By Ahmed Meiloud
In early August of 2005, senior military officials in Mauritania carried out a coup while the president was on a visit to Saudi Arabia to attend the funeral of King Fahd. The coup was not the first, nor was it the last. Mauritania is a country whose history as a nation has been punctuated by coups.
Ould Tayyi’ who is the autocrat who has held power the longest, had survived many attempts to topple him since he came to power in December of 1984 in a coup–which like all others coups in that country received the blessing from the former colonial power: France. In the last decade of his rule, Ould Tayyi’s main concern was to stay in power by any means possible. To that end he befriended every devil he could, and practiced all kinds of tyrannical behavior. Political opponents were randomly arrested and detained; even prominent religious scholars were imprisoned. Officially the state and its media justified the repressive approach as part of the global war on terror, a message that resonated with the regime’s ‘partners of development.’ Like Mubarak, Bashar and other autocrats, Ould Tayyi‘ rode the wave of counter-terrorism campaign, strengthening the iron fist of his security state.
The political class hailed the overthrow of the president as the dawn of a democratic age. The politicians, the intelligentsia, the leftists, the Islamists, and even former members of the regime all came out to the streets to chant the name of the head of the new military junta, Aly Ould Mohamed Vall, and to praise the military.
This coup was not brought about, nor accompanied by a massive wave of protests such as the one Egypt saw in 2011 and again in 2013. But the warm reaction of the political class and large segments of the population were very similar to the atmosphere in Cairo on the eve of Mubarak’s resignation.
The Military Leads a Transition Period
Like Egypt, the military in Mauritanian was to lead a transition period. The military sent reassurances to everyone that they would simply put matters in order and leave as soon as a new civilian president was voted in. They vowed to run a free and transparent election. The military also made promises that anyone who occupies a senior position in the transition government, which they were to lead, would automatically forfeit the right to run for office in the coming election. This was done to assure the political class that the state would be neutral and disinterested in the outcome of the election. To prove their seriousness, they made newly appointed ministers sign a pledge not to run for office. Their decisions received applause across the political spectrum locally and from donors abroad as well.
The political class was jubilant and the mood was one of sheer ecstasy. The country was going to be the first real democracy in the Arab World–Mauritania is a member of the Arab League since 1973. All politicians, all political movements (including the Islamists who just come out of prisons and who would continue to be excluded for the next two years), all the wannabe famous and rich, all those who saw in themselves the potential to lead the poor country turned their eyes to the election and were willing to overlook whatever else the military was doing. The transition period dragged on, and while the political class was occupied preparing for the big day (the presidential election), the military elite was racing with time depleting the state coffers and securing its comfortable position.
The military was sluggish in handing over power to the civilians but was nonetheless taking measures toward that goal. Finally, elections were held and as many as a dozen candidates, some of whom no one had ever heard of, ran for the president’s seat. As expected, no single candidate was able to score a definitive win in the first round and hence the two with most votes went for a second round. It was the ideal time for forging political alliances to secure one’ position in [the] post military Mauritania. One of the candidates, Ahmed Ould Daddah, was a well-known leader of the opposition and for the past fifteen years was the main face of the opposition. His rival, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, was almost unknown to the political class. But a number of factors worked in his favor. Mas’ud Ould Bulkhair, who came third and who had a history of competition with the other main opposition leader, made a deal with Ould Cheikh Abdullahi to be the head of the Parliament should the latter win.
There were also rumors that the military supported Sidi Mohammed as well. It was a very tight race but the Ould Abdullahi won by a small margin.
The losing party was bitter but conceded and everyone was looking forward to the monumental day of the military handover of power to the president elect. Heads of countries from all over Africa came to Mauritania to attend along with all the diplomatic corps representing over 100 countries in Mauritania, delegates from the European Unions, the Arab League, human right organizations, and non-governmental organizations from all flavors and colors. Of course, there was also the political class including the losing candidates as well.
The Arab press from the Atlantic to the Gulf hailed the event. Mauritania, they declared, has entered history from through the main gate, bye- bye coups, bye-bye corruptions. The mood was so great that the activists of the Kifaya movement in Egypt, which was then protesting the dictatorship of Mubarak, chanted the name of the military junta in Mauritania and waved Mauritanian flag in one of their demonstrations.
The new president moved into the palace. The head of the military junta stepped out and was for the next period to be seen in Africa, the Arab world and Europe as this liberal democratic hero. His history with the former dictator as the head of the security apparatus, the merciless arm through which the dictator silenced his opponents, was forgotten.
The new president came in to the reality of empty state coffers and an astronomical national debt. He made some brazen moves and pushed some remarkably progressive legislations through parliament, allowing for greater freedoms, giving certain minority groups certain concessions and rights, and clauses to promote women’s rights, including mandating a quota of women in the parliament and other office. He also took measures to remedy some of the historical grievances, such as accepting to welcome back thousands of black citizens who were deported from the country during the crisis of 1989 between Mauritania and its neighbor to the south, Senegal. In addition, Ould Cheikh Abdullahi who was visibly a devout Muslim and a member of a very large Sufi order in West Africa (Tijaniyya) built the first mosque in the presidential palace where Friday prayers were to be held, released the Islamists who were imprisoned, and allowed the Islamists of Mauritanian to have their first party. These steps earned him a good deal of sympathy and respect among the masses and perhaps amongst some in the political class.
But despite the progressive legislation and the conservative garment in which he cloaked his presidency, the living conditions for most Mauritanians didn’t improve remarkably. In fact, they worsened. The country, where farming is disproportionately rain-dependent, was experiencing a severe shortage of rainfall, putting the sources of livelihood for a large segment of the population in the interior of the country at risk. The effects were felt in towns across the country and in the main city Nouakchott as well. To make matters worse, the police force and the military seemed incapable of combating what was a sudden rise in the rate of violent crimes in Nouakchott, a failure which culminated in a few, mostly ineffective and non-lethal attacks, by what the local Media and the political class generously called ‘terrorists’ inside the capital itself. Ould Cheikh Abdullahi’s opponents, from the progressive to the Arab nationalists, and many irresponsible Mauritanian intellectuals seized the opportunity and started a concerted vilification campaign, depicting the president as being politically immature, incompetent, permissive before his power-hungry and luxury-avaricious wife.
He was also at times depicted by the enlightened, but irresponsible Mauritanian intelligentsia as a pawn in the hands of the military or worse, his own Sufi Sheikh. Out of the vitriol was soon born veiled and not so veiled calls for the army to intervene and very quickly a group in the parliament, whose ties to the military would be later revealed , began working on ways to impeach the president. In turn the president threatened to dissolve Parliament and call for early elections. Now, the eleven-month-old Mauritanian democracy was at a gridlock. Beside the ‘parliamentary battalion,’ as this group would be known in Mauritanian political discourse, the other Mauritanian opposition groups either tacitly approved the measures to force the president out or joyfully kept a distance awaiting the coup which everyone could see coming by this time. Additionally, the president’s wife was to appear before a special committee in the parliament on charges of corruption and improper use of her status as the ‘first lady,’ a neologism in the Mauritanian political jargons and norms.
The president, who had recently promoted two powerful military members of the former military junta to the rank of generals, found himself now in an arm-twisting, bone-breaking match with these very generals. The animosity, which had been hidden, quickly surfaced. On the morning of August 6th, 2008, Ould Cheikh Abdellahi issued a communiqué (using the privileges, which the constitution grants him as the supreme leader of the armed forces) dismissing the two generals. Within hours of the airing of the communiqué, the military had arrested the first elected president and seized power, in what it described as a corrective measure, a phrase many in the political class echoed.
The political class was divided amongst those who issued a faint condemnation of the coup, those who praised it, and those who expressed some reservations. The opposition sent delegates to speak to the military and all, but a few, came to the conclusion that there was no point in talking to the new strong man, Mohamed Ould Abd al-‘Aziz. The opposition, now united against the military coup, organized rallies and protests and called on the international community to pressure the military to cede power. The demonstrations were brutally put down. As the opposition turned to the international community, the president turned his attention inside the country in a clever campaign of propaganda. He visited the slums and spoke passionately about the injustices done to the poor in the country and vowed to give them titles to the land on which they live, to provide services, and to fight the corrupt men who have made the apparent disparity of wealth possible. To add an extra item to that rhetoric, the president’s supporters started calling him the ‘president of the poor.’
After a turbulent eight months and with the country experiencing a complete political impasse, the parties agreed to meet through mediation by the African Union and the president of the neighboring Senegal. An agreement was reached. The ousted president came back to power just [for] long enough to give a televised resignation speech. The head of the upper chamber of the parliament, who was appointed by the military junta after the 2008 coup, could now continue as a president for the interim period. A national unity government from both sides was formed to oversee a presidential election. Aziz, Mauritania’s version of Egypt Sisi won, not with the usual 99% of Mubarak or Sadam Hussein, but with a comfortable margin and in the first round. The opposition claimed massive fraud tainted the elections.
The general, who came to power a year earlier in a military coup, which ousted an elected president, was inaugurated as a civilian president in 2009. Civilian and elected now, the new ruler was emboldened. The ‘war on poverty’ program was abandoned and the war on corruption disappeared as well, even as a rhetoric. The president, his immediate family, his friends and relatives and some of his associates increasingly used their political leverage to amass wealth and privilege and to sideline their opponents. Elections have not been held and the protests are frequently put down with rising brutality. There is no end in sight to this. That bright moment of 2007 when an elected civilian president was inaugurated to office, with much fanfare and optimism, seems now distant. The political class tried to capitalize on the energy and hopes generated by the Arab Springs to topple the dictator, but all their attempts have so far failed. The populace is not interested in a confrontation with the military and the regime has long forsaken the basic democratic rights such as the right to peacefully demonstrate. The weakness and incompetence of the former president, which everybody joked about, are now dearly missed.
– Ahmed is Candidate for a PhD at the School of Middle Eastern and North African studies at the University of Arizona. His main research focuses on the study of Islamists movement in the Middle East. This article was contributed to the PalestineChronicle.com.