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Who Is Behind Mali's Surging Protest Movement?

Anti-government protesters burn tires and barricade roads in the capital Bamako, Mali, July 10, 2020.

Mali's protest movement against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has triggered the war-torn nation's most serious political crisis in years, sparking fears it will slide into chaos.

The June 5 Movement has triggered a showdown with the government with unflinching demands that Keita resign over perceived failures in tackling the dire economy and Mali's eight-year jihadist conflict.

But on July 10, the movement staged a rally that turned violent and dramatically escalated the political crisis.

Thousands marched on July 10, 2020, in Bamako in anti-government demonstrations urged by an opposition group that rejects the president's promises of reforms.
Thousands marched on July 10, 2020, in Bamako in anti-government demonstrations urged by an opposition group that rejects the president's promises of reforms.

Protesters blocked bridges, stormed the premises of the state broadcaster, and attacked the parliament building.

Three days of clashes between protesters and security forces ensued, leaving 11 dead and 158 injured, according to an official tally, in the bloodiest bout of political unrest Mali had seen in years.

The protest group's official name, the "Movement of June 5 — Rally of Patriotic Forces," comes from the date of the first rally it organized.

Its leaders are channelling a wellspring of anger in Mali sparked by the outcome of March-April parliamentary elections, but whose underlying causes include discontent over its handling of Mali's jihadist insurgency.

The Sahel nation of some 20 million people has struggled to quell a jihadist insurgency that first broke out in 2012, and which has claimed thousands of lives since.

The June 5 Movement has achieved the unlikely feat of uniting a disparate group of opposition figures, including religious figures and civil-society leaders, under one banner.

Members include longtime political heavyweights and former military personnel who took part in Mali's 2012 coup, for example.

Most are drawn from a generation that came to prominence following Mali's transition from military dictatorship to democracy, in 1991.

But many June 5 Movement members also worked under Keita in some capacity, before they turned into political opponents.

Ibrahim Maiga, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in the capital Bamako, said that "the M5 is full of old heads who served" Keita.

He added that this does not "necessarily inspire confidence in the people.”

Civil-society leaders who are not party political are also members, however, including trade unionists, or the anti-corruption activist Clement Dembele.

Above all these figures towers the figure of Mahmoud Dicko, a highly influential imam who has emerged as the group's de facto leader — despite not being a formal member.

Bokar Sangare, another researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said that the June 5 movement's "very diverse composition" means its leaders are often sharply divided.

In public, however, the opposition group speaks with one voice. Leaders sign statements together and present a united front at press conferences.

They have been targeted by Keita's government before.

Malian authorities arrested several leading members of the movement in the aftermath of last week's unrest, but later released them.

One of the movement's members, who requested anonymity, said that other opposition leaders went to ground after the unrest to avoid detection from security forces.