The first major statement General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz made after the 18 July election was a promise to fight terrorism in Mauritania. This was for an international audience, aimed especially at the Untied States and Europeans. Having had little stomach for the 8 August coup and having rather consistently opposed the junta politically, the Americans have kept up their military cooperation with Mauritania, in an effort to combat the proliferation of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as well as other smuggling networks in the region. It is his hope that by appealing to this common interest, he will be able to convince the Western powers of his utility thereby encouraging them to extend a warmer welcome to the contested election results and to his poorly regarded leadership generally.
There is no public discussion, let alone debate, about Mauritania in the United States. The 8 August coup engendered about as much conversation as the later Madagascar coup. The country is primarily discussed in terms of terrorism and military operations. Writing on the country is infrequent, and only one major opinion piece came out about the elections, a hatchetjob on Ould Abdel Aziz, labeling him Ahmadinejad’s North African protege, in the Wall Street Journal. While the piece was not inaccurate in its description of the situation, it centered on the country’s Israel policy, and its drift toward the radical Arabs and Iran. It does not place these moves in the context of Mauritanian diplomatic history, which is replete with “moderate,” “radical” or neutral shifts most of which scarcely relate to ideology. It described what are essentially long standing elements of Mauritanian policy, without informing the reader of that context. Nevertheless, it was, in this blogger’s view, one of the best informed pieces written on the country in an American paper over the last two or more months.
Already there are some who view Ould Abdel Aziz’s electoral victory (and perhaps even the 8 August coup itself) through the lens of counter terrorism and regional stability. One blogger wrote that because Mauritania, as a part of the Islamic world generally, is “facing an existential threat” which necessitates not only acceptance but support for the process that has lead the situation to where it is now since 8 August of last year.º That blogger’s narrative around the coup and last weekend’s election evidences a confused understanding of the country’s situation and recent history. The conclusion that this understanding produces holds unfortunate prospects not only for Mauritanians but also for American policy in the region generally.
Progressives find it heartening when countries move toward democracy and away from autocratic rule or theocratic rule or, in the case of the northwestern African nation of Mauritania, which held a presidential election on Saturday, away from military rule. The election winner was Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who himself had taken control of Mauritania in a military coup in August 2008 against Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who had been elected by the support of the last military junta in Mauritania, in August 2005.
Fact: General Ould Abdel Aziz was a chief planner of the 2005 coup and was a (if not the) driving force behind the fabrication (in the structural sense; it was largely free of serious fraud) of Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi’s electoral victory in 2007. Ould Abdel Aziz having stepped down before the election says nothing about his commitment to democracy, especially not a fellow who made sure to rig that election and who had previously disrupted the democratic process thereby necessitating those rigged elections.
Needless to say, having the backing of a non-democratically elected military government had left Abdallahi under a cloud of suspicion. And, while a military coup in and of itself isn’t a necessarily or essentially bad thing when the new leader after the junta calls for elections (which is what a junta ought to do, as soon as possible). After all, the 2005 coup in Mauritania was undertaken to remove an autocratic leader from 21 years in power. But when it becomes clear that the new leader (in this case Abdallahi) is corrupt and maneuvering to remain in power by exercising extraordinary power, then he has to go one way or the other.
This confused history takes Ould Abdel Aziz’s self-description and campaign rhetoric at face value. Abdellahi headed a government rife with corruption, true. But where did that corruption come from? It came from parliamentarians and ministers who spent much of if not most of their careers in the same capacity under Ould Taya’s dictatorship, and who were recruited to Abdellahi’s cause by the military. The logic of this was precisely to put the civilian president at the mercy of the establishment: corruption could be used against him were he to become unruly and challenge his military backers, and because these were men seeking wealth and not men of principle, they could easily be convinced to abandon the president should he attempt to the bite the hand that fed. This is precisely what happened when Abdellahi’s government was collapsed by members of parliament and ministers leaving his party and government en masse, creating the constitutional crisis in the summer of 2008 that compelled Ould Abdel Aziz’s intervention. And to remember Abdellahi simply as a corrupt fellow would be criminal. Certainly he was weak, ineffectual, politically stupid and a sock puppet for the military from the start. But his tenure was not without “progress,” to take a cue from the force popular in America’s politics: he passed the first real anti-slavery legislation in the country; established presidential term limits; began steps toward the repatriation of black Mauritanians driven from their homes into Senegal during the racial violence of the late 1980’s. One might also quibble with his ability to control the Islamist problem, but at the same time he must also ask who was really running those operations: Ould Abdel Aziz the army. One must give credit where it is due and call a putschist a putschist.
On the coup. The 2005 must not be understood from the stand point of military officers seeking to end autocracy; instead, it must be understood in terms of a struggle for power within the military elite. Prior to the coup, it is known that Ould Taya had sought to move Ould Abdel Aziz, then head of the presidential guard (BASEP), from Nouakchott to the remote climes of Lemgheitty as a part of the response to the GSPC barracks attack in June 2005. Military sources noted not only that at the time Ould Abdel Aziz was indignant about having had to abandon his vacation on the Atlantic to attend meetings to plan the response to the attacks, but also that it was the suggestion of his, and other top officers’ (including Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, the public face of the coup), transfer from Nouakchott to the desert that pushed them towards rebellion in August.
Now, Abdel Aziz had been one of the coup leaders from last year, but two things distinguish Abdel Aziz from Abdallahi. First, Abdel Aziz stepped down from the junta before the weekend’s elections were held. Second, and perhaps more importantly, while international reaction to last year’s coup were harsh, moderate North African régimes have been supportive of Abdel Aziz and the direction in which he appears to desire to move. Notably, the government of Morocco, which lies due north of Mauritania, has been supportive of Abdel Aziz, probably because of the dedication of Abdel Aziz and the Moroccan government both to oppose fundamentalism in their nations.
One must at all times be direct his criticism. In the first place, Abdellahi had no office to step down from after the 2005 coup; he was elected president. He was illegally removed from office. What really distinguishes Sidioca from Ould Abdel Aziz is that one disrupted the legal process of government by removing the other before constitutional processes could have thrown him out. One was within the bounds of the law and the other simply was not. It was a difference of power, as well: Sidioca was a hollow politician, whose power was derived from the military. From the standpoint of one who favors stability, Abdellahi could have been removed less flamboyantly and less disruptively, which may (or may not) have made the last year less stressful for the average Mauritanian.
In the second place, the writer is missing the facts. Yes, Morocco had backed the coup constantly. But the other states backing the junta have in no way been what one might call “moderate”: the most influential and outspoken support of the junta was Muammar al-Qadhafi of Libya, a man extreme in his political temperament, his authoritarianism and his manner of dress. There is nothing “moderate” about Libya’s policy toward the junta. Perhaps the most moderate country of all the North African states, Tunisia, does not seem to care very much at all about the coup.What can be said is that the countries in North Africa that have taken aggressive stances on the 8 August coup have done so for entirely political purposes. Ould Abdel Aziz’s stance against terrorism is not not a motivating factor. What is are his personal ties to Morocco, he graduated from the military academy in Meknes during Mauritania’s brief alliance with Morocco in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and their belief that he will be more accommodating to their Western Sahara policy which is strongly contested by many Mauritanians and by Algeria†; Libya’s desire to use the situation to amplify its alleged prestige in Africa and to do away with Mauritania’s relations with Israel (here was a success on their part) which he had emphatically opposed since they were initiated in 1999.
These political considerations have nothing to do with any state or man’s moderation: indeed, Libya’s support came on the condition of Mauritania allying it self with radical Arab states and Iran, against what are generally thought of as “moderate” states in the US and Europe. Another supporter of Ould Abdel Aziz has been “radical” Iran, who has suffered diplomatic scuffles with Morocco since the coup, with moderate Morocco complaining that this radical Shi’i state has insulted it by dealing the Polisario. The only other North African country with an aggressive policy on the issue has been Algeria, who has been against Ould Abdel Aziz since Morocco issued its response, seeing him as a potential Moroccan puppet and a threat to their policy on the Western Sahara, which Mauritania historically backed in one way or another under the military regimes, including Ould Taya. As to the common interest of Morocco and Mauritania being in opposing “fundamentalism,” there is not one country in North Africa historically or presently “radical” — Algeria and Libya in particular — that is not opposed to “fundamentalism”. Algeria, historically the most credible of the radical states in the region,‡ has fought longer and harder against Islamism than any of the others. But it remains the case that there is only one radical state in North Africa: Libya, and it backed the coup. The coup and the responses to it in North Africa are not considerations of ideology or anti-terrorism, but rather geo-politics in the most classical balance of power sort of way. Mauritania was not excluded or expelled from any regional counter terrorism or counter smuggling efforts after the coup. That trans-Saharan terrorism poses a threat to each of the North African states is well understood and because Mauritania is so peripheral in general this cooperation could afford to continue these joint efforts even considering the politics of the coup: these reactions are not as much about Mauritania per se, but about the relations between the three power centers in the Maghreb, Morocco, Algeria and Libya.
Note that the current transition of power has taken place under, shall we say, less than satisfactory means. And any government that takes its initial power through a military coup stands a large risk of falling by the same means. But it would be naïve to think that a country can immediately transition from 21 years of authoritarian rule by a dictator to a perfectly free society in under five years. Rather, we must expect that there be “birth pangs of democracy,” as they’re euphemistically called in other countries.
I think the bring home message about the Mauritanian election is to be cautiously optimistic. Why? Isn’t Abdel Aziz just another coup leader attempting to legitimize his power through an election? Well, yes he is. But having now done that, he needs to be given a chance to succeed or fail based on his own merits? Why? Because of where Mauritania is and the inherent danger of running a country in a part of the world that is firmly part of the Arab-Muslim world but, at the same time, wants a secular government and wants fundamentalism not to be a factor in that country.
To address the matter of naiveté: this is beside the point. It is naive to assume that the 2008 coup had anything at all to do with democracy or to place any modicum of faith in Ould Abdel Aziz’s commitment to democracy. That is not what the process that has brought him to power has been about. It has been the will to power of a man and a clique of other men (we must remember Comrade alle’s lesson: “look beyond the frontman”). The coups of 2005 and 2008, along with the elections of 2007 and 2009 are parts of the same political event: what one might call the Long Coup in which a particular leader or clan (to use the Algerian terminology). The 18 July election was five years in the making. The fraud witnessed in Mauritania on 18 July was evidence of Banana Republicanism more than progress toward democracy.
Cautious optimism is a reasonable sentiment to hold after 18 July. But one must ask: Cautious optimism about what? The reality of the situation does not point an observer in democracy’s direction. Cautious optimism for the establishment of centralized authoritarian rule might be fitting. Secularism might fit well within this context. If one’s primary concern is the “existential threat” of Islamism, he ought not gloss it up with business about some sort of long march toward democratic government or whatever it is “progressive” or “conservative” world view pine for in the United States. The fact is that if the American position is that Ould Abdel Aziz ought to be accepted on the grounds that he is tough on terror or “fundamentalism,” this ought to come with a recognition that this necessarily also means that Mauritania will not have democratic or stable government for some time. It must also include recognition that supporting this fellow whose interest is best described as the conquest of power for power’s sake will offer the potential for ever more instability, as such men engender hatred easily and their regimes crumble easily. This is not to discount the very real threat posed by terrorist networks like AQIM (see the posts prior to 12 October here for analysis of AQIM in Mauritania), but it is to say that it would be irrational to draw up the American calculus around Mauritania around this sole threat. The real problems are economic and social; Islamist violence is a symptom. It is crudely disingenuous to pretend that one can fit support for a fraudulent election and despotic rule into American “progressive” love for watching democratic transitions. This is the problem with the application of domestic political instincts and principles to international relations. It muddles analysis and leads inevitably to deeper disappointment than pragmatic, realist consideration ever might. One might remember that when the American Secretary of State spoke of “birth pangs of democracy,” in 2006, she was referring to the massive bombing of Lebanese, mostly civilians, by Israel. It was a justification for a military engagement, and had little at all to do with democracy; here was the injection of domestic political ideology to the rhetoric of world affairs did little to advance the American interest in terms of promoting democracy or long term stability in the region.
There is more troubled analysis of the Mauritanian situation. One comes from As’ad Abukhalil, a scholar and frequently agitated political commenter. In response to a New York Times piece on the elections he writes:
“Mr. Aziz has cultivated the small Islamist base, shutting down the Israeli Embassy”. As if shutting down the embassy of the usurping entity was only the demand of the Islamist base when in reality the anti-normalization camp in Mauritania is led by secular Arab nationalists.
This is flatly false. The anti-normalization campaign was and is led by the Islamist movement. The secular Arab nationalists in Mauritanian politics have all but been done away with, physically or at least politically. In the case of the Nasserists, who nowadays cluster around Messaoud Boulkheir — who has rarely if ever commented on the issue — they have little political inertia. On the Ba’athist side, there were major purges of Ba’athists in the army in 1987-1988; in 1988 the officier corps was almost totally purged of these people. Though they were allowed back into the military during the Gulf War, when Mauritania fervently backed Iraq, it was not long before Ould Taya expelled the Iraqi ambassador (1994) and purged them of the military again (1994-1995). As the regime began to normalize relations with Israel, and moved toward the “moderate” camp within the Arab League, Ould Taya expelled the Iraqi ambassador and rounded up, locked up and shut up the core remaining Ba’athist activists and army officers. This was a part of the broader re-alignment of Mauritania’s foreign policy in the 1990’s that followed its rapid support for Iraq during the Gulf War and the realization that such radicalism was not economically tenable after Iraq’s defeat and the negative attitudes toward that posture on the part of the the “moderate” Arabs and the rich world generally. Ould Taya also feared the destabilizing nature of a rapidly spreading militant ideology like Ba’athism (that was attached to a foreign power, Iraq) among the officer corps in an authoritarian state. This destroyed the historical base of the anti-normalization movement and the mantle was taken on by Tawassoul, the Mauritanian Muslim Brotherhood and the various other constituents of that general orientation. Interestingly, one finds that many Ba’athists went on to become Islamists in the middle 1990’s — the bearded sort in eastern style turbans and baggy pants North Africans call “Afghans”. Nowadays Nasserists, Ba’athists or other Arab nationalists are not leading any mass movements of note in Mauritania.
Mauritanians generally associated anti-Israel sentiments with Tawassoul, and not the other parties (even if this attitude was popular among practically everyone), until last fall when Ould Abdel Aziz took it up. The popular initiatives against the Mauritania-Israel relationship were all lead by Tawassoul [Mohamed Ghoulam Ould el-Haj] or otherwise Islamist figures and this is and was common knowledge among Mauritanians. Admittedly, though, it cannot be said that only Islamists wanted to see the Embassy closed, but it is the reality that only Islamists made this a part of their political platforms and the cooptation of this issue from them by Ould Abdel Aziz was deliberately intended to neutralize what made them unique within the opposition.
The broader implication of Abukhalil’s posting is not about Mauritania: it is symptomatic of a larger sentiment that deprives the Maghrebine states of analysis on their own terms and merits and superimposes schema and frameworks for analysis from the Levantine states onto a very different political environment. It should be said that while the campaign for the break in relations was driven by Mauritanian Islamists, it would not have been realized without the international isolation placed on the junta by the AU, EU and US which made the economic incentives offered to the junta by Libya and Iran worth the expulsion of the Israeli Embassy.
None of this is to say that this blogger knows what the best way for the United States, or anyone else, to respond to the Mauritanian situation is; or that anyone can speak absolutely about any of the topics in this post. But from the stand point of this blogger, there are certain paths that ought to be explored that are in some quarters and are not in others. The the selection of analyses is at times so narrow so as to facilitate undynamic analysis and potentially a kind of lonely groupthink. And with respect to an obscure place like Mauritania, more insight is needed in the broadest and most general sense.
° [ The post compares Mauritania’s coup with Honduras’s, arguing that Mauritania’s is more acceptable than the latter country’s because of the threat of radical Islamism in North Africa. It is altogether an unfitting comparison, and is more a part of the ongoing debate in the US about Honduras than about Mauritania. That the coup in Honduras is unacceptable or favorable is a serious debate in the US at present; no such debate is taking place on Mauritania, at least not publicly. ]
† [ In Morocco’s case there is a deeper tie that connects Ould Abdel Aziz to Morocco beyond his military education: his clan and tribe have Moroccan origins, having migrated into the Mauritanian Sahara only a few generations ago and still having members living in the hinterland around Marrakech to this day. This adds to Mauritanian, and Algerian, suspicion of Ould Abdel Aziz’s backing from Morocco. ]
‡ [ By this it is meant to say that Algeria’s radicalism never got the country into any of the special trouble that Libya’s did. The Libyans supported the most radical of radicals (e.g., Abu Nidal) and and carried out acts of militancy themselves, suffering sanctions and alienation within the Arab world. Algeria’s version of radicalism was more pragmatic, making it easy for the Algerians to take more nimble positions vis-a-vis the great powers. They never imploded their relations with the United States, even while and after the closed their embassy in Washington (in 1967); their relations with the superpowers were always based on economic ties more than ideological ones. Hence the lack of outward hostility towards France or Franco’s Spain; even as the Algerians aggressively denounced the United States in the 1970’s, they still maintained close economic ties. The Libyans on the other hand brought themselves to the point of being discredited internationally on an ideological as well as legal front. ]