PARIS — The military coup that has taken place in Mali raises doubts about the continuation of the strong movement of popular protest that has, in recent weeks, taken on the appearance of a real revolution. In spite of the declarations of the "National Committee for the Salvation of the People," it is feared — as has happened before in Africa — that the military will begin to get used to holding power and "forget" to return it to civilians. Be that as it may, this coup, denounced by the entire international community, adds to longstanding pessimism toward the situation in Mali.

Since gaining independence in 1960, Mali has never ceased to create problems for the world's powerful countries, particularly France, which did everything possible to overthrow the socialist regime of Modibo Keïta, the country's first president. General Moussa Traoré's coup d'état in 1968 and the establishment of a liberal system have somewhat eased concerns, despite the corruption that at the time flourished around the presidential family. This in turn fostered the emergence of a social movement leading to the advent of democracy in 1991 and Alpha Oumar Konaré — Mali's first fairly elected president — coming to power.

Reforms have increased support around Muslim religious leaders opposed to France.

During the years 1990-2000, Mali became a model of democratic rule, surpassing Senegal, which until then had been cited as the best example of African democracy. The successful democratic shift with President Amadou Toumani Touré in 2002 reassured Western powers that Mali had reached a stable democratic regime. This was despite rumors of the ruling class and senior officers in the Malian army being involved in corruption and drug trafficking, and Touré's inability to implement more Western values in social policy reforms in the face of religious opposition.

This situation, together with the takeover of northern Mali (an area that became known as Azawad) in 2012 by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, resulted in the coup d'état led by officer Amadou Haya Sanogo, head of a motley coalition of Marxists and nationalists opposing the dismantling of the country. After the coup failed, interim President Dioncounda Traoré appealed to French President François Hollande to intervene militarily in Mali and stop the southwestward advance of jihadists.

Operation Serval led to the restoration of civilian power throughout the country, the temporary elimination of the jihadists and the triumphant election of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in 2013 with the support of Muslim leaders. Up until then, the power of the president was limited by an alliance between the Wahhabi Mahmoud Dicko and the Sufi Bouyé Haïdara who, after having supported Keïta, abandoned him during the 2018 presidential campaign.

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in Bamako on Aug. 19 — Photo: Imago/Starface/ZUMA

Relations have since soured between the government, civil society and Muslim religious movements after the president was accused of wanting to increase his power by amending the Constitution, promoting homosexuality and the teaching of gender theory, while abolishing the practice of female genital mutilation. Such reforms have increased support around Muslim religious leaders opposed to France, such as Mahmoud Dicko and Bouyé Haïdara.

Added to this is the corruption, which appears to have gotten closer to the presidential family for some time. Another reason for the ire of the Malian nationalists is that the government, through the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, is said to have agreed to grant autonomy to the Azawad region.

It all amounted to an explosive cocktail that led to the formation of the heterogeneous coalition of the Movement of June 5 - Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP) and the popular demonstrations that followed.

Time will tell whether this revolution can continue.

The fact remains that these demonstrations and the existence of the M5-RFP movement have shown that a real revolution is at work in Mali. This revolution is based on a political alliance between a Marxist and nationalist movement and another so-called "Islamist" movement, provided that it does not tie itself down to the supposedly Wahhabi character of Mahmoud Dicko.

This strong popular opposition, present especially in the capital of Bamako and other large cities, is rooted in a deeply Muslim population. They follow Dicko because he and his movement reflect the appearance of a truly Malian Islam, far from the Western and especially French fantasies that present its leader as being subservient to Saudi Arabia.

Time will tell whether this revolution can continue and produce the changes so long awaited by a people who, it seems, have accompanied with fervor the seizure of power by the military and the fall of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta as its immediate consequence.


*Jean-Loup Amselle is an anthropologist and emeritus director of studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris.


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