Social movements and unrest in Mauritania since the Arab Uprisings

During those rare moments when western media attention is turned to the country, it is usually with a focus on these security issues rather than on the democratic struggles of Mauritanian citizens. 

Hassan Ould Moctar
17 June 2013

Although at this time there is no broadbased grass-roots movement in Mauritania campaigning on a national scale for democratic reform, there have been sustained protests and various forms of unrest across the West African country in recent months and years which have received scant international media attention. 

These demonstrations reflect a range of social problems and discontent in the country at the moment, the results of which may well be determined by how (or whether) they are perceived and depicted by the wider region and world, as much as by how they are acted upon by citizens of that country.  Let’s briefly trace the trajectory of demonstrations which have taken place in the country since 2011, the main movements behind them and how they have progressed, cooperated and consolidated themselves over the past two years

On January 17, 2011, a 43 year-old named Yacoub Ould Dahoud set fire to himself in front of the Presidential Palace in protest at the political situation in the country and what he perceived to be a concentration of power in the hands of President, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz.  He died in a Moroccan hospital six days later, sparking public outrage and great interest in the manifesto he posted online before carrying out this act.  

A youth movement was also forming around this time to articulate the grievances of the largely educated but unemployed urban youth.  Dubbing itself the February 25 Movement, it was modelled loosely upon the Egyptian April 6 Youth Movement, in that it made similar use of social media and sought to attract a wide cross-section of society to its cause.

Their first mobilisation took place after Friday prayers on February 25 and attracted over 3,000 people, the vast majority of whom camped out for the night in a square in the capital, Nouakchott.  Slogans of equality and national unity were common among those in attendance and in follow up demonstrations, as well as the now famous mantra of the Arab uprisings: “the people want the downfall of the regime.”  As protests continued throughout March and April, the government responded through a combination of concessions to protestors’ demands and heavy-handed tear gas dispersals of any persistent demonstrations.  These tactics seemed to have some effect, as the youth-led protests demanding political reform dissipated during the months of April and May, although this may also have been due to a flaring of ethnic tension in the city, brought on by contested student union elections in Nouakchott University, as well as by the February 25 Movement’s tactical decision to refine, consolidate and recruit to their movement during the latter half of that year.

Other social movements – which may or may not be tied into the regional ‘Arab Spring’ narrative but which have been equally if not more important in terms of social transformation in Mauritania – have made themselves known over the course of 2011 and into 2012.  Some of the most prominent and vocal of these have been: ‘Touche pas à ma nationalité,’  a black African rights group which campaigns against the perceived racial discrimination embodied in the May 2011 population census, and the status accorded to black African Mauritanians in general; ‘l’Initiative pour le Resurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste en Mauritanie’,(IRA-Mauritanie) an abolitionist organisation which campaigns against, and raises awareness about, the enslavement and social exclusion of a large portion of  those who belong to the Haratine ethnicity in Mauritania; Tawassoul, an Islamist party legalised in 2007, which was vocal in condemning the violent repression and arrest of students of the Islamic Institute of Higher Studies and Research in January 2012.  These groups often face severe reprisals for their actions, with demonstrations being violently dispersed with tear gas and vocal members being imprisoned.  To what extent the struggles are linked with each other in the eyes of those waging them is unclear, although there have been signs in 2012 of increased co-operation between civil society groups and opposition parties. 

At the beginning of March that year, the February 25 Movement, who had recently commemorated their first anniversary with a demonstration in the capital, organised a conference to discuss the political impasse faced by the country from a constitutional and legal perspective.  A broad range of civil society and trade union groups were represented, as well as a large coalition of opposition parties, named the ‘Coordination de l’opposition démocratique’ (COD).  The conclusions of the conference called into serious question the fundamental legitimacy of the regime.  An unequivocal call for President Abdel Aziz to step down was made less than two weeks later, with tens of thousands of people turning out for a mass demonstration in Nouakchott, organised by the COD and attended by an array of people and groups from different ethnic and societal backgrounds.     

There have also been signs in 2013 of an increase in solidarity and cooperation between campaign groups, such as a joint protest held by the February 25 Movement and black African rights groups, and the recent support offered by the Islamist party Tawassoul to the anti-slavery campaign of IRA-M.  This gesture is of particular significance given that religious pretexts have often been used to justify slavery in Mauritania, and could be indicative of the direction things will take in the near future.  In turn, IRA-M. expressed its solidarity with the 7,000 dockworkers who went on strike in April in Nouakchott demanding better working conditions and an end to the corrupt relationship between the state and what it termed ‘feudal’ businessmen.  After a violent crackdown on workers by police on April 22 failed to quell the movement, government authorities and protestors reached an agreement two days later, with the government acceding to a number of their demands.  However it remains to be seen whether this resolution will hold, in light of worker discontent with the recent decision of the executive board of the port to significantly increase its own members’ salaries.  More recently still, at the end of May, around 6,000 workers in the northern mining town of Zuouérat took to the streets for several days to protest against their working conditions.  The governor was forced to flee when his office caught fire, and the Interior Minister was eventually flown in to calm the situation.

These protests have taken place within the context of a temporary power vacuum, as President Aziz had been in Paris for nearly a month, allegedly receiving treatment for a bullet wound he sustained last October after ‘accidentally’ coming under fire from members of his own army.  The concern and confusion which arose from the initial incident has resurfaced during this prolonged period of absence, and were vocalised by the COD in a press release on June 2.  His return to Mauritania comes at a time when municipal and legislative elections, having been stalled for two years, are being prepared for the month of October.  Whether or not these elections will go ahead as scheduled remains to be seen, as the spill over effects of the ongoing Mali crisis and the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mauritania may pose significant logistical problems.

 The aforementioned geo-political issues mean that social change in Mauritania may carry high stakes, in both national and regional terms.  And during those rare moments when western media attention is turned to the country, it is usually with a focus on these security issues rather than on the democratic struggles of Mauritanian citizens. 

The resilience and persistence of those demonstrating is thus quite remarkable, in light of the absence of international scrutiny of government conduct when dealing with protestors.  Given the limited amount of internet access in the large and predominantly rural country, the potential for local protests about issues such as water shortages to be developed and tied into a wider national agenda of democratic reform may be somewhat limited.  However, there is certainly hope to be found in the burgeoning community of online blog and social media activists that is beginning to project these struggles into the global online sphere, making local grievances more widely known, and linking them to other struggles against oppression in the Maghreb, Middle East and beyond. 

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