May 25, 2008
Why Jihadis Heart Mauritania (Bled l-Moops)
As longtime fan of `Aqoul, I feel it's about time I gave some back. Eerie has kindly accepted a guest post, so, here goes: an expanded version of a recent post from my own North Africa blog. Hope you enjoy.
Side introduction: While I personally don't share Alle's politics on Western Sahara (largely due to my analysis that another little shitty Mauretania is hardly a good thing), he is a smart observer of the area. Enjoy. -- Collounsbury.
PS: the Moops titling is mine, couldn't resist
Time for an update on Mauritania -- my special, dysfunctional little darling among the Maghreb countries -- and on why I think this complex but fascinating desert backwater may yet become of interest to Messrs. bin Ladin and Bush alike.
First the basics: Mauritania, squeezed in between Senegal, Mali, Algeria and Western (or: Moroccan) Sahara, is at the western extreme of the Arab world, and little known even to most of its neighbours. The population is small (under 3,5m.), the area huge (over 1m. km2) , and as the square-cut borders suggest, it is an entirely colonial creation. Back in the days, France needed to fill the space between Senegal, rowdy Touareg tribes, and Spanish Sahara with something, and in 1960 that something proclaimed itself the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Straddling the Sahel, it joins two very different worlds: rocky desert flats suitable only for nomadism dominate the northern two thirds, while the Senegal valley to the south has lush farmlands. Ethnic groups and living-styles are spread accordingly, and as could be expected, north/south relations have been acrimonious.
Sorry, the card says ‘Moops’
The north is populated by the Moors (also Maure). These stubbornly Bedouin Arabs and Arabized Berbers have dominated the country since independence, despite being internally divided into several tens of rivalling tribes, and with a myriad additional alliances, protective-exploitative clan relationships, and Sufi bloodlines criss-crossing that whole structure. Towards the bottom of this monstrously complex ethnic web you will find the Haratine, a social caste of Black African origin now linguistically and culturally Arabized. These "Black Moors" -- some 40% of the total population -- are former slaves of the Bidane, or "White Moors" (~30%); indeed, many are still held in bondage. Slavery has been outlawed several times, of course (1960, 1980, 2007), but is still fairly widespread in rural areas, ranging from the rare extreme of whip-and-chain into a vast grey zone of social and economic dependency relations. However, as in other Sahelian locations -- e.g. Darfur -- actual skin color may vary considerably from the "black"/"white" appellations of communal self-consciousness and popular anthropology.
In the south, along the Senegal river valley, as well as in the major cities, are found another black population, the négro-mauritaniens, who make up the remaining near-third of the population. This is in fact several different ethnic groups, all joined to mother communities in Senegal and Mali: the Halpulaar (Peul, Fula), Wolof, Toucouleur, Soninké and Bambara. Many Western observers tend to assume that Mauritania is simply a question of white/black, or Arab/African, but this is emphatically not the case: these southern ethnicities are not to be confused with the Haratine. Further, the southern peoples are all different from one another, having little but skin color and a shared antipathy towards the Arab north in common, the latter thanks to brutal discrimination by Moorish rulers. Typically, their societies are based on the same sort of harsh-but-fluid internal class and descent stratification as Moorish society, including slavery.
Democracy à l’algérienne
The country was first set up as a one-party state under French favorite Mokhtar ould Daddah, but all collapsed in 1978, when he joined Morocco in a disastrous project to annex Western Sahara: a military coup followed, and then more military coups. In 1984, the Machiavellian machinery of junta politics spat out a certain col. Mouawia ould Sid’Ahmed el-Tayaa, whose glaring mediocrity seemed to have him slated for a few years as seat-filler until a real dictator could be found. But, to everyone’s surprise ould el-Tayaa managed to cling to power for a full 21 years, through one crisis after another. Not until 2005 was he finally deposed by a group of top-level colonels, several of them from the northern ouled bou Sbaa tribe. These gentlemen then set up a military junta which promised democracy and -- there is a first for everything -- delivered it.
Elections were held in 2006 and 2007 -- not perfect, but better than anyone had expected, and they gained some positively surprised commentary in Western media, after a decade-long news blackout on the country’s rather off-road political developments. Less noticed, however, was that the new rulers of Mauritania are essentially the old rulers of Mauritania, minus a few famous faces, and plus a few opposition characters. A former minister, Sidi ould Cheikh Abdellahi very narrowly defeated Ahmed ould Daddah (half-brother of the late Mokhtar) in the presidential elections, as front man for a coalition of former regime bigwigs and regional/tribal strongmen seeking to preserve the status quo. This constellation was widely believed to enjoy the tacit support of the junta, the leaders of which had for 20 years formed the hard core of ould Tayaa’s system. The public face of the coup had been col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, head of the Sûreté nationale. After the reinstatement of civilian rule, he has resigned his posts and seemingly disappeared from the political scene. But there remains the other main strongman, who has largely escaped media attention in the West: col. Mohamed ould Abdelaziz, head of the presidential security unit, BASEP. He remains very much at the center of things, now as head of the presidential staff. Around him gravitates a small galaxy of other colonels, businessmen and politicians, in an uneasy balance. However, all of this is largely impenetrable to the outsider -- truly algerianesque, in both its appearance and its implications for the political system.
Even with the colonels’ clique lurking in the background, the country’s political scene has been markedly liberalized. Difficult questions of southern rights, slavery and past abuses are discussed more freely than ever before, and even, sporadically, dealt with. But it is difficult to predict which way things will go. Just this month, president Abdellahi quietly dropped his post-election prime minister, Zeine ould Zeidane -- a former central banker who, in the presidential elections, was seen as the candidate of ould Tayaa’s economically powerful Smasside tribe, and had finished third. The new government is headed by Yahia ould Ahmed el-Waghf, who seems to be the president’s personal lapdog, and it is stuffed thick with former ould el-Tayaa apparatchiks. As before, the cabinet is ridiculously large (35 people), so as to guarantee a good spread of fancy titles and patronage. Interestingly, Islamists were given portfolios for the first time in the country's history, in the shape of the Tawassoul party, which is a local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood -- they seem to be a fairly moderate bunch. The Islamist scene has so far been splintered and all groups are weak, but by simultaneously building up an ally and opening the path to peaceful inclusion of Islamist forces, Abdellahi may well have made a very smart move -- although further politicization of religion (and vice versa) will undoubtedly follow as Islamists move into the center of politics. The deeply divided opposition is unhappy with just about everything, but can do little about it. To its credit, it seems grumblingly content to wait for new elections, and this makes Mauritania’s present problems essentially issues of economy and stability.
In December last year, four French tourists were murdered, shocking the country and bringing a rare bout of international press attention. It was the first such crime in many years, and it soon emerged that the killers were members of a local Jihadi cell. A long manhunt began -- long, not least because Mauritanian police managed to show off a truly impressive range of police screwups. In the end, it seems some French gentlemen of unexplained organizational affiliations quietly arrived on the scene, and a couple of shootouts later, it was all over.
The manhunt, that is. But the dangers it pointed to, are with us very much still. For the incident underlines something very serious: that Mauritania is for all practical purposes an ideal target for al-Qa’ida, a schoolbook case of where Islamist rebels could find a foothold. Let’s simply list the many reasons for a Jihadi Salafist to fall in love with Mauritania. In no particular order:
- First & most obviously, it is vast and sparsely populated, with plenty of places to hide and borders guarded by no one.
- Equally obvious is that the country is poor – really, truly dirt-poor. Some newly discovered oil fields help (although they also help to sharpen internal power struggles), but, overall, the economy remains in miserable shape. The global food price rises have hit the population like a sledgehammer, and any hopes the government might have had for tourism have been shot down by al-Qai'da already. In fact, it took just a series of vague threats to cause the Paris-Dakar rally to flee to Latin America.
- It is thoroughly tribal. Al-Qai'da has, almost everywhere it goes, displayed an uncanny ability to merge with disgruntled tribals: witness Sinai, witness greater Pashtunistan. (On the semi-up side, witness Anbar.)
- And yet, it is not. The Haratine represent a largely detribalized, culturally rootless caste of difficult and degrading living conditions. Unsurprisingly, Islamist recruitment is said to have been especially effective among the upper stratum of politicizing Haratine.
- It's Muslim. And not just Muslim, but Islam is basically the only common identity of the country: the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, remember? Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Islam per se, but cf. Pakistan, or even Israel, for examples of how, in conservative and chauvinist circles, a religiously defined national identity may go haywire in times of crisis.
- It’s just next door. Many will recall the 2006 creation of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, a local branch of Usama’s organization. This is simply the new name for the GSPC, an Algerian rebel group whose core members have been active in the area for over a decade. A branch of the GSPC often sought hiding places in the Algerian-Malian borderlands, and while Algerian authorities have recently dealt a couple of tough blows on this front, the networks are still there. Simultaneously, as parts of Morocco’s Jihadist environment are presumably now merging into AQIM, another point of entry opens in the north, through Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara (although the angry young men in those areas are pretty much ear-marked for POLISARIO, the territory’s Algeria-allied independence movement).
- The regime is foreign-backed, with embarrassingly close ties to (first) France and (second) the USA. Most motivatingly for the Salafi crowd, Mauritania is one of only three Arab states to have official relations with Israel. These were established in 1999 by ould el-Tayaa, and are purely instrumental: quid-pro-quo for US backing. The Israel ties remain a serious irritant for much of the politically-minded population, and Islamist groups are squeezing every last drop out of this by staging demonstrations and attacks against the Israeli embassy.
- Perhaps most importantly, Mauritania’s traditional cultural paradigm is dissolving. The tribal system and Bedouin culture remain very strong, but they are now seriously challenged by phenomena such as increasing literacy, urban life, satellite TV, modern politics, and all the other causes & effects of modernization. Sufi folk religion is under pressure of the à la carte orthodoxy of a newly literate population, and traditional spiritual authority is withering. As everywhere else, this process is virtually certain to breed activist nativism -- here Islamism -- in response, aided by Islamist agitprop that already flows in copiously from the east, through TV broadcasts and Khaliji missions and money.
- Mauritania is also hit by destabilizing impulses from its neighbours. You have W. Sahara to the north: a large area of undetermined sovereignty, with POLISARIO controlling much of the borderlands and thousands of under-employed guerrillas roaming the territory. You have the Mali Touareg rebellion sputtering in the east; and, to a lesser extent, you have the issue of southern-Mauritanian refugees and ex-guerrillas in south, trickling home from Senegal. Added to this is a huge trade in refugees (towards the Canaries) and various related businesses that all empower extralegal networks. To its credit, Mauritania has absorbed all this surprisingly well so far, perhaps simply by not resisting it and letting people do as they please. But that’s exactly the kind of permitting environment a prospective Jihadist would seek, isn’t it?
- The state is very weak. The government is barely capable of stealing as much as it needs to keep the thieves-in-charge happy, despite the new oil income, and it exercises little effective control over the far-flung countryside. The antics of Mauritanian police forces during the al-Qaida chase instill no more confidence among Western states.
- Finally, Mauritania is in political transition. The post-2007 order doesn’t seem to haev settled down yet, and there has been a disturbingly quick turnover of top-ranking officers as of late, which indicates that all may not be well within the military establishment. On the plus side, this particular transition has so far been very benign, even positively liberalizing, and surprisingly stable. But still, where there's change there's uncertainty.
And so, when all is added together, it would seem that for Mauritania, troublesome times may lie ahead. For Western countries -- Mauritania’s neighbours are too preoccupied with their own petty squabbles to care -- this appears to be an excellent time to intervene, by pouring aid money into a country that will pass through multiple tough transitions over the coming years, and by supporting a political process which, while seriously flawed, is one few truly progressive developments in northern Africa. Sadly, of course, foreign aid and support tends to follow the TV cameras, and TV cameras rarely go anywhere where there is still peace and positive news. As far as most Western media and decision-makers are concerned, Mauritania seems to be on track and democratizing, and it has clearly been stricken from the list of need-to-fix troublespots. And so for the moment -- because there is a first for everything -- Mauritania seems trapped by its own success.
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My editorial post-publication comment:
In my view Alle exagerates the W. Sahara impact on Mauretania, at this time, and frankly I would not view the rootless youth in the Saharan region as more inclined to Polisario with its long history of being the yap-dog of the discredited Algerian state.
Quite the contrary. I should rather expect that the deracines of the camp will in fact prove to be fertile ground for Islamist radicals given the above.
The sources used for the Sahara I would also differ with as being rather skewed.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 25, 2008 01:02 PM
Bled l-Moops - Wish I thought of that one myself...
W. Sahara - It's a shitty little Mauritania already, the question is mostly about what flag to put there. As for the final outcome, I really don't have strong preferences towards either party, but I've always thought international law should be followed when possible. From that angle, POLISARIO is on firm ground by asking for the UN referendum to be held. Were Sahrawis then to vote for Moroccan sovereignty, then okay, good for them & case closed. It's the whole banning-the-vote part that irks me, with massive HR abuse thrown in as bonus.
About rootless people from the camps in Tindouf (as well as, nota bene, the camps around El Aaiún) falling prey to Islamism, this is certainly a serious risk. However, so far they've seemed far more inclined to go for POLISARIO, which contrary to Moroccan depictions is at its root a deeply Islamic (not Salafi-activist, but very conservative) movement and so hardly a turnoff for religious youth in that sense. Being powerless, Algerian-exploited and corrupt is the bigger problem, but they've still got enough militant cred and dominance of the nationalist scene to attract angry youth (see Iraqi Kurdistan for a very similar situation). Question is what happens when POLISARIO is no more, either for winning or losing; or when the two strands of Islamist and nationalist resentment eventually merge for lack of a solution of either kind, à la Palestine early 1990s.
Posted by: alle at May 26, 2008 02:11 AM
Okay, this was not about W. Sahara originally, but while I'm at it I should add: POLISARIO is, despite denying it, also well implanted in tribal politics -- massively so among the tribes historically present in the Western Sahara area, with a more mixed picture among Moroccan Sahrawi post-75 immigrants. This is obviously another reason for their continued ability to attract youth, although slightly embarrassing for an ostensibly anti-tribalist movement.
Plus family ties: virtually everyone down there has had a relative or ten killed by Moroccan forces (& turned into martyrs by POLISARIO), which, given the strength of family bonds in this society, tends to rather severely dampen feelings for His Royal Highness.
Posted by: alle at May 26, 2008 02:30 AM
I was going to raise tribal politics in re W. Sahara relative to Mauretania - let us leave aside W. Sahara versus Mauretania debate (although I would add that as an economist and an active investor in the region, there is vast difference between being a shitty little Mauretania and being province of a larger entity - however disadvantaged, in investment analysis, Size Counts in a non trivial way, see Morocco versus Tunisia FDI flows - although being less-fucked-up counts as well with Algeria versus Morocco or Tunisia FDI flows ex-Hydrocarbon / real economy being the key indicators).
The key issues (my long parenthetical actually being relevant to the core issue) are
(i) Social Structure: the Sahara remains tribal in a way that the Atlantic - Mediterranean Maghreb is not - in fact most coastal Maghrebis would regard as ... primative.
(ii) While remaining tribal, the Sahara economies are utterly incapable of supporting on internal economic activity current populations
(iii) As Mauretania like Saharan Mali, Niger, Tchad, Sudan/ Dar Fur is incapable by economic fundamentals - bloody fucking useless desert is... well without massive amounts of petrol wealth, fucking useless (and even w such wealth, I would not get long term.... as I see Dubai as the future Petra) - can not generate by any rational basis economic opportunity for current inhabitants, it will either generate labor for export or radicalism.... or both.
And btw, virtually everyone down there has a relative killed by the other side, and that have benefited from Moroccan subsidies.
On W. Saharan, it's a toss up, so leave aside the dumb fuck spin mate. I have no patience for it and we both know better.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 26, 2008 04:39 PM
Size Counts in a non trivial way
I'm sure you're right, and not just in regard to the economic side. If POLISARIO wanted to show they're serious, they should be quite frank about hoping to become the next Djibouti, propped up by someone's military base, aid, guestworker remittances from Spain, and perhaps a port, and drop the propaganda rah-rah about a "phosphate Kuwait". (In fact, I think the most sensible proposal I heard from a pure stability-standpoint was POLISARIO's early hints about agreeing to merger with Mauritania, but sadly this has become politically impossible for either side to push for now.)
On pts i, ii, iii: Sounds about right. What's your take on Mauritania's oil finds? How much are they really getting from that?
I see Dubai as the future Petra
Hah! Feels a bit blasphemous to think about Petra as an ancient Dubai, though.
On W. Saharan, it's a toss up, so leave aside the dumb fuck spin mate.
Toss up in many ways, and far more ambiguous than either side wants to admit. But I didn't intend that as spin, I do believe the war's history is a serious factor. Bottom line, I think we can agree that primary loyalties are presumably not primarily to either Morocco or POLISARIO.
Posted by: alle at May 27, 2008 02:29 AM
Very fair, we're on the sage page. I don't think the Mauretanian oil finds are enough to transform the country and the track record of weak quasi-democracies (relative to autocracies) on good governance with oil wealth is, to say the least not good.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 27, 2008 11:43 AM
I didn't think I'd ever agree with alle on anything touching "les provinces du Sud", but I wholeheartedly share the assessment that primary loyalties in the region are primarily tribal rather than national.
Posted by: Ibn Kafka at June 3, 2008 06:39 PM
Oh, I think you would. You're no fan of the Moroccan government, and I'm no fan of Polisario/Algeria, and we both seem to dislike human rights abuse. There's plenty of good middle ground there.
Anyway, I take this thread as confirmation that Mauritania is forever condemned to being ignored in favor of other countries and conflicts, no matter how obscure.
Posted by: alle at June 4, 2008 04:39 AM
Eh, sadly my boundless dislike of the Bidane after experience w same leads me to ignore the place. But in the end, let's be honest, it's a super marginal little country that only exists because of colonial silliness. It would be better served being the marginal province of Morocco or Algeria, with the Senegal valley in the hands of Senegal.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at June 4, 2008 02:43 PM
L -- Mostly granted. That Mauritania shouldn't have included the Senegal valley seems pretty obvious, but I'm not sure either Morocco or Algeria would have been well served by having it as a province. Sounds like a recipe for permanent peripheral instability, rather, à la a mini-Sudan. Morocco was just barely able to handle 150,000 Sahrawi malcontents and 270,000 km2 when Algeria got involved in the 1970s, so 3 million additional Moors and 1 million extra km2 would probably have been totally unmanageable -- one should be thankful King Hassan didn't get all he wished for. (Had it been made an Algerian province instead, Morocco would presumably have encouraged uprisings just as gleefully, so no difference there.)
As I said before, I think the most reasonable (ethnically, historically) solution, if reality can be ignored for a minute, would have been to gather in all the Hassani home areas -- from north of the S. river to the Draa, through n/w Mali and slicing off Tindouf in Algeria -- into some sort of separate entity. Not that it would have been an awesome state, just a slightly bigger Mauritania minus the ethno-disputes, but it would have reduced some tension at least, and kept centrifugal tendencies to a high minimum. But alas, borders are what they are, and sometimes not even that.
... Mauritanian contrafactual history, now there's clearly a niche for me to move into.
Posted by: alle at June 7, 2008 03:26 AM