Details on Mali’s July 9 Constitutional Referendum

On July 9, Malians will vote “yes” or “no” on a referendum that would, if passed, modify the 1992 Constitution. The referendum would create a Senate, allow the President to appoint some “traditional leaders” to the Senate, and provide the president with additional authorities to implement the 2015 Algiers Accord that is meant to create a lasting peace in northern Mali. (More details on the referendum here, in French.) The referendum has been in the works for at least several months (French).

The formal campaign period begins June 23, but the informal campaign has already begun. The campaign and the composition of the “yes” and “no” sides could offer something of a preview of the 2018 presidential elections, when incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will likely seek a second term.

In terms of the legal process, the referendum has already cleared two hurdles: it was approved by the required two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, and it has been cleared by the Constitutional Court (French, .pdf). Some Malian commentators (French) have disagreed with the Court, arguing that the referendum cannot legally be held because of constitutional requirements that Mali enjoy territorial integrity before it proceeds with such a vote. In the eyes of those commentators, what the Court calls “residual insecurity” in northern Mali (p. 3) is something much more serious, namely a state of affairs that will prevent many central and northern Malians from voting, and will prevent politicians from effectively campaigning. Personally, I don’t see how a representative referendum could be held under the present circumstances.

In terms of the politics of the referendum, important opposition figures declared at a June 8 press conference (French) that they will be campaigning for a “no” vote. The opposition objects to both the timing and the content of the referendum; in particular, they denounce the expansion of presidential powers that the constitutional changes would bring.

Political opposition to the referendum has been expressed not just in press conferences, but also in street demonstrations. According to one account (French), demonstrators at an attempted protest on Saturday were “roughed up” and “confined like sheep” by the security forces.

In sum, signs of opposition to the referendum are quite visible, but given the uncertainties of who will get to vote (geographically speaking) and the lack of opinion polls, it’s very unclear to me what the likely result is. I will say that historically speaking, incumbents often do have considerable influence over such referenda in West Africa and the Sahel.

As a final note, it’s interesting to put Mali in regional perspective when it comes to the question of creating a Senate. Leaders in several of Mali’s neighbors moved to abolish Senates in recent years: Senegal closed its Senate in 2012. Mauritania‘s president wants to scrap the Senate there, although the Senate rejected plans for its own demise and now the issue is set to be decided in a referendum (French) to be held July 15, just six days after Mali’s. In Burkina Faso, longtime ruler Blaise Compaore’s plans to recreate that country’s upper house were quashed (French) after a popular revolution overthrew him in 2014. Niger and Guinea lack Senates, and the recently created Senate in Cote d’Ivoire is something of an exception (French) to the continental rule. The last of Mali’s neighbors, Algeria, does have a Senate, so perhaps we’ll say that Mali is not a total outlier, but its government is in a minority of African governments that actively want to add a new chamber to their parliaments.


New Blacklists, External and Local, Clarify Faultlines in Libyan Politics

Amid the dispute between Qatar and a group of Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain), Qatar’s opponents released a list last week of fifty-nine individuals and twelve charities accused of involved in terrorism and extremism. The United Nations, which operates its own influential blacklist of proven and alleged terrorists (as does the United States), has essentially rejected the list, and so the list’s influence may have real limits. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see who made the list, and it is notable that the list is already being amplified by those on one side of Libya’s complex civil war.

First, I think it’s worth noting the breakdown of the fifty-nine individuals by nationalities:

  • 26 Egyptians (of whom the most famous is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arguably the most famous living Sunni Muslim scholar)
  • 18 Qataris
  • 5 Libyans
  • 3 Kuwaitis (counting 1 Saudi-Kuwaiti)
  • 2 Saudis (counting 1 Saudi-Kuwaiti)
  • 2 Bahrainis
  • 2 Jordanians
  • 1 Emirati
  • 1 Yemeni

Here are the Libyans:

  • Al-Sadiq al-Gharyani, Libya’s Grand Mufti
  • Ali al-Sallabi, a religious leader from Benghazi strongly associated with Qatar and with political Islamism
  • Ismail al-Sallabi, Ali al-Sallabi’s brother and a leader in the Benghazi Defense Brigades/Companies for the Defense of Benghazi*
  • Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former jihadist in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and currently an Islamist politician
  • Mahdi Harati, a former militia commander who served as mayor of Tripoli in 2014-2015

There is no question that these individuals are connected to Qatar, but the question of whether they are “terrorists” or not is essentially political.

The blacklisting has already evoked complex responses inside Libya. One major response has come from the House of Representatives, the internationally recognized, anti-Islamist parliament in eastern Libya. The House of Representatives is aligned with Khalifa Haftar, a retired general who commands the would-be Libyan National Army, a major force in northeast (and increasingly, southern) Libya. The House of Representatives and Haftar strongly oppose a variety of Islamist and jihadist-leaning currents in Libya; Haftar considers all of them “terrorists,” even figures and movements (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) that have participated in mainstream politics in Libya. In terms of how these sides line up with the political splits in the Gulf, the House of Representatives and Haftar receive strong backing from the UAE, Egypt, and to some extent Saudi Arabia, while many Libyan Islamists receive backing from Qatar.

Given that context, it is perhaps no surprise that the House of Representatives’ National Defense and Security Committee not only welcomed the Saudi/Emirati/Egyptian/Bahriani list, but also issued its own list (Arabic) of 75 Libyan individuals and 9 institutions that it alleges are associated with terrorism and with Qatar. The list includes numerous Muslim Brotherhood leaders, various figures associated with Qatar-backed media channels, individuals close to the Grand Mufti, people in the anti-Haftar Benghazi Defense Brigades, and prominent members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

If the list, as proposed, were accepted by the Government of National Accord (the GNA, the internationally recognized executive government backed by the United Nations, although not yet endorsed by the House of Representatives), then the resulting designations would effectively ban Islamism as a mainstream political force in Libya. I do not expect the GNA to accept the list, but its circulation gives a very clear snapshot of whom the House of Representatives and Haftar consider their main political enemies. The list also gives an initial sense of how the Qatar/Saudi split (to use a shorthand) is playing out even more explicitly in Libyan domestic politics now than it was before.

*I’ve written about the Brigades here.

Iyad Ag Ghali’s Military Strategy in Mali

In April, I translated a few excerpts from an interview (.pdf, p. 4) given by Malian jihadist leader/politician Iyad Ag Ghali. In the earlier post I focused on the question of Ag Ghali’s religious views, to the extent that it is possible to assess them; here I translate another passage related to his military strategy for Mali, where the new jihadist formation he leads – Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, a part of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM) – has committed numerous attacks in recent months. Even though the interview is now two months old, I believe it has enduring relevance and I hope to translate another section or two some time this summer.

Here is the passage on military strategy:

Interviewer: You are active in a major way in Mali – how do you assess the forces of the French enemy and his agents, and what is your general policy in military action?


Ag Ghali: Among the most important elements we should mention about our general military strategy are:


  • spreading over the largest geographical terrain possible;
  • seeking to exhaust the enemy by targeting him in every place in which he is present, and inciting the people in that [effort] and mobilizing them for it;
  • striving to earn popular support, strengthening relations with [the public] and defending it;
  • employing the principle of guerrilla warfare in military action while using the style of organized warfare sometimes, in other words a combination of showing up or hiding, according to the circumstances.

God the Blessed and Exalted has granted success and has blessed this policy, and we ask Him for more of His Grace. And it’s possible to say – and God knows best – that the military situation is semi-stable, although the French enemy and those with him are centered in the largest cities with some land and air movements and sweeps. [They are] trying to exploit information and recruit spies and agents.

Three things stand out to me: the emphasis on “exhaustion,” the mention of “popular support,” and the general tone of confidence. All three themes point to a willingness on Ag Ghali’s part, and AQIM’s, to settle in for a long fight in Mali – or rather, to continue the long fight they have already begun. Militarily, I’m not sure how it can be anything but a stalemate in the short term; I do not believe Ag Ghali and AQIM will be able to recapture northern cities, let alone control all of Mali, but I also do not believe that the French and their allies will be able to completely root out the jihadist forces.


On Jeremy Corbyn and Terrorism

I increasingly believe that if you want a different kind of politics in Western societies and if you want to move beyond the failed paradigm of the “War on Terror” (or whatever euphemism it goes by now), then you should support politicians who are willing to utter three truths:

  1. Western citizens can never enjoy total security against terrorism, including terrorism perpetrated by jihadists and jihadist sympathizers;
  2. Terrorism is not a significant threat to the security of most individual citizens of Western countries; and
  3. Western countries’ foreign policies are one factor in generating domestic terrorist attacks, especially by jihadists and jihadist sympathizers.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, recently made an eloquent speech that touched on the third of those truths. He has been widely criticized for the speech, often by people who twist his words and his history.

But if you read the text of his speech, I think you may find that it was a moving and sober response to the tragic suicide bombing in Manchester on May 22. He argues for a combination of domestic (largely non-military) preparedness and more thoughtful foreign policy execution. Here is the most relevant portion:

At home, we will reverse the cuts to our emergency services and police. Once again in Manchester, they have proved to be the best of us. Austerity has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door. We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap. There will be more police on the streets under a Labour Government. And if the security services need more resources to keep track of those who wish to murder and maim, then they should get them.  

We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

It is important to underline, as Corbyn does, that attempting to explain jihadists’ motivations is in no way equal to endorsing or excusing their attacks.

Reading the New York Times‘ account of the incredibly complex journey that the young British-Libyan suicide bomber undertook over the past five years, no one could reasonably argue that British foreign policy was the sole cause of his decision to attack in Manchester. But no one who is being honest, I think, could reasonably deny that the UK’s decision to support the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 was one of the causes of this man’s actions:

As Colonel Qaddafi tottered in 2011, Mr. Abedi’s father, Ramadan, returned to Libya to finish the fight he had started two decades earlier, and took his British-born teenage sons with him. The elder Mr. Abedi, a onetime Qaddafi enforcer, fled Libya in 1991 after supporting Islamists seeking to overthrow the brutal leader. Now, as Western warplanes pummeled Tripoli, the capital, that dream was finally coming true.

His sons — Ismail, Salman and Hashem — accompanied Mr. Abedi to Tunisia, where he worked on logistics for the rebels in western Libya. The sons knew very little about Libya, having grown up in the Whalley Range, a working-class area of Manchester. But their father, a proud Islamist, wanted them to follow in his footsteps at this euphoric moment.

Salman, a lanky 16-year-old at the time, joined his father as the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade descended on the Libyan capital that summer.

Other factors were undoubtedly involved in Salman Abedi’s decision to commit a horrific and unconscionable act, including his own personal makeup, as well as what seems like his patchy knowledge of Islam, and also his difficult relationship with his father and his family. But Corbyn is right that British foreign policy decisions played a strong role in shaping Abedi’s trajectory.

Some of the vitriol directed at Corbyn over his speech is simply partisan, coming from people who hate him, hate Labour, and hate the left. But another part of the vitriol comes from elites who are averse to any honest discussion of jihadism and terrorism; they prefer to treat it as an apolitical moral evil and/or as a psychological disorder – in other words, as a sickness that comes from within the jihadists. And they want the discussion to end there.

Because if the discussion ends there, then there will be sharp limits to the kinds of criticisms that can be made of Western foreign policies that have failed, including the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, as well as the War on Terror itself. And if the discussion ends with the invocation of evil and insanity, and not with real-world events, then there will also be sharp limits to the kind of futures we can imagine for our societies. Without more imagination, we will end up fighting a pointless “War on Terror” for generations. And that would be a tragedy for the world, including for the Western countries that desperately need to chart a new course in domestic politics and foreign policy.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the British public seems to agree with Corbyn’s views on this topic – if recent polling results are accurate, then a slight majority of the British public feels that British foreign policy plays a role in generating terrorism, and significant portions of the population feel that the interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were mistakes.

On Mali’s Internal Debates About Negotiating with Jihadists

In early April, Mali’s Conference of National Understanding recommended that the government negotiate with the jihadists in the north, or at least with Malian nationals Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. At the time, I wrote a bit about the idea here on the blog. Yesterday I did a follow-up of sorts for Global Observatory, looking at how Malian politicians and commentators are debating the proposal – and at how the debate has continued even after France and Malian President Keita expressed their opposition to the idea.

Recent Writings on Nigeria

I’ve written two pieces on Nigeria recently, addressing very different topics. One, at The Maydan, looks at Shi’ism and anti-Shi’ism in Nigeria. The other, at World Politics Review, looks at the politics surrounding the question of President Muhammadu Buhari’s health. If you read either or both, I welcome your comments below.

Libya: On al-Qaida and the Benghazi Defense Brigades

I have a post at Lawfare examining the Benghazi Defense Brigades*, a Libyan militia with very loose ties to al-Qaida. I make a broader point about how analytically sloppy, and politically misguided, it is to interpret these kinds of loose ties as evidence for the claim that al-Qaida core is somehow brilliantly controlling all kinds of essentially local armed groups around the world. I welcome your feedback on the piece in the comments section below.

*Probably better translated as “the Companies for Defending Benghazi,” but the name above has stuck in English.