Since Abdel Aziz became a civilian president, critics inside and outside Mauritania have charged that military control of Mauritania's government has not ended, but merely changed form. Such criticism intensified during the Arab Spring, when Mauritanian protesters in the "February 25" movement -- so named for the date of their first street protest -- made the military's withdrawal from politics one of their core demands. The demand in and of itself cast doubt on the authenticity of Abdel Aziz's claims to civilian status.
After the shooting, opposition politicians and activists reiterated demands for the military to leave politics. Army Chief of Staff General Mohamed Ould Ghazouani acted as head of state during Abdel Aziz's absence, a situation that occasioned outcry. At an opposition rally in the capital of Nouakchott on November 1, Khadiata Malik Diallo of the Union of the Forces of Progress stated, "The soldiers held the power for more than 40 years, and today it's not just a coincidence if everyone thinks it's the army chief of staff who has the power." Other opposition leaders, such as Jamil Mansour of the Islamist Tewassoul Party, made similar statements. On November 6, activists from the February 25 movement distributed 10,000 fliers denouncing "dictatorship." Some commentators saw the episode of Abdel Aziz's absence as one that, in Professor Boubacar N'diaye's words, "reveals [a] military regime parading as a democracy."
The return of Abdel Aziz renders the debate about who rules Mauritania, for the time being, moot. But the February 25 movement's charges of continued military dominance, and the anxiety generated by Abdel Aziz's time away from Mauritania, point to deep uncertainties about the solidity of civilian institutional frameworks in Mauritania. Problematically, the 2006 Mauritanian constitution gives little detail regarding the mechanisms for transferring executive authority in the event of a president's incapacity. As the blog The Moor Next Door reported, while the president was away, different actors proposed different solutions to the "constitutional vacuum" in Mauritania, including a constitutional amendment to clarify succession mechanisms, the installation of a vice president, and the election of a transitional president by parliament. The opposition pushed for a transition, not only organizing demonstrations but also forming committees to reach out to civil society, political parties, and other actors. No one seemed to know what should or would happen, but key political actors openly debated the mechanics of a post-Abdel Aziz transition in new ways. When Mauritania faces its next political crisis, expect debate over the military's role in politics -- and calls for that role to diminish -- to resurface.
Abdel Aziz is back, but he returns to a political landscape that has subtly shifted. As he reasserts his domestic leadership, outsiders will also be watching how he approaches the ongoing crisis in neighboring Mali. Mauritania is not a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which plans to deploy soldiers to Mali in 2013. Abdel Aziz stated in August that Mauritania would not intervene in Mali, and in an interview with Radio France Internationale the day before his return home, he avoided committing himself to any particular course on Mali. While regional and international powers might desire Mauritania's active backing for an intervention in Mali, Abdel Aziz may continue to keep Mauritania on the sidelines.