Were it not for the looming presence of al-Qa'ida (AQIM) in the Maghreb, last week's military coup in Mali might be met with the half-anxious apathy with which the international community usually greets upheavals in Saharan Africa.
Although an unusual democratic experiment in a tough region has just been snuffed out, that alone is – sadly – not sufficient reason for global concern. The fear is that the military takeover, and the Tuareg rebellion in the north that prompted it, may reinforce an increasingly dangerous al-Qa'ida affiliate and further destabilise an already hazardous region. And while a coup by an obscure ethnic minority in what is, for many, an unfamiliar section of the map might seem a distant problem, the lines of responsibility in this particular case are very clear.
Mali's President, Amadou Toumani Touré, is far from blameless. He repeatedly ignored pressure to act against either AQIM or the gun runners and drug smugglers traversing the Sahara. He also insisted that the fighting in the north was under control. But his demoralised and humiliated army knew different, and such complacency was finally punished by their by seizing power at the barrel of a gun.
But the rebellion in Mali is nonetheless a direct consequence of the toppling of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. Many of the Tuareg fighters now tearing up their homeland fled south after decades serving in Gaddafi's army, starting a chain reaction of unintended consequences across one of the world's remotest – and most difficult to control – regions. Having provided crucial assistance to the rebellion in Libya, the international community cannot now wash its hands of the consequences.
With AQIM on the march, the stakes are high, not just for Mali, or even just for the region, but for the entire world. It is up to the West to put concerted pressure on both the Malian military and the Tuareg rebels – with the help of other governments in the region – to hold peace talks. The current crisis has already displaced more than 100,000 people across impoverished borders in the middle of a severe Sahelian hunger season. There is no time to waste.