NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — As night fell, young women seemed to soar through the streets of this capital city, riding side-saddle on open car windows, their melhefa veils whipping behind them.
“Aziz, Aziz,” they chanted to a symphony of jubilant car horns.
Eleven months after toppling Mauritania’s first freely elected leader in a military coup, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz claimed victory in the presidential elections on July 19. A week later, the election results are still contested. On July 24 the head of Mauritania's electoral commission resigned, saying he was suspicious of the results.
Despite opposition denunciations of the poll as a fraud-ridden “electoral coup,” Aziz is firmly in charge, imposing a moderate Muslim government on this sprawling desert country that straddles sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab countries of North Africa.
The retired general built up a strong support base, particularly among Mauritania's poor. He vowed to crack down on Islamic extremists, including Al Qaeda, which is blamed for attacks on foreign tourists.
Aziz faced nine candidates who divided the opposition vote. He won with 52 percent of the votes, according to the Ministry of Interior, with the nearest opposition candidate a distant second at 16.3 percent. The results are to be confirmed by the constitutional court.
Opposition candidates lost little time condemning the vote as an “electoral charade," held merely to legitimize last August’s coup. The election could be reduced to two sides: pro-coup versus anti-coup or, as the opposition put it: democracy versus dictatorship.
The opposition urged the international community to investigate irregularities they say include opposition ballots being counted for Aziz, multiple votes cast by military members and payments given in exchange for casting pre-marked ballots.
Mauritania has experienced 10 coups or attempted coups since independence from France in 1960. Slavery was only outlawed in 1980, and the country remains fractured by tribal loyalties and racism.
The population of Nouakchott, a capital city that resembles a strip mall more than a thriving metropolis, has boomed since the 1970s, as droughts forced urbanization on the country’s previously nomadic tribes.
Mauritania's sprawling desert landscape is sparsely populated and almost half its 3 million people are illiterate and live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations.
Aziz ran a populist campaign, calling himself the “President of the poor” and promising to improve health care and reduce food and fuel prices. In more repressive statements, he vowed to build more prisons to jail his political opponents, who he said were corrupt.
“We support Aziz because we need security. He was military. He has the power to make security in this country,” said Baba Bakay, an out-of-work tourist guide in Rosso, a rural town on the Senegalese border.
Increased Al Qaeda activity, including the killings of French tourists in December 2007 and an American aid worker in Nouakchott last month, have hit the tourism industry hard, Bakay said, and he hopes Aziz’s military prowess will be able to reassure potential visitors.
Aziz justified last August’s coup as a defense of democracy, accusing then president Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi of corruption, leniency toward extreme Islamists and complacency toward the growing terrorist threat.
Aziz had been campaigning since he took power last August, conducting three nationwide tours to win over what he called “deep Mauritania.”
As hundreds of supporters celebrated outside Aziz’s hotel, the newly elected leader denied allegations of fraud, saying if anybody cheated, it was the opposition because he only received 52 percent of the vote.
Opposition leaders told reporters Monday morning they will be presenting evidence of massive fraud in their complaint to the constitutional court.
Aziz supporters are confident in their victory.
“He’s the best for this country. We are proud to have made him president,” said university student Mariam Bellal. “The country was heading for catastrophe — economic crisis, security crisis. He freed our country from that president ... Sometimes democracy is not the best for our country."
More GlobalPost dispatches about challenged elections:
More GlobalPost dispatches from West Africa: