Development will stop extremist tide
FRANCE'S offensive against Islamists in northern Mali is approaching what it hopes is a final phase. Having driven Islamist fighters out of the main cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, French troops are now besieging the mountainous redoubt of Ifoghas close to the Algerian border, where Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other armed Islamists are said to be dug in.
Right across the region, the Islamists are on the defensive, but they are fighting back with ambushes and sudden armed incursions deep into areas already captured by the French. The guerrilla war threatens to be long and hard.
An unforeseen consequence of the overthrow of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi by the western powers has been the return home to Mali and Niger and other countries of the Sahel of thousands of men - many of them Tawareq - whom Gaddafi had recruited into his armed services. Most of them returned with weapons plundered from Gaddafi's arsenals.
This is what triggered the crisis in Mali. In early 2012, a Tawareq force, named the Azawad national liberation movement, or MNLA, chased out the Malian army and proclaimed independ- ence in northern Mali, an area bigger than France, which they call the Azawad.
The Tawareq, an ancient Berber-speaking race, have risen repeatedly in the past against the government in the capital Bamako, only to be crushed or fobbed off with empty promises of development. Had Bamako had the sense to concede autonomy to the Tawareq long ago, both the Islamist invasion and the war to oust them could most probably have been avoided. But hardly had the Tawareq celebrated victory than they in turn were ousted by Islamist fighting groups, which had roamed the deserts of the Sahel living off large-scale smuggling and hostage-taking. French President Francois Hollande has vowed to destroy the Islamists of northern Mali - a task in which France is now receiving help from the US and from West African troops.
The US has set up a new drone base in Mali's eastern neighbour, Niger, to provide French troops with intelligence and keep an eye on regional threats, as well as on the flow of weapons from Libya. The French are also using Niger's airport to fly men and equipment into Mali. Mali's Islamists have not yet been defeated but they are now on the run. Smashing them, however, will not resolve the country's main puzzle, which is how to deal with the Tawareq's demand for independence in their traditional northern homeland.
When the Tawareq's MNLA was overwhelmed by Islamist groups, Niger deployed 5,000 men along its 800km border with Mali, and managed to prevent militants from entering its territory. It has now contributed 680 men to MISMA, the West African military force which has rallied to the support of France's efforts in Mali
Niger, a vast poverty-stricken country of 15 million people, has done its best to keep the militants at bay. As in Mali, many of its young men went to work in Libya or were recruited into Gaddafi's forces. But, when they flooded back home after Gaddafi's overthrow, they were not allowed to bring their weapons with them. Instead, they were disarmed by the Niger army at the border. This led inevitably to numerous skirmishes, but has greatly contributed to the country's stability. Unlike Mali, Niger has managed to defuse the Tawareq problem by integrating them into political life. The Tawareq are said to number about 10 per cent of the Niger population.
In several other countries, Islamists are in trouble. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime of President Mohammad Mursi is struggling to rescue the state from bankruptcy. In Tunisia, the Islamist party Al Nahda is still in the driving seat, but is has faced enormous pressure from street demonstrations following the assassination on February 6 of a left-wing opposition figure, Shukri Belaid. Hamadi Jebali, himself the number two at Al Nahda, resigned as prime minister, after failing to persuade his party to allow him to form a government of technocrats. He has been replaced by a moderate Islamist, Ali Larayedh, who spent 14 years in Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali's jails, but who seems determine to keep militants at bay, which he describes as the greatest danger facing Tunisia.
In Libya, hardline Islamists are said to be on the defensive, although Ansar Al Sharia - the Islamist militia believed to be responsible for last September's attack on the US diplomati.