A group of prominent Mauritanians who backed former president Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla in his failed bid to regain power in last year’s presidential election, filed papers for the creation of a new political party on Wednesday.
Opposition political sources said papers seeking to legalise Ould Haidalla’s new Party for Democratic Convergence were submitted to the Interior Ministry in the capital Nouakchott.
If the party is allowed to exist, it is likely to become a major opposition force to the ruling Republican Social Democratic Party of President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya who has been in power for the past 20 years.
Ould Haidalla was overthrown by Ould Taya in a 1984 coup, but he was officially declared runner-up to the incumbent head of state in the November 2003 presidential election, which the opposition denounced as riddled with fraud.
Haidalla and several of his supporters were arrested immediately after the poll and charged with plotting a coup. They were released a few weeks later.
Many of those backing Ould Haidalla’s new party are Islamic radicals, who have in the past been persecuted by Ould Taya’s government.
Ould Taya has banned faith-based parties in this staunchly Islamic country and has angered many of its three million people by establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
The leadership of Ould Haidalla’s new party also includes black Mauritanians from the south of this ethnically mixed desert country which forms an uneasy bridge between the Arab world and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Blacks have largely been excluded from the political mainstream in Mauritania. Since independence from France in 1961, the government has been dominated by fair-skinned Moors who are ethnically and culturally closer to the Arabs of the Mahgreb than to the people of the Sahel.
One group notably absent from the leadership of the new opposition party are the pro-Baathist politicians who supported Ould Haidalla’s election campaign last year.
The vice-president of the Party for Democratic Convergence is Mohamed Jemil Ould Mansour, the former mayor of the Arafat district of Nouakchott who has been tagged as an “Islamist” by the authorities.
He was arrested early last year during a government crackdown on politicians and religious leaders, but escaped from his prison cell during the confustion that surrounded an attempted coup June 2003.
Ould Mansour fled to neighouring Senegal and then to Belgium where he was granted political asylum. Returning to Mauritania shortly in January this year, he was arrested as he stepped off the plane in Nouakchott, but was released a few days later.
Significantly, the Arabic initials of Ould Haidalla’s new party read “El Hamd” which literally means “praise to God” in Arabic. This makes obvious to all Mauritanians the party’s implicit sympathy for the Islamic militants who would like to run the country along the lines of orthodox Islamic principles as they are spelt out in the Koran.
Local observers in Nouakchott said that if legalised by the government, the new party would provide a convenient cover for Islamic radicals to enter the political arena.
However, process of recognition could take several weeks and there was no guarantee that the government would allow the party to exist at all, they added.
“If the authorities want to reduce political tension and have a better grip on presumed external threats from the coup plotters, they had better approve the group,” one of the observers told IRIN.
If not, they could push “Haidalla’s friends”- that is how Mauritanians refer to the mixed group- to go underground and develop closer links with the coup plotters, he added.
That in turn could heighten anti-government sentiment in a country that is, according to Ahmed Ould Daddah, another opposition candidate in last year’s presidential election, is already at “boiling point.”
One Mauritanian observer said a compromise deal might also be possible. The government could recognize the party on condition that Ould Haidalla kick out of its leading members whom the authorities may deem “threatening”.
Ould Taya accused Islamic militants of plotting with soldiers to overthrow him in last year’s failed coup, which led to two days of heavy fighting in the capital.
About 125 members of the armed forces are in prison awaiting trial in connection with tlast year’s abortive military uprising and new arrests still continue.
Security sources said two senior officers of the paramilitary gendarmerie had been arrested in recent days for “having had contacts with the plotters”. A third gendarmerie officer had been placed under de-facto house arrest for the same reason, they added.
One of those arrested is Bahah Ould, the former commander of the gendarmerie brigade based in the southern town of Rosso on the Senegalese border. He is a relative of former army major Saleh Ould Hannena, the mastermind of last year’s coup attempt, who is still on the run.
The other detained officer is Mohamed Ould Ely who was head of the gendarmerie in Kaedi, another town on the Senegal border.