Islamism in North Africa IV: The Islamist Challenge in Mauritania: Threat or Scapegoat?
Middle East/North Africa Report N°41
11 May 2005
This full report is only available in French.
Disregarded by the media and international community, Mauritania is nonetheless experiencing a period of increasing instability. Evidence abounds and includes failed military coups, creation of a rebel movement, Foursan Taghyir ("The Knights of Change"), discovery of weapons caches in Nouakchott, and the arrest of Islamist leaders. Although the official discourse tends to tie the issue of political stability to the question of Islamism, the reality is far more complex. President Ould Taya's regime is taking advantage of the international context (the struggle against global terrorism) to legitimise its denial of democratic rights, while giving credence to the concept that Islamists are linked to the armed rebels in order to discredit them. In so doing, it runs the risk of leading the state into an impasse by rendering it dangerously dependent on U.S. support in the face of growing domestic discontent. To count on external support to suppress an alleged local Islamist terrorist threat that, at present, barely exists is to recklessly push forward rather than pursue a well thought out strategy. It could ultimately turn out to be a very costly mistake.
The Mauritanian Islamist movement has assumed various forms: charitable associations, missionary organisations (the Jema'at al-Da'wa wa 'l-Tabligh being the most firmly established) and a nebulous set of political groupings whose ideology draws from Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood and thinkers such as the Tunisian Rachid Ghannouchi or the Sudanese Hassan al-Tourabi. Politically, the country's Islamists are poorly organised, a result of both the ban on opposition political parties that existed prior to the 1991 democratic opening and, since that time, of the regulation governing the establishment of political parties invoked by the regime to keep Islamists outside the political sphere. An initial attempt in the mid-1990s to unify the various political currents ultimately failed, and ended in the arrest of its leaders.
Although Islamism's political expression remains constricted, the number of its sympathisers is rapidly growing. It is expanding chiefly in the towns (Nouakchott, Nouadhibou, Rosso and Zouérat) and among groups such as the Haratines (the former slave stratum which currently constitutes most of the urban sub-proletariat) as well as young Mauritanians who emerge from an Arabised educational system without any legitimate qualification and end up adrift on a thoroughly depressed labour market. The educational reform, which replaced French with Arabic on a massive scale, was a resounding failure, as mastery of French remains a key asset for job-seekers. Moreover, the forsaking of the French language cut off young generations from the West and its values. Islamism has also found fertile ground in urban poverty, rejection of the corrupt political class and the abortion of the democratic project. Finally, Islamism prospers thanks to a charitable sector whose funds are mostly of Gulf origin. These significant economic transfers wholly escape the control of the state, which has no way of knowing whether the funds are sent only to support charitable initiatives and mosque construction, as claimed.
The Islamist political current is presently trying once more to unify its ranks, this time around the Party of the Democratic Convergence (PCD), which the regime has yet to authorise. The regime once again appears unwilling to accept Islamists in the political field, even though they maintain they want to operate within the law and promote democracy.
If it wants to strengthen the state's internal support, the government must rethink its strategy. This will entail a consistent effort to address the social causes of Islamist dissent, especially widespread unemployment, high-level corruption and the highly unequal distribution of revenue at the national level. At the same time, it should undertake a serious effort to overhaul the education system, focusing in particular on students who studied in religious schools. The goal should be to turn the governing party, the Democratic Republican Party (PRDS), into a national party of reform that would be capable of facing political competition in a democratic manner, instead of relying on repression alone to check opposition currents.
The government also should reconsider its extremely restrictive interpretation of the 1991 law on political parties. While the principle that "Islam cannot be the monopoly of a single political party" in itself can be justified and need not be discarded, it should stop being used as a pretext to ban any party that invokes Islam as its reference. On the contrary, the government could legitimately require that political parties explicitly accept this principle as a condition of their legalisation. This could pave the way for opening the political field to constitutional parties originating in the Islamist movement in a manner that would safeguard, rather than destabilise, the state.
Western powers also would be well served by revising their analyses and policies. Washington's emphasis on the purely military aspect of its "war against terrorism" in the Sahel in general and Mauritania in particular risks becoming increasingly indefensible insofar as there is no genuine terrorist movement on the ground and insofar as this policy is being exploited to justify denying political rights to non-violent opposition currents. Instead, the United States should encourage the Mauritanian government to address its socio-economic and cultural challenges, and help it do so. It also should back any efforts to allow opposition forces respectful of the constitution admission to the political field. The European Union should develop its own policy thinking along the same lines, continuing its economic and social development assistance and working with the U.S. to help foster balanced economic development and deepened political pluralism in Mauritania.
Cairo/Brussels, 11 May 2005