Can Mauritania’s President Survive Both Coup-Plotters and al-Qaeda?
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 hardliners 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 Elysée Palace. “I am fine, I am starting to recover,” he told reporters afterwards. “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 came to power himself 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 Marseille, who keeps close contact with politicians in his 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.”