Much has been written about the domestic implications of the Arab Spring, but the external relevance of the uprising across North Africa and the Arab world has not yet been considered in significant depth. The Tuareg rebellion in Northern Mali has forced this question to the surface. As Gaddafi’s patronage networks unravelled with his removal, the heavily-armed Tuareg fighters, who had fought within Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion, fled back into Northern Mali. The Tuareg had been used by Gaddafi as an army of mercenaries to destabilise Libya’s neighbours – particularly Niger and Mali. Whilst Gaddafi had dismantled the Legion in 1987, as soon as resistance erupted in Libya in 2011 to Gaddafi’s rule, the Tuaregs were reemployed to fight the protestors, armed with Gaddafi’s heaviest weapons. Upon the defeat of Gaddafi, most Tuaregs fled the country, back into Northern Mali, returning with heavy weaponry to a Mali where the army was beginning to voice its discontent, and the Tuareg have used this opportunity to further their historical project of creating an independent Azawad.
Another historical thread has run alongside this process, and recently the intertwining of the two has caused a serious political problem in Mali. In 1992, Alpha Oumar Konare won Mali’s first democratic elections following the African Spring of the early 1990s. He was succeeded by Amadou Toumani Toure, a retired general who had led the military participation in the 1991 democratic uprising. Mali had been one of the most politically and socially stable countries in Africa since the democratic uprising in 1990, but discontent within the Malian army concerning Toure’s handling of the Tuareg insurgency was growing and on 22nd March this year military leaders appeared on state TV and announced they had seized control of the country.
Any forecasting of the future of Azawad at the moment is doomed to be proven wrong within a matter of hours, so the most illuminating thing we can do at present is to consider the significance of the declaration of an independent Azawad, which is essentially tripartite. Firstly, its raises the issue (as all secessionist movements do) of what the world expects a State to look like and how it should function. Secondly, following from this, is the question of whether a newly formed Islamic state, particularly with links to Al-Qaeda, could ever be internationally recognised. This leads us to question the logic of the Western hegemonic conceptions of what a State should look like. Lastly, Azawad represents the malcontents or the peripheral effects of the Arab Spring whirlpool- what I will call the Chaos Theory of Revolutionary Processes. Whilst much focus is on the epicenter of the revolutions in the Arab world, I want to shift focus to the periphery of this process.
To begin the dismantling of the tripartite relevance of Azawad I want to consider briefly the inconsistencies of the international hegemonic criteria for new states. The newest state on the planet- South Sudan – came into being after a prolonged civil war that claimed a vast number of lives, and in the process highlighted the vulnerable relationship between the Arab World and the African within Africa itself. It is an antagonism similarly present in Mali. Whilst the conflict in Sudan remained a footnote to the famine in Ethiopia for much of the 1980s and 1990s, the civil war eventually came to mainstream international attention through the US’s dubious fixation with the ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan. So the creation of an independent South Sudanese state was internationally seen as a necessary tool for peace (despite the ignoring of the issue of South Kordofan). South Sudanese sovereignty was deemed legitimate, but only because outside actors gave it consent. The conflict in the Sahel, which has fluctuated in intensity since the independence of Mali in the 1960s and the oscillating movements of the Tuareg community, has not received the same international attention. The international power brokers- America, the UN, and also to some extent the African Union and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) – thus see no reason to legitimate an Azawad state.
This moves me onto my second point. A crucial component of the international communities’ reluctance to recognise the Azawad state lies in the profile of the groups who claimed independence. The MNLA are the main Tuareg group involved in the uprising, but the figure of Ansar Dine shows that the involvement of the Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb- a group characterised by militant Salafism. This brand of Salafism is rejected by the more mainstream Salafists, as we see in the Salafist candidate in the Egyptian elections, who have developed programs in recent years to reunite revolutionary jihadists with the Sunni Muslim mainstream. Revolutionary Salafists reject this and see Salafism as an active political ideology. So the make up of the coalition declaring independence in Northern Mali is complex, and is an example of the struggles that are occurring within strands of Islam in the post-Arab Spring period. So the freeing of Salafism in Egypt has had significant ripple effects for other more radical Salafists across Northern Africa.
The final part of the tripartite relevance of Azawad is the Chaos Theory of Revolutionary Processes. ‘Chaos’ implies a ‘state of disorder’, but more precisely we are talking about a dynamical system that is sensitive to initial conditions, is topologically mixing i.e. the continuous deformation of objects, and overall its periodic orbits are ‘dense’: the events of the Arab Spring become interconnected through its evolution.
The Arab Spring as a period of events has formed a ‘dynamical system’ and the presence of a mass of people in a significant physical space such as Tahrir Square, mean its relevance has been defined by its relational dimension- i.e. the space was defined by the actors within it. Whilst protestors on the streets constituted a collection of individuals with individual political and social demands, they remained dynamic by virtue of technologically enabled networks; Twitter and Facebook were the primary the means of communication. The Spring was topologically mixing while accepted norms of social behaviour and collective identity were broken down and reformed. Overall the periodic orbits of the Arab spring were the collection of points- the coalescing of individuals within Tahrir square, YouTube videos of police brutality, empowering Bahraini women to occupy a roundabout; all related to one another by the evolution of the dynamical system of the Arab Spring.
Whilst the Arab Spring can be seen as ‘chaotic’, we can see that there is order to this chaos. Seemingly insignificant events such as the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia or the protests of the zabbaleen- the ‘garbage people’ in downtown Cairo, have developed and evolved, aided by their interconnectivity. Events in the Arab world allowed for Salafism to assert itself politically in Egypt, and create a demographic shift in Libya. The enforced departure of armed Tuaregs from Libya, (along with the example set for them in Egypt) encouraged the Malian military to take control of a vulnerable political situation. We thus have to see the rebellion in Mali as part of a wider chaotic political process of revolutionary change that has been the Arab Spring, whilst being conscious of the individual components themselves. The future of Azawad relies not only on the political situation in Mali but on the victory of the revolutionary ideals that have been, and continue to be, chanted and displayed on placards on the streets of the Arab world.
Illustration by Morgan Le Caillou