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Somalia Enters a Revolutionary Situation


Sheikh Sharif Ahmed & Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

Since June 5, when the Islamic Courts Union (I.C.U.) -- now institutionalized and renamed the Islamic Courts Council (I.C.C) -- took control of Somalia's official capital Mogadishu, routing a rival alliance of Washington-backed warlords, the country has been in an incipient revolutionary situation.

The revolutionary character of Somalia's politics became evident when the hard-line Islamist faction of the I.C.C. led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on Washington's list of al-Qaeda supporters, gained ascendancy over the moderate group headed by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on June 25. Whereas Ahmed had said that the I.C.U. was not interested in imposing an Islamist social model on Somalia and was only concerned with bringing peace and order to the country, Aweys insisted that the new I.C.C. would not be satisfied with anything less than a state governed by Shari'a law.

The rise of the I.C.C. changed the balance of power in Somalia's stateless society decisively, throwing the internationally supported but increasingly impotent Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.), based in the town of Baidoa, on the defensive. As the I.C.C. swept through most of Somalia's south and consolidated its gains, the T.F.G. desperately pleaded for support from international and regional organizations in the form of a peacekeeping mission, and was met with a tepid response. Alarmed by the possibility of a hostile Islamist state on its border, Ethiopia sent troops into areas of Somalia as yet outside I.C.C. control and reportedly deployed troops and armored vehicles in Baidoa to protect the T.F.G.

Pushed into a corner, the T.F.G. acquiesced in negotiations with the I.C.C. brokered by Sudan and the Arab League (A.L.) that ended in an agreement on June 22 in which the adversaries committed to a cease-fire and recognized one another. Mutual recognition was a severe blow to the T.F.G., which had clung to its international recognition as the sole legitimate authority in Somalia. The Khartoum agreement, which immediately preceded the I.C.C.'s formation and shift to hard-line leadership, soon began to fall apart as the I.C.C. moved militarily to eliminate remaining rivals in its sphere of control and began to set up a political and administrative apparatus in direct competition with the T.F.G.

As prospects faded that the I.C.C. and T.F.G. would hold a second round of talks in Khartoum on July 15 to begin work on a reconciliation process, the political situation in Somalia began to polarize under the pressure of the I.C.C.'s revolutionary momentum. During the week of July 9 and into the week of July 16, polarization widened as the T.F.G. backed out of the Khartoum talks -- scuttling the only extant option for international mediation of the conflict -- and a longstanding split between its executive and legislative branches widened, with parliament authorizing independent negotiations with the I.C.C. On July 17, the T.F.G.'s executive branch caved in and agreed to work with parliament on how to enter talks with the I.C.C.

With the T.F.G. in disarray and all external actors save Ethiopia calling for it to begin "dialogue" with the I.C.C., the Courts movement proceeded to secure its complete control over Mogadishu, rooting out the last vestiges of the warlords' militias, taking possession of key elements of the city's infrastructure and entrenching its Islamic social experiment. Although most Western analysts have predicted that rifts between the hard-liners and moderates in the I.C.C. would surface, that traditional clan rivalries would hamstring the I.C.C. and that Somalia's generally moderate Muslim population would resist the imposition of Shari'a law, none of those projection has yet to materialize. Although the I.C.C. has met with some opposition, its momentum has not been retarded and Aweys and Ahmed appear to be working in concert.

The key to the I.C.C.'s surprising success is its vitality as a revolutionary movement in a phase of ascension. Rising revolutionary movements, although riven with divisions, often overcome their internal divergences through a momentum that generates common expectations of success, solidarity and popular support. Although it is surely possible that the I.C.C. will follow the T.F.G. in succumbing to internal divisions, none of the domestic and external players in Somalia are counting on that. The I.C.C. is now the clear protagonist in Somalia, and all the other actors are engaged in defense, damage control or bids for access to the Courts movement.

The Courts Advance

Although the I.C.C. had gained effective supremacy in Mogadishu on June 5, one warlord -- Abdi Hassan Awale Qeybdid -- remained in the city with his militia, several warlords who had fled the city still controlled fighters loyal to them there, and key facilities -- notably the seaport and airport -- eluded the I.C.C.'s grasp. The I.C.C. was not facing active military resistance from the warlords' remnants, but their presence constituted a possible foothold for future opposition and stood in the way of its ability to institute a comprehensive administration over the city.

Having reorganized the I.C.U.'s loose coalition of neighborhood clan-based courts into a tighter political and administrative apparatus with a policymaking committee headed by Aweys and an executive committee led by Ahmed, the new I.C.C. moved on July 9 to eliminate Qeybdid and his militia, attacking the warlord's stronghold in the Dharkinley district with artillery, triggering a battle resulting in scores of deaths. On July 11, the I.C.C. achieved victory when Qeybdid fled the city and 500 of his fighters surrendered to the Courts and turned over their weapons.

Qeybdid had received support in the battle from militias loyal to minor warlord Abu Shakri and T.F.G. Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Aidid, who also surrendered. In quick succession, all of the other warlord militias followed suit, including the supporters of Bashir Rage, Abdikadir Bebe and Muse Sudi Yalahow. On July 13, T.F.G. Ports Minister Mohamed Jama Furuh, whom some analysts had considered a possible counter-force to the I.C.C., turned over Mogadishu's seaport to the Courts. The I.C.C. had already wrested control of the city's airport a week earlier from warlord Umar Finish. On July 15, the I.C.C. could declare with confidence that all of Mogadishu was under its control.

As it gained full possession of Mogadishu, the I.C.C. intensified its efforts to institute a regime of Islamic law over the territory that it controlled in a series of actions including a public flogging of 11 youths in the town of Jowhar who had been convicted of offenses ranging from buying illegal gemstones and possession of hashish to loitering.

The expansion of the I.C.C.'s power was not entirely uncontested. On July 13, I.C.C. forces opened fire on a demonstration of traders in Jowhar protesting the imposition of market taxes, killing one demonstrator and arresting others. More seriously, a moderate Muslim movement -- Ahlu Sunna wal Jama'a (A.S.W.J.) -- declared jihad on Aweys for the I.C.C.'s attack on Qeybdid. A.S.W.J. leader Ma'alin Shire Mohammed Ali warned of an outbreak of "sectarian fighting." The A.S.W.J.'s credibility as an emerging center of opposition to the I.C.C. was thrown into doubt when an international fact-finding mission met with the I.C.C. but failed to do so with the A.S.W.J., which had asked to be consulted.

On balance, the week of July 9 registered a clear advance for the I.C.C. Not only did it root out the remnants of rival militias and take control of key, though decrepit, infrastructure, but it also started up regional administrations outside Mogadishu, opened the airport for a flight -- the first since 1995 -- and won the support of HornAfrik, the most popular radio station in Mogadishu. Opposition to the I.C.C.'s rule in the areas under its control was fragmented and sporadic; the Courts had completed the consolidation of their power and were well positioned to exploit their resources to make further gains.

The T.F.G. Retreats

The advances of the I.C.C. threw the T.F.G. into disarray. A creature of external powers -- international and regional organizations, and Western donor states whose aid is essential to alleviate Somalia's severe humanitarian crises -- the T.F.G., which was formed in 2004, has never commanded the popularity, legitimacy and support necessary to forge a credible national administration.

From its inception, the T.F.G. has been riven by internal divisions, focused on the rivalry between its executive branch headed by its president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who is allied with Ethiopia and has a power base in the breakaway mini-state of Puntland, and its legislative branch led by parliamentary speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan, who was affiliated with the Mogadishu warlords and now is seeking a deal with the I.C.C.

The T.F.G. is further weakened by the fact that it has no security forces of its own; a 3,000-man militia that protects it in Baidoa is loyal to Yusuf. Isolated in Baidoa, the T.F.G. does not even control its temporary capital, where it is checked by traditional clan authorities and where the I.C.C. has gained a presence.

Almost completely dependent on the external powers that provide it with finances and, in Ethiopia's case, with weapons -- in contravention of a United Nations arms embargo -- the T.F.G. executive has consistently appealed for an international peacekeeping force that would defend it from the I.C.C. and would arm and train its own military force. The T.F.G.'s plea for peacekeepers has met with rhetorical support from the African Union (A.U.), but the U.N. Security Council has refused to exempt peacekeepers from the arms embargo.

Chronically hobbled by its internal divisions and the lukewarm support of external powers, the T.F.G. has had its tenuous position further weakened by the rise of the I.C.C., which has deepened the rift between Yusuf and Adan, and has convinced external powers -- except Ethiopia -- to insist that it engage in "dialogue" with the I.C.C. on a power-sharing agreement. Having lost a clear claim to undisputed international legitimacy, the T.F.G. has fallen into a state of collapse and its executive counts Ethiopia as its only sure ally.

A paper authority with no genuine power, the T.F.G. has continued to create institutions that have little chance of functioning effectively. On July 7, it swore in its first regional governor, who was selected through "reconciliation conferences" guided by the U.N. Development Program (U.N.D.P.). On July 8, it installed the justices of its high court. Unlike the I.C.C.'s institution building, the T.F.G.'s efforts have already been outrun on the ground.

The I.C.C.'s military success against Qeybdid, its formation of its own administrative institutions and its imposition of Shari'a law placed Yusuf and his faction in the T.F.G. at a severe disadvantage in the Khartoum peace process. Through the week of July 9, the T.F.G. executive faced international pressure to attend the July 15 talks and vacillated, first saying that it would not negotiate with the I.C.C. hard-liners, then backtracking and announcing that it would participate in the discussions, and finally persuading Sudan to put the talks on hold.

The rupture in the T.F.G. came on July 10, when -- fresh from the defeat of his militia in Mogadishu -- Aidid chaired a cabinet meeting in which it was resolved to "reconsider" T.F.G. participation in the Khartoum process. The next day, Minister of State for Parliament and Government Abdurahman Aden Ibrahim -- representing Adan's faction -- expressed "disappointment" with Aidid and insisted that the T.F.G. would negotiate in Khartoum.

By July 13, the T.F.G. executive had persuaded Sudan to delay the July 15 talks indefinitely, marking a defeat of Khartoum's and the A.L.'s efforts to function as honest brokers in the conflict. Adan responded by chairing a parliamentary debate, which ended with a 25-2 vote in favor of participating in the talks.

On July 14, Yusuf addressed the T.F.G.'s parliament, setting out a long list of reasons why he had scuttled the Khartoum process, including the presence of "extremists" in the I.C.C. delegation, the charge that the I.C.C. was preparing to invade Baidoa, the recruitment of foreign fighters -- mostly ethnic Somali rebels from Ethiopia -- by the I.C.C., the I.C.C.'s move to create a parallel administration and the I.C.C.'s violation of the cease-fire agreement in their attack on Qeybdid. Finalizing the rift, on July 15, Adan announced that a parliamentary delegation would initiate reconciliation talks with the I.C.C. on its own and accused Yusuf of being "out of touch with reality."

Faced with the unwinding of his authority and pressures from external powers, Yusuf and his ally Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi met with Adan on July 17 and agreed to form a "joint committee" that would attend future discussions with the I.C.C. Whether the deal will hold is unclear, since it represents a serious concession by Yusuf, who had scuttled the Khartoum process because of his weakened position.

Confident of its rising power, the I.C.C. sent a delegation to Khartoum, which was flown there on an A.L. plane from Mogadishu's airport. The I.C.C. delegation met with Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and A.L. officials, and gained their support, marking a tilt of the Arab bloc, which does not have allies in the T.F.G., toward the I.C.C. and away from its efforts to be an honest broker. Distrustful of Ethiopian intentions in Somalia, the Arab bloc now appears to have taken sides, bolstering the I.C.C.'s position and rendering the efforts of international organizations, the A.U. and Western powers to spur a power-sharing agreement problematic.

As Yusuf retreated from the Khartoum process, he became increasingly dependent on Ethiopia, which reportedly mounted fresh incursions into Somalia. Ousted warlord and ex-governor of Somalia's Middle Shabelle region Mohammad Dheere was reportedly shuttling between Addis Ababa and Baidoa in an effort to revive the warlords' alliance and unite it with the T.F.G. under Ethiopia's military and financial support. Warlords Botan Ise Alin and Abdi Nur Siyed reportedly crossed from Somalia into Ethiopia.

The T.F.G. executive's dependence on Ethiopia, which fought a war with Somalia in 1977 and is a prime target of Somali nationalist sentiment, and its collusion with discredited warlords indicates its desperate position. It no longer appears that the T.F.G. is coherent and credible enough to be a negotiating partner in a reconciliation process -- despite the promise of a "joint committee" to meet with the I.C.C. -- leaving the A.U., U.N., and the U.S. and European powers that are working within the Washington-inspired Contact Group (C.G.) with the major pillar of their policy of containing and moderating the I.C.C. shattered. The stage is set for a possible confrontation between Addis Ababa and the I.C.C. amidst the wreckage of the T.F.G.

On July 17, Somali media reported that Yusuf and Aidid were in Puntland for talks with its administration in the town of Gorow. Aidid had been urging Yusuf to remove the T.F.G. executive to Puntland and abandon Baidoa, which would recreate a territorial split between the T.F.G.'s executive and legislature that existed before January 2006.

External Actors are Left Behind

With the exception of Ethiopia, which has actively supported Yusuf's faction in the T.F.G., and Eritrea, which has a simmering border conflict with Ethiopia and has backed the I.C.C., the other external actors with interests in Somalia have proven unable to adapt to the rise of the Courts and the collapse of the T.F.G. with coherent and decisive strategies, and have remained at least one step behind events on the ground.

Divided within themselves by member states that have taken sides in past internal Somali conflicts, the A.U., and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (I.G.A.D.), a regional grouping of Somalia and its neighbors, have given formal support to the T.F.G. and have promised to provide troops for a peacekeeping mission if an exemption is made to the arms embargo by the U.N. Security Council. Their support for the T.F.G., however, has not run deep and their effectiveness is dependent on diplomatic and financial backing from Western powers, which have also given formal support to the T.F.G., but have been unwilling to empower it.

The United States, which backed the defeated warlords in an effort to capture al-Qaeda operatives whom it believes are being sheltered by the Islamists, has drawn back and now appears to have decided to work with international and regional organizations and not to follow its former Ethiopian partner on the path of confrontation. Interested European powers, especially Great Britain and Italy -- the former colonial rulers of Somalia -- have done the same, as has the United Nations.

The result of the convergence of the preponderance of external players has not been a firm and resolute consensus, but a tentative and compromised approach that has deprived them of any control over the evolving revolutionary situation in Somalia.

During the week of July 9, an A.U.-I.G.A.D.-European "fact-finding mission" visited Somalia in an effort to determine the feasibility of deploying peacekeepers, and met with pleas for immediate deployment from the T.F.G. executive and outright rejection from the I.C.C., which threatened publicly to wage war against any foreign force. Nonetheless, when the mission released its report on July 10, it expressed "optimism" that the I.C.C. and T.F.G. would be "willing to dialogue."

On July 13, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said that Washington was encouraging the T.F.G. to participate in the Khartoum talks and repeated the operative word "dialogue." The C.G., which has added to its core Western membership representatives from the A.U. and A.L., met on July 17 and issued a statement repeating Frazer's call.

The Security Council took a first tentative step toward approving an exemption to the arms embargo, endorsing a British draft "statement" without legal authority promising that the Council would consider a "detailed proposal" for a "peace support mission" from the A.U. or I.G.A.D. if it believed that such a mission would "help Somalia." The statement also affirmed that the arms embargo contributes to Somalia's "security" and promised that the Security Council would "urgently" consider how to strengthen it.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack summed up the posture of the external actors when he said that Washington was "studying the shifting sands" of Somalia's political landscape and had not reached a firm position toward the I.C.C.

Although there are abundant reasons why the external players are unable to act -- they are compromised and divided within and among themselves -- their failure to devise coherent strategies and their weak calls for "dialogue" have allowed the I.C.C. to advance unhindered, contributed to the breakdown of the T.F.G. and raised the probability of an armed confrontation between the I.C.C. and Ethiopia, which would be likely to generate a wave of ultra-nationalism in Somalia that would redound to the advantage of the Courts and might ignite a regional war.

The lapses of the A.U., I.G.A.D. and the Western powers were what allowed the A.L. to step into the void and initiate the Khartoum process, which the other external players quickly and enthusiastically endorsed, only to see it disappear with the T.F.G.'s implosion. The I.C.C. is the gainer here; it has acquired Khartoum's and the A.L.'s support, is threatened only by Ethiopia and has divided the T.F.G.


During the week of July 9, Somalia's fluid political situation began to take a revolutionary course, as it became more probable that the I.C.C. would be able to realize its program of creating an Islamic state.

Analysts tend to underestimate the advantage that ascending revolutionary movements derive from their adherents' sense of advancing toward more successes, the solidarity generated by that sense and the appeal that it has for a dispossessed public. The I.C.C. has internal divisions and external foes, one of which -- Ethiopia, especially if it gained Washington's blessing -- can pose a serious threat to the realization of its aims. Yet the I.C.C.'s weaknesses do not seem to have retarded its forward march.

That is not true for the other players, save Ethiopia, who have either succumbed to their internal divisions (the T.F.G.) or have not resolved them and are in a state of suspense (international and regional organizations, and Western donor states). The I.C.C.'s advantage is clear.

It is too early to determine whether the I.C.C. will carry through a successful Islamic revolution in southern Somalia, but its rising power has allowed it to define the situation in terms of the fate of its program; the I.C.C. has assumed the role of protagonist and by virtue of that Somalia's fluid politics are taking on a more determinate configuration. The question is no longer what will become of Somalia, but whether it will have an Islamic revolution.

As of now, it is the I.C.C. versus Ethiopia, with everyone else on the sidelines. Another player might step in and alter the balance of forces, but that becomes less likely by the day.

Report Drafted By:
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein


The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of [email protected]. All comments should be directed to [email protected].

The opinions contained in this article are solely those of the writer, and in no way, form or shape represent the editorial opinions of "Hiiraan Online"

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