UPDATE: Fassala’s police commissioner has been dismissed. Yesterday students demonstrated outside of the Ministry of the Interior to protest the government’s handling of the incident and were arrested.
It began as an angry protest over water shortages by tribes in Fassala, in Mauritania’s eastern Hodh ash-Sharqi, province and escalated into days of clashes between local people and police and gendarmes. Local tribes met with the local prefect in hopes that he would resolve a dispute over access to a well. The prefect insulted the gathering at which point they set on him and his entourage — according to the newspapers he was “almost lynched” by the crowd. Police and gendarmes beat back the locals. In the ruckus, both police and protestors were injured. The police sent reinforcements, escalating the violence; the next day men from the Nema military garrison were sent to assist in putting down the violence using teargas and batons. The locals set fire to the town hall, several municipal builds as well as car. The demonstrators “categorically deny the existence of any other motivation than the deteriorating economic situation and the authorities ignoring their demands for a solution to these problems through dialogue rather than repression and delinquency.” Newspaper reports say thirty-two local people have been arrested by the Gendarmerie, who stormed houses in the town of (about) 10,000 people on the border with Mali. Al-Akhbar reports “growing talk of torture of detainees,” citing the experience of two detainees released (providing their names and a list of the names of “those among the most prominent detainees”, though it does not say what for; more on this later, perhaps). Opposition MPs scolded the government, Prime Minister Moulay Ould Mohamed Laghdef in particular, for economic stagnation and “serious abuse [by this government] with the concerns of the citizen.” One MP, Mohamed Mustafa Ould Badr al-Din of the Union of Forces for Progress (UFP) said the government had taken only piecemeal measures to appease Mauritanians’ demands in hopes of avoiding “a popular uprising as in Tunisia”. Similar protests are said to be appearing in other towns in Hodh ash-Sharqi with arrests being ordered, it is said, by the president himself.
These clashes highlight growing discontent with Mauritania’s always precarious economic situation and the government of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Without going into great detail here (time is brief, expect a mind map/chart in a week or so) there have been mobilizations of student unions, workers and rural people fed up with increasingly austere living conditions and in some cases linked to perceptions of revolts elsewhere in the Arab world. Organizers (human rights and youth groups) of a demonstration in Zouerate have faced harassment and the confiscation of tents and authorities shut down a market described as a popular gathering place for youth in anticipation of demonstrations — forcing organizers to postpone the demonstration. The protestors’ demands include such things as clean drinking water, opportunities for youth and limitations of environmental pollution resulting from near by iron-ore mines. Like governments across the region, Mauritania’s leadership is on the defensive: the country has seen a self-immolation, the fall of two major Arab regimes, standing demands from labor groups going back months if not years, public defections and the economic situation remains difficult for average citizens. Watching his great patron, Mu’amar al-Qadhafi, struggle to hold together his crumbling regime must also weigh heavily on President Ould Abdel Aziz. Libya has been a major supporter of Ould Abdel Aziz financially and politically and these associations are well known (the effect of the recent uprising in Libya on Mauritania’s foreign politics will be considered separately). Thus, as Mauritanian journalists and opposition figures (as well as religious ones) have forcefully condemn the crackdown on protestors in Libya the government must be watching events closely. One should not expect an uprising in Mauritania — a place where political violence is exceptional — but there are pressures building from the the regional climate that may produce important developments in the country’s domestic politics in coming weeks and months. More on this later.