Thousands of Mauritanians called for the return of the country's toppled civilian president in the biggest pro-democracy rally since last August's military coup. Mauritania's military rulers lifted a ban on demonstrations ahead of a meeting in Paris Friday with European and African leaders.
Parliament Speaker Messoude Ould Boulkhaire told the rally that military ruler General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will never be president of Mauritania because soldiers have failed the country for more than three decades.
Boulkhaire rejected the general's plans for new elections in June, saying the only acceptable way forward is the return to power of toppled civilian President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdellahi. The nation's first freely-elected leader was overthrown when he tried to fire General Aziz last August.
The general says restoring President Abdellahi now would not serve the greater interests of the Mauritanian people. So he wants to change the constitution to allow soldiers to run for office because he says that best reflects what he calls Mauritania's new political and cultural reality. General Aziz is widely expected to run for president in June but has not publicly announced his candidacy.
The African Union (AU) has suspended Mauritania and placed a travel ban on civilian and military members of its ruling council.
The secretary general of the ruling council, Colonel Ahmedou Bemba Ould Baye says the path the military has chosen for Mauritania is irreversible. He says AU sanctions not only fail to recognize what he says are the positive developments since last year's coup but also the military's willingness to work toward a return to constitutional order.
While the military says it has the resources to weather tougher sanctions, it is moving to avoid a broader embargo following the suspension of most assistance from the World Bank and former-colonial-power France. The United States is blocking $15 million in military cooperation, more than $4 million in peacekeeping training, and $3 million in development assistance.
Part of the military government's strategy to avoid tougher international action appears to include allowing Thursday's rally, the first since public demonstrations were banned shortly after the coup. A press release from the Nouakchott district governor's office says it may end the ban that was introduced by the military for security reasons.
The decision comes a day before Friday's meeting in Paris between the African Union, the European Union, and representatives of both the toppled civilian government and the current military regime.
Protest organizer Abdel Koudousse Ebeidna says pro-democracy activists want the international community to isolate Mauritiania's military rulers until they agree to restore President Abdellahi to power.
"What we ask from the international community is just to apply what has been written in the treaties. And that is all. Really, we are not asking more. Just to respect democracy and the wish of the people. And you can see clearly today that the people refuse the coup," he said.
The U.S. State Department says attempts to silence President Abdellahi and the military's plans to hold unconstitutional elections in June violate democratic norms.