When, on August 3, 2005, the palace guard of the president of Mauritania seized the reins of power in a bloodless coup, international condemnation was swift. The State Department issued a statement deploring the act and calling for “a peaceful return to order under the constitution in the established government.” France, the UN and the African Union immediately echoed Washington’s demand, as did the International Organization of Francophone Lands on August 25. The US also announced a suspension of non-humanitarian aid to the vast country straddling the semi-arid Sahel that separates North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa.

Six months later, the Military Council for Justice and Democracy (CMJD) is firmly in control of the country and far from ostracized in the international arena. The European Union has sent emissaries, and the African Union has expressed “satisfaction” with the junta’s promises to hold “free and fair” elections by March 2007. Effective January 1, 2006, the US dropped Mauritania from the special trading status granted by the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is designed to encourage the development of export businesses in African countries. Mauritania was excluded because of clauses in the act requiring respect for the rule of law, and because the CMJD did not attain power lawfully. However, the US has ceased repeating its insistence that the old regime of President Maaouiya Ould Taya be restored, and is now cooperating with the new regime through the Pentagon’s Pan-Sahel Initiative, in which US troops train and equip their counterparts in Mauritania and neighboring countries to counter the “suspicious movement of people and goods across and within their borders.” In addition to its oft-stated intention to relinquish power in a year, the military junta has curried favor abroad by pledging its determination to fight “international terrorism” and by maintaining the deposed regime’s diplomatic relations with Israel.

From 1987 until the day of the coup, CMJD leader Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, 55, was head of the national police and security service, and a close confidant of the overthrown President Taya. The old regime’s former ambassador to Paris was appointed prime minister, and 18 other ministers were members of Taya’s political party. No member of the opposition is included in the top echelons of the government. Turncoats the putschists certainly are, but are they rebels? Or even reformists?

A Brutal Regime

In Mauritania, widespread relief and enthusiasm greeted the coup. Taya was a brutal dictator who himself seized power by military force in 1984. Throughout his tenure, arrest, imprisonment and torture of dissidents were standard. Most notoriously, he stepped up the policies of forced “Arabization” he had inherited from previous leaders of the country’s Arab-identified government. Under Taya, Arabization was directed chiefly at the roughly 30 percent of the population that is tribal African and claims no Arab lineage. After the expulsion of some 100,000 black Africans into Senegal and Mali in 1989 and the purging of black Africans from the armed forces in 1990–1991, Taya’s rule was widely excoriated as racist and even genocidal.

Black Mauritanians campaigned against Taya beginning after the terror of the 1980s, but they wield little political and social leverage. This segment of the population is mostly poor and continues to suffer from the legacy of slavery, an institution that persists in Mauritania despite being banned twice in 1960 and 1980. The French-Mauritanian group SOS-esclaves estimates that 90,000 black Africans are still held in various kinds of bondage, and even former slaves face arbitrary demands from their “former” masters among the Beydane, the old slave-holding elite claiming Arab descent. (A third caste, the Haratine, is made up of descendants of black slaves who speak Arabic and claim membership in Arab tribes, though their tribes look down upon them.)

When Taya joined forces with the Bush administration’s global war on terror and targeted Islamists as the new state enemy, he took on powers larger than himself. First he brought forceful condemnations from several Mauritanian clergy when he claimed the right to appoint all imams and to censor sermons in 2003. Then, in April 2005, Taya’s police targeted a group called Muslim Reform, alleging that they were planning to assassinate prominent Mauritanian politicians and Western diplomats, and also accusing them of ties to al-Qaeda and the Algerian Islamist militia, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. There was no clear evidence to support the charges. The stated program of Muslim Reform opposed the entrenched interests of Taya’s regime, yet also rejected violence and advocated pluralistic democracy. In preparation for trying some 50 Islamists, the government produced no stronger evidence than documents on how to build bombs downloaded from the Internet. These supposedly incriminating documents were, moreover, in English. The weak evidence, combined with mistreatment of the prisoners, produced denunciations from Amnesty International, SOS-esclaves and the World Organization Against Torture.

Deep Popular Discontent

In this ethnically fractured state, the one issue that unified opposition to Taya was his decision, following US encouragement, to open full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999. In the spring of 2005, he invited the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, to visit the capital city, Nouakchott. The invitation precipitated protests by Islamists, to which the police responded with brute repression. Mosques were stormed, searched and sometimes desecrated. People congregated for prayer were tear-gassed. Religious students and their family members were arrested without warrants. When Shalom came to Nouakchott, on May 2, there was such a large protest that police placed a virtual siege on the city. The Israeli foreign minister was forced to cut his visit short, leaving the very day of his arrival.

As the case against Muslim Reform faltered, a new crisis erupted in the remote northeast of the country. A Mauritanian army post in Lemgheity sustained an attack from some 100 well-armed militiamen driving all-terrain vehicles. Taya’s government immediately accused the Salafist Group of sponsoring the attack, going on to claim that the Algerian militiamen were actively training young Mauritanians to become terrorists. The accusation sought to play upon US fears, voiced by Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of US forces operating in Europe and Africa, that the Sahel is the new Afghanistan. But Taya’s account of the Lemgheity affair failed to convince neighboring African and Arab states, and within Mauritania discontent with the pro-Western, pro-Israel policies of his government festered.

Taya was in Saudi Arabia, attending the funeral of King Fahd, when the coup plotters struck. His calls from places of refuge, first Niger and then Gambia, for the military to resist the new regime were in vain.

The CMJD that wrested the reins of government from Taya’s grasp promises to bring reform and pluralistic democracy. This promise plays to popular and international opinion, but there is no guarantee that Col. Vall and his men will honor it.

Rupture With the Past?

What can be expected, after all, from a transitional govern- ment headed by the former head of the national police? The brutal police tactics of Taya’s regime are legendary, and Col. Vall was his man. In the face of such doubts, the CMJD is working hard to convince the international audience of its good intentions, promising, for instance, that no member of the junta and no transitional minister will be allowed to run in the March 2007 elections. “I am not a candidate in the next elections,” the colonel vowed at a “national conference on democracy” on October 25. It is difficult to deny a moment of optimism to this impoverished and long-suffering nation.

Vall, it must be admitted, has demonstrated some openness to the political opposition. Shortly after the coup in August, he listened while Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, president of the Alliance Populaire Progressiste, discussed the need to redress the forced expulsion of Afro-Mauritanians and the purging of the military under Taya’s regime. It was the first time in modern Mauritanian history that the opposition has had the opportunity to present its demands to the head of state. Boulkheir emphasized that national unity depends on addressing the continued problems of the exiled and displaced, as well as the ongoing difficulties with slavery in the country. Still, although Vall listened to Boulkheir’s pleas for justice, he made no promises. Vall has met with members of other political parties as well, with the manifest purpose of creating at least the appearance of consultative and democratic government. Several army officers banished for their opposition to Taya were allowed to return to Mauritania in September, and several Islamists imprisoned by Taya have been freed.

However, in the intervening months, vall has refused to address the issues raised by Boulkheir, while also refusing to investigate the alleged corruption of Taya’s regime. Boulkheir has been openly skeptical of the CMJD, saying it offers no rupture with the past. SOS-esclaves has also expressed dissatisfaction, boycotting a donor meeting in Brussels because the CMJD kept the topic of slavery off the table.

Indeed, the most tangible change vall and the CMJD have brought to Mauritania is a change of the tribe in power. Former president Taya hailed from the Samossad tribe, traditionally composed of merchants and traders. Vall hails from a traditionally warrior tribe, and will direct government contracts and employment to his tribesmen.

Meanwhile, the Pan-Sahel Initiative is ongoing, a sign that Washington’s main concern is that Mauritania not become a hotbed of radical Islamism. To up the ante, on February 17, 2006, wells drilled in the Chinguetti oil field, Mauritania’s first, began producing at the rate of 75,000 barrels per day. The military junta has already dramatically increased the salaries of civil servants in expectation of the fiscal windfall.

How to cite this article:

Alice Bullard "A Putsch and Promises of Democracy," Middle East Report 238 (Spring 2006).

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