Digests | September 18, 2012

Mauritania: Dreaming about the Fall of the Military State

By Ahmed Ould Jedou

Mauritania has witnessed large protests this year calling for an end to the military regime of General Ould Abdel Aziz (for a useful though slightly out of date overview, see @LISSNUP’s discussion of the protests). Mauritanian activist and blogger Ahmed Ould Jedou offers an insider’s perspective on the drivers of protest and the role of the February 25 youth movement. The full text of the article (in Arabic) can be downloaded here. A summary in English, by Sara Abbas, is below – The Editors

Mauritania is living through an intense period of political upheaval, whose beginnings can be traced to the Arab Spring and the subsequent fall of Arab dictators.  The Mauritanian opposition in all its forms has become united in the need to bring an end to the ruling military regime, led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

As far as the opposition is concerned, the current regime in Mauritania represents a continuation of rule by the military establishment, which began in 1978 following the overthrow of the country’s first president at independence, Ould Daddah. Mauritania’s current president, General Ould Abdel Aziz (henceforth “the General”) came to power when he deposed Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in a 2008 coup. The latter had removed the General from his post as the head of the presidential guard.

The 2008 coup was widely regarded as a painful blow to Mauritania’s experiment with democracy, and a return by stealth of the military. Mauritania had attempted democracy following another coup in 2005, which brought down the regime of Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya. In the wake of that coup, elections deemed free and fair were successfully organized, in 2007. Ould Cheikh Abdallahi emerged victorious in the second round.

The coup by the General a year later was widely condemned by the opposition, which formed a “National Front for the Defense of Democracy”; an entity that soon became a target of state repression. Following a long struggle, the opposition entered into dialogue with the General, resulting in the 2009 Dakar agreement. The agreement paved the way for presidential elections later that year.

The elections, when they came, were a failure. Many international observers refused to take part. The major opposition parties rejected the election’s results, and the General was seen to backtrack from his Dakar commitments. The agreement had stipulated the holding of a comprehensive national dialogue, with the purpose of tackling a host of thorny issues. The most urgent among these was how best to organize elections, in addition to defining the role of the national army vis a vis other state institutions.

The regime’s refusal to enter into dialogue with the opposition, widespread corruption and theft of the country’s resources, and tampering with the judiciary, amongst other things, coupled with the energy unleashed by the Arab Spring, contributed greatly to the situation we find in Mauritania today. A plethora of diverse groups ranging from youth movements to traditional opposition forces are currently working to put an end to the regime.

The opposition political parties are an important force in the country, and coordinate their activities through a body known as the Democratic Opposition Coordination (COD). COD is composed of some influential Mauritanian political figures, several pressure groups, and ten political parties. The most prominent of the parties is Rally of Democratic Forces (socialist in leaning), Tawassoul (which represents the Muslim Brotherhood in Mauritania and which enjoys a strong following among university students and civil society organizations), and Union of the Forces of Progress (left-leaning, with a strong presence in the trade unions). The COD has organized several massive marches this year, and has tried to stage a sit-in in the capital Nouakchott on May 3rd, although it was quickly repressed by the state. A recent large action by the COD was a march in Nouakchott in July, which began near the national hospital, then made its way to Ibn Abbas Plaza, where it staged its rally. 90,000 people are estimated to have taken part in that demonstration.

Another important presence in the political scene is the February 25 Movement. Inspired by the spirit of the Arab Spring, and in response to calls by activists on the internet, Mauritanian youth took to the streets on 25February 2011. The youth’s slogans extolled the idea of a civil state, called for an end to the military state, and made a number of social and economic demands. The intensity of the demonstrations took the regime by surprise, and the state moved to repress them within two weeks of the first demonstration.

The youth, who became known as “February 25 youth”, began organizing themselves in a number of different structures. First, there was the “February 25 coordinating body”, but soon, tensions and disagreements appeared between the members, leading to the dissolution of the group. A segment of the members had attempted to enter into dialogue with the General, a move that was condemned by the majority as a betrayal of a movement still in its infancy.  Following the collapse of the coordinating body, a “25 February youth coalition” was formed, which took over leadership of the movements’ youth, and it managed to effect a strong youth presence in the Mauritanian street.

Throughout this period, the regime was very active in its repression of the movement, treating the youth with extreme harshness and thwarting their efforts with the help of its intelligence services. A segment of the organizers managed to hold together however, and established the “25 February Movement” that is still active today.

February 25 uses marches, sit-ins, other forms of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance to protest the situation in Mauritania. In addition, the movement organizes online campaigns against corruption, injustice and the repressive tactics with which dissent is met in the country. Though February 25 relies mainly on Facebook for mobilization, it does employ more direct tactics, such as leaflet distribution and poster-hanging.

The Movement makes various demands, including:

  • The establishment of a democratic, institutionally based state where governance is exercised by the people without oversight by the military;
  • Strengthening national unity and creating real solidarity between various components of Mauritania’s people by combating all forms of racism and marginalization, eradicating slavery and its remnants, and instituting positive discrimination (affirmative action) measures to benefit the most vulnerable groups in society;
  • Giving women their proper standing so as to enable them to contribute to building Mauritanian society side by side with men;
  • An education system that truly caters for the needs of the labor market and creates jobs that can guarantee a dignified life;
  • An end to the institutionalized looting of the country’s wealth and the better utilization of national resources;
  • Enabling civil society to play a more effective role in state-building and reform; and
  • The Establishment of mutual respect and cooperation with other countries and a foreign relations based on serving and protecting Mauritania’s interests and the interests of its citizens.

According to some observers, February 25 youth have played an important role in Mauritania’s politics. Their repeated public demonstrations have entrenched a culture of protest in the country, to the point that protesting is a normal event in Mauritania today.

Observers however fault the movement because, despite its national and inclusive demands, most of its activists are Arabs, and therefore do not reflect the diversity of Mauritanian society, which is composed of Arabs, blacks and descendants of former slaves (“Haratine”).

The movement has tried to remedy this by linking up with other protest movements that represent non-Arabs, including the “Don’t Touch my Nationality” black protest movement as well as “IRA Mauritanie”- the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania. With COD joining the call on the street for the removal of the regime, these groups have begun to participate alongside the other organizations.

An activity carried out recently by February 25 was a symbolic action, which took the form of a protest in front of the constitutional court on July 10 (2012), the anniversary of the first coup in Mauritania’s history (1978). Security dispersed the protestors quickly, and arrested some of the movement’s activists.

Looking forward, Mauritania’s opposition parties and youth movements face a great challenge. If they want to achieve real change and bring down the regime, they will have to win over all segments of Mauritanian people – Arab, black and descendants of former slaves, in order to create solidarity and unity capable of mobilizing the silent majority of Mauritania’s street to bring an end to the military state.