NOUAKCHOTT — The leader of a moderate Mauritanian Islamist party said Thursday he opposed any coordination between Mauritania and Western countries, especially France, in the war against Al-Qaeda in the Sahel.
“We all agree to condemn terrorism and fight it vigorously, but we do not agree on coordination with foreign countries, especially when they have a colonial past in the region,” said Jemil Ould Mansour, leader of the opposition Tewassoul party, during a forum on extremism in Nouakchott.
He said he favoured regional cooperation, and spoke against advance strikes against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which has been promoted by Mauritania, for which the country has “neither the means or the time”.
The Mauritanian army has recently carried out military operations against AQIM bases in northern Mali, including one in July with the aid of France.
“Mauritania party against Western help in al-Qaeda fight,” AFP, 28 October, 2010.
What this article does not say is that Tawassoul (the local Ikhwan) has a minuscule following among average Mauritanians. It has fewer than two representatives in parliament and has no mass or even tribal base of which to speak. It does not explain why this particular party, unlike most other Mauritanian opposition parties (such as those in the FNDD, especially the RFD), has taken this stance and it does not remark on the implications of Jamil Ould Mansour’s sentiments. Going backwards, the implications are slim in general in terms of what they mean for Ould Abdel Aziz’s foreign policy vis-a-vis foreign military cooperation because the party’s power in government is negligible. Still, it is interesting to look at this report in light of recent events and general context.
Their opposition to Mauritania’s coordination with France and other western countries (though Mansour is emphasizing France to be sure) has three potential dimensions:
- Attracting media attention;
- Positioning itself safely within the broader Islamist tendency;
- Making common cause with allies.
Some of the reasons for the first dimension are as follows:
- The party is small and hopes to increase its credibility and following by taking a provocative position slightly outside of the existing opposition consensus;
- The party seeks to establish itself as a member of the critical opposition, differing from the regime on a matter of principle;
- The party hopes to link itself to a nationalist cause and thus legitimize itself to a broader audience than its traditional base.
In terms of the second dimension, Tawassoul has made itself relevant by presenting itself to the regime and to key foreign actors as a bridge between the Islamist fringe and the rest of political society — as moderates. As the political side of the Islamist tendency they face two dangers: (1) being seen as threatening radicals that ought to be crushed (as was the regime’s view and action under Ould Tayya); or (2) as opportunistic and semi-committed politicians complicit in the regime’s excesses (as the most extreme sets in the hardline crowd view them). They must balance the two or else be discarded as useless by the regime — which hopes to use the party to control the Islamist clique — or the Islamist lot — which uses it as one of multiple means of defense from regime repression.
Where the third dimension is concerned there is the issue of the relationship between the Algerian and Mauritanian Brotherhood parties. It deserves mention that Tawassoul has essentially taken up the Algerian line where counter-terrorism is concerned. Algeria’s foreign minister (not to mention its military chiefs) have made their displeasure with foreign, especially French, involvement in raids and other operations against AQIM from at least July and in recent weeks especially. The Algerian press has put out reports critical of AQIM’s role in further “neo-colonialism,” and grumbling over the French (and then Moroccans) poking around in the region and its “collective security” efforts. That row has also affected their relations with Mali, as has been written on this blog before. The Mauritanians and the Moroccans have gone back and forth in the press and in kind over the last month as a result of Mauritania’s close and obvious cooperation with France, the Mauritanians even arresting an Algerian working for Italy’s foreign intelligence who was tracking western converts in the country.
Though there are many questions over the presence of (secret) foreign troops and bases (read: French) on Mauritanian soil, and most Mauritanian parties oppose such bases and the government denies their existence, few of these parties have outright condemned all foreign military assistance. Notice that Tawassoul, like the rest of the political class, is not opposed to fighting AQIM but rejects assistance from those with “colonial backgrounds” in the region. Most Mauritanians in the opposition agree with this position but see little to gain from such outright opposition and share the same fears over Mauritania not being able to afford an aggressive, pre-emptive campaign against AQIM outside of the country, which lends them to a less categorical view of foreign military assistance. Still, many Mauritanians view Algeria as a viable patron on terrorism issues (though not as an exclusive one) and by adopting the line it has, Tawassoul can attract some of these followers while increasing its value to the regime as a bridge with the Algerians.
Last week the head of Algeria’s Ikhwan and minister of state, Boudjerra Soltani, visited Nouakchott and met with Ould Mansour and several other Tawassoul leaders, signing an agreement of understanding before making his way back to Algiers. Such visits at a lower level are frequent; Tawassoul leaders often visit Algeria and meet with high-ranking leaders in the religiously-oriented segment of the government, men like Abdelaziz Belkhadem and Soltani. In statements to the media, Soltani emphasized the importance of political participation and offered his own party’s experience as a (curious) example of Islamists’ success in Algeria. The purpose of his visit was reportedly to “develop political action and coordinate positions on issues that concern people in the region and the Islamic world.” At the conclusion of the meeting, Soltani and Ould Mansour signed an agreement aimed at bridging cooperation between political and social groups in the Maghreb “to complement official activities between the two countries” especially in economic areas (while noting Algeria’s important role in that respect). The Algerians likely sent Soltani as part of some effort to sooth the row with Mauritania, which some Algerians view as being at risk of becoming a Moroccan client, using Ould Mansour as a vehicle of influence.