The Middle East Channel

Mauritania Votes

Mauritania, a predominately Arab country that straddles North and West Africa, will hold legislative and local government elections on November 23 (first round) and December 7 (second round), which will be the country's first full elections since 2006. These elections will replace officials of the national assembly and local governments (i.e. communes) who have continued to carry out their duties even though their elected terms ended, constitutionally, in 2012.

Since gaining independence from France, Mauritania has had a turbulent history: the country's first president and university graduate, Moktar Ould Daddah, who assumed power in 1960, was ousted by a military coup in 1978. Subsequently, Mauritania was rocked by several additional coups: in 1979, 1980, and 1984. In 1984, a general-cum-president -- Maaouya Sid' Ahmed Ould Taya -- asserted control and constructed a dominant regime party, le Parti Républicain Démocratique et Social (PRDS). Akin to Egypt's National Democratic Party, the PRDS dominated Mauritanian politics for the next 21 years until 2005, when Taya was deposed in a putsch led by two of his closest military advisors, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Ely Ould Mohamed Vall.

Working with a committee of other generals, Abdel Aziz and Vall pledged to democratize Mauritania and enhance its stability. They held elections in 2006 to form the legislature and communes, and also scheduled a presidential election for 2007. The elections were deemed free and fair, and the presidential contest featured vigorous competition between Mohamed Ould Sidi Cheikh Abdallahi, a World Bank economist, and Ahmed ould Daddah, the brother of Mauritania's first president. The military split in its loyalty for the two candidates during the 2007 presidential election: Abdel Aziz backed Abdallahi, whereas Vall supported Daddah. In a near electoral tie, the former defeated the latter and became Mauritania's first president after the 2005 coup. A consensus developed among policymakers, academics, and other observers that Mauritania was the Arab world's first case of democratization, creating hope that it might be a bellwether for other states. 

Mauritania's experiment with democracy was short lived, however. In August 2008, President Abdel Aziz removed his elected predecessor in a surprise coup. Speculations swirled about Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital city, that Abdel Aziz had orchestrated Abdallahi's electoral success to facilitate his own eventual rise to power. The Arab League and African Union condemned the military's ouster of the elected, civilian government. Once he solidified his control, Abdel Aziz pledged to authenticate his rule by election. He did this in a 2009 presidential election, which was non-competitive, largely symbolic.

Postponed several times since Abdel Aziz's coup, Mauritania's upcoming legislative and local elections will be the first full elections held since 2006. The stakes and significance of the elections are high. Two parties, allied closely with Abdel Aziz, are poised for victory. These parties are the Union Pour la République (UPR) and a second youth-oriented party, the Parti du Sursaut de la Jeunesse (or Mobilized Youth for the Nation). Created in 2008, the UPR was Abel Aziz's party for the 2009 presidential election. In 2011, Lalla Mint Cherif, minister of culture, youth, and sport as well as a close ally of the president, founded Mobilized Youth. Observers speculated that the regime tasked Mint Cherif to form Mobilized Youth to rival, divide, and weaken Mauritania's youth protest movement, the February 25th Movement. Signaling his support for these two parties, Abdel Aziz recently told close associates that his "heart" favors Mobilized Youth for the election, while his "mind" is with the UPR.

The rise to electoral prominence of these two regime parties is reminiscent of the success of another loyalist party in Mauritania's northern neighbor, Morocco. In 2008, Morocco witnessed the development of a powerful, new party founded by the king's close friend and former deputy interior minister, Fouad Ali al-Himma. Himma's Party of Authenticity and Modernity swept Morocco's 2009 communal elections with a unique electoral strategy, known as the "campaign of thickness." This strategy prioritized maximizing the quantity of candidates without considering their quality. Himma's party recruited candidates who had strong local ties with voters, but it did not examine their political ideologies or campaign platforms closely. Many of the regime party's strongest candidates were co-opted from other parties, especially in rural districts.

Like Himma's party in Morocco, Mauritania's two regime parties seem to be practicing a similar "campaign of thickness" for these elections. For the local election, the UPR has submitted electoral lists of candidates for all 218 communes, whereas Mobilized Youth has formed lists for 95 communes. Given that the two parties have never competed in a previous communal election, the successful formation of this number of electoral lists across all of Mauritania must have been a major organizational feat (and suggestive of regime complicity). Like Himma's party in Morocco, the UPR has also practiced co-optation: many of its top leaders, especially communal mayors, were former members of Taya's dominant regime party. 

Mauritania's opposition, which includes leftists, nationalists, unionists, and civil society organizations, has rejected invitations to compete in the upcoming elections. The opposition parties' activism is united within an alliance, known as the Coordination de l'Opposition Démocratique (COD). The COD built itself off a previous alliance among the opposition parties called le Front National de Défense de la Démocratie (FNDD), which emerged in 2008 to organize protests in opposition to the 2008 military coup. The COD has already planned anti-election activities, including an automobile protest held in Nouakchott earlier this week and several rallies in towns within Mauritania's interior provinces that will commence next Sunday. Mustafa ould Badr al-Din, a top opposition leader, announced recently that the COD aims to use the boycott to pressure Abdel Aziz's regime to grant more concessions and to relinquish new powers.

Unlike the other opposition parties of the COD, Mauritania's Muslim Brotherhood -- the Tawassoul Party -- has chosen to compete in the elections. Legalized in 2007, Mauritania's Islamist party has an ambiguous relationship with the regime of Abdel Aziz. The Islamist party was one of the strongest members of the FNDD that resisted the 2008 coup: Indeed, the agreement for the opposition alliance was signed in Tawassoul's headquarters, and its secretary general -- Jamil Mansour -- served as the FNDD's first rotating president. Yet, Tawassoul defected from the FNDD to form an electoral alliance with the UPR for the 2009 partial elections, which replaced 17 of 56 senators in Mauritania's upper chamber. But once the Arab Spring broke out, the Islamists reversed this strategy and rejoined the COD by publishing a condemnation of Abdel Aziz's presidency -- Reform Before It's Too Late. Released in February 2011, the report lambasted the president's "individualistic way" of running the state, "whereby all decisions have been concentrated in his hands alone." Now, however, the Islamists seem to have parted ways with the COD again, choosing to compete in the upcoming elections rather than boycotting them. It will be interesting to see whether Mauritania's Islamists will secure the electoral success that other Islamist movements have achieved, notably in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, or if the "modest harvest" of Islamist-led democratization in the post-Arab Spring era will undermine Tawassoul's electoral prospects.

Matt Buehler is post-doctoral fellow at the Center for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar and assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Tennessee. His research was supported in part by a Travel-Research-Engagement grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science.

Matt Buehler

The Middle East Channel

Iran and six world powers enter second day of talks in Geneva

Iran and six world powers have entered into a second day of talks on Iran's nuclear program on Thursday in Geneva. On Wednesday, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton held direct bilateral talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as did the U.S. delegation. Several officials described Wednesday's discussions as "positive" however, one diplomat said, "considerable gaps remain and we have to narrow the gaps." An Iranian official said mistrust continues to be a problem between the two sides. He noted that the parties had not resolved disagreements over Iran's uranium enrichment. Iran's chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, said "no deal that does not include the right to uranium enrichment from start to finish will be accepted." However, he also noted, "There is a chance of a deal by tomorrow [Friday] but it's a difficult task." Iran and the world powers are seeking a six-month interim deal, which would include a suspension of Iran's 20 percent uranium enrichment in exchange for an easing of some international sanctions. During this time, the parties would work toward a lasting agreement. France has continued to take a hard line on Iran's nuclear program, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabrius said, "this agreement can only be possible based on firmness. For now the Iranians have not been able to accept the position of the six. I hope they will accept it."

Syria

According to U.S. intelligence officials, dozens of Americans have traveled, or attempted to travel, to Syria to fight alongside opposition forces against the regime since the uprising began in 2011. While the officials noted the number of Americans is small, this adds to concerns over the growing number of foreigners involved in the conflict. On Thursday, the British Foreign Office said it is investigating reports that several British citizens have died recently fighting among Islamic militant factions against government forces. The British government estimates between 200 and 300 Britons have joined the rebel fighters, and up to 20 of them are believed to have been killed in the conflict. The journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has accused the Syrian government of targeting media centers and news providers. According to the group, Mohamed Ahmed Taysir Bellou, from Syria's opposition Al-Shahba TV and Shahba Press Agency, was killed Tuesday while covering clashes between regime forces and rebel fighters in Aleppo. Additionally, the organization said over 20 Syrian news providers are being held hostage and 16 foreign journalists are either detained or missing. Syrian state-media reported two Jordanian writers were injured when a bomb hit their bus in the southern Daraa province. They had been on an official visit meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

Headlines

  • A truck bomb hit a market killing an estimated 27 people in the northeast Iraqi town of Sadiya Thursday in a surge of violence that has killed more than 5,500 people since April.
  • Turkish authorities arrested a man carrying a fake bomb in front of the prime ministry building in the capital of Ankara.
  • In an interview published Thursday, Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held open the possibility of a presidential bid

Arguments and Analysis

'Preparing for a Strategic Shift on U.S. Policy Toward Egypt' (Michael Wahid Hanna and Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress)

"In the United States, the policy debate on Egypt is often unfortunately reduced to a choice between continuing longstanding U.S. policies unchanged or abruptly cutting aid to Cairo altogether. The Obama administration split the difference between these polar opposites with unclear results. This move has delivered an opaque message to Egypt and the region. The current U.S. posture seems to give tacit assent to Egypt's military-led transitional authorities' current attempt to impose stability through a combination of repression with limited gestures at inclusiveness. This model does not seem sustainable; stability imposed by repression cannot be assured and may not be conducive in supporting Egyptian interests -- or, for that matter, those of the United States -- in the long run. It is not likely to produce the sort of sustainable security that helps spark economic growth and jobs, which is the ultimate challenge in a country where massive demographic, economic, and social problems are mounting.

The strategic rationale and context for U.S.-Egyptian bilateral ties have fundamentally changed. For decades since the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, the United States and Egypt worked together to advance regional security interests. During the last decade of the Cold War, Egypt was one partner in the broader U.S. effort to contain and check Soviet influence. Three decades later, the situation has completely changed; the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the Middle East has become a region filled with intense competition for influence among countries in the region with wealthier and better organized countries seeking to influence outcomes of political battles in more divided countries with less resources. This new strategic environment lends itself to policies that are muddled and lacking in clarity -- which the U.S. policy has exhibited to date. This approach may be pragmatic in the short run, but it is ultimately damaging to U.S. influence, interests, and values. The changed strategic context requires the United States to develop a new policy approach."

'Let's Make a Deal' (Thomas Friedman, New York Times)

"No, I don't begrudge Israel and the Arabs their skepticism, but we still should not let them stop a deal. If you're not skeptical about Iran, you're not paying attention. Iran has lied and cheated its way to the precipice of building a bomb, and without tough economic sanctions -- sanctions that President Obama engineered but which Netanyahu and the Arab states played a key role in driving -- Iran would not be at the negotiating table. I also understand the specific concerns of the Gulf Arabs, which I'd summarize as: 'It looks to us as if you want to do this deal and then get out of the region and leave behind an Iran that will only become economically more powerful, at a time when it already has enormous malign influence in Syria, Iraq, in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and in Bahrain.'

I get it, but I also don't think we'd just abandon them. In the long run, the deal Kerry is trying to forge with Iran is good for us and our allies for four reasons: 1) In return for very limited sanctions relief, the deal is expected to freeze all of Iran's nuclear bomb-making technologies, roll back some of them and put in place an unprecedented, intrusive inspection regime, while maintaining all the key oil sanctions so Iran will still be hurting aplenty. This way Iran can't ‘build a bomb and talk' at the same time (the way Israel builds more settlements while it negotiates with Palestinians). Iran freezes and rolls back part of its program now, while we negotiate a full deal to lift sanctions in return for Iran agreeing to restrictions that make it impossible for it to break out with a nuclear weapon. 2) While, Netanyahu believes more sanctions will get Iran to surrender every piece of its nuclear technology, Iran experts say that is highly unlikely. 3) Iran has already mastered the technology to make a bomb (and polls show that this is very popular with Iranians). There is no way to completely eliminate every piece of Iran's nuclear technology unless you wipe every brain clean there. 4) The only lasting security lies in an internal transformation in Iran, which can only come with more openness. Kerry's deal would roll back Iran's nuclear program, while also strengthening more moderate tendencies in Iran. Maybe that will go nowhere, or maybe it will lead to more internal changes. It's worth a carefully constructed test."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images