If the situation in Mali and the Sahel is impinging on the calculations made at the top of the Algerian state with regard to the 2014 presidential election, it is because it is becoming increasingly clear that the crisis set in motion by the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali in the first months of 2012 will not be short-lived. On the contrary, despite the best efforts of various concerned parties – the Malian government, ECOWAS, France, the United Nations – to set deadlines and timetables for ‘solving’ the north Mali crisis, the real time scale for any kind of meaningful action keeps stretching further and further into the future. In accordance with UNSC Resolution 2071, passed in mid-October, ECOWAS duly convened on Nov. 11 to approve military intervention by its member states’ armed forces, with the support of Western powers, and France is now pushing hard for a new UNSC resolution approving this, to be voted on it is hoped in mid-December. France and other EU states, including Germany and it is thought Great Britain, are already involved in discussions of the practicalities of military intervention with ECOWAS governments. But in contrast to the bold prognoses made by French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in the early autumn, according to which a military intervention was then only “a matter of weeks” away, there is a growing realisation that it will take at least six months to equip and prepare the ECOWAS force and plan its mission properly; at the UN and in military-to-military discussions, the United States appears to be urging greater caution and an even longer time scale, on the grounds that the 3,500 men promised by ECOWAS will simply not be sufficient to take on the job. Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, reporting to the Security Council at the end of November, has expressed the view that, while military action may ultimately be necessary against the “most extremist” elements in northern Mali, any such intervention requires far more preparation if a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe is to be averted, and that in the meantime “political dialogue” must be given pride of place.
Tactically speaking, this is to the advantage of Algiers, which, while vacillating somewhat on the rights and wrongs of the principle of military intervention against the hard core AQMI and MUJAO in northern Mali, has consistently foregrounded dialogue with those rebel groups that can be engaged as the best way forward – an approach which enables the Algerians, and in particular the DRS, to leverage their extensive knowledge of and contacts in northern Mali. And indeed the Algerian authorities have lost no time in initiating talks with both the Tuareg separatist MNLA and the islamist Ansar Dine, both in Algiers and in Ouagadougou (under the auspices of President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, ECOWAS’ designated mediator). Superficially at least, this approach seems to have borne fruit remarkably quickly. MNLA spokesmen have made concessions on the group’s central demand of independence, claiming that a form of autonomy within a federation may be acceptable, and have engaged the hardcore islamist MUJAO in battle in the Gao region as of mid-November. Spokesmen for Ansar Dine, meanwhile, have claimed that the organisation has “broken with terrorism” and enjoys “very good relations” with the MNLA, and renounced the goal of conquering the whole of Mali to establish sharia law across the entire country; furthermore, the group has on at least one occasion intercepted cigarette smugglers in the Malian desert who are believed to have been raising funds on behalf of AQMI and/or MUJAO. Gratifyingly for the Algerian authorities, Cheikh Awisa, one of Ansar Dine’s political and military leaders, has recently stated that the organisation insists that any “decisive solution” must be “found and signed in Algiers.”
In this context, as forecast in our last report, the differences between the French and Algerian positions are again becoming increasingly visible, even as French President François Hollande’s visit to Algiers approaches. Questioned by reporters in Paris on Nov. 20, Hollande continued to foreground the military solution and categorically ruled out any talks with “groups linked with terrorism” (which, by French definitions, ought to encompass Ansar Dine); speaking at the same time on Algerian radio, Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia laid out a diametrically opposite position, insisting that “trying to reconstitute Mali’s territorial unity by force would be an adventure that will never succeed.”
Hollande is due to visit Algiers in mid-December, around the time the Security Council meets to approve the ECOWAS intervention plan. This in itself does not bode well for efforts to build a new entente between France and Algeria – all the more so given that the slight advantage Algiers may have felt it had acquired vis à vis Morocco, France’s traditional partner in the Maghreb, appears to be evaporating. After six months of silence on the question following the election of the new centre-left government, Paris has reaffirmed its support for the Moroccan autonomy plan in for Western Sahara, while Rabat has finally appointed a new ambassador to Paris in the person of Chakib Benmoussa (former Interior Minister and one-time chief negotiator at the Manhasset talks), putting an end to rumours of a “silent crisis” in Franco-Moroccan relations. A visit to Rabat by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault accompanied by several members of his government has been scheduled for December 12-13, just before Hollande’s trip to Algiers, as if to reassure the Moroccans of the continuity of their ‘special relationship’ with Paris. And in the meantime, rumours have begun to crop up in the Moroccan press to the effect that the contribution of Moroccan special forces has been solicited for the forthcoming northern Mali operation (according to one version, by Hollande himself, during the summit of French-speaking nations in Kinshasa in October, with the offer of debt forgivenes
s as an incentive). While these reports remain for the time being unconfirmed, they can scarcely be reassuring for Algiers, for whom recognising that Morocco has a legitimate interest in the Sahara-Sahel region would in effect amount to recognising Rabat’s claim to Western Sahara.