RE: Recent Paucity

Responding to the following query: “Why have you not made any posts on the recent Sahel summit in Algiers?”

1. There has been more than adequate coverage of the meeting at Alex Thurston’s blog. This blogger has only minor quibbles with his analysis.

2. Terrorism poses a real threat to security and stability in the region but it is not the primary or even most pressing problem facing the Sahel. This is surely the case in the two countries this blog is most interested in, Algeria and Mauritania. In the Algerian case there are structure and political questions, unrelated to terrorism, that need to be addressed. Something like an attempt at that is what the posts over the last few weeks have been. The biggest question in Algerian politics today is succession and what kind of events might mark a power transition at the top. Where Mauritania is concerned, there are so many mundane questions that overshadow AQIM’s importance that to make extensive posts on the subject would obscure the picture and be less than productive. That does not offer a proposition that AQIM is not a serious problem for Mauritania or anyone else. It is to be taken seriously. But what has been written here on Mauritania (admittedly not much recently) has tried to put AQIM into a bigger context, a political and social one. There is a strong case that poor leadership is a greater danger to Mauritania than the scrawny turban-clad jihadis out in the bush and that capricious rulers can do more significant and lasting damage to the country than AQIM even as it carries on with attacks in Niger or kidnappings in Mali. So AQIM needs to be addressed in the proper context.

3. From this blogger’s perspective what is missing in the discussion about AQIM, especially in Mauritania, is a critical look at the country’s current leadership. This refers to perhaps two trends: (1) the tendency of the current Mauritanian government to evoke AQIM and terrorism when attempting to consolidate broader and (sometimes) extra-constitutional powers; and (2) a similar movement by the government towards “engaging” the Salafist tendency to the point where it risks making a generally marginal political and religious movement more mainstream and an important part in legitimizing the first trend internationally and domestically.

4. Emphasis is particularly on the international side. Ould Abdel Aziz has become more and more kosher internationally since his disputed election last summer. Part of this came from fatigue and a lack of will on the French and American end. The American position on accountability (on governance, terrorism or practically anything else) has suffered since the Obama administration took office. The administration’s disinterest has been very evident since last spring. Part of it is ignorance at the top that has forced out previously productive measures and postures, symptomatic of the administrations rather steadfast refusal to take a stand on much of anything. None of this deliberately counterproductive, though. On the French end it has been more calculated and straightforward in terms of wishing to maintain historical leverage and protect its own interests which are more larger in number and greater in value than American ones. In both cases the two governments have become more permissive of Ould Abdel Aziz as a result of terrorist activity, be it the killing of the American aid worker or the attempted suicide bombing, both of which occurred last summer. This comes either from one of two places: (1) a fear that Mauritania’s capacity deficit in terms of material and manpower requires outside assistance or at least encouragement; or (2) that Ould Abdel Aziz is a serious fellow when it comes to “fighting terrorism”.

5. It looks more and more like both sets trust Ould Abdel Aziz on the terrorism issue, seeing him as taking the terrorism problem more seriously than he actually does. This idea that Ould Abdel Aziz is “tough on terror” was a part of his presidential campaign, and has remained a fixture of his public rhetoric. Because so much of the reporting on the region and Mauritania has been focused on terrorism, the larger picture seems to escape the reality: that for Ould Abdel Aziz “fighting terrorism” is more of a bumper sticker than a course of action, much like fighting corruption. He uses it as a bone to throw at foreign observers he hopes to scratch some cash out of or to justify restrictive legislation meant to strangle domestic opponents. His anti-terror law, discussed here, was recently thrown out by the Mauritanian high court for violating the constitution. Many took the Mauriatnians’ recalling their Mali ambassador over that country’s prisoner exchange at face value. In doing this (effectively adopting the Algerian position) Ould Abdel Aziz looked to make himself appear as a hardliner against terrorism, but many others will note his own plans to release jailed Islamists with links to AQIM and his having given these men a public forum to express their ideas to the whole country. Others will recall that it was Ould Abdel Aziz who was so strongly indignant as to start plotting a coup at the idea that his special unit be sent to Tiris ez-Zemour to pursue the GSPC in 2005; or that the most significant security breaches related to AQIM have taken place when it was his (or his close associates) responsibility to prevent them, whether under the Abdellahi government (recall the Battle of Tavregh Zeina) or in the post-2008 coup period. And it must be further noted that since his election the number and intensity of AQIM attacks inside the country has grown like never before as he has focused mainly on undermining local political opponents or excluding major parts of civil society from governance, again, while offering marginal extremists public platforms.

6. The reasons are wholly political in the cheapest sense of “political” rather than attempting to address the terrorist issue in a broad social, economic and political way. He and his foreign minister have repeatedly said a “foreign ideology” (e.g. violent Salafism) has infected Mauritanian youth, but they have acted to reduce the number of free alternatives to this “foreign ideology” and have made its propagandists major public figures. This has allowed outsiders to overestimate the importance of the Salafist tendency, as an “authentic” and “moderate” force. It is fact quite unimportant at a national level, having piecemeal influence over the average individual and minimal political influence (even Tawassoul, the local Muslim Brotherhood, has all of tree members of parliament). The average Mauritanian looks at Salafism as a foreign, pernicious political and religious trend that does not deserve serious consideration. Even the most conservative traditional religious leaders want little or nothing to do with it, be if for reasons of self-preservation or theology. What has taken place is Ould Abdel Aziz seeking to co-opt a leg for his own authoritarian ambitions by using the Salafist tendency at the expense of the organized political opposition. This is why he has been so happy to openly scorn cooperation with the country’s traditional political opposition (he pledged not long after his election not to pursue a unity government). At all times it must be remembered that Mauritania has a very active and lively civil society and political class; and Ould Abdel Aziz has tried frequently and aggressively to limit its ability to influence policy and decision-making. The prominence of the terrorism problem has allowed this to go on while outsiders have either been unaware or simply ignored other issues. The consequences of this will be more significant to the structure and mode of politics in the long term than AQIM’s activities.

7. All of this boils down to what this blogger told Inter Press Services last week: “If we only look to these countries and this region when there is a summit going on, that’s a problem”. Thus, as was written earlier, when we analyze this problem it must be as a part of a larger, more holistic framework. It must treat the region’s political and economic and social problems as a whole (which not treating them all the same).

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