The video above credits the pardoning and release of thirty-five Salfist prisoners (many convicted on terrorism charges) in Mauritania during ʿEid ul-Fitr to the tirless work of “moderate ʿulema,” though it names none of those religious leaders. Among those released was a fellow by the name of al-Majlissi, with whom readers will be familiar. It must be understood that this is the result of maneuvering by Sheikh Mohamed Hassan Ould Dedew and Imam Ahmedou Ould Lemrabott between the Islamist tendency at large and with the Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz government, a process that has been roughly a year in the making — if not longer.
In fairness, there are men that have been detained on spurious grounds and treated poorly (to say the least) only for their associations with others. There are, on the other hand, men whose activities have been in themselves criminal or have aided in criminality and these men need to be subject to the appropriate, legal consequences. This is not to say that due process is especially well respected in Mauritania or that the conditions of men in prison is up to international standards (whatever those might be) — in fact many prisoners complain of abuse and are held extrajudicially (Islamist and otherwise). One cannot help but be puzzled, though, with the release of these men, many of whom were (and likely remain) efficient recruiters and supporters for what has become AQIM.
It is puzzling because it conflicts with the strong-man-tough-on-terror image that Ould Abdel Aziz has consciously cultivated for himself since his seizure of power in 2008. Indeed, there is some hypocrisy in this being done by a government that recalled its ambassador over a Malian prisoner exchange and that has fumed when its eastern neighbor released far fewer men with similar backgrounds. The move has severely angered France which has been a major back of Ould Abdel Aziz as a terrorist smasher for over a year.
Recall that one of his chief criticisms of the Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi government was that it had been “soft on terror,” releasing militants, allowing them to operate and recruit right under its nose and publicly blundering many encounters with AQIM after the transition. The political calculations here link back to a longer-term process related to the ambitions of several Islamist leaders in the “big tent,” as it were. While all streams of the Islamist tendency are marginal in Mauritania (for a number of reasons) but their leaders’ ambitions are as grand as any. So limited is the appeal of Tawassoul or the Salafist groupings that their survival is only guaranteed by bandwagoning with or winning the favor of more powerful political factions.
They were subject to vigorous repression for many years before the 2005 coup and this has made them plainly aware of their precarious position. One of the results of this has been a constant need to made themselves useful to existing powers — both within the opposition and the ruling cliques. They are foxes, new on the scene, their ranks hungry and lean. So they were browbeat in their infancy, underground or clandestine under the dictatorship; allowed out of the cage in with the 2005-2007 transition and have hopped from ambiguity, to the opposition, into the Abdellahi government. And when the coup came they made a point to support the man who gave them their first and of yet only cabinet post, till General Ould Abdel Aziz threw it all out. In the opposition front they established moral authority and took the spotlight from time to time. Then, when the General became the President and the opposition card lost its use they changed ranks again, hoping to avoid persecution or association with the growing terrorism problem.
Tawassoul (the Ikhwan) faces a lower risk in terms of the later issue which is of greater concern for the Salafists and those in the vicinity because many Mauritanian AQIM recruits have indeed come from their ranks. So their leaders have sought to be intermediaries between the movement and the state, the ultimate objective being to create public space and legitimacy for an ideological movement that the wider society and regime frequently regard as dangerous. Their mainstream (and those under its wing) will avoid persecution and perhaps even make some general “gains” by positioning themselves as the voice of reason that can regulate the more hardline elements in their ranks. This was the whole point of the prison dialogues earlier this year, and it is the inspiration for engaging the regime. From the pardons Ould Dedew and Ould Lemrabott and their cadres gain recognition as part of a legitimate political trend — as was the case with the prison dialogues. In years past Mauritanian leaders hardly ever gave Salafists the time of day and treated them as cultural aliens. The men released now leave prison to join a “legitimate” religious and cultural movement. The going assumption seems to be that these “moderate clerics” are capable of controlling the Salafi movement, steering it away from violence and toward reason. Whether these men can deliver that or not will be seen down the road.
Ould Abdel Aziz, for his part, likely sees himself as being able to control the religious element through this process as well. The Islamists cannot survive without him — or rather his toleration — and they know it; in this way he is free to hug or crush them at any moment. It serves his purposes further by giving him a hint of religious association, along with his other attempts at gaining religious legitimacy by sponsoring new mosques and literature. The intent of last week’s prisoner release may be to let the men out into the wilderness while keeping tabs on them in hopes that they will lead the authorities to trouble makers still in the wild. This is problematic given Mauritania’s meager resources in such activity but it is possible. It could also be strictly and narrowly political done to show power or as part of a more general and cynical link up with the Islamist tendency at large for his own purposes. Whether the pardons will be a success or a failure (as other such measures have been) will be seen later on. What will come of this will be worth watching.
UPDATE: As mentioned in the comments the release is very much a part of the wider effort to de-radicalize former militants. The prison dialogues that took place last year were a major part of the same process. As this blogger writes in response to a comment, the political deal between Ould Abdel Aziz and the Salafi clerics seems to be “government tolerance in exchange for moderating the fringe elements”. Note that “traditional” religious leaders have been largely kept out of the de-radicalization process; many of the men released have little time for such clerics and the involvement of popular Salafi clerics (some of whom they have been to prison with) probably gives these efforts credibility. For instance, at a dinner for the former prisoners Monday with Sheikh Ould Dedew and Ould Lemrabott an ex-detainee (Abdallah Ould Sidiya) was quoted as called on the government to work to “integrate the group into public life, provide moral and material support and an amnesty like this one for other inmates who renounce violence.” Ould Lemrabott hailed the amnesty as an example of “turning the page on the past” for broader stability. He and others praised the Minister for Religious Affairs (who was in attendance) for arranging the process of dialogue and amnesty. Whether the quid pro quo produces the desired results on the governments part is unclear given its resources and the evolving nature of the religious movement and AQIM’s recruiting structure. The clerics, though, seem to be meeting their goals quite happily.