Can Mauritania’s President Survive Both Coup Plotters and al-Qaeda?

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French President François Hollande, left, welcomes Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz before a meeting at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Nov. 20, 2012

For Presidents, one rule of thumb for political survival is not to leave your country for too long, especially if you are thinking of waging a regional war against al-Qaeda militants. That seemed to be the thinking for Mauritania’s leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, when he emerged on Tuesday, nearly six weeks after being shot in the stomach back home and airlifted to France for surgery — complicating the West’s plans for a military assault against Islamic hard-liners across Mauritania’s border in northern Mali. Having vanished from sight since Oct. 14, Aziz, looking somewhat drawn and thin, met French President François Hollande at the Élysée Palace. “I am fine, I am starting to recover,” he told reporters afterward. “I have the intention to return quickly, in the next days.”

Aziz had better hope he returns in time. During his long recuperation in Paris, his rivals have begun to plot their future without the President, who himself came to power in a political coup in 2008. Officials from within the ruling circle recently met with opposition parties, in an attempt to piece together a post-Aziz plan. And the biggest opposition party has called a national day of protest for Wednesday, in a move to declare Aziz’s four-year rule over. The official government version of Aziz’s shooting on Oct. 13 was that a soldier had fired at the presidential convoy by accident while Aziz was traveling on a country road. But many Mauritanians are incredulous, speculating instead that the shooting involved a dispute between the President and another man over a woman. No matter the cause, Aziz’s absence has provided his foes with a chance to try to remove him. “The people have been preparing to get him out of power,” says Hacen Ould Lebatt, a French-Mauritanian journalist in the French city of Marseille, who keeps close contact with politicians in his home country. “If people had not seen him today, it would be very easy for them to meet tomorrow and say, ‘He’s not coming back,’” Lebatt says. “President Hollande has saved him.”

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France (as well as the U.S.) has good reasons to try to save Aziz’s presidency. Mauritania, a large, oil-rich northwest African country adjoining Mali, is a crucial player in the West’s plans to dislodge al-Qaeda allies in control of northern Mali. After a military coup in Mali last March overthrew the government in Bamako, a coalition of Tuareg groups and an affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, seized control of two-thirds of the country, effectively splitting one of the West’s closest allies in West Africa into two. Since then, thousands of Malians have fled to Mauritania, escaping, by their account, an oppressive Islamic stranglehold back home. A stringent form of Shari‘a has taken hold, with music banned and women forbidden to walk in the streets without a male relative.

For the West, the fear is that northern Mali’s vast desert terrain could become a training ground and operational base for terrorist groups seeking to launch attacks against nearby Europe; AQIM leaders in northern Mali have already made clear they plan to target Westerners if Europe and the U.S. backs a military invasion. Meanwhile, Hollande is desperate to see six French hostages freed after months in captivity in northern Mali.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council gave African leaders 45 days — until early December — to come up with a military plan to force AQIM and its allies out of the territory and reunite Mali. The plan aims to deploy about 3,300 West African troops, perhaps early next year, after intensive military training by the U.S. and France, in which the West would also provide logistics and intelligence. But Algeria, the biggest military player in the region by far, has so far refused to back the invasion plan, rebuffing pleas by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others. And last week, General Carter Ham, who heads the U.S. military’s Africa Command, admitted to students in Paris that the military strategy was “extremely difficult.”

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With Algeria sitting out the conflict, Mauritania is perhaps the West’s only hope of military involvement by an Arab country, as well as by one of Mali’s direct neighbors. “Without Mauritania, this could be blacks vs. Arabs,” Lebatt says.

Once Aziz returns home, his most urgent decision is likely to be whether to go to war against al-Qaeda — that is, if he is able to stay in power. While it would please France, which has extensive business ties with the country, deploying his soldiers would be deeply unpopular among Mauritanians, according to Nasser Weddady, a Mauritanian exile in Boston, whose Twitter feed acts as an ongoing news service on his country’s political dramas. “No one in Mauritania wants to go to war in Mali,” he tweeted on Tuesday after Aziz met Hollande in Paris. In another tweet he wrote, “If Aziz comes back to Mauritania & gives the order to go fight in Mali, he will be either deposed, shot or both by his own military.” That shooting, if it occurs, is unlikely to be brushed off by the government as an accident.