Alain Juppe, France’s foreign minister, forcefully condemned the coup d’état that overthrew Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Toure, a few days ago, and called for elections as soon as possible in the context of the restoration of constitutional order. Elections, the first round of the presidential election, were scheduled for April 29. Toure was not a candidate, having served his constitutional two-term limit and being eager, by all accounts, to retire.

In Washington, the White House issued a terse statement on March 22: “The United States strongly condemns the violence initiated b elements of the armed forces of Mali. We call for immediate restoration of constitutional rule in Mali, including full civilian authority over the armed forces and respect for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions. The United States stands by the people of Mali and the legitimately elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure. We welcome the strong statements by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States condemning this unconstitutional seizure of power.”

The State Department stayed mum, preferring not to respond to queries regarding the alleged presence of Toure in the U.S. embassy in Mali, and the Defense Department did not have anything to say about coming to the rescue of a country under attack from Islamic fundamentalists, including units of AQIM, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The putschists as of Friday were hinting the president is under arrest. At any rate it is an interesting sign of the times that he might have chosen, or might even have been thought to have chosen, the American rather than the French embassy. Admittedly, he had expressed some bitterness toward the former colonial master, suggesting the French facilitated the Tuareg retreat from Libya, heaven weapons and all, at his country’s expense, in order to satisfactorily, if that is the word, wrap up their campaign for democracy in Libya, now in the hands of salafists.

However, the soldiers, none above the rank of captain, who seized power this week placed the inability – or unwillingness – of the Toure government to forcefully respond to the violence in the northern third of the country high on their list of grievances. “President Toure is incompetent,” according to Capt. Amadou Sanogo, the leader – or the public face – of the putschists.

Between a government based on democratic legitimacy evidently losing a war against America’s enemies and soldiers claiming to want to prosecute the war more aggressively, it is understandable that the U.S. should be in a bit of a policy quandary. However, Africa’s trans-national organizations, including the African Union, have established the rule of non-recognition of regimes that overthrow democratic governments, and the U.S. (and France and the rest of the “international community”) have followed.

In the north, the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) has no quarrel with the U.S., but last month the State Department condemned its resort to violence since January as a means of carving out a Tuareg state in the northern, largely desert but potentially oil- and uranium rich third of Mali. The MNLA has stated its opposition to AQIM, but a number of military and civilian voices in Mali allege that there is a de facto military alliance between the two insurgent organizations. An openly salafist Tuareg movement, the Ancar Dine (Arm of Islam) also reportedly has taken part in the fighting in the north.

The newly formed National Committee for Revival, Democracy, and the Strengthening of the State (CNRDR, Comite National pour le Redressement, la Democratie, et la Restauration de l’Etat, in French) put out a statement on Thursday, stressing security: “The regime is unable to deal with the crisis in the north or to give security agencies [the army] the means to do their job, namely defend the national territory.” However, the junta did not interfere when soldiers who joined the putsch caused substantial insecurity in the streets of Bamako after looting the offices of the radio-television building and the presidential palace. They placed several members of the Toure government under arrest, closed the airport and claimed to have sealed the borders, though how they intend to enforce this when they do not control the north remains unclear.

The CNRDR statement assured Malians the aim of the coup is not “the confiscation of power,” but its opposite. The officers claim President Toure was an incompetent whose government was sitting by as the country was stolen by northern rebels and the democratic institutions built up since 1992 (largely under Toure’s leadership, though he did not run for president until 2002) were going to rot. The young officers appealed to Malians to bear with them until elections can be held “as soon as national unity and territorial integrity are restored.” In this regard, the junta promises to work with civil society (les forces vives de la nation sans aucune distinction) to realize its goals. For his part, while expressing some sympathy for frustration in the ranks, the well-known political leader (and presidential candidate) Ibrahim Babacar Keita condemned the coup d’etat in the strongest terms and appealed for the restoration of constitutional order and the electoral calendar. “Inch’ Allah!” he said, “Vive la Republique, vive le Mali!” March 23, 2012.

Roger Kaplan, who traveled in Mali in February, writes from Washington, basing this report on correspondence and communications.

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