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The March 22 coup that overthrew the government of Mali strikes a harsh blow against the cause of worldwide freedom. Like most of Africa, Mali had collapsed into dictatorship soon after securing its independence from France in 1960. But this West African country also became a leading example of the trend of a democratic renewal in the 1990s that saw tyrants fall across the continent, replaced in many cases by elected governments. In Mali, which restored democracy in 1991, the transformation was far-reaching. The non-governmental organization, Freedom House, lists all of the world’s “electoral democracies,” and it also ranks each country as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.” A country may elect its government but still not be judged fully “free” due to lack of judicial independence, rampant corruption, infringements on press freedom or the like. This year, Freedom House counted 117 electoral democracies but rated only 87 as “free,” with the other thirty being “partly free.” Mali was one of the “free” ones. This was particularly impressive for several reasons. Although 20 countries of Africa earned the designation “electoral democracy,” only nine of these were considered “free.” And in the whole world, Mali was the poorest country rated free. Moreover, of the 47 or 48 countries with Muslim majorities (the exact number is uncertain since a couple of countries are right at the demographic edge) only two were ranked as free, Indonesia and Mali. While recent decades have seen a strong tide of freedom and democracy around the world, the largest categories that lagged behind this trend have been poor countries, African countries, and Muslim-majority countries. Thus, Mali stood as a shining example. It is possible that the disruption of Mali’s democratic process will be short-lived. The country was scheduled to hold a presidential election in late April, and the incumbent—Amadou Toumani Touré--was not seeking reelection. Now, he has resigned, and the coup-makers have pledged to hold elections expeditiously. But even so, the country may be ruptured irreparably. The soldiers who staged the rebellion said they were motivated by the government’s ineptitude in countering an insurgency by an ethnic group called Tuaregs in the north of the country. But the rebels seem to have defeated their own proclaimed purpose. The Tuaregs took advantage of disarray in Mali’s capital to seize control of the towns and cities of the north and to declare independence for what they call the nation of Azawad, with its capital in Timbuktu. An appeal by Mali’s new military rulers for international intervention to help them reestablish Mali’s sovereignty over the north fell on deaf ears, except those of the government of France—the former colonial ruler--which pointedly asserted its refusal to become involved militarily. Azawad is unlikely to garner any international recognition, but Mali may not be put back together any time soon. The quick assertion of the intent to restore democracy seems to have been squeezed out of the new junta by the sharp sanctions that were immediately imposed on Mali by the African Union (AU). This is the most hopeful thing to have come out of this sorry episode. The AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, had been notorious as a dictators’ club whose cardinal rule was to honor the sovereignty of each of the continents’ many tyrants. Now, Africa’s rulers seem to be treating democracy as their norm. This reminds us that in the last two decades the continent has taken two steps forward even as we rue the large step backward that it has just taken in Mali. This post was written by Joshua Muravchik, Fellow in Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute.
Joshua Muravchik is the author of nine books, including The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East (2009), Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (2001), and Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny (1991). He has published more than 400 articles on politics and international affairs. Muravchik is an adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an adjunct professor at the Institute for World Politics. He is also a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies.
Muravchik serves on the editorial boards of World Affairs, Journal of Democracy, and Journal of International Security Affairs. He formerly served as a member of the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion, the Commission on Broadcasting to the People’s Republic of China, and the Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Previously he was a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.