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Can Mali use surge of patriotism to heal its political divides?

Patriotism is surging in Mali with a military campaign to oust Islamist gunmen from the north. Whether the feeling lasts could be vital to the country’s future, say observers. 

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A French soldier (l.) talks with a Malian soldier during a patrol in the outskirts of Sevare, Mali, Wednesday.

Thibault Camus/AP

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As French and Malian troops were advancing on Islamist militants this weekend, a young man lay quietly on a lawn chair in the capital, giving blood.

“I’m not a soldier and can’t go to the front,” said El Hadj Mahamane Soumaila afterward. “But there’s something I can do, which is support our authorities. And give my blood.”

Patriotism is surging in Mali with a military campaign to oust Islamist gunmen from the north. Whether the feeling lasts could be vital to the country’s future. A society traumatized by war must heal, while political leaders must overcome bitter disagreements to restore democracy following a coup d’état last year. 

Beneath the vows of national solidarity, “society is fragile on many levels,” says Moussa Mara, a political party leader and district mayor in the capital of Bamako, “among communities, among religious actors, and in political life.”

Such tensions could translate into reprisal attacks and abuses by security forces, which would in turn interfere with the presidential elections that are expected later this year, warned Human Rights Watch in a report last month.

Perfect storm

The root of Mali’s troubles goes back decades. Under-development and poor governance in the north has helped fuel periodic rebellions by the country’s Tuareg minority. It also allowed Islamist militants to set up shop, tapping into smuggling networks and kidnapping Westerners for ransom.

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Last year Islamists hijacked a fresh Tuareg revolt to seize the north, prompting army officers exasperated by the government’s dithering to oust the elected president. An interim president, Dioncoundé Traouré, was appointed in April and now heads a caretaker government.

But trouble didn’t stop there. Last May, supporters of coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo beat up Mr. Traouré, a veteran politician whom critics associate with years of slipshod governance. Last month, officers loyal to Sanogo forced the resignation of then-interim Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra.

The scuffling at the top reflects broader quarrels. Political leaders are deeply divided over whether Traouré and his government should steer Mali through presidential elections that were derailed by last year’s coup.

“I don’t see things changing,” Mr. Mara says. He describes a political field occupied by three big camps, with strong critics of the government and strong government supporters glaring at each other from opposite ends. “Those of us in the middle want people to talk to one another,” he says.

Where is the change?

Mara considers himself a centrist. The party he heads, Yelema – or, “Change” – is part of the Convergence pour Sauver le Mali, a coalition of parties and civil society groups that broadly supports the government and is pushing for political leaders to put aside differences for the common good.

“We must avoid marginalizing certain political actors, who could become extreme,” he says, referring in particular to the Convergence Patriotique pour le Mali (COPAM), the main antigovernment grouping.

Younouss Dicko, COPAM’s leader, also wants dialogue – although with a different goal in mind. The coalition he leads roundly opposes the interim government and wants broad national discussion to settle on a replacement before holding presidential elections.

“Is it legitimate for the interim president to organize elections?” he says. He accuses Traouré and his political allies of having “abandoned the country, disorganized the army, and allowed jihadis to install themselves in the north.”

Mr. Dicko remembers when Mali was a French colony. He remembers the pride he felt at its independence and the sting of humiliation last year when the Malian state crumpled under Islamist assault. “Brought to its knees by groups of men in [four-wheelers],” he says. 

It remains to be seen whether Mali’s political class can achieve concord. For now, Traouré and the interim government have international backing, and events in the country are gathering momentum as troops from West African countries head to Mali to join French and Malian forces.

Timbuktu

For Cri de Coeur, a Bamako-based medical support NGO, military intervention was cue for a blood drive. Last Saturday the group’s doctors set up in the ground-floor chambers of a monumental tower dedicated to Africa

Soumaila was shown into a small office, where a cheerful young doctor named Mamadou Béré weighed him conducted a brief interview.

How old was Soumaila? 26. Had he given blood before? No. Where was he from?

Timbuktu,” Soumaila said.

Last year the city fell to militants from Ansar al Din, one of three Islamist groups that overran Mali’s north. Soumaila works for a local NGO helping care for Timbuktu’s thousands of medieval manuscripts. Since last summer they have shifted operations – now largely on hold – to Bamako. 

When he was finished giving blood, Soumaila stepped out into the morning. The city stretched in all directions, vast and bustling. 

“I hope we’ll have learned many lessons from the conflict, and strengthen our solidarity,” he says. For now, “we don’t have the luxury to say ‘I’m for the president’ or ‘I’m for the coup leaders. The nation is in danger. We can’t stay separated.”

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