The release of the Mauritanian businessmen arrested on corruption charges from the Ould Taya years was mediated by Sheikh Mohamed Hassan Ould Dedew. Well known as the spiritual leader of much of the country’s Islamist movement, Dedew’s mediation is now said by reliable sources to have been sought on the recommendation of Sudanese President Omar Hasan al-Bashir. Al-Bashir is believed to have encouraged Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to call in Dedew during his visit to Nouakchott in late December, when the two signed fourteen cooperation agreements. These sources have it that Ould Abdel Aziz sought al-Bashir’s advice in how to get out of the bind created by the affair’s public outcry. Al-Bashir is said to have both made the suggestion and then contacted Dedew for Ould Abdel Aziz. The motivation on al-Bashir’s part is believed to be heavily ideological — an example of Islamist solidarity across borders. There is more Ould Abdel Aziz’s outreach to Islamist elements than ideology, though.
The move certainly raised Dedew’s profile in official circles, and cast him as a power broker; this works to the benefit of both the General and the Shiekh. It was also designed to smooth out relations between the government and Islamist circles; co-opting or exploiting the Islamist agenda and personages has been a constant thread in Ould Abdel Aziz’s political calculus since 2008. This is seen in his use of the anti-Israel card during the Gaza Crisis, the reciprocal courting of Tawassoul and the government following the elections and other episodes. Dedew, due to his power in the Salafist movement, is useful to Ould Abdel Aziz for propaganda reasons and for setting up and extending “good will gestures” to potentially or already violent Islamists. This is special part of a broader process by which Ould Abdel Aziz has moved to gain allies by stroking egos or spreading around money. Dedew was rewarded for his work with a dinner and three hour meeting with Ould Abdel Aziz, also attended by the businessmen; they “agreed to put the past behind them and work toward building a new Mauritania.”
This week the government facilitated a dialogue between itself and leaders of the Salafist movement and jailed “jihadists”. This was the result of ideas thrown around at a conference of Islamic scholars, also put on by the government. So this included government representatives, standing up on a podium to discuss ideology and security, and AQIM-linked terrorists talking about much the same. Among those in the latter category were the famed Mohamed Salem Ould Mohamed Lemine (a.k.a. El-Majlissi), Mohamed Ould Chabarnou, Taher Ould Biya and Abdallahi Ould Mohamed Ould Sidiya Bouh. In the former pack were Mohamed Vall Ould Abdelatif (from the Ministry of the Interior), Hacen Ould Mayemtess (Ministry of Justice) and Khattri Ould Hamed (Ministry of Islamic Guidance). According to a janitor quoted in Sahara Media, this is the first time a podium has been set up in a Mauritanian prison.
The prisoners put off the dialogue at first, not in principal, but in protest over the conduct of their guards whom they accused of torturing them. The Islamist prisoners are divided into two camps: “hawks” and “doves”. The Hawks (led by prisoner Khadim Ould Semane) are the “21 most hardline prisoners” and the Doves (led by prisoner Abdallahi Ould Sidina) are the 47 prisoners open to dialogue (including 25 who have signed a petition calling for dialogue and announcing their willingness to give up violence). The Hawks believe that God is their ultimate judge and “brandish their allegiance” to AQIM. Sheikh Dedew led a delegation of ulema to try and convince prisoners to embrace dialogue. The dialogue will go on, though, and address a series of theological and ideological issues and questions between the two camps, such as the legitimacy of violence against non-Muslims and Muslims and the purpose of and proper context of jihad, and so on. Prominent Salafist thinkers have given their two cents, pro and con. Ould Semane brought an AQIM t-shirt with him to the floor, while he listened to speeches from Ould Hamed and Ould Sidina; he claimed to speak on behalf of “those who took up arms to uphold the word of God and wage jihad happily” and that those interested in “kafr regulations” did not speak for him (e.g. Ould Sidina). Ould Sidina claimed to speak for those ready for dialogue.
Tawassoul backed the talks, in a statement published on Aqlam, saying that it encouraged participation in the talks (and politics more generally) as a way of “breaking the ice” where there was distrust by way of a “positive initiative” and as a way of going “beyond the logic of marginal relationships and peripheral positions” in the country’s political process. Those in the know say Mansour believes that a great change is coming, a cabinet reshuffle or a new government all together, which would open up a place for members of his party. He has few reservations about joining such a government and hopes to pounce on such an opportunity.
Ambitions and limits
This entire process stands in marked contrast to the military’s traditional posture towards Islamists and Islamism. The dialogue process marks the first time the Mauritanian state has recognized the Islamist tendency as a legitimate line of thought, by giving a platform to those alleged to have participated in the Aleg killings and the non-militant Salafist movement, engaging them intellectually as well as politically. It represents an unprecedented measure of cooperation between the two sides. (One must recognize that there has been cooperation between Islamists and the government before, but never with such prominence and ideological engagement. Additionally, all of these Islamists do not have the same ideology, there being differences between Salafists and Wahhabists and the Brotherhood tendency; the Salafists and the Brotherhood types were in competition for many years, but have reached a kind of pact within the last ten years that has done both camps well.) Under Ould Taya, and through the post-2005 process, the Islamist tendency was treated as a foreign ideology and consequently a framework that was dangerous and pernicious where traditional and national institutions were concerned. This was the official and non-official attitude and underlined much of the government’s crackdowns on Islamists from 1991 onward. Ould Abdel Aziz was critical in that process, along with others still in key positions in the army (and the opposition, like Ely Ould Mohamed Vall).
One must keep in mind two factors: 1) that a pretext for Ould Abdel Aziz’s 2008 coup was that Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi was “weak on terrorism”; that he had allowed men like Ould Sidna to escape, that he had released Islamists detainees, and had allowed Islamist ideology to spread in an unacceptable fashion; and 2) the “red lines” outlined in Col. Ely Ould Vall as he left office in 2007. Those included 1) no Islamist political parties; 2) no trial for those involved in crimes during the Ould Taya era (i.e., race killings); 3) no trial for Ould Taya in Mauritania; and 4) no breaking ties with Israel. These were the political lines where the military was concerned. As of today, there is a prominent and active Islamist political party (Tawassoul), there have been no trials of those involved in crimes under the last regime or Ould Taya himself (unless one counts the businessmen’s case), and Mauritania has no diplomatic relations with Israel. There is irritation and uncertainty in the military as to Ould Abdel Aziz’s intentions and behavior.
One cannot speak of a change in ideology; he can speak only of a new political strategy. That strategy involves the use of Islamists (which can take the form of absorbing their politically active elements or by tolerating them in exchange for their support subtly or more overtly at various junctures). There is nothing to suggest that Ould Abdel Aziz has any intention of becoming an Islamist; he is far from any such tendency, not just rhetorically but also as an individual. What drives him is the lust for his seat. In doing this he has taken a different path than his predecessors; the old approach was to stuff cash into the pockets of many different people such that they were content to live with the existing order and too corrupt to launch any meaningful opposition.
The new model is to build new alliances by similar means, but with rather different results. It focuses on consolidating control over critical sectors of politics and the economy with a narrow bunch, and making (or labeling) those on the outside of the new system as “marginal.” (More on the tribal element later.) It is one that is difficult to maintain and that easily creates enemies, military and civilian. It is the kind of politics that overestimates the staying power of individuals and underrates the consequences and longevity of ideas. The goal is not to promote Islamist ideology of any special variety, or any ideology at all, but to make Ould Abdel Aziz’s grip on power last longer and with many blessings. Here he is building his court for his own purposes. To what degree he appreciates his own or others’ limits is unclear. And to what extent he is capable of making his regime viable over the long term will depend on exactly that factor.
Ω It bears mentioning that if one does a Google News search for “Mauritania” he finds many stories about AQIM and a fatwa contra female genital mutilation. The major Mauritanian news sites are plastered with stories on the dialogues.