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In Senegal, religious leaders join constitutional debate

Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade abandoned his efforts to lower the electoral threshold for a presidential victory. In a 95 percent Muslim country, religious leaders can influence the debate.

By Alex ThurstonGuest blogger / June 24, 2011

Men protest against proposed constitutional changes in central Dakar, Senegal on June 23. Police fired tear gas on thousands of protestors demonstrating Thursday morning against a proposed law that critics said could benefit Senegal's longtime leader President Abdoulaye Wade, and his family.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

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This week, tension mounted in Senegal as President Abdoulaye Wade moved to introduce two major constitutional changes: the creation of a vice president position and a reduction in the threshold (25 percent, instead of the previous 50 percent plus) necessary for a presidential candidate to win a first round victory. Protests broke out in major cities. Youth burned the homes of ruling party members. The European Union and the US expressed concern. Then yesterday, the day that the amendment was due for a vote in parliament, Wade withdrew the plan to change the electoral threshold.

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These developments have been well covered by Reuters, the BBC, VOA, The New York Times, and other outlets. What hasn’t received as much international coverage is the role of Senegal’s Muslim leaders. In a country that’s 95 percent Muslim, and where most of the Muslim belong to large Sufi brotherhoods legendary for their political influence (when they choose to wield it, that is), how did these leaders react to such a major political crisis?

A little background: the two largest Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal are the Tijaniyya and the Mouridiyya (with which Wade is publicly affiliated). Leadership of the brotherhoods is passed from one relative to another, typically from brother to brother before passing to the next generation. This structure in some ways encourages younger leaders, or marabouts, to build their own constituencies – younger marabouts who know that their turn as khalifa (head sheikh) is far off, or will never come, have some incentive to seek other avenues for exercising influence. These young marabouts don’t go so far as to create their own orders, but some have created their own distinct movements that exist (sometimes uneasily) within the larger brotherhood. This gives rise to a significant difference in style between the older marabouts, who have largely ceased giving explicit political directions to their disciples,* and the younger marabouts, some of whom do speak out.

The role of the older marabouts in the current crisis was potentially decisive. Wade’s Minister of Justice, Cheikh Tidiane Sy, cited the influence of religious leaders (Fr) as one reason Wade backed off his plan. The khalifas of the Mouridiyya and the Tijaniyya both called, through spokesmen, for calm. According to one source, both khalifas also sent emissaries to privately dissuade Wade from pursuing the amendment, and the Tijani leadership publicly condemned the amendment (Fr). These efforts, and particularly the appeal from the Mouride leader, are seen as the main factor in Wade’s retreat.

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