Mauritania Islamist party Tewassoul elects new leader

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Mauritania’s fast-growing Islamist party Tewassoul has elected a new leader expected to consolidate the direction of a party whose message of pious adherence to Sharia law has attracted more than 100,000 members.

Tewassoul is Mauritania’s largest opposition party with 16 members in the national assembly, earning support across the conservative West African republic, where Islamist parties were banned for many years.

Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Seyidi, a theologist in his 60s, was selected late Sunday by 80 percent of delegates at a party conference to replace the charismatic Jemil Ould Mansour, who has driven the party’s popularity since its creation in 2009.

Tewassoul describe themselves as “moderate Islamists”, subscribing to democratic principles while also adhering to strict Islamic principles governing all aspects of life.

Seyidi is known for his “piety, openness and his ability to mediate,” according to a close friend, and is not expected to stray far from the policies espoused by Mansour, who was his former classmate.

Both were imprisoned for leading an Islamist movement under the regime of Maaouiya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya (1984-2005), and Seyidi currently serves as a Tewassoul MP.

Mauritania has in recent years cracked down on radical Islamists and extremists who once operated more freely in the country, while opening a space for moderate faith-based movements to join conventional politics.

The US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted last year however that “relative to its population size, no other country in the Sahel and Sahara region produces as many radical ideologues and high-ranking terrorist operatives as Mauritania does”.