Path to inclusive democracy

Slavery is still a reality in Mauritania. However, a new order might be imminent. Political representatives of the vulnerable Haratin ethnic group have become important actors and President Abdel Aziz has opened the way for a more inclusive democracy, says Rachid Benlabbah, guest researcher at NAI.

“There was a common element in all my interviews – the urge for a peaceful society. Mauritanians have endured conflicts for so long that there is now a strong desire to resolve conflicts without violence,” says Benlabbah.

Benlabbah will return to Mauritania this autumn, and is focusing on one of the political driving forces, the Haratin, represented by the party IRA. A substantial number of this ethnic group are used as slave labour. According to a report by the Australian Walk Free Foundation, one out of every 25 Mauritanians is a slave.

“Representatives of the Haratin, along with moderate Islamists and the political party representing the ethnic groups in the south of the country are the new players in Mauritanian politics,” says Benlabbah.

Support from the Islamists

The Haratin are also supported by the Islamist Tawassoul movement, which even tacitly assented when Haratin activists burned Islamic law books legitimising slavery.

The political branch of Tawassoul, which has the support of the urban middle class, promotes democracy and advocates parliamentarianism in lieu of the current presidential regime. It even wants to remove sharia from the constitution.

Deterred by events in Mali and Libya

The third player is the political party that has emerged from FLAM, the resistance movement formed when people in southern Mauritania were driven from their land into exile as a result of ethnic conflict. Nowadays, this group favours peaceful reform of the centralised French-model state, and the adoption of autonomous regions.

“Ethnic identity is the main issue in Mauritania and it’s very sensitive because ethnicity has caused many conflicts. However, FLAM doesn’t aim for independence, and is deterred by what has happened in Mali and Libya. Spain is a model,” says Benlabbah.

Pragmatic and tactical

President Aziz has cautiously opened the way for a dialogue with the opposition.

“He is pragmatic and tactical, and is aware of the need for a new political dispensation in Mauritania. So far his talks have been informal, but his counterparts are demanding more institutionalised dialogue,” says Benlabbah.

The president has begun his second term. Now is the time for him to prove that he is serious about reaching out to find solutions to the many social, economic and ethnic issues that are part of the Mauritanian reality, concludes Benlabbah.

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