UPDATE: Here is a map of the political parties and social groups participating and the notable ones not participating in the 25 February protests. (RFD refers to Rally of Forces for Democracy; UFP the Union of Forces for Progress; RUF to the Rally for Unity and Democracy; UPR to the Union for the Republic (President Ould Abdel Aziz’s party); and APP to the People’s Progressive Alliance (Messaoud Boulkheir’s party. “FB organizers” refers to Facebook groups (of which there are many) and their followers who turned out to the demonstrations the largest of which have some thousands of members (two of these are mentioned by name).)The PDF is here.
This post is a general appraisal of the 25 February protests in Mauritania, taking into account their sentiment, their effects on the regime and the role played by the Libyan crisis. Its content is as of the late evening of 25 February. Readers with information as to the progress of the protests are welcome encouraged to contribute their thoughts and experiences in the comments section or by email. Updates and clarifications will follow.
1. Background. Mauritania shares several problems in common with those Arab states experiencing demonstrations and uprisings namely a crisis of political legitimacy (its president came to power first through a coup and then by disputed elections), rising food prices and precarious living standards and a popular sense of disenfranchisement. Discontent with the President predates both Friday’s protests and the wave of unrest spreading across the region. Many Mauritanians are weary of government so frequently dominated by military men and their pliant apparatchiks. Ould Abdel Aziz is widely seen as having usurped the country’s nascent democratic process in 2008 (even if many saw the previous president as ineffectual and weak). Economic pressures, floods, near famine-like conditions and a risky water situation add to popular irritation, especially among youth. Protests are not uncommon in Mauritania, which has a lively and diverse opposition. The tone and content of this week’s protests differ from past protests in that they have been led by youth of various persuasions rather than political party leaders. In the past, large opposition demonstrations in the capital and big towns came when coalitions of parties put out word for them; while the heads of several major opposition parties have warned the president to engage in dialogue in order to avoid a Tunisian style uprising these same leaders have not themselves called for the kinds of rallies that were common in 2008 and 2009 after the coup and the “stolen” presidential election. Party youth sections have been involved in turning out numbers, as one activist put it “the old people are taking the back seat and letting the youth drive.” This could raise pressure on Ould Abdel Aziz to take the opposition’s demands more seriously while at once empowering an important segment of the population that has usually followed political currents rather than leading them.
2. The climate. Around 2,000 people turned out in the main square in Nouakchott. In the early hours it is said there were only 200 with numbers swelling steadily as they day went on especially following prayers. The organizers range from small groups of leftist and Islamist youth to larger groups linked to student groups and opposition parties like the RFD, UFP and Tawassoul. Social media has not been the key organizing tool: word of mouth and mass texts have driven turn out more than anything else. Slacktivists sometimes more vocal on Facebook actually made their way outside, shouting in the streets rather than cyberspace. (A large number of Facebook groups supporting the protests have proliferated in the last two weeks.) Many youth activists have been inspired to make their demands this week as a result of what they watched happen in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya: others brought down dictatorships far stronger than their own government brought down in weeks or days thus begging the inevitable question “why not here?” Asked what they want, many simply answer “cheaper food and water.” Some have drawn inspiration from the Fassala events, which have been a popular subject of discussion on webforums and among youth who identify with the local population and see the government’s heavy-handed response as representative of its overall disposition, if not the overall Arab condition. But their slogans include such things as “the people want the downfall of the regime! No to slavery! No to high food prices!” (الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام، لا للعبودية، لا لارتفاع الاسعار) and condemnations of “one man rule” (حكم الفرد ). Opposition party leaders have issued statements of support while urging the demonstrators to be ware and the regime not to beat them, others asking the army to protect the demonstrators. Reports of government provocateurs attempting to move the protestors from the square in the direction of the presidential palace indicate government efforts to exploit the protest, although for most of the day the demonstrators were unmolested by the police and security forces. As the day went on and demonstrators attempted to pitch tents to stage a sit-in the square, they were dispersed by police who told them to get permits for their attempted sit-in, according to some reports by force. The protesters have nevertheless vowed to maintain a sit in in the square. Protests took place in Nouakchott, Zouerate, Boutilimit, Nouadhibou and several big towns over the course of the day. If protests spread to towns like Kiffa (in Assaba), al-‘Ayoune (in Hodh al-Gharbi), which have concentrations of large and important tribes, the situation could grow more politically threatening to the regime. The inclusion of black Mauritanians is an important factor: the black communities (who are most populous in the southern region near the Senegal River) have been well represented in the current government more than at most times in the past and if black youth turn out in anti-regime protests it would add significant momentum.
3. The regime and its attitudes and responses. President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is said to be extremely nervous about the protests. He reportedly convened a meeting of the cabinet and called the Prime Minister, Moulay Ould Mohamed Laghdhaf, into a three-hour long private meeting with the rest of the cabinet waiting as he impressed on the minister the gravity of the situation. The message to Ould Mohamed Laghdhaf, who appeared on state television promising economic and political reforms right before the protests, along with his cabinet was clear: your jobs are on the line. Ould Abdel Aziz reportedly instructed the security services and the police to leave the demonstrators be, understanding that any violence or perception of violence might escalate the situation. The President’s actions betray the hope that if the youth are allowed to get outside, march around, shout and pump their fists they will eventually get tired and go home as he announces a cabinet reshuffle or dismisses a series of corrupt and unpopular officials. To dissuade the urban poor from going to the protests, public buses were shut down for the day and the government handed out fish in the slums (the public transport company denies that this was the reason for the stoppage). The often critical news website Taqadoumy was blocked on at least one of the country’s internet servers after a meeting between security officials and the heads of several communications firms. The President’s approach is not that of some of his supporters. Members of his Union for the Republic party (UPR) have publicly called for the state and others to undermine the protests and have condemned their participants, leading to a defensive posture among many demonstrators who were on a keen lookout for saboteurs. At a gather of the party’s youth section on Thursday, the party’s president, Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed Lamine, denounced the protests as “sleazy” “negative and desperate attempts by the opposition to bring down to Mauritania the revolutions and disturbances in some other countries.” He further denounced the “ragged political style of some opposition leaders inciting violence and chaos, reflecting the weakness of their arguments which have failed to convince Mauritanians”. Municipal and parliamentary elections will take place later this year and in 2012 respectively; there is enough anxiety to go around in the ruling clique. Counter-demonstrations in favor of Ould Abdel Aziz might raise tensions and possibly even lead to clashes but the President himself seems more inclined to wait out the protests rather than take an aggressive posture, though under growing pressure the impulsive components in his personality might lend support to the more hawkish cliques in his entourage.
4. The Libyan factor. As mentioned previously, President Ould Abdel Aziz maintains close ties to Libya’s embattled dictator Mu’amar al-Qadhafi. Qadhafi’s support has been key in stabilizing Mauritania’s post-coup foreign policy and in entrenching Ould Abdel Aziz’s leadership inside the country. Ould Abdel Aziz was able to brush off EU, French and American admonitions and aid squeezes after making a deal with Qadhafi to break Mauritania’s relations with Israel at the hight of the Gaza Crisis (that move also helped win him brief kudos from Islamists and youth; it also helped endear him to Qatar and others). Qadhafi’s patronage of political parties, ministers and journalists has helped to quiet critics and buy allies for the president. Qadhafi visited Nouakchott during the peak of tensions between Ould Abdel Aziz’s junta and the opposition in an attempt to mediate between the two sides without much success but with the effect of identifying Qadhafi with Ould Abdel Aziz and Ould Abdel Aziz with Qadhafi in the minds of many Mauritanians already indignant at the military’s abortion of the country’s democratic experiment (2005-2008, ironically following another military coup in which Ould Abdel Aziz participated). Thus there is a strong association between Qadhafi and the imposition of the status quo (if not plain interference in Mauritania’s internal affairs) for many in the opposition and young people especially, who have come of age in the post-2005 period and remember watching Ould Abdel Aziz (and other politicians) shuttle back and forth between Nouakchott and Tripoli ahead of the 2009 elections. As noted in a previous post anti-Qadhafi protests have taken place on college campuses, in high schools and among opposition parties. Sheikh Hacen Ould Dedew, a major leader in the Salafi trend in Mauritania, issued a statement condemning violence in Libya and Qadhafi. Qadhafi has been roundly condemned by the opposition in communiques and public statements and in the press which prefers to call the events there “massacres” and acts of “genocide” and other strong terms. The Foreign Ministry and even the president’s party have issued statements on the violence stressing the need to end the violence. News reports depict scenes of youths burning pictures of Qadhafi in the midsts of their protests and chanting slogans against the Libyan leader and Ould Abdel Aziz. A young Mauritanian who participated in the demonstration, reports: “We printed photographs of Qadhafi and Aziz from the Internet and distributed them to others and took pictures from magazines and his [Qadhafi’s] propaganda and burned them all. I myself burned a copy of the Green Book.” In the days before the 25 February protests Mauritanians marched from the campus of the University of Nouakchott to the Libyan embassy where various political leaders have made appearances. The head of Tawassoul (the Ikhwan) called for the Libyan ambassador to be expelled from the country. While most of those who have spoken on the Libyan crisis have condemned violence those close to the regime and/or Qadhafi have criticized the media and the opposition for “exaggerating” or “misrepresenting” the degree of violence taking place in Libya. Those members of the opposition allied with Qadhafi (mostly small parties such as Sawab (the Ba’th) and Saleh Ould Hanena’s HATEM) have strained their language to not condemn Qadhafi while using the uprising as a means of “warning” Ould Abdel Aziz and calling for more inclusive political dialogue. Qadhafi’s violent repression of protestors and his possible (if not likely) fall from power could damage Ould Abdel Aziz public image and deprive him of important money used to finance public works projects, buy tribal and personal loyalties and so on. Ould Abdel Aziz’s public association with Qadhafi adds fuel to the protesters