The latest in a series of protests by the students of the Islamic Institute in Nouakchott, echoed by similar protests in other regional institutes in Mauritania, took place on Wednesday 22 February. It seems the government hoped to defuse the tension, despite still holding about 30 students in detention, announcing on Tuesday 22 February denying that they ever planned to close the college. The students were not impressed or mollified and their Day of Rage went ahead. Elsewhere in Mauritania other protests were taking place, such as in Boutilimit, where students need internet and electricity to help support their studies.
Despite the choice of name, the ISERI Day of Rage march started out peacefully as intended, with students chanting “peaceful, peaceful, peaceful”. But the police once again surrounded the college and nearby streets, firing tear gas and attacking the students with batons. Dozens of students were injured, including one who lost consciousness after being shot in the chest multiple times by either tear gas or rubber bullets. He was last reported in critical condition in the hospital. Another student had his arm broken, and a third was beaten and dragged face down across the ground before being bundled into a police wagon. One protester was run over by police who were chasing him; and from the hospital, there were reports of police storming into the emergency room in search of students. I saw reports of about a dozen students being arrested, though some were later released.
After a few hours the police withdrew, saying they had run out of tear gas. The ISERI students counted their losses and took care of injured comrades before calling a press conference to condemn the brutality of the police response to their peaceful protest. They are considering changing their goals to demand the resignation of the director and principal of the institute. While they were in the presser, one of the marginally popular independent news websites in Mauritania tried to start a rumour that president Ould Abdel Aziz has said he would not run in the next presidential election. Most people I saw commenting found this entirely predictable and it bore the brunt of many jokes.
Video of the protest:
The ISERI protests have an interesting history. They sparked seemingly out of nowhere the day before the visit Emir of Qatar visited Mauritania, on January 5, 2012. You might remember the bizarre and groundless rumour about Aziz and the Emir having fallen out. The way the police reacted so violently to the protests from the very start was a marked change from their previous behaviour.
This evening there was an interview about ISERI on Al Jazeera – surely by now a rite of passage for every protest movement.
I read more than one report from those who watched the broadcast that it seemed to show the students in a negative light. This should not come as any surprise given that there was no student representative in the Al Jazeera studio. There are always mixed reactions to any Al Jazeera coverage of protests, and this was no exception. Wednesday just happened to be the day that Mauritania launched a new satellite TV channel on ArabSat, “Chinguetti TV”. Based in Saudi Arabia, ArabSat was founded in 1976 by the 21 member states of the Arab League (there are now 22) and also carries Al Jazeera channels.
I include these points because it is worth considering whether there is any connection between the seemingly unrelated events of the Emir’s visit; the ISERI protests; the unusually violent police response; and the very occasional Al Jazeera coverage potentially being slanted against the students, and being broadcast on the same day that satellite TV was made available to a wider audience inside Mauritania.