The French and African troops now beginning to pour into Mali can be expected to prevail over the Islamists in the short term. Then comes the hard work of securing northern Mali and creating an accord there and in the rest of Mali that will yield enduring peace, while avoiding radicalizing the population or sparking a race war. Mali suffers from a divide between north and south, between “white” Tuaregs and Arabs and the “black” majority that also dominates the government and army. The two sides have had difficult relations marked by several revolts by Arabs and above all Tuaregs against Mali’s authority. Peace and security will require far more than military force.
The issue of democracy is important. Mali until recently had been regarded as a success story because of its stability and its flourishing democracy, which most still view as the best long-term cure for instability and terrorism. Mali’s success was no mirage, but the flaws in its democracy — now all too apparent — were not fully appreciated, perhaps in part because success was taken for granted, and in part because the United States and others regarded Mali too exclusively through a counter-terrorism lens.
Much will depend on what the French do and how they engage with the local populations. Part of healing Mali’s north involves writing its inhabitants back into the social contract and reviving the democratization and decentralization process that begin in the 1990s.