Dialogue in Mauritania: Clean from the purpose of the things themselves

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.

Militant threads.

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.


18 thoughts on “Dialogue in Mauritania: Clean from the purpose of the things themselves

  1. Thanks Kal for this. General Aziz kicked out his predecessor Ould Cheikh Abdallahi for being too weak with terrorism. Now he is doing even more. Aziz is creating an Algerian FIS, but unlike his brothers the generals in Algiers, we will not be able to avoid being removed sooner than expected by the islamists behind the military or by a new coalition between France and the US. Also fearing this will frustrate all the countries around Mauritania by Aziz establishing an islamist base in the country to attack them when they see it fit. Put this on top of his alleged alignment with Morocco that is not pleasing Algeria. curious to read El Watan and la Liberté tomorrow on this …

  2. General Aziz is committing the same mistake as Sadat before him as he thought he can use islamists for his own ends. We all know how that ended.

  3. Some old stuff related to the subject of this post. Is Abdel Aziz plan is to do like the Saudis extremists (re. paper by Boucek – pdf)?. Ould Dedew is trained in Saudi Arabia and is a wahabist. The first link was a warning in 2008 from Jane’s, but no one believed or noticed.

    Mauritania is in a real mess and no one uses past lessons: US with Al Qaida, Pakistan with the Talibans, Algeria with GIA/GSPC that has turned into AQIM and Israel with Hamas. Fabricating or supporting at the start and then losing control. They lost control with their “things” and I hardly believe that Abdel Aziz will do better in the medium to long term.



    • I’ve looked at these before. It is more comparable to the Saudi case than the Algerian or Pakistani. The situation is not so bad yet. But the sort of leadership and skill that these efforts require is hard to find in Mauritania. The results in Saudi are showing to be somewhat mixed (though not totally). Deserves a look for comparative purposes, but one wonders whether that’s what Aziz has in mind.

    • Fully agree with you Kal that Abdel Aziz could not have the skills of the pakistanese as he is new in the game of crossing and double-crossing at that level.

      Came accross an article in Cridem (Mauritania)that implies that all this discussion with the salafists is a way to get a blessing from the ulemas and the rest of the society to release those dangerous among to secure the release of the Spanish hostages. And then, if he wishes, to go really after them. In that jail, he has certainly a couple of jihadists spying on the real ones as he is not stupid, the General.

      The article below from Le Monde saying that Hilary Clinton (definitively a great lady and very, very fit for her job) has managed to do the obvious: putting AQAP under closer scrutiny. She should extend this to our go-between (in particular Ag Iyad and Baba Ould Sheikh who have been involved in every ransom payment since the El Para saga in 2003/4). Putting them in her list will stop everyone playing this game, including the countries behind this. Every secret service of the stakeholders (US, FRANCE, MAURITANIA, MALI, NIGER, BURKINA FASO, ALGERIA, LIBYA, ETC..) knows who is doing it and receiving a commission on ransoms and drug/arm trafic. They certainly knew that Nino Veyra of Guinea-Bissau was involved in drug traficking, but they let him proceed for some reason they knew (see article from VQR I shared with you). Everything will stop, including ATT and this AQMI business. When states are threatened, they act. The article is below and sorry for copying it here.

      Al-Qaïda : les Etats-Unis classent l’AQAP “organisation terroriste”
      AFP 19.01.10 | 20h34

      Les Etats-Unis ont placé mardi Al-Qaïda dans la péninsule arabique (AQAP), qui a revendiqué l’attentat manqué contre un avion américain le jour de Noël, parmi les “organisations terroristes étrangères”, ce qui ouvre la voie à des mesures juridiques et financières contre ce groupe.

      La désignation des organisations terroristes étrangères “est un moyen efficace d’entraver le soutien aux activités terroristes et de faire pression sur les groupes pour qu’ils abandonnent l’activité terroriste”, déclare dans un communiqué le porte-parole du département d’Etat, Philip Crowley.

      Cette mesure permet d’interdire “la fourniture de soutien matériel ou de ressources”, le “gel des propriétés et des intérêts détenus par l’organisation visée aux Etats-Unis”, ajoute le communiqué. Elle permet aussi “des mesures de maintien de l’ordre liées à l’immigration”.

      La décision a été prise par la secrétaire d’Etat Hillary Clinton, précise M. Crowley.

  4. Nasser,

    Sadat even helped them to go fight in Afghanistan to get ride of them. They then came back and got ride of him (source: Histoire du terrorisme – de l’ antiquité à Al Qaida – Gerard Chaliand & Arnaud Blin,Bayard 2004 – excellent read).

      • Thank you Kal. Got this news on the outcome of the visit: some 500 taxis and buses on offer, as well as an Embassy. Some grandiose investments too. A joker on one of the mauritanian webs says the taxi and the buses are for blowing things up. Hope Ould Abdel Aziz would not need all this if Total has discovered some oil or gas in Taoudeni (supposed to finish digging by January). How Morocco and France will feel the guy they supported bringing closer Ahmedinejad? Too many questions. Below the article from ANI.MR I think somrehow close to the power structure now.


        500 taxis et 250 bus seront mis en place par Iran au profit de la Mauritanie

        La Mauritanie et l’Iran ont signé, mardi à Téhéran, un accord de coopération et deux protocoles d’accord de coopération et de partenariat en présence des deux président des deux républiques islamiques.

        L’accord de coopération paraphé par les ministres des affaires étrangères mauritanien Naha Mint Moknass et Iranien Manouchahar Moteki, porte sur la coopération en matière de développement.

        Un premier protocole d’accord a été signé par les ministres iranien des industries et des mines Mihrab Yan et mauritanien des affaires économiques Sidi Ould Tah. Il porte sur la coopération entre les deux pays dans les domaines techniques, notamment en matière de recherches géologiques et minière, ainsi que la surveillance maritime et côtière.

        En plus de ces domaines, ce protocole d’accord englobe les programmes d’enseignement et le transfert des technologies, ainsi que l’échange des données scientifiques et de laboratoires.

        Par rapport au deuxième protocole d’accord, le gouvernement iranien a décidé d’octroyer, à travers la banque iranienne pour le développement et l’export, une ligne de crédit au profit de plusieurs projets de développement en Mauritanie dont :

        – Un projet d’extension du réseau des transports urbains. Classé au niveau de l’urgence, il devra être exécuté dans les trois prochains mois avec la mise en place de 500 taxis et 500 bus de transport.

        – Projet visant à élever la capacité de stockage des installations pétrolières de la ville de Nouakchott.

        – Construction de la route Néma-Bassokno ; Bassiknou-frontiére malienne.

        – Construction de digues pour une meilleure gestion des ressources en eau des zones agricoles.

        – Construction d’un port de pêche avec annexes de traitement des poissons

        Ce dernier protocole a été signé par le ministre mauritanien des affaires économiques Siid Ould Tah et le directeur général de la Banque iranienne pour le développement et l’export.

        Les deux pays ont également décidé d’ouvrir des ambassades dans leurs capitales respectives

        Toute reprise d’article ou extrait d’article devra inclure une référence à http://www.cridem.org

        Info source : ANI (Mauritanie)

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