The leader of the newly-formed National Front for the Defence of Democracy, Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Dahmane, told IRIN national police had dispersed demonstrators on Thursday who turned out in support of the detained president.
“We just had our signs. And they their tear gas. We formed our group to advocate for a return to constitutional order. The junta authorises people to demonstrate in their favour, but try to silence us.”
Meanwhile, in a separate demonstration, hundreds took to the streets in support of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and former members of the president’s inner military circle who have declared themselves interim leaders after detaining President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi on Wednesday.
The Minister of Decentralisation, Yahya Ould Kebd, spoke with IRIN from Nouakchott, from where he did not go to his office as usual on Thursday, but rather, gathered with other Abdallahi supporters before they were dispersed.
“We condemn the anti-constitutional taking of power and still recognize the legitimacy of our first democratically-elected president. The military needs to resume its role of protecting the country.”
On Wednesday, soldiers barricaded the presidential palace and arrested President Abdallahi and Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghf after the president dismissed top members of his military inner circle.
These presidential guard elites have since declared power through a military council, led by Aziz, the former head of the presidential guard and key actor in the 2005 coup that ended 21 years of authoritarian rule.
Support for Change
Rokhaya Hamou, 45 years old, and a nurse at the Cheikh Zayed Hospital in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott, said she is relieved at the prospect of having someone new in power.
While she did not attend Thursday’s march in support of the military council, Hamou said she believes Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will be better for the country.
“Life has become so expensive since [President] Sidi [Ould Cheikh Abdallahi] took power. You never know how much fish is. You cannot find meat at the markets. He did not know what it takes to be a president and didn’t really care about the people.”
The arid desert country imports the majority of its food. World-wide food price hikes have affected Mauritania, where the price of rice has more than doubled in the past year.
In 2007, President Abdallahi became the first democratically-elected president since independence. His campaign promises included ending slavery, which persists despite several legal bans, and bringing home refugees who had fled ethnic violence in 1989.
“I voted for him,” Hamou said, “because he is a man of faith, older, wise, an intellectual. But these things don’t necessarily make for a good president and we need a change.”
When asked if she knows whether Aziz would make a good ruler she replied, “I have a good feeling about him. We will wait and see. We are a country with so much natural wealth, yet we are so poor. We really need someone who can help us. We are hoping he [Aziz] will be better. We hope because we have to.”
According to Oslo-based Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Mauritania has significant mineral deposits, including copper, iron and gold. Oil production started in February 2006, although yields were lower than anticipated.
Limam Mohamed Cheikh, a lawyer and member of the Mauritanian Association of Human Rights Lawyers, said the military has always held the real power, even after Mauritania’s carefully-monitored 2007 elections.
“I participated as an election observer …[Mohamed Ould Abdel] Aziz was personally responsible for Sidi [Ould Cheikh Abdallahi] becoming president. And though Abdallahi’s name was on the ballot, and he was elected in what I can confirm was a democratic and transparent election, it has always been Aziz who has had the power.”
Cheikh said he believes the government began unravelling when President Abdallahi attempted to part ways with Aziz, and in the lawyer’s words, “exercise actual presidential powers”.
The day-old military council has promised a free and fair presidential election, to be held soon, without giving further details.
Cheikh predicted that not much will change even with elections, “[Mohamed Ould Abdel] Aziz will either find another puppet, will recruit one of this military men to run, such as [post-coup transitional military leader from 2005-2007] Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, or will he himself stand for president.”
Cheikh added that though he disagrees with the coup d’état, if invited, he will once again participate as an election monitor.