Mauritanian leader warns citizens against voting for Islamists
NOUAKCHOTT - Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz criss-crossed the country to rally support for his ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party ahead of parliamentary, mayoral and regional elections on Saturday that are expected to be among the most competitive in the country’s history.
Speaking to supporters in major towns across the country, Ould Abdel Aziz warned of the dangers of Islamism which, he said, has caused "the ruin and destruction of nations wealthier and stronger than Mauritania."
Mauritania, which votes September 1, one day after the 2-week campaign ended, has a record 98 parties fielding candidates for the 157-member parliament.
In addition, some 1,500 lists are competing for seats in the 219 municipalities and 150 other lists are competing for the 13 regional councils.
Though Ould Abdel Aziz has said he plans to leave office next year, he left no doubt in campaign speeches that he was not going to be a neutral bystander in the election and warned that the country could plunge into instability or violence if Islamist parties are voted in.
“These extremist parties are responsible for ruining Arab societies and Arab nations. We are hearing them here speaking in the name of Islam and Islam is our religion and not for them to exploit it in politics and collect money,” he said August 30.
Ould Abdel Aziz dismissed the idea that there are moderates among Islamists.
“Proponents of political Islam are all extremists,” he said. “Activists of the political Islamist parties are extremists. They take up weapons when they fail to achieve their objectives and goals by political ways.
“The Islamist politicians who are wearing ties could switch to violence by taking up arms if they do not reach their aims through politics.”
Ould Abdel Aziz warned that the country could suffer the same fate as Syria and Libya, where, he said, Islamists had co-opted popular uprisings to entrench their ideology.
“Muslim Brotherhood parties and other Islamists caused the ruin and destruction of nations wealthier and stronger than Mauritania,” he said. “We must block the route to them. We must shut the door before them in the elections to shield our nation and protect our society.”
Ould Abdel Aziz threw himself into the centre of the campaign at rallies in some of the country’s largest towns, hammering the message that “a crushing majority in parliament is the only weapon to ensure stability and continuity of this regime.”
The Islamist National Rally for Reform and Development -- also known as Tewassoul -- is the main rival to the president’s UPR party and has one of the most loyal bases of support among leading political groups.
Tewassoul was one of the few parties after UPR to run candidates for the parliament, municipalities and regional councils.
Tewassoul’s senior official Mohamed Jamil Ould Mansour said his party is committed to peace and democracy and criticised the president’s statements.
“We are used to the regime’s changing stance towards us from crackdown, to tolerance of us and to cooperation with us,” Ould Mansour said. “The statement of the president betrays a president who is frightened and worried about the outcome of the elections where the competition is fierce. As a result, he is resorting to all weapons against his opponents and rivals.
“We know who took up arms to assassinate democracy and who staged a coup against an elected president and used force to change the will of the people,” he added, in reference to the 2008 military coup that put Ould Abdel Aziz in power.
That coup deposed elected Mauritanian President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. Ould Abdel Aziz was elected president in 2009 with 52.6% of the vote. He won re-election in 2014, taking 81.9% of the vote.
Many observers voiced surprise that Ould Abdel Aziz so enthusiastically positioned himself at the centre of the campaign. Opposition leaders accused the president of planning to extend his stay in power by using what he hopes will be a “crushing majority” by his party in parliament.
Ould Abdel Aziz, 61, has stated that he plans to step down next year at the end of his second term, countering claims that he could move to scrap presidential term limits and extend his tenure.
Shrugging off the opposition’s concerns about his campaigning, the president said: “I feel the country is in danger if I do not trump for the party. I decided to campaign to stand against extremist parties that destroyed Arab society in some Arab countries. These parties use Islam to take power.”
Ould Abdel Aziz also took part in a nationwide drive to field members and strengthen the UPR, which dominates parliament and local governments. UPR claims to have 1.1 million registered members, out of a total 1.4 million eligible voters.
Analysts said the president was likely to be replaced by a leader of his choosing from the UPR, whose members include top government, military and security officials. Army Chief of Staff General Mohamed Ould al Ghazouani and former Army Colonel al Cheikh Oulbey, both of whom are closely linked to the president, are considered among the most likely successors.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.