Coup in Mauritania causes Israel to delay new envoy

Army leaders announce a new junta which will be led by the head of the country's presidential guard.

mauritania mosque 224 (photo credit: Courtesy François Colin)
mauritania mosque 224
(photo credit: Courtesy François Colin)
Israel's new ambassador to Mauritania, Miki Arbel, will delay his departure to the northwest African country following the coup there Wednesday that led to the arrest of both the Mauritanian president and prime minister. Arbel had been slated to take up his position on Thursday following the departure of his predecessor, Boaz Bismuth, last week. Yigal Palmor, the former director of the Maghreb department at the foreign ministry and the incoming spokesman, said Israel was "following very closely the developments, and waiting for things to clear up." He said that Israel supported the democratic process in Mauritania that led to the election of the current president. Mauritania is the only other Arab League country besides Egypt and Jordan with which Israel has full diplomatic ties. Army officers upset with government overtures toward Islamic hard-liners staged the coup, overthrowing the first government to be freely elected in the sprawling desert nation in more than 20 years. The coup in Africa's newest oil producer took place after the president and prime minister fired the country's top four military officials, reportedly for supporting lawmakers who had accused the president of corruption and disagreed with the way in which he had been reaching out to Islamic hard-liners. A brief announcement read over state television Wednesday said the new "state council" will be led by presidential-guard chief Gen. Muhammad Ould Abdel Aziz, one of the four fired generals. The statement also restored the jobs of the other three generals. President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was being held by renegade soldiers at the presidential palace in Nouakchott, according to presidential spokesman Abdoulaye Mamadouba, who added that soldiers had also detained Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waqef. State radio and television went off the air as the coup began and witnesses said soldiers had been deployed throughout the capital. No violence was reported. The African Union condemned the coup and said it would send an envoy to the Mauritanian capital later this week. The AU's top official, Jean Ping, said in a statement that the organization "demands the restoration of constitutional legality." Straddling the western edge of the Sahara desert, Arab-dominated Mauritania, with a population of 3.4 million, has been wracked by more than 10 coups or attempted coups since achieving independence from France in 1960. While most of its people live on about $5 a day, oil reserves were discovered in Mauritania in 2006. The country was rocked in 2007 by back-to-back attacks including one that killed four French tourists and another near the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott. The government had blamed those attacks on an Islamic terror cell allied with al-Qaida. Aziz also masterminded the country's last coup in 2005, which was popular locally and ended a long dictatorship. That coup paved the way for the first truly democratic elections in two decades in 2007, which Abdallahi won. Aziz had backed Abdallahi in last year's vote, But Abdallahi had angered Aziz and his backers by opening a dialogue with Islamic hard-liners, who had been accused of ties to an al-Qaida-affiliated terror network believed to be operating in northern Africa. Abdallahi also released several alleged terror suspects from prison. Abdallahi, a devout Muslim, also came under criticism for using public funds to build a mosque on the grounds of the presidential complex. Lawmakers had also demanded an investigation into allegations of corruption and misuse of public funds by his wife. The country's latest political crisis began in May after Abdallahi appointed 12 ministers, some of whom had been accused of corruption and all of whom had held prominent posts in the government of the former president, Maaouya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya, who had been ousted in the 2005 coup. In June, lawmakers introduced a no-confidence vote against the president and called for his resignation, but Abdallahi survived. On Wednesday, lawmaker Muhammad Al Mukhtar told the Arab network Al-Jazeera that many people supported Wednesday's takeover. He described the government as "an authoritarian regime" and asserted the president had "marginalized the majority in parliament." The country's military is widely believed to be pro-Western, neither in the hands of the Islamists nor the Communists. Israeli diplomatic officials said that at this time there were no plans to evacuate the small Israeli embassy in Nouakchott. The officials said there were no other Israelis known to be living in the country. The US embassy urged Americans in Mauritania "to exercise extreme caution" and to remain at home or in their hotel for the day. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said measures had been taken to protect the safety of French citizens in Mauritania. Israel and Mauritania have had diplomatic relations since 1996, and exchanged ambassadors in 1999. These ties have survived the various bouts of political turmoil in the African country, as well as pressure from other Arab League states for Mauritania to cut its ties with Israel. Abdallahi was at first a critic of relations with Israel, Israeli officials said, but came around to understanding the benefit accruing to Mauritania from the relationship. The officials said the relationship was good for Mauritania because it represented a connection with the West, and was good for promoting the country's modernization. As an apparent sign of Abdallahi's recognition of the utility of the ties with Israel, he met with the outgoing Israeli ambassador last Thursday in a send-off meeting.