BAMAKO, Mali — Mali's highest court met Monday to determine the next step after both the democratically elected president and the coup leader stepped aside, leaving the helm of the West African nation vacant.
Under intense international pressure, the soldiers who seized power on March 21 agreed over the weekend to begin the process of returning Mali to constitutional order. In hiding since the coup, President Amadou Toumani Toure resurfaced over the weekend to hand in his resignation.
Article 36 of the constitution states that in the event that the president cannot carry out his term, the head of the national assembly becomes interim leader until new elections are held.
Only the constitutional court can determine if Article 36 can be applied, and Ivory Coast's Minister of African Integration Adama Bictogo confirmed on Monday that the legal body was meeting to render its decision.
The matter became much more straightforward over the weekend when Toure handed in his resignation, inviting reporters to witness the act from one of the hiding places in the capital where he has been holed up since the military takeover. Toure was only months from stepping down when the renegade soldiers stormed the seat of government, and he said that he was handing in his resignation of his own accord, and out of love for the nation.
Once the court confirms the vacancy of power, the head of the national assembly will be sworn in as interim president. He will lead the country during a transitional period until new elections can be held.
It's not yet clear what role the military junta will play in the transition. Soldiers at the military base that has served as the de facto seat of government after the coup said privately that they were not happy with their leader's decision to bow to pressure and hand back power to civilians.
And throughout the city, soldiers still control strategic points, including a checkpoint at the airport and several checkpoints outside the state television station. The coup began when the soldiers grabbed control of the state broadcaster, using it to disseminate their message.
Another complicating factor is that the head of the national assembly, Dioncounda Traore, who is now supposed to become interim leader, is considered a divisive figure. It's unclear if he has the backing to hold the country together during a tough transition, leading to new elections.
The soldiers who grabbed power claimed they did so because of President Toure's mishandling of a rebellion in the north, which began in January. Toure's popularity took a nosedive because of his lack of assertiveness in the face of the mounting attacks, which inflicted large casualties on Mali's ill-equipped army.
After Toure was forced from power, the Tuareg rebels succeeded in taking the three largest towns in the north. Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu all fell last weekend, and on Friday, the same day that the junta declared they were stepping down, the rebels declared their independence.
The loss of the northern half of the country, an area larger than France, has plunged Mali into crisis. The fighters are divided between a secular group and an Islamist faction that wants to impose Shariah law in Mali's moderate north.
It's unclear which of the factions has the upper hand, though increasingly it appears that Ansar Dine, the Islamist group, has greater sway, including in Timbuktu, where they control the city, whereas the secular group is relegated to the airport.
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