Mauritanian Islamists: Political Islam beyond the War of Ideas

Mauritanian Islamists: Political Islam beyond the War of Ideas

Tawassoul, Mauritania’s principle Islamist political party, announced this week that it would join forces with now ruling Union for the Republic, the party of president General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Tawassoul’s leader, Jamil Mansour, spent the better part of the last year in opposition to Ould Abdel Aziz, who came to power in a coup last August, as a member of the Front for the Defense of Democracy (FNDD), along with other opposition heavy weights. Of those men, Ahmed Ould Daddah, Messaoud Boulkheir, Badreddine and Mansour, he was the first to make moves to “defect” following defeat in the July presidential election. After last week’s senatorial elections, in which the opposition was dealt a certain defeat — Ould Daddah’s RFD lost in its traditional stronghold of Boutlimit — Mansour was seen to be making his best efforts to attach Tawassoul to the new ruling clique.

Tawassoul is, of course, the local affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is similar to the Algerian and Jordanian branches in that it has seen fit to join government and participate in electoral processes of dubious legitimacy and to join forces with governments of equally problematic natures. As an entity it represents an organization as politically minded as any, and unconcerned with long-term political reform inside Mauritania. Its primary interest is to occupy office, for their popular appeal is limited and their survival is reliant on the patronage and favors of sitting authorities and powers. Its political maneuverings bear little resemblance to its platform or stated intentions. This post is the follow up to aprevious post addressing the role of the Algerian Brotherhood, the Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP), in that country’s post-conflict politics. This post examines the role of Mauritania’s Brotherhood in the country’s “transitional” politics.

Political ideology and political Islam

Tawassoul, officially named the National Rally for Reform and Development, was formed in 2007. Jamil Mansour and other activists had participated in government and in the opposition variously until that point, but it was only after the 2005 coup and in August of 2007 the party was legalized. Its appeal is primarily urban and educated, and it had made few inroads in the country’s interior in elections or organizing. In this it reflects the important social and cultural changes that have spread through Mauritania over the last two and a half decades. Rapid and massive urbanization from the interior to the big towns and cities like Nouakchott and Nouadhibou have caused social atomization. In turn, urban Mauritanians with memories of life before the grinding droughts of the late 1970’s and 1980’s have grown dissolutioned with life in the cities; their sons, raised with the social and cultural expectations of better times, have begun to look for social, religious and cultural options that are relevant in an environment where familiar faces and traditional values are hard to come by and maintain. The Salafist movement and other ideological religious tendencies help to provide this for many wayward young men. The images beamed into Mauritania by the Arab satellite networks peak the Arabo-Islamic consciousness that is already powerful in the country, and the sermons of eastern preachers teach a social ethic that resonates more deeply with de-tribalized city boys than with youths in the interior. The importance of ideology in life and politics has grown in recent years, and with it the influence of politicized and ideological religion.

The Islamist movement in Mauritania is an eclecticsmattering of Salafist, Ikhawnis, social conservatives and traditionalists. It remains an urban phenomenon in a country of only 4 million. Most view political Islam as an alien tradition hostile to traditional mores and representative of a sort of destabilizing fanaticism. The term “Islamist” is not pejorative in Mauritania; Salafi is. Good for Tawassoul, then, that Mauritanian Salafists have concerned themselves primarily with social work and not politics. Tawassoul, as political party, is generally considered moderate, not out of its own will but as a result of the unpopularity of hard-line variations of political Islam in Mauritania. The party’s intellectual and spiritual background explains why it has risen to prominence while other elements within the Islamist movement have not gained popular traction. Its spiritual leader (by Mansour’s description and others’), Sheikh Mohamed Hassan Ould Dedew is a case in point. Dedew spent his youth in the traditional Islamic schools in Mauritania, moving on to study in Saudi Arabia, bringing the Salafist beliefs rampant in the Arab east back to his home country. His manner of propagation and preaching melds Mauritania’s traditionalism with eastern cosmopolitanism of the new Islamism. His writing and preaching have made political Islam acceptable for many Mauritanians, allaying fears that the reformist Islam of the east would wreck havoc on traditional religious traditions and elites. He condemned last August’s suicide bombing, and has advocated dialogue between Salafist militants and the government. Dedew and other Islamists were persecuted in the waning years of the Ould Taya regime, Dedew himself having been released in 2005. At the time, Mansour was the mayor of Arafat, a dreary arrondissement in Nouakchott. In 1991 he, with others, attempted to found the Umma Party, an Islamist party of which he was Secretary-General. He was jailed in a crackdown on Islamists 1994, and took off for Yemen after his release, running for mayor of Arafat in 2001. As well having been arrested in 2003, Mansour did time for his political views in 2004 as well. After the coup he became a parliamentary deputy for Nouakchott. Young and clean cut, he appeals to the urban and the educated.

Until the last decade, political Islam was of marginal importance in Mauritania. The main reason for this is that the country’s politics and politicians are as a rule non-ideological and heavily personalized. Under the military regimes of the early 1980’s, especially the Haidallah period, the government adopted sharia more heavily into the legal infrastructure of the country, especially where capital and corporal punishment was concerned. It is important to remember, as well, that the country’s overarching identity is deliberately focused on Islam as a unifying principle between all Mauritanians, Arab and black. It was the first country to name itself an Islamic Republic, although its republican mechanisms were designed on the French model, thus holding off theocracy. Its distance from the cooking pots of political Islam, the Gulf and Egypt, also served to limit the influence of Islamist politics and ideology. In 1991, religious parties were banned outright, and Ould Taya was best described as hostile to any sort of religious politics. Minor religious militant groups sprang up at the onset of the Algerian crisis in 1993, but were done away with speedily. The great threat to his regime was the secular Ba’thist tendency within the military, hacked apart during the 1990’s and finally finished with in real substance after the 2003 coup attempt. The party enjoys regular and happy relations with other Brotherhood branches in the Arab world, and its leaders often pay visits to their brothers abroad.

From the underground to the mainstream

The Islamist movement in general grew in popularity at the end of the 1990s, when the Ould Taya regime realigned itself with the United States and recognized and established diplomatic relations with Israel. This shift had been in the making from the earlier part of the decade, as Ould Taya moved away from Iraq and purged the military of Ba’thists in the wake of the first Gulf War. His recognition of Israel increased the appeal of the Islamist tendency in general, and the matter became a central element in the movement’s voice of opposition to the regime. The government’s natural response, such as it is in a dictatorship, was to curb their ability to speak out against the Israel policy. The regime used the 2003 coup attempt as a pretext to crackdown on and arrest the ringleaders of the underground Islamist movement, including Dedew and Mansour. Ould Taya put the blame for two coup attempts in 2004 on Islamists, and was keen to use the American War on Terrorism to justify his increasing crackdowns on the opposition at large. This greatly inflated both the importance of the Islamist movement itself, which was and remains rather minor, and made the Israel problem more obvious in its having been imposed contrary to the will of the people, and therefore, in the years after Ould Taya’s overthrow in 2005, negotiable in a democratic setting. In April 2005, the government changed the country’s weekend from Friday to Saturday to better harmonize the country’s economic ties to European states, winning the ire of many Mauritanians secular, leftist and Islamist. As noted earlier, junta that took control after the 2005 coup released many prominent Islamists jailed under Ould Taya, mostly as gestures of good will.

The party distinguished itself during the 2007 elections by making opposition to the country’s relations with Israel a key part of its electoral platform. The issue rose at the nudging of the Islamist movement, and was previously unpopular but little political significance. Following the polls, Mansour agreed to bring Tawassoul into the new government in exchange for the implementation of particular policies, chief among them putting the country’s relationship with Israel up to a popular vote. Additionally, it was agreed that the weekend would return to Friday, undoing Ould Taya’s unilateral imposition of the western weekend. On Israel, there was no movement whatsoever by August 2008. This was the single issue Tawassoul was identified with, and its failure to secure it did great damage to its credibility. It had only two ministers in Sidi Ould Shiekh Abdellahi’s government, and its participation was political on all counts. It came from a drive from Tawassoul’s leaders to show that their movement could influence policy and the desire of the new government and its military backers to show that it was inclusive and at the very least proto-democratic after the manipulations of the actual process. As the MSP has done for Algeria’s national reconciliation process, Tawassoul’s participation served to legitimize a process with dented legitimacy.

Shifting and squirming

Following Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s 6 August, 2008 coup, Tawassoul was, along with the speaker of parliament Messaoud Boulkheir, at the forefront calling for Abdellahi’s reinstatement and a return to constitutional order. Its opposition came from the fact that it had been a part of the pre-coup government, and that it hoped that it could gain more legitimacy and popularity by sitting in the resistance’s camp. That Tawassoul had been a part of the government was of secondary importance; it was an issue of the party’s political solvency going forward that brought it to oppose the coup. In both cases, as it is for all political actors, the move was a means to an end, very likely related to matters of political ideology only tangentially.

In the lead up to the 18 July 2009 election, Mansour was calculating what constellation of powers would salvage his party’s broad relevance. The issue that had brought the party to greatest import had evaporated as a drop of water on hot coal. The previous months had rendered his party practically impotent to offer a concrete policy or notional framework to distinguish itself from the demagogy of Ould Abdel Aziz’s campaign, let alone the historic pull the major candidates carried. This was a deliberate and shrewd process that began as soon as Ould Abdel Aziz put himself into office, and when he began to carry on with the business of promoting himself as a worthy presidential figure. Mansour maintained in interviews that he was opposed to both the coup and to keeping ties with Israel. Thus, two issues were most prominent in this were two issues: political corruption and the country’s relations with Israel. The Israel issue was introduced into Ould Abdel Aziz’s public rhetoric in autumn of 2008, forming an increasingly important component of his fomentation against Abdellahi’s government and his external policy.

Broken promises and the Gaza War

The first issue is relevant insofar as it represented an attack on Abdellahi himself. Here it is especially predatory, for the man who initiated the 6 August coup was a key figure in the conniving that gave rise to Abdellahi and, as a military commander, let lose much of the chaos that came upon the country in the months preceding the coup. Abdellahi’s wifewas known for extravagance and arrogance, having said that now that her husband was in office she was in a position to “crush” her enemies. Her charitable foundation was known to have used its funds to make bribes and to buy up land where purchases were illegal. The corruption charge was meant to appeal to the poor, and Ould Abdel Aziz made a point of assailing the political class during visits to down and out slums in Nouakchott, and for being one of the first Mauritanian leaders to visit such areas. He would, the general told the destitute, be the President of the Poor.

On the matter more relevant, Ould Abdel Aziz observed the utility of the Israel issue in the autumn of 2008. When Libya, whose policy towards the junta would prove to be particularly eccentric, announced that “as a founding member of the African Union,” it could not support the coup, because a Mauritanian delegation to Tripoli in September had told Qadhafi that Mauritania had planned to terminate its relations with Israel. That announcement came on 26 October, and not long after reports began to leak, the first reports coming on 28 October, from the junta that ties with Israel were being put under “review”. From it became clear that reconsideration of the country’s ties to Israel held at least a partially economic motivation, as the point of Mauritanian outreach to Libya was in hopes of securing that country’s financial assistance in case Western donor countries began to impose sanctions on the junta’s government. In any case, it was good political sense to initiate such talk, as Mauritanians remembered the issue as a promise of Abdellahi’s, and that he had never followed through on it meant that if the junta did it would do to illustrate Ould Abdel Aziz’s competence over the ousted president in a country where the legitimacy of coups is still quite debatable. In the second place, any referendum would have led to the ties being cut and would have gotten the junta the support of wealthier radical states. The leaks served to keep the Libyan track open, as members of the opposition had sought to isolate the junta by lobbying Libya, Algeria and other regional players.

The Gaza War would prove to be as consequential to Mauritania’s foreign policy as the first Gulf War and its complications. Large street demonstrations against the war sprung up in Nouakchott, especially among students and round the mosques. Mauritanian students abroad, which were well reported in Mauritanian newspapers and in the major Arabic papers in Algeria and Morocco, in Senegal, Morocco, Algeria and beyond participated in demonstrations against the Israeli assault. The Gaza War ensured that the Israel issue became a source of genuine political capital, as the crisis in Palestine was never before so severely relevant in the country’s internal politics, and a person in a position to do something about it could only make himself out to be a coward by taking no action. Still, it remained a red-line in the country’s close relationship with the United States and western Europe, who had opposed the coup. The Israeli Foreign Ministry was careful to keep its cards close its chest, avoiding language or action that would make a break more likely. The Gaza War made the rupture of ties so profitable that these efforts were to be for naught.

Tawassoul and its sympathizers organized many of the demonstrations against the war, in line with its previous protests in solidarity with HAMAS, its Palestinian cousin. In early January, a student demonstration at the University of Nouakchott made its way to the Israeli embassy, police moving to direct the youths to the Palestinian embassy down the road as the demonstrators chanted slogans decrying the country’s “disgraceful” relations with Israel. Violence ensued, protesters smashing the windshield of an embassy vehicle, and arrests were made. The stakes had be raised. The proverbial “Arab Street” beckoned under the leadership of an opposition party backed up with its own doctrine and agenda. Ould Abdel Aziz could sit passive and under sanction, or he could outmaneuver Western donors and Tawassoul altogether. January offered the man only two options: to cut or sit idle.

Days later, the junta recalled the Mauritanian ambassador in Tel Aviv without explanation, and the Israelis reciprocated. It was a turning point the junta’s overall policy, turning its back on the west and moving closer to Libya, Iran and Qatar in search of economic assistance as EU, US and AU sanctions. While it was Tawassoul who had stoked opposition to the Israeli embassy, it was the junta who seized the opportunity of the Gaza War and Arab Summit to actually get rid of it. From here the party played a minor, supporting role in the coalition against the junta, the National Front to Defend Democracy (FNDD), clustered around the leaders of the Peoples Progressive Alliance (Messaoud Boulkheir) and Rally of Democratic Forces (Ahmed Ould Daddah). At a popular level, the move made Ould Abdel Aziz significantly more popular for several weeks, but the secular opposition quickly dominated the public discourse, focusing on the legitimacy of the junta and the need for constitutional government. What had come to set the party towards prominence rendered them impuissant.

On 18 July, Jamil Mansour won just under 5% of the vote, and was a minor factor in the election over all. The dominant candidates, Ould Abdel Aziz – who had the resources of the state at his disposal and the support of many moneyed Mauritanians – Messaoud Boulkheir, a leader from the Haratine community with a large popular following as the country’s “Barack Obama,” and Ahmed Ould Daddah, the historic leader of the opposition in general, came from non-ideological parties and were well known practitioners of the sort of shifting sands politics that characterize Mauritanian politics at large. Their parties had no especially distinctive ideational underpinning, beyond the credibility of their leaders. The victorious Ould Abdel Aziz in particular ran a campaign focused primarily on demagogic wit, co-opting Tawassoul’s anti-Israel stance and making wild promises to the poor in a dialect with Class Warfare as the basis of its creole. He promised to be the “President of the Poor,” while marginalizing opponents by exposing their soft-footed opposition to Israel. This populism did him well, at Tawassoul’s expense.

In early July, for example, Ould Abdel Aziz’s campaign made much of a speech made by the junta-leader’s cousin and partner in the 2005 coup-cum presidential candidate Ely Ould Mohamed Vall. Vall gave a speech at a conference in Paris, in 2005 when he was at the head of the transitional government, during the course of which he said that “those who died in Nazi death camps were my brothers and sisters [. . .] in humanity.” This was offered as evidence of Vall’s supposedly pro-Israel tendencies. Elucidating the contemporary context, Vall’s campaign issued a statement aimed at “clarifying” his position, registering his “outrage” at Israeli abuses of the Palestinians and making it known he had no “sympathy for the enemy”. Also in July, a letter began to be circulated on the Internet and in Nouakchott addressed to one Maria Solomon, regarding the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel overtones in Ould Abdel Aziz’s campaign. The letter originated from a prominent businessman in the capital, who accused the junta of seeking to align the country outside of the national interest by inciting “hatred of US foreign policy and anti-Semitism in various ways.” Ould Abdel Aziz responded to the letter publicly and directly, so as to be sure there was no doubt about his position on the matter. Mentioning the letter specifically, he spoke for himself and his supporters snarling that the accusation was “an honor for us, for we are against Judaism”. The term “against Judaism” – dhid al-yehoudiya — is not to be confused with being “against Zionism” or the State of Israel. This activity was not the result of ideology, but of a political calculus that was concerned with internal and external politics: in the first place to neutralize the main issue driving Tawassoul’s popularity, which was marginal to start with and thus easily undermined, and in the second place to meet his commitments to Libya, who had pledge to contribute to his hungry regime in exchange for his move against Israel.

The other parties did not concern themselves with the issue, and it was of no benefit to anyone in the opposition to raise it willfully by the time of the election. Mansour, too, now without a direct point to make, focused on Ould Abdel Aziz’s worldly flaws. Unlike their allies in the opposition, who concluded a pact pledging support for whoever from the opposition made it to a potential second round of elections, Tawassoul opted out of any such policy. The party’s principles, Mansour claimed, prevented him from taking part in such pact. After the elections, which were contested by the opposition but condoned by such venerable observers of democracy as the Arab League, the Organization of La Francophonie, the African Union and the Organization of the Islamic Congress. Of course, France was willing and eager to push along Ould Abdel Aziz’s consolidation, shamelessly as always. Mansour and Tawassoul found less displeasure with Ould Abdel Aziz. By the time of the parliamentary elections in November, Tawassoul resolved to join with Ould Abdel Aziz’s party, the Union for the Republic. Of the ex-opposition members who made their peace with Ould Abdel Aziz, Tawassoul was the first. Like its Algerian relatives, the party recognizes that its minor status makes its success dependent on its willingness to shift alliances and attach itself to the most powerful actor of the moment, whatever the implications of that caprice might be. The greatest challenge is to perhaps not appear so artless and pitiful as the Algerian Brothers. So it has been with the November senatorial elections. The beat goes on.

Executing airy purposes

After a forlorn and dreary rainy season last autumn, when Ould Abdel Aziz became better known as the President of Poverty than of the Poor, various realignments took place to the benefit mostly of the career politicians and their clients. Tawassoul, seeing that Ould Abdel Aziz intends to sit for as long as possible in the finest tradition of despotism, has sought survival before anything related to the pursuit of an Islamic state and society. As an influential supporter put it: the party, because of its ideology, will always be held to “higher standards” than other political actors, it is justified to ally with the most relevant figures on the road to the Good Society. The short form is that he ends justify the means.

Like other ideological trends in the Maghreb, the Brotherhood represents a symbolic and imagined mission more than it does a method for reform or “progress” in terms of policy or action. Where political action is concerned, the ambitions of men and patronage networks remain more powerful, more relevant and more animating than ideology, which quickly dissipates when decisions are taken.

Reform requires that the state’s range of authority and action be negotiated between power interests and that politics become a means for the people to participate in that process through institutions rather than individuals. It requires a transformation in political culture for the people to make full use of their republic. In Mauritania, as in many Arab polities, ideological actors incorporate the popular desire for reform and political change into their agendas. Unfortunately, one is hard pressed to find transcendent political leaders, with a commitment to the preservation of the democratic process and institutions for the sake of the people. Too often leaders are concerned with narrow agendas, be they businessmen or imported agendas. A young Mauritanian, a Tawassoul activist, wrote to this blogger complaining that his party “never makes up its mind, going along with anyone as if competence or principal did not matter”. Mansour, he continued, “made an example with his opposition to the coup,” but now “is making another trend by supporting Aziz”. Messaoud Boulkheir, the Speaker of Parliament, made a speech declaring the elections he and others disputed so heavily were important in building national stability, and that while reform is not complete for normalcy to return to Mauritania it was necessary, in effect, to concede defeat. What most Mauritanians heard was “Welcome, Mr. President,” a “win” for Ould Abdel Aziz. Another Arab autocrat is in the making, egged on by the international community and enabled by his country’s political class. The average Mauritanian is fatigued by politics, fearing that mass action will yield mass brutality — as in Guinea — and that the political process is a circle going round and round from coup to coup, egoist to egoist. Nowadays such Mauritanians are sure that in both cases, men who make sermons about democracy will turn the blind eye.

Boulkheir is a shrewd politician, and his position and his agenda (which is decidedly non-ideological, even if it carries on broader social intentions) have brought him to such compromise before. One may say that the career politicians of North Africa act as calculating and practical men before anything else. On this point there is little distinguishing Islamist politicians from non-Islamist ones, except the sort of Garden they’d like to end up at. It is not to say that these men are no more than cynical and  power hungry survivalists; many of them are quite a lot more than that. The logic of politics as they are now, though, precludes the actual negotiation of policy, thereby making the most ambitious players mere pawns of whatever potentate will see fit to have them as

An attendant lord – one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince: withal, an easy tool;

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous,

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous;

Almost, at times, the Fool.