Today’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.
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.
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!
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.
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”.