Lions and Foxes

Let us think, broadly and beyond the short-term.

Vilfredo Pareto once wrote:

A society does best when there is a predominance of lions among the population as a whole and a healthy element of foxes in the leadership. The leadership must allow for new blood to avoid degeneration. In war more lions again rise to positions of power, and as surely as the war disappears so do the majority of lions. Lions being ready to use force, relying on it rather than their brains to solve their problems. They are conservative, patriotic, and loyal, to tradition and solidly tied to supra-individual groups like family, the church and or nation. In economic affairs they are cautious, saving and orthodox. They dislike the new, and praise character and duty rather than wits. Foxes being ones that live by their wits. They put their reliance on fraud, deceit, and shrewdness. They do not have strong attachment to family, church, and nation and tradition (though they may exploit these attachments in others).

The above is relevant when one considers the widespread and growing discontent within the Mauritanian political class as result of recent developments in the country’s politics and economy.

Displeasure extends especially far into the traditionally elite — those who were content under the Ould Taya regime and who have now found themselves spread across a series of pro-government and opposition parties. The Mauritanian political class, like any elite, gravitates toward where there dependably stable and durable leadership. These are the people with vested economic and social interests, who were brought into the old regime because of Ould Taya’s ability to leverage tribal and economic capital in a prudent way. Such people now complain that only “three families” (who shall go unnamed) benefit from Ould Abdel Aziz’s government; that the important tribal and economic formations feel left out; that his refusal to undertake a more inclusive style of rule puts them ill at ease. What is worrying is not that many are grumbling — but who is grumbling. One hears master opportunists complain that they see no opportunities in the current regime and officers about disrespect and myopia. Observers sometimes note during and after the 2005-2007 transition, there was little fundamental change in the makeup of the elite. The officers that overthrew Ould Taya had been the guardians and enforcers of the old regime. The new “democrats” in the pro-Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi Adil during the 2007-2008 period were the same technocrats that made up Ould Taya’s PRDS. They will throw their lot where they can find some benefit. And within any political system there are only so many actors and thus a large, though still finite, system of permutations into which their allegiances may fall. Mauritania is no different.

The Mauritanian elite is accustomed to a collegial system of rule where “spoils,” so to speak, are distributed relatively equally for the sake of stability. The preferred set up casts wide net of stake holders, stuffing potential rivals mouths with cash or appointments to keep them from joining the opposition. It ties up the officer class in by corruption and tribalism; in effect it seeks to coup-proof and maintain an equilibrium of forces within the elite and in society at large. It calls to mind Pareto’s Circulation of Elites, with its governing and the non-governing elites, alternating power cyclically, as the capacity of one erodes and is replaced by the other. The traditional elite’s way of rule in Mauritania has been to expand the ranks of the governing elite such that those in the non-governing elite pose no threat to the regime, for the first object of politics is the maintenance of the status quo. This was the way for both Mokhtar Ould Daddah and Maaouiyya Ould Taya, the two presidents to rule longest. When either began to alienate significant sectors of the ruling elite, the malcontents formed alternative elite segments to restore or to augment the system to better fit their own purposes. Both men were put out by the military because both men alienated this important segment of the elite. This was also the mistake of Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi, whose position was always at the mercy of the armed forces to start with.

The Mauritanian political class is, like most other sets of its kind, made up of Foxes — regardless of ideology or faction. There is nothing particularly more or less moral than the other.  Successful, long-term, leadership in Mauritania — and the rest of the world — has depended on a balance of power between Lions and Foxes. To disrupt that order by alienating the major stake holders — either by deliberately or accidentally — is to induce self-correction within the system. In the past, this has tended to come by coup or counter-coup at the highest levels and by the shifting of resources (political, social, fiscal or otherwise) at lower levels. Like elites elsewhere, the Mauritanian political class gravitates toward power that re-enforces its interests. Its first task is self-preservation and perpetuation. An important politician, now in the opposition but not long ago deep in with the military regime, said that under Ould Taya “there were limitations, there were no rights, but we got what we needed. At least [Ould Taya] knew what he was doing.” “It was never this bad, this incompetent. Nobody gets what they want or what they need.” There is fear that the president is setting up a framework of personal rule; but the greater fear that comes across, in rather frank terms, is that this ambition will precipitate resistance within the regime and society. The opposition’s desire to push Ould Abdel Aziz out of power by peaceful means is evidence of much of this; there is a fear in the political class that its relevance will be wiped out if the current system goes on as it has. The opposition sets feel locked out and even the most establishment-of-establishment types share that sentiment. Nowadays there is a cadre of Foxes that would like to become Lions and it is rather unpopular among the other Foxes. Political space is not apportioned according to what the political class understands as being natural. Without the right cunning, it could all go opposite the old story:

A Lion, an Ass, and a Fox were hunting in company, and caught a large quantity of game. The Ass was asked to divide the spoil. This he did very fairly, giving each an equal share.  The Fox was well satisfied, but the Lion flew into a great rage over it, and with one stroke of his huge paw, he added the Ass to the pile of slain.  Then he turned to the Fox.  “You divide it,” he roared angrily.  The Fox wasted no time in talking. He quickly piled all the game into one great heap. From this he took a very small portion for himself, such undesirable bits as the horns and hoofs of a mountain goat, and the end of an ox tail.  The Lion now recovered his good humor entirely.  “Who taught you to divide so fairly?” he asked pleasantly.  “I learned a lesson from the Ass,” replied the Fox, carefully edging away.

From the outside, there is a tendency to look at the situation as if AQIM were the greatest threat to the country’s stability. Certainly there are some Lions who would like for this perception to dictate others’ calculations. They likely know that: “In war more lions again rise to positions of power, and as surely as the war disappears so do the majority of lions.” The country’s political workings may be more relevant where long-term stability is concerned. The sundry problems stemming from irresponsible elites and political upheaval only feed the more conspicuous ones nowadays sporting ankle pants and beards in the desert.


3 thoughts on “Lions and Foxes

  1. I fully agree with you. Whoever gets power, we got the same lions and the same foxes again and again. Since the departure of Ould Taya, you can’t miss a single ex-minister. The system replicates itself with the same faces.

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