The coup started just hours after a presidential decree early on Wednesday that declared the dismissal of Mauritania's top four military leaders. By the morning, soldiers had barricaded the presidential palace on Wednesday, according to the president's daughter, Amal Mint Cheikh Abdallahi.
In a phone call with IRIN early Wednesday, Abdallahi confirmed her father's arrest, "We are trapped in our home with soldiers in our kitchen and bathrooms. Our cell phones were confiscated. This is a coup d'etat - nothing more or less."
During the day, coup leaders announced the creation of a state council to be led by head of the presidential guard, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who has said in interviews with European media that the takeover was not a coup, but rather an attempt to restore security. When asked about the military's motivations for the coup, he responded, in his words, that the country is confronted with a series of security problems, including terrorism, that only the army is capable of eradicating.
The coup follows a May government reshuffle that appointed Waghf prime minister; a July no-confidence vote against the government, which then resigned; an ensuing threat by the president to dissolve the National Assembly, and the resignation of almost 50 deputies earlier this week from the ruling party.
President Abdallahi came to power 2007 in the first democratic change of government since independence in 1960. This was widely regarded as a fresh start after more than twenty years of authoritarian and military rule.
Mauritania has had multiple coups and coup attempts since independence.
Leaders of the United Nations and African Union, as well as several heads of states have condemned the most recent coup and are calling for a peaceful return to constitutional rule. The European Commission has threatened to suspend aid to Mauritania, otherwise. The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights is requesting sanctions against coup leaders, while the Dakar-based African Forum for the Defense of Human Rights has called for the immediate release of President Abdallahi and his collaborators.
Jason Mosley, senior analyst with the UK-based Oxford Analytica, says months of political instability have moved the country away from the socioeconomic platform that helped to elect Abdallahi. "It wasn't really on the [political] agenda, or it didn't have a chance to get anywhere before the politics overtook the social agenda. [Sidi Mohamed ould Cheikh] Abdallahi felt threatened by the food crisis and security issues."
Mauritania has been rocked by alleged terrorist attacks, including the murder of four French tourists in December 2007, which has stoked criticism of Abdallahi's handling of security issues.
Analyst Mosley says the relatively new ruling coalition, National Pact for Democracy and Development (PNDD), in place since last April, did not have time to coalesce before being hit with the social pressure of rising food costs.
Reflecting a global trend, food prices in arid Mauritania have doubled within the past year. In August 2007, thousands were displaced in Mauritania from flooding that wiped out crops and cattle. Months later, food riots broke out in southeast Mauritania.
Mauritanian graduate student Boubacar Datt, studying in neighbouring Dakar, Senegal, says some in Mauritania might feel relief in the wake of the coup, because they are eager for change. "What they don't see is that Sidi [Mohamed ould Cheikh Abdallahi] was only a mascot and never had power. People talk about Mauritania being a democracy, but Mauritania has always been led by military. This [coup] comes as no surprise. Democracy does not exist. It is only on papers. In daily life, Sidi [Mohamed ould Cheikh Abdallahi] could not realise his campaign promises."
Datt says that no matter who is in power, he does not think food will suddenly become more plentiful, fuel cheaper, or life any easier.
Abdallahi campaigned to end slavery, which persists despite being outlawed for more than 20 years, and to reintegrate refugees who fled brutal border and ethnic clashes in 1989. Hundreds died and tens of thousands escaped to neighbouring Mali and Senegal, many of whom still hesitate to return.
Moustapha Toure, with the Association of Mauritanian Refugees in Senegal, says he is worried the coup will stop the return of refugees from Senegal, which began earlier in 2008. "This will end the repatriation, and effectively put the brakes on the healing process," he said.
Last October, Abdallahi's government organised a national day of dialogue with exiled refugees to discuss how to carry out the repatriation. Toure attended the event in Nouakchott. "The president had committed to organising a peace and reconciliation commission, which has long been one of our key demands. It is hard to see that commission coming apart even before it has had a chance to be created."