Most Americans — to the extent they are even familiar with Africa — can’t tell the difference between Mauritania and Mauritius. But the coup in Mauritania (a West African Muslim nation that straddles the divide between the Arab Middle East and Subsaharan Africa) will be the first real test for how the Bush Administration deals with reconciling its desire for democracy in the Muslim world with its strategic interests.
President Maaoya Sid Ahmed Taya was overthrown when he was in Saudi Arabia to attend the funeral of King Fahd. The army officers who organized the putsch have organized a provisional “Military Council for Justice and Democracy” (and stated that they will transfer power to open and transparent democratic institutions within two years). So far, so good. Sounds exactly like the type of scenario we would welcome in a number of Islamic states from Uzbekistan to Pakistan
But the rationale for the coup? Taya’s “totalitarian practices.” Seems that the Islamic establishment in Mauritania has been opposed to the government ever since Taya normalized relations with Israel six years ago (one of only three Arab League governments to do so). Since 9/11, Taya imprisoned a number of Islamist leaders and this past June the Mauritanian government blamed the Algerian “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat” — part of the global Al-Qaeda network — for a raid on a border outpost; the deposed government had been particularly concerned that local Islamists were forming connections to the Algerian organization and even trying to recruit members of the military.
Matthew Clark from the Christian Science Monitor reports in greater detail and also calls attention to U.S. Plans to try and train African militaries to cope with the threat posed by Al-Qaeda.
Nigeria welcomed the coup; the Guardian quotes a spokeswoman for President Olusegun Obasanjo stating, “As far as we are concerned, the days of tolerating military governance in our subregion or anywhere are long gone. We believe in democracy and we insist on democracy.”
So what will the United States do if the new Committee, in the name of democracy, breaks off diplomatic relations with Israel or begins releasing people that Washington believes are connected to Al-Qaeda?
Moreover, what is the ripple effect of the Mauritanian coup on other Islamic states where strongmen are engaged in halting managed reform — Taya, after all, was engaged in some political reform measures? Might Musharraf be deposed for the same legitimate reasons?
Perhaps the impact of Mauritania will be contained — after all, it is, to paraphrase Chamberlain, a small country far away, on the periphery of the Islamic world. Or maybe not.
— Nikolas Gvosdev