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15 Aug 2008

Mauritania coup a blow

Map of Mauritania and surrounding area

Map of Mauritania

The Mauritanian coup poses an important test of international commitment to democratic transformation, Dominic Moran writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Dominic Moran for ISN

Mauritania's fragile democratic experiment has collapsed with the military launching a quick-fire coup, riding a wave of popular and political resentment.

The newly installed 11-man military junta has moved quickly to assert its authority in recent days, naming former ambassador to Belgium Moulaye Ould Muhammad Laghdaf as prime minister Thursday in a move clearly designed to curry favor in Brussels and placate international concerns regarding the potential for further instability.

The move comes amid blanket international condemnation of the military usurpation, with the EU Presidency warning Wednesday that there is a "serious risk of the country's long-term isolation in the international arena," unless the democratically elected civilian government was reinstated.

Ousted President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi remains in custody despite the release of his prime minister, Yahya Ahmed el-Waghef, this week. Their return to office appears increasingly unlikely following the signing of a communiqué in support of the military coup and governance by over two-thirds of MPs and senators.

Coup leader General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz heads the junta's self-appointed, interim ruling High State Council as negotiations with political parties continue on the formation of a new government.

The African Union (AU) suspended Mauritania's membership of the bloc Monday and an Arab League envoy was dispatched to hold talks with coup leaders.

A junta delegation was refused a meeting this week with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, although Algiers did suffice with a muted call for a return to constitutional normalcy, well short of the more strident excoriations of the military takeover emanating from key ally the US. The US has frozen all non-humanitarian aid and the EU is considering a similar move.

While non-humanitarian aid has been suspended by the US, and is threatened by the EU, more robust international sanctions appear unlikely in the event that the coup leaders follow through on their pledge for fresh elections, given the growing instability of recent months.

Nation under arms

Mauritania has a long history of attempted coups and military rule. A military committee of officers ruled from 1978-1992, with Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya emerging to seize full authority before his overthrow by the military in a bloodless Military Council for Justice and Democracy (CMJD) coup in 2005.

"This time around they [US/EU] are a little more vocal in their criticism particularly as Abdallahi was democratically elected. And I think that Brussels and the US went out on a limb supporting the coup leaders and their movement towards democratic [reform] only to have it overturned a year later."

Some members of the current junta, including Abdel Aziz, were key figures in the CMJD-led transition to democratic rule. The tension between their ongoing influence within the political system and government efforts to extend civilian control and influence appear to lie at the heart of the current crisis.

"The position of the army has always been a problem in terms of consolidating the political order within the country," Dr David Zounmenou from the Institute for Security Studies explained to ISN Security Watch.

"Mauritania has experience in multiple coups and the one [2005] that led to the transition […] failed to reorganize the whole security sector, to the extent that when you have a small political crisis the army emerges to restore, so-called, order," he said

Abdel Aziz has been identified in the past by some analysts with Nasserite, secular positions. However, it seems unlikely that the incorporation of the Islamic Tawassoul party in the Abdallahi government had a prominent role in prompting the coup despite Abdel Aziz's criticism of the incorporation of "Islamic extremists" in the ousted administration.

To Palmer, "The military may be interested in trying to cultivate a certain co-opted political Islam similar to what the monarchy has done in Rabat [Morocco], where the PJD [Justice and Development Party] has sort of bought into the parliamentary system." Tawassoul has joined the opposition political front against the coup and appears unlikely to accede to a role in any interim unity government.


The coup came amid a burgeoning political and economic crisis, with Abdallahi losing the confidence of parliament for his government's purportedly bungling response to a variety of pressing challenges.

The president's seeming inability to deal with spiraling food prices and associated riots and to address corruption allegations leveled against his wife Kahtou Boukhari appeared to make his ouster more palatable to many Mauritanians.

Opponents also charged that Abdallahi demonstrated autocratic tendencies, pointing to the arrest of a journalist and publisher from independent newspaper Al-Hurriya on charges of defamation as an apparent attempt to limit criticism of his administration. The president had also come under pressure for allegedly favoring officials from the ousted Taya government in making appointments.

Mauritanian politics has traditionally shied away from the ideological, focusing on the ability of leaders to snare tangible gains for their tribe, clan, ethnic group or locality - a state function crucial in a society marred by grinding poverty and the absence of effective state institutions and structures in many areas.

"I think that the root cause of the political crisis in Mauritania [is] the hike in food prices. That forced the government to dissolve the whole cabinet and appoint a new cabinet [in May]," Zounmenou said, adding, "The reaction of the government failed to take into account the realities of the country."

Asked if the newly-installed junta is capable of addressing these underlying problems, Palmer said, "No, probably not. Mauritania doesn't have the capital markets tools to deal with inflation and it certainly doesn't have any answers in the short term to increase domestic food production."

Military cooperation

The junta appears particularly concerned to placate US, EU and French concerns regarding its future actions and will be seeking the gradual reinstitution of bilateral ties and aid ahead of early elections.

In doing so, Abdel Aziz has sought to play on the military's role in anti-militant operations, cemented through involvement in the US Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI, 2005) and earlier Pan-Sahel Initiative.

The TSCTI involves the provision of military and civilian aid and assistance to a number of North African states, in a counterterrorism drive aimed at improving their capacity to deal with militant threats.

The US Government Advocacy Office released a sharply critical report last month castigating involved agencies for undermining US efforts in TSCTI states through their squabbling.

The report revealed that funding allocations to Mauritania has been relatively parsimonious, standing at US$18 million for the fiscal years 2005-2007 with a further US$6 million allocation expected this year. This indicates that Washington may view the threat of al-Qaida establishing a viable presence in the country as relatively minor.

"I don't think the US support to train, to recruit or rearm or maybe to offer military assistance to countries has been effective in [fighting] terrorism in those countries," Zounmenou said.

"What it does do is to maybe give the military the idea that they remain a strong entity that can rewrite the political destiny of their country. And that is very dangerous for all the countries involved in that US military cooperation," Zounmenou said.

"The French have also played a pretty significant role on the security front," Palmer said, explaining that Paris admitted that French security advisors were involved with Mauritanian security services after a French voice was audible in amateur video of a firefight with Islamic militants posted on the internet.

Attacks by Islamic militants within Mauritania have been sporadic but of increasing concern to western allies, with four French tourists killed in an attack last Christmas Eve in the town of Aleg and the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott targeted in a February strike.

With Nouakchott keen to win support in Washington, controversial bilateral relations with Israel, instituted under Taya's rule in 1999, do not appear under threat from the coup despite politicization in the wake of the 2005 coup.

The militant attacks were attributed to al-Qaida, though doubts remain. The junta clearly has an interest in both bolstering the perception of a linkage between the international militant group and local extremists and in emphasizing its own contribution to counter-militancy efforts.

Leading up to the coup, "The military was growing frustrated with Abdallahi […] because of what they thought was his ineptitude in dealing with terrorism, even though they were the ones ultimately shouldering the burden of terrorism," Palmer said.

Abdel Aziz has criticized Abdallahi for allowing alleged Islamic militants to be freed via the court system, indicating that junta rule will bring a tougher stance and likely interference in judicial jurisprudence.

In an internet message posted earlier this week al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb called on Mauritanians to conduct an armed rising against the military junta. The message was reportedly cosigned by group leader Abdelmalik Droukdal.

"Is al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb really pushing into Mauritania?" Palmer asked. "My sense is no. They have encouraged individual actors in Mauritania, Tunisia or Morocco to claim affiliation with al-Qaida once they carry out successful attacks but if the attack fizzles then they are discouraged from saying it was a part of al-Qaida."

Reports from the ground speak of a rise in radical sentiment among impoverished youth. "Youth radicalization is probably more likely to manifest itself in violence than in actual political action," palmer believes. "There has been quite a lot of Islamist-related violence […] but this stuff strikes me as more opportunistic or copy-cat than organized resistance to the secular government," he said.

Resource politics

Given the strong Chinese push for control of mineral and other resources in many African countries, it is clearly in the interests of the US and European states to utilize military cooperation as leverage in securing access to and control of developing Mauritania oil fields and existing mineral extraction operations.

"The US has been the destination for most Mauritanian oil so far and you also have the French [involved] to a certain extent," Zounmenou said.

The seeming decision by major foreign investors and companies, active in the country's few major export industries, to continue with business as usual will serve as a major boost to the junta as it seeks to convince the international community of the viability of its rule. The generals have been seen as pro-business," Palmer said.

A source tells ISN Security Watch that the junta has moved quickly behind the scenes to reassure business partners and boost foreign investment particularly in the economically crucial extraction industries.

It is the competition for resources and politico-economic chaos of the last year that may ultimately override western concerns regarding the military usurpation of power in Mauritania and suppression of the country's nascent democratic governance structure.

It now appears clear that, unlike the 2005 coup, the current junta sees an ongoing controlling role for its members in any reinstituted democratic system.

Asked if Paris and Washington would be pressuring the military to hand back the reins of power to Abdallahi, Palmer said, "No […] The priority for the US and Paris would be on maintaining state stability, pushing the military council towards holding new elections but not undermining the state's overall viability."

Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.


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