Mauritania: next in the Arab Spring?

Photo posted by Ahmed Ennahoui

Has the Arab Spring reached Mauritania? Popular unrest is clearly growing and yesterday tens of thousands took to the streets of the capital, Nouakchott, calling on the president to step down.

Up to now, this has largely gone unnoticed by the rest of the world, apart from a few tweets and blog posts. Mauritania, after all, is one of the more obscure members of the Arab League and none of the big powers take much interest in it, politically or strategically.

Last night I asked Mauritanian-born Nasser Weddady – one of those tweeting and blogging about it – what he thought of the unrest, and he replied: "By local standards it's unprecedented, but I'm afraid it's not just yet a news story in the west: no real stakes or interests." The protests are scarcely surprising, though, considering that 51% of Mauritanians aged 18-24 (not to mention 69% of women) are said to be unemployed.

Mauritania is the fiefdom of ex-general Ould Abdel Aziz who seized power through a military coup in 2008 then shed his uniform and regularised his position (after a fashion) in a dodgy presidential election a year later.

Parliamentary elections were due to take place last October but have been postponed three times and are currently rescheduled for May – though it is stil uncertain whether they will actually take place.

Last month a coalition of opposition parties issued a 43-page document (in Arabic) setting out their complaints. Weddady 
commented on his blog:

This document should be read, and viewed, on the basis that represents the views of the biggest factions of the country’s opposition. it provides fresh insights into the thinking of Mauritania’s super politicos on a host of issues, and the hierarchy of problems the country faces from their perspectives.

The authors summed up their views of Mauritania’s dire straits in the on the document’s first page: Political deadlock, institutional crisis, collapse of the Mauritanian State, impoverished citizens, rampant corruption, systematic pillaging of the country’s natural resources, military adventures, and diplomatic incoherence.

The information contained in the document is not new per se, what is new is that the opposition is demanding a national unity government and elections to remedy the unconstitutional parliament that lapsed back in November 2011. Additionally, the last chapter of the document (page 36) has a detailed discussion of the the fact that Mauritania’s institutions today are outside of constitutional legality. A fact that very few outside observers have either picked on, commented, or even acknowledged.

That constitutional void has consequences beyond the internal political power struggle. For example, It would be worth pointing out to foreign investors that their recent agreements with Aziz are null and void– particularly mining companies that signed any deals with the current government after May 2011.

Writing for the Moor Next Door blog in mid-March, "Kal" gave this description of the evolving situation:

Mauritania is facing many structural political problems at several levels and these almost certainly take first place when compared to issues like the terrorism file ... The last two months saw impressive and in some cases unprecedented manifestations of popular protest; this week Nouakchott saw what was perhaps the largest single demonstration in its history, numbering, depending on what source one looks at, 40,000 people (and possibly more) a number which speaks for itself in a country of roughly 4m people, close to a quarter of whom live in or near the capital city. 

The discontent ... has grown over the last several months, owing to the standard inequalities and injustices suffered by Mauritanians and others in north-west Africa, not to mention the relatively dire food security situation, the upsetting of grazing patterns in the eastern part of the country brought on by the conflict in Mali, the not so special style of corruption preferred by the current president and leadership which is more narrow than in the past and less satisfying to key parts of the tribal and business and social fabric ...

The youth movement, which looked as if it were going to peter out a few months ago has increased its online presence and has put up much in the way of images and videos on Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media board. The trouble likely to come from the election fiasco will be a key flash point soon enough ... Right now is a critical time for Mauritania.

Yesterday's demonstrations were coordinated among nine different groups – each of them taking responsibility for a particular district. Below is a video of the earlier mass protest on March 12:

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 April 2012.