can elections he had plotted for 6 June. More credible candidates may make all the difference in lending legitimacy to the vote, as a similar set up did in 2007. The old rivalries of ambitious men are the same with mentalities perhaps more mature than previously. A better coordinated opposition could take these elections beyond their potential to repeat a tired cycle. This post includes broad analyses of four electoral factors, with more to come.
- Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz: The General is likely to pull every bit of subterfuge available to him. His supporters, still many of the same who cheered for him with sincerity when he railed against the excesses of the ancien régime of which he was part and parcel — the very poor and the very well off — will vote for him, will campaign for him and possibly bash heads for him as they have in the past. Having traded in his fatigues for a business suit with a windsor knot, Abdel Aziz is preparing himself to be a great Saharan strong man: a guardian of the status quo, his position guarded by the consent of the outside world and the cooptation of the elite. He is loved less than he was last August; Mauritanians have, in numbers larger than ever, rejected the legitimacy of the junta and its international supporters coming largely from darker international quarters than traditionally meddle in Mauritania. Abdel Aziz’s shrewdness last winter, breaking ties with Israel and befriending the radical Arabs in Doha, has done some work to neuter the platform of Jamil Mansour, head of the Islamist Tawassoul. His demagogy, initiated in the fall in a series of speeches just nearly verging on invocations of class warfare continues. But Ould Abdel Aziz has come round to a legitimacy problem. International pressure, especially French pressure, has made him unpopular outside the country and inside the country. The institution of sanctions may have made him a bit of a martyr in some sense but their result has made him a point of grumbling. Coups are no longer high fashion and he who usurps is in a sense doomed to a special kind of failure. Most Mauritanians would seem to have had enough of military politics. And the opposition is emboldened somewhat by the outcome of the settlement. But old habits die hard, and there is nothing from a structural or functional standpoint that says Abdel Aziz is out of the game. If he does win, it will through a combination of fissures in the opposition and tribal coordination mixed with military politiking.
- Messaoud Boulkheir/Ahmed Ould Daddah: The pair and their parties (along with the verbal but not official support of Jamil Mansour, as he claims not to have the authority to sign on behalf of his party) have agreed that one will support the other in the event that one makes it to the final rounds and the other does not. On Daddah’s side there are worries that Boulkheir will split the opposition vote and that this will be exploited by Abdel Aziz’s cadres. On the converse side, Boulkheir’s ranks are less than convinced of Ould Daddah’s fidelity and mistrustful of his ambition. Though one should remember that, last time round, it was Boulkheir who sold out Ould Daddah. The later has lost some prestige as a result of his early tolerance of the coup, but his chances remain high and there is a strong sense that the double crossing that afflicted the opposition last time around may not resurface. Boulkheir can count on the support of the deposed; whatever that may yield. Powerful men are throwing their weight behind him and he is more formidable than ever; many who had reservations about supporting him before the coup have since let go and he is well positioned.
- Ely Vall: The former interim leader post-2005 coup and pre-Sidi has initiated a campaign and Abdel Aziz’s people are looking for ways of keeping him out of the race or at least down at the polls. Known in Nouakchott slang as “Ely the Pickpocket,” he is often remembered for having lied to everyone and anyone possible during his time at the helm of leadership before former president Abdellahi was parachuted into the presidency in 2007. He claims his rule was a success, ushering in peacefully and orderly the elections which brought upon Mauritania flimsy campaign placard that was Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi. If this was his goal it may be called success. He has France’s support and not that of much of the military, which stands behind his cousin Abdel Aziz, and there is a likelihood he may be able to appeal to a certain section of Mauritanians. But he is still too well known as a kleptocrat and a liar to be a strong contender and there is not enough time between now and 18 July for him to do much explaining towards dispelling this reputation.
- What of Sidi? His resignation was a forgone conclusion, sealed some time last autumn. His comments of Saturday last, about his excitement to be the country’s first elected president to be forced out of office for the “higher” national good, and that he “voluntarily” renounced his position as president, were a final admission of his failure as president. He will retire back to his desert abode, whilst those who fabricated his political career, from what was essentially nothing, will keep playing the game in which he was a mere pawn. His parting words affirm that western governments were foolish to hold onto him as the symbol of Mauritanian democracy and they are best paraphrased by Yeats’s Crazy Jane when she says: “love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement”.