Mali: A Backlash against the Islamist Coalition? [Updated]

Saturday, in Gao, northern Mali:

On Saturday night the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa [MUJWA] announced on private radio that they would [amputate a thief’s hand] at the square.

MUJWA did not get their way:

“They [Islamists] were not able to take the prisoner to the square to cut off his hand. The residents of Gao occupied the square and refused to allow the thief’s hand to be amputated,” the leader of a local NGO said on condition of anonymity.

According to corroborating sources, the accused was a young [MUJWA] recruit who had stolen weapons to re-sell them.

“We don’t want to know what this young man did, but they are not going to cut his hand off in front of us. The Islamists have retreated and the civilians sang the national hymn as a sign of victory,” another resident said.

This is not the first report of local resistance to MUJWA and the broader Islamist coalition of which it is a part (the other major factions are the movement Ansar al Din and fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Protests in July – to which Ansar al Din responded harshly – also seemed to signal some popular discontent with Islamist rule.

It has been hard to get a clear sense of what is going on in northern Mali, but the recent signs of resistance to Islamist control could mean several things. One widespread interpretation is that the versions of Islam and Islamic law that the Islamists are attempting to impose are foreign and extreme in the eyes of the people of northern Mali. In this reading, conflict between the Islamists and those they are trying to rule is inevitable.

Another interpretation, more complex than the one above, is that the people of northern Mali have a range of stances vis-a-vis Islamism and that the outcome is not predetermined. In this interpretation, the Islamist coalition is facing resistance because it has mismanaged the politics of the situation.

Ironically, the Islamists’ initial rise to power probably came about partly because of their opponents’ political failures. The ostensibly secular National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) originally launched the rebellion in Mali, but the MNLA appeared incapable of providing law and order to conquered areas – which seems to have given the Islamists an opening to establish some form of law and order.

Other forms of politics were also important. Kal notes that in Gao, MUJWA was able to push the MNLA out in part because MUJWA played local politics effectively:

MUJWA appears to have deftly leveraged its local connections in Gao among local Arabs to exploit strong animosity between Songhai armed elements and the Tuareg-dominated MNLA. The MNLA’s pro-[secession] agenda and abuses of the local population on arrival in Gao coupled with long-standing hostility between members of the Ganda Iso and Ganda Koy militia groups (elements of which were involved in atrocities against Tuaregs during previous rebellions) appears to have allowed MUJWA to direct popular discontent with living conditions in the city resulting from the rebellion onto the MNLA, marginalizing it and forcing its members in the city to take flight.

Following this interpretation, I wonder whether Islamists’ political victories over the MNLA contained the seeds of the Islamists’ present political difficulties: without the MNLA around as a contrast, in other words, the Islamists’ political stock must rise or fall on its own and not simply look better than the MNLA’s. Paul Mutter wrote several weeks ago that the Islamists were “less unpopular” than the MNLA – and “less unpopular” does not necessarily equal “popular.”

The Islamists appear to be harming their own political position by making two mistakes. First, their attempts to carry out dramatic corporal punishments are taking attention away from the behaviors that originally made them more popular than the MNLA. The Islamists’ initial (relative) popularity, it seems, came about because they were preventing abuses by fighters, distributing food and aid, and providing rudimentary order. The Islamists seem to feel a religious imperative to mutilate alleged thieves and stone alleged adulterers, but in political terms these moves have probably begun to hurt them.

Second, the Islamists seem to be mismanaging dissent. Their confrontational approach either results in a crackdown, which likely leaves resentment simmering, or a loss of face for themselves, which is what the events on Saturday look like to me.

No one knows what will happen going forward. But it looks like the Islamist coalition will continue to face some resistance, particularly if their response to dissent is uncompromising.

[UPDATE:] MUJWA opts for more repression, generating more dissent.


A radio presenter was badly beaten by Islamists occupying the northern Mali town of Gao after he reported on a protest in which they were stopped from cutting off a thief’s hand, hospital sources said Monday.
Hundreds of people protested on Sunday night in Gao against [presenter Abdoul Malick] Maiga’s detention and demanded his release, setting fire to a car belonging to a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) which controls the town.
The Islamists fired shots into the air to disperse the crowd.



4 thoughts on “Mali: A Backlash against the Islamist Coalition? [Updated]

  1. Pingback: Hope for ordinary Malians? « developingnathan

  2. Great insight, Alex.

    For what it’s worth, I interviewed several people in Gao over the phone last week and the emerging narrative seems to be more in line with the second interpretation you proposed.

    It appears most Gao residents welcomed the demise of the MNLA at the hands of MUJWA, because they saw it as the first step in a process of getting things “back to normal”. Now they are organizing to marginalize MUJWA through dialogue (several sources confirmed that fora for dialogue/negotiations between community leaders and MUJWA are being organized throughout the region).

    I am yet to interview a Gao resident who supports any sort of external intervention at the moment. It is as if they think things are heading in the right direction and a haphazardly planned intervention would disrupt the “process”.

    Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal are three very different cities, and local dynamics are shaping populations’ attitudes and responses to their respective (and different) “occupiers”. An event in one city does not necessarily resonate with the populations of the others.

    • Thanks Peter. You make a really good point about the need to think differently about the three cities.

      What did you think of that interview with the mayor of Gao?

      • I thought the most interesting part of the Diallo interview was his assertion that the people “terrorizing” Gao-ville were youth from the city who have been empowered by MUJWA, with MUJWA proper only coming to the city “to do business”.

        That might explain why some Gao residents think they can marginalize MUJWA, as they are dealing with “their own”. Though as you said, it’s very hard to get a clear picture.

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