#m25fev Protest: Valuable Lessons

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ImageToday’s #m25fev combined protest in Nouakchott scored a massive moral victory over the violence and repression of the ruling military regime. Today was the second anniversary of the mass protest which took place in Mauritania amid the chain of similar uprising across the Arab world that began in late 2010. Once again, crowds rallied in a piece of ground known as “the blocks”. This square is the symbolic home of contemporary protest in Mauritania’s capital; a piece of prime real estate that belongs to the people, but which the Aziz regime sold off to private investors and state-owned operations in a series of opaque deals.

In one glorious act of peaceful but defiant protest to claim their rights, this assembly of youth from several different movements and political opposition groups demonstrated a vital fact for supporters, detractors, or the increasing army of observers: if Mauritania was being governed justly, the state would not resort to the level of aggression being handed out today against peaceful, unarmed protesters.

More than delivering undeniable proof of the regime’s precarious grip on power and its lack of self-confidence, what we witnessed was a historic moment for non-violent protest: after attacking the crowds with volleys of tear gas, sound grenades, batons and physical violence, and then dragging protesters to the confines of the local Security HQ for a beating, the police were forced to stand down. The protesters stood their ground while retaining their dignified, peaceful, composure, even in the face of brutality.

m25fev down but not out

Med Abdou being hard-tackled to the ground by a police officer during his arrest

Protesters engaged with the police, swarming around their vehicles, talking and drawing them into debate, reminding them of their commonalities; explaining that they did not have any quarrel with them. They also offered practical help to more than one officer overcome by the effects of the tear gas, swilling their stinging eyes out with cola, and sharing face masks.

m25fev - peaceful engagement

Hussein practising peaceful engagement – note the police officer’s mask – a gift from m25fev!

Everyone played their part wonderfully well, but I think the innovation award has to go to m25fev organiser Abdel Fetah Ould Habib. He went toe-to-toe with not one but several police officers, embracing them and planting a brotherly kiss on their cheeks. And, he tells me, some officers even took it upon themselves to make the first move!

m25fev - a brotherly hug

Abdel Fetah demonstrating beyond doubt there is no enmity between m25fev and the police

 

As this video shows…

…it wasn’t all hugs and kisses – Abdel Fetah took quite a beating when a dozen police pounced on him and dragged him off to detention. There were perhaps a dozen activists detained in total, but they were all released relatively quickly and returned to the protest site.  Then, something remarkable happened. For the first time in the history of this struggle between protest and repression in Mauritania, the protesters won!

The fear had already been broken back in 2011, and 2012 had been a year of protests, campaigns, consolidation and confidence-building. It had also been a year when the movement reached out to other groups. Monday’s march was not the first fruit of this networking initiative: another joint protest took place a little earlier, in association with groups demanding the remission of a law granting amnesty to the perpetrators of the racial genocide from 30 years ago. This ability to mix and meld across social and political strata is a powerful tactic which provides a power-boost to civil and political activism. At the same time, it defends against one of the regime’s favourite tools of repression – sowing discord and impeding progress by playing groups off against each other.

m25fev - persuasive persistent resistance

m25fev organiser Ahmed Ebih making a persuasive argument

As the evening approached and the protest came a close there was a definite charge in the atmosphere, as if the significance of the day’s higher meaning was beginning to sink in. Even the problems with gangs of troublemakers that soured the RDF opposition party rally that evening in the courtyard of Ibn Abbass mosque couldn’t dim the spark. News of the event dominated online social network updates and gained coverage on local TV, radio and websites.

The slogans and banners spoke of the “Day of Rights”, and the motto of the day is surely “right defeats might”.

There are masses more great images on the February 25 Movement’s Facebook page, on Twitter under the #m25fev tag, and a few more videos of the event here:

#Mauritania Snippets: Protests, #Slavery, Intrigue, #HumanRights Violations

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A man sentenced to two years in prison by the criminal justice system on slavery charges was released on bail by the Mauritania supreme court without reference to the defendant. The action has been condemned by a large group of anti-slavery and human rights organisations.

Anti-slavery campaigner IRA has accused an accountant working in the Mauritanian embassy in Paris of having brought a young enslaved girl into the country. The allegations have been denied and IRA suggests the girl may have been trafficked out of France.

The suspiciously-timed recent Imam revelations – first, the Saudi cleric suggesting followers of Islam could make penance for atonement by purchasing freedom for slaves in Mauritania; second, the Imam Sheikh Dedew in Mauritania saying slavery doesn’t exist in the country – have had the desired effect, and are creating a rift in the opposition with claims of racism etc being bandied about. This is strongly reminiscent of the “Touche Pas” racism schism I saw being manufactured out of thin air exactly one year ago. Sad part is, people will fall for it again despite themselves.

Transport drivers who began a protest on Sunday blocked to road from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott today, some threatening to burn their vehicles unless licence applications were processed efficiently and without prejudice, and others saying they would begin a hunger strike. By this afternoon there was a 200-vehicle tailback.


[pic: Nouadhibou protest]
In Nouadhibou itself, activists protested outside the Moroccan consulate for two hours against remarks made by one of their delegation which suggested Mauritania was a vassal of the Moroccan state.

The trend of multiple “youth” opposition groups has apparently spread from Nouakchott to Nouadhibou. Quite tiring trying to keep up with all the different groups at the moment, but I expect it will begin to consolidate before too long.

The suicide rate continues to rise alarmingly. The latest is a doctor in Nouakchott, who allegedly died after injecting himself with a drug and then severing an artery.

There are also at least two recent unexplained deaths, to add to the case of the taxi driver found beaten to death in Adrar a couple of months ago.

Police are warning car dealers in Nouakchott not to sell or discard used tires, in an apparent bid to block the fashion seen in recent protests to pile burning tires in the roads. I personally hope they are successful, as I am not a fan of these anti-environmental and rather juvenile acts.

The last of the detained “MJM” activists arrested Friday 20 April have been released from jail.

The UNEM students union held another protest today against the “militarization” of the campus and the general disregard by the administration for student rights.

High school students also protested again demanding.. nothing terribly specific.. I think free transport was on the list at one point. The note I read today mentioned “sector reform” and “improved conditions for students”. Not terribly convincing, makes them look like just another wannabe movement.

The Islamists are raising their game in the race to topple Aziz, putting forward a spokesperson, described by AFP as “one of the protest organisers, Mohamed Fadel of the moderate Islamist party Tewassoul.” I assume they are hoping to force Aziz out, install an interim leadership and then accede to power via the ballot box. Whether they can succeed remains to be seen, but I hope their solution matches what the majority of people want. Certainly it would be appropriate to quiz Tawassoul on their intentions regarding key concerns and critical issues.

Tawassoul also organised a protest in Guerou on Sunday, which is no big deal, as the residents there are already well-organised and never needed any encouragement before: they have frequently protested for water and electricity supplies.

A local journalist was detained by police in the early hours of Monday morning on arrival at Nouakchott airport from Morocco. On Sunday, members of the Mauritanian media protested against police harassment and violent repression of the press. Meanwhile, the massive march on Sunday came to a stop outside the office of the national TV station.

In a glittering example of how France doesn’t really believe in “independence” from French colonialism (or any other brand) the Foreign ministry saw fit to pronounce on how the opposition in Mauritania should return to dialogue and follow the accords of the Dakar agreement – that would be a first from anyone – and that the government should respect the right to peaceful assembly. It sounds more convincing when Hillary Clinton says it.

Mauritania’s Feb25 Movement 1st Anniversary

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The movement of February 25 in Mauritania celebrated it’s first anniversary with a peaceful demonstration in the capital, Nouakchott.

What marks the major difference between protests organised by m25fev and other activist groups, such as the students of ISERI for example, is their total commitment to non-violence, even in the face of extreme provocation. In the year since the birth of the movement this group has had to contend with many difficulties and disadvantages, including threats, harassment, competitors, imitators, smear campaigns and infiltrators.


The original idea was a march, beginning at the National Hospital and proceeding to the Presidential Palace. Plans and invitations were passed along by SMS, word of mouth, posters, flyers and of course using the website, FaceBook page and Twitter.  Some activists also took advantage of shared taxi journeys (a common feature of daily life in Mauritania) to spread word. The police, continuing the pattern of attacking any and all protests with violence, were positioned in large numbers – about 1000 according to some estimates – around the hospital. Police also set up roadblocks in all directions.

The result of police action prevented some people from gathering but a large contingent did manage to gather at the hospital. There were verbal confrontations with police from the outset, and some dramatic incidents:

  • one of the local Police Commissioners tried to run a protester down with his vehicle while police constantly kettled and dispersed activists and confiscated their mobile phones and cameras
  • after making a few arrests, police surrounded a mosque which activists entered to attend early evening prayers
  • once prayers were over the police violence increased and journalists from Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Sahara Media were harassed and had their cameras confiscated. At least one reporter was detained
  • believing they had neutralized both professional and citizen media the police further increased their aggression with a barrage of tear gas, percussion grenades and physical abuse using batons, fists, and boots.
  • the hospital was surrounded, and all exits sealed before the tear gas was used.
  • some patients inside the hospital were affected by the tear gas
  • at least one residence was hit by tear gas grenades
  • About 40 people were injured and a total of 17 arrests and some subsequent releases were reported throughout the demonstration, which lasted several hours.
  • at least one activist was taken to the city limits and stranded there by police
  • opposition MPs joined activists at the police headquarters to demand the release of remaining detainees, and all were freed after a few hours.
  • while in custody activists were questioned about their family or tribal ties and political affiliations

Despite all of the above, the day was a resounding victory for the movement from a moral and organisational standpoint.

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A Lesson in Courage and Determination from Mauritania

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Physical disability is a fact of life for millions, yet it makes many able-bodied people feel uncomfortable. Protest movements could learn a great deal from people with disabilities. From the moment that “sticker” is attached to their life, the disabled must struggle against a lack of freedom, the curtailment of privacy, and denial of their rights. Their experience – being ignored, disliked, feared, misunderstood – should strike a chord with everyone in every protest movement.

Do you contemplate joining a protest but feel shy, apprehensive, afraid? Perhaps you think you are not “that type” of person, the youthful romantic hero climbing a lamp post, flag fluttering between his perfect teeth.

Here are two very active and able members of the February 25 Movement in Mauritania, Ahmed and Rafiq. When I have doubts about my abilities, I think of these guys, and many others like them. They inspire me, I hope they might do the same for you.