The Attempted Coup in Mauritania
The attempted coup in Mauritania over the weekend of June 7-9 was a reminder that the Arab world’s westernmost outpost, though relatively stable in recent years, still has divisions and internal problems which can suddenly erupt. In a period during which coups in the Arab world have become increasingly rare as regimes have become increasingly entrenched, the Mauritanian attempt took place in a country which has at least experimented with multi-party elections and, furthermore, is one of only three Arab countries to have established full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Unless we count palace coups such as the present Amir of Qatar deposing his father, there has not been a successful military coup in the Arab world since the Sudanese coup of 1989. There have been precious few attempts that even surfaced enough to be known to the outside world.
Mauritania does have something of a history of coups, but that history began in the 1970s when Mauritania found itself very much at the center of the Western Sahara conflict. The era of coups actually is limited to the period 1978-84. Since the current President, Ma‘aouiya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya‘ (Profile, Page 10), took power in 1984, there have been a few reported plots, but no successful change of regime.
Mauritania remains probably the least known Arab country, one little known even in the rest of the Arab world, let alone outside the region. This Dossier looks at what is known about the coup attempt and at the present system of Mauritanian society and government.
Mauritania occupies a huge chunk of northwestern Africa the size of Texas and New Mexico combined (or France and Spain combined), but contains only about 2.5 to 3 million people. Like many countries in the Sahara and Sahel belt, it represents a blending of Arab and Berber cultures of North Africa with black sub-Saharan African cultures to the south. Its society is complex and traditional, and essential to understanding the country’s political dynamics.
Mauritania’s Social Structure
But the Maures are not a unified group. They are themselves divided between the “White Maures”, known as Bidane from the Arabic word for white, and the “Black Maures”, who also speake Hasaniyya Arabic and are culturally similar to the Bidane but are blacks of sub-Saharan origin. Many of these are known as haratine, Arabic forfreedmen, becaus they were at one time slaves of the Bidane. In fact, slavery remains a major concern among international human rights organizations because, despite legal bans (the most recent in 1981), it is believed to be practiced in many parts of Mauritania.
Overlaying this racial/ethnic division, Mauritania also has a traditional caste system, in which “warriors”, “marabouts” (religious figures, heads of Sufi orders), and various artisan classes, plus griots or storytellers, existed. These distinctions are also overlaid on a tribal structure. It is a complex social system and one that deeply influences Mauritanian politics: most of the political parties are tribally or caste-based. But the Bidane dominate. An analysis of the Cabinet in 2001, as cited by Amnesty International, showed that 20 of its 27 members were either Bidane or mixed Bidane/Haratine, three were Haratine, and the other four were from sub-Saharan African tribes (Halpulaar and Soninké).
Most reference works suggest that about 80% of the population are Maures, either Bidane or Haratine, and 20% are sub-Saharan Africans. The distinctions are complex since the Haratine are ethnically black Africans but Arabic-speaking. In addition, these figures are themselves disputed, with some claiming that the black population is 30-40% rather than 20%. What is clear is that the Maures dominate, and within the Maures, the Bidane, with the old “warrior” and maraboutic castes most influential.
It should be noted that the black African communities also are divided into caste groups, which resemble but in some cases vary from those among the Maures.
In short, Mauritanian society is complex and still heavily influenced by traditional tribal and caste identities.
During the first decade and a half of independence, Mauritania remained very much a backwater. Economically it depends on fishing, mining (copper, iron, phosphates) and other such traditional industries; it had few towns to speak of (the capital, Nouakchott, was built at the time of independence). Its first President, Moukhtar Ould Daddah, ruled from 1960 until 1978.
During that time, Mauritania had little enough interaction with its neighbors. At the time of independence, Morocco briefly sought to claim Mauritania, but that claim was not pursued; the Spanish Sahara separated the two countries’ most productive regions, anyway. The country did not join the Arab League until 1974, despite the fact that a majority of the population is Arabic-speaking.
All of this changed with the withdrawal of Spain from the Western Sahara in 1976. Under the Madrid Accords which followed the Moroccan “Green March” into the Sahara, the territory was divided, with Mauritania occupying the southern section known as Rio de Oro, and Morocco occupying the northern section. Rio de Oro was named the Tiris al-Gharbiyya.
That drew Mauritania into the conflict between Morocco and the POLISARIO Front. POLISARIO, recognizing that Mauritania was the weaker of the two occupying powers, concentrated its attacks on the Mauritanian zone. Mauritania was now fully involved in an inter-Arab dispute. In July of 1978, the military overthrew President Ould Daddah’s civilian regime, and a series of military juntas began to rule. Presidetn Moustafa Ould Saleck was himself overhtrown; his successor, President Ould Bouceif, died in an air crash; Muhammad Mahmud Ould Luly became President and Muhammad Khouna Ould Haidalla Prime Minister, and then Ould Haidalla took the Presidency.
In the midst of these changes, Mauritania decided to opt out of its role in the Western Sahara, and announced it was withdrawing from Tiris al-Gharbiyya. Morocco moved in, renaming the region Wadi al-Dhahab (river of gold: the same name as the Spanish Rio de Oro).
Mauritania soon moved closer to POLISARIO and to Algeria, and POLISARIO began operating from camps in northern Mauritania, and Morocco bombed targets inside Mauritanian territory. In 1982 there was a failed coup attempt by former President Ould Saleck. In 1984, President Ould Haidalla recognized POLISARIO’s Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a move guaranteed to increase tensions with Morocco. The Cabinet split, and Ould Haidalla’s Prime Minister and Defense Minister, Ma‘aouiya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya‘, was demoted to Chief of Defense Staff.
Later that year, in December of 1984, Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya‘ overthrew Ould Haidalla. He has ruled as President of Mauritania ever since, though eventually abandoning the use of a military committee and holding competitive, if not necessarily open, elections.
There were continuing issues relating to the POLISARIO conflict, tensions with Morocco, allegations that Libya was subverting the country, and in 1989-90 a border crisis with Senegal which led to a limited local conflict and the flight of some black African Mauritanians across the river into Senegal. Mauritania’s peaceful situation of the 1960s and early 1970s had been replaced with a turbulence and instability created by its being drawn into the vortex of the Western Sahara conflict. But Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya‘ not only retained power, but maintained the country in a relatively stable situation whcih allowed a certain amount of liberalization, carefully controlled.
Civilian Constitutional Rule
The candidate who won the 1992 presidential elections was, not surprisingly, Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya‘.
Although opposition parties were elected to Parliament, the strong Presidency and the system created in effect a dominant-party system under which the President’s party, the Democratic and Socialist Republican Party (PDRS), has virtually unchallenged power.
International postures have also created domestic dissonance. The country had had an Iraqi-supported Ba‘ath party and tended to support Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, but soon after began strengthening its ties to the West, not only to its traditional patron France, but increasingly with the United States. Dissidents were sometimes accused of being in the pay of Iraq (previously, they were usually charged with Libyan ties).
In 1997, Ould Taya‘ was reelected overwhelmingly, despite facing several challengers; the opposition charged fraud. Presidential elections are due again on November 7 this year.
In 1999 Mauritania startled many by becoming the third Arab country to establish fulld iplomatic ties with Israel. This too strengthened its links with the US, but led to criticism in many Arab countries and from domestic Islamists.
With the eruption of the second intifada in 2000, criticism of the link with Israel increased. So did crackdowns on the opposition. In 2001, Mohamed Lemine Chbih Ould Cheikh Mal‘ainine, a prominent opposition figure with maraboutic links who had run against Ould Taya‘ in 1997, was arrested, charged with plotting sabotage, and sentenced to five years in prison. Opposition parties were occasionally banned for short terms or longer ones. In early 2002, the Action for Change movement, a party concerned with rights for the Haratine and blacks, was banned and charged with racism.
In the meantime, the October 2001 elections were dominated by the ruling party, though opposition forces did win in some areas.
The regime’s pro-Western stance and links with Israel continued to draw fire from Arab nationalists and Islamists, and in April, apparently in an attempt to defuse tensions heightened by the US war in Iraq, On April 30 and May 1, at least eight or nine imams and ten or more figures in opposition parties, especially members of the National Renaissance Party (PRN), a party openly opposed to the war in Iraq and apparently with Islamist leanings, were rounded up. So was at least one member of the Rally of Democratic Forces (RFD) Party.
The exact sources of the roundup are not entirely clear, but it also was apparently accompanied by dismissals in the Army as well. According to some reports there were protests about the presence of Mauritanian military personnel with US forces in Iraq, though this has not been acknowledged publicly so far as can be determined.
Coup Linked to Crackdown?
Ould Henena was said by some to have Islamist leanings but most reports focused more closely on his links to Iraq. The armored unit which he commanded was reportedly equipped with tanks provided many years ago by Saddam Hussein, and its officers had trained in Iraq and were reportedly supportive of the regime there, and may have had links with Mauritanian Ba‘athist sympathizers. (And some West African papers noted that Ould Henena had served as a military attaché at Mauritania’s Embassy in Paris, and therefore hinted that perhaps France was annoyed at being supplanted by the US as the preeminent patron of Mauritania.) So one can choose whatever motive one wishes to impute, but either the Islamist or Iraqi ties seemed the likeliest explanation for the coup, combined with annoyance at the recent crackdown.
In any event, the coup broke out over the weekend of June 7-8, with some reports suggesting that the Air Force was involved along with an armored unit in the capital. There was apparently considerable fighting, some reports of the insurgents entering the presidential palace, and considerable uncertainty in the first hours as to what was actually happening. Apparently the rebels did control the radio and television at one point. Both France and the United States discounted rumors that President Ould Taya‘ had taken refuge in their embassies.
On Sunday evening, the government announced that the coup had been put down, though Ould Taya‘ had still made no public appearance.
On Monday morning firing broke out again at daybreak in the center of the capital. Subsequent reports indicated that this involved an attempt by the rebels, now surrounded, to break out of the city. In any event this last eruption was brief, and Ould Taya‘ went on television to address the nation and announce that the coup had been defeated. He said that an armored unit was involved and that it had to be defeated “tank by tank” until all were destroyed. Subsequently it was announced that the Presidential elections will be held in November as scheduled.
What to make of the coup attempt? If the rebels were motivated by sympathy for Iraq, it is curious that the coup occurred only after the fall of the Iraqi regime and not, for example, at the beginning of the war when some pundits were predicting backlashes against pro-Western regimes. If the motivation was Islamist it is curious that it came from an armored unit reportedly known for its Iraqi sympathies. And of course, the full motives may never become clear. At presstime Ould Henena was reportedly being sought, having fled Nouakchott.
In any event, the coup is a reminder that there are still simmering problems in Mauritania, which is also suffering economically. Whether or not the coup was directly linked to external events (Iraq) or international movements such as political Islam, or was simply an attempt by a dissident colonel to seize power, it serves as a reminder that the country’s current posture — pro-Western, with ties with Israel — make it a potential target for either pro-Iraqi or pro-Islamist movements.
Ould Taya‘’s efforts at liberalization in the early 1990s seem to have produced little, with the opposition now harshly controlled and the government banning newspapers and political parties whenever they touch a nerve. Mauritania may have legal opposition parties but they are tightly controlled and have never eally been able to share power.
As the details of the coup emerge (if they do) it may become clearer what the international implications, if any, were. Until then, Mauritania’s President is openly celebrating his survival.
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