A labour activist turned political grandee, Mali's Dioncounda Traore will be sworn in as interim president on Thursday with the job of pulling his West African country back from the brink of collapse.

As speaker of national parliament, he inherits power from the hapless leaders of a March 22 coup which spectacularly backfired by emboldening the very rebellion they wanted to destroy. Northern Tuareg rebels and their allies are now in effective control of three-quarters of the country.

While many Malians see Traore, 70, as a prime example of the establishment figure which failed for years to deal with the rising lawlessness in the desert north, backers say he is the safe pair of hands needed.

He is a man of great courage, of a great calm, all things which the country needs right now, said Tiebile Drame, a political wayfarer who shared a cell with Traore in the 1980s when the pair were jailed by the dictatorship of the time.

A softly-spoken polyglot who trained as a mathematician in the former Soviet Union, Algeria and France, Traore was one of the generation of politicians behind the African Spring of the early 1990s that saw strongarm leaders across the continent fall to pro-democracy movements.

Traore's trade union activities had cost him his freedom in the 1980s as he was repeatedly jailed by the regime of Moussa Traore (eds: no relation) before he was ousted in a coup 1991.

The army officer behind that coup was a young Amadou Toumani Toure, who quickly handed over power to civilians and then was elected a decade later as president - before himself being ejected from the palace by soldiers just over two weeks ago.

Traore fared well in the multi-party politics of the 1990s, becoming a founder member of the ADEMA umbrella group of anti-dictatorship activists and holding key ministerial positions including defence and foreign affairs in the government of President Alpha Oumar Konare.

COUP WARNING

A month after the Tuareg rebellion began in north Mali, Traore who was the presidential candidate for Mali's largest party in parliament and one of the favourites to replace Toure, warned that the country risked a military coup if elections planned for April were delayed.

Everything is possible, even a military coup, Traore told journalists during the February 16 press conference by a group of opposition parties.

If the elections are not held on the expected date, anything can happen. Anything can happen... even a coup, Traore said, adding that a long transition of at least two years could ensue from such a crisis, which he said would be a setback for Mali's democratic credentials.

So now we have a duty to fight so that this does not happen. This is our goal, we fight for the elections to take place, he said.

The irony was surely not lost on Traore this week when the military junta agreed to a brokered deal with West African mediators, which will see him take over as interim president.

According to the agreement, Traore is tasked with the near impossible mission of organising presidential elections within 40 days, even though many observers agree it was unlikely.

Nearly 80 percent of Malian territory comprising the northern regions of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal are under the control of MNLA Tuareg rebels who have declared an independent state in the north, and other armed Islamic groups.

Some however doubt Traore's ability to deal with the security crisis in the north.

As president of the National Assembly he never had the courage to tell people the truth about what was going on in the north, said Mariam Sacko a street trader in Bamako.

Aziz Ould Mohamed, another Bamako resident, said his closeness to the government of Toure was also a handicap, adding pointedly: Dioncouna is the president by accident.

(Additional reporting and writing by Bate Felix; editing by Mark John)