NOUAKCHOTT, 4 August (IRIN) - Mauritanians woke to a new dawn on Thursday following the bloodless ousting of President Maaouya Ould Taya, with many in triumphant mood but anxious to hear more from the Military Council for Justice and Democracy, which staged the coup but promised to stand down within two years.
In a statement carried on the state news agency, the council said it was composed of 17 members from the various branches of the armed forces, with all but one carrying the rank of colonel, and would usher in civilian rule within two years.
Named at the council's head was Col Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who took part in the putsch that brought Ould Taya to power in 1984 and who had served at his side as the nation's security chief for almost two decades.
While hundreds of people took to the streets in the hours after the coup on Wednesday, honking car horns and shouting slogans like "Long Live the Putschists", things were calmer by Thursday and people were going about their normal business, waiting for the council's next moves.
Small crowds gathered in front of the city's prison, hopeful that rumours about a mass release of Islamic political prisoners, who had been locked away under Ould Taya, might be true.
"The new decision-makers have to quickly set the tone if they don't want to be caught out by yesterday's rulers and their allies, especially since these people have the financial clout to destabilise the country," said Minetou Mint Mohamed, a civil servant and resident in the capital, Nouakchott.
A source inside the council told IRIN on Thursday that a new constitution was expected to be drawn up by Monday at the latest.
Meanwhile, Vall moved into the presidential palace in the heart of the sand-blanketed capital, Nouakchott.
The former occupant of what locals dubbed the "Yellow Palace" was still in Niger. Ould Taya was forced to land there when news of the coup broke as he made his way back from the funeral of King Fahd in Saudi Arabia.
With worldwide condemnation raining down on Mauritanian's self-declared new leaders, Vall met with diplomats in Nouakchott and was also due to receive representatives from political parties and civil society, the source said.
Analysts pointed to the fact that nobody was killed during the coup and the fact that it happened during a presidential visit that had come about with short notice, as evidence of a broad agreement among the military that Taya had to go. The jubilant scenes on the streets of the capital and other cities suggested more wide-spread popular support for the ousting, they added.
But Vall can expect a frosty reception from the international community.
"The thing that everybody is faced with is that they cannot go easy [on the new leaders]. It's a question of the precedent," said Mike McGovern, the West Africa project director for the Crisis Group think-tank. "We have had Togo and Mauritania now in the last six months and we could see several other countries in the next six."
The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the United States, former colonial power France and the European Union have all condemned the seizure of power in Mauritania.
On Thursday, the African Union said it was suspending Mauritania's membership of the 53-nation group "until the restoration of constitutional order in the country."
However, analysts say Ould Taya has few international allies and no-one really has any bargaining power over the Muslim nation that straddles Arab and black Africa.
Ould Taya cut himself off from much of sub-Saharan African, pulling out of the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He also annoyed many Arab allies by establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, turning away from Iraq and towards the United States, and cracking down on Islamists.
"The international community is not going to reverse the situation in Mauritania because no-one has significant leverage," said Olly Owen, Africa analyst at London-based research group Global Insight.
So if outside attempts to restore the constitutional order do fail, what happens next?
The military council pledged in its debut statement to create favourable conditions for democracy, which they estimate will take two years at most.
A source inside the council told IRIN on Thursday that Vall wanted the transition to happen as soon as possible.
But some opposition politicians were giving events a wary welcome.
"In this crisis situation, a regime change was inevitable. But we would have wished that this be done in a controlled democratic way with all the parties involved," Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, the president of the Popular Progressive Alliance party, was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Some analysts also expressed scepticism about the coup plotters' democratic credentials, given that many were deeply involved in a ruling elite that was generally considered repressive and they themselves now dub "totalitarian".
Also potentially complicating any handover is the fact that Mauritania is due to start producing 75,000 barrels of crude oil a day from its offshore Chinguetti field early next year, with hopes of finding more reserves onshore.
"It may be that some members of the council ... find their commitment to democracy slipping ... because the oil money is going to be a very powerful motivator," Global Insight's Owen said.
"That tendency may lead to a delayed transition manipulated to allow self-succession by members of the new clique," he went on. "The best way to avert such a scenario is for the regional and international community to engage constructively with the new situation in such a way as to discourage that tendency before it emerges."
[This Item is Delivered to the "Africa-English" Service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. For further information, free subscriptions, or to change your keywords, contact e-mail: Irin@ocha.unon.org or Web: http://www.irinnews.org . If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Reposting by commercial sites requires written IRIN permission.]
Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2005