Caught Between Cynicism and the Specter of War

After ridding off Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia what was widely considered as the nation’s deadliest political parricides– the warlords — no sustainable peace is yet attained.

Internally, ever since the Transitional National Government (TFG) made its ambivalence to negotiate with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and participate in the Khartoum peace process known, ICU has taken certain unilateral measures that broadened its sphere of influence- measures that further alienated the paralyzed TFG. In fact, some analysts consider this as a prelude to an immanent clash between these two entities.

While the TFG is widely criticized for its incompetence as they remain in their self-imposed exile within the same country that they were elected to rule, the ICU has succeeded in securing peace and order in Mogadishu. They cleaned the city, for most part; they opened the ports, and stopped consumer exploitation and the importation of expired food and medicinal products. However, they started to loose public confidence as they started to impose harsh, top-down brand of Sharia. Also, as they alienate various civil society organizations (religious and secular) who not only cheered them against the warlords a few months earlier, but helped them get accepted as champions of the public interest.

ICU’s biggest challenge might be how to moderate those who are dangerously intoxicated with the euphoria resulting from the swift victory over the warlords who are riding high with a false sense of invincibility and indeed infallibility.

Though they only constitute a fringe minority, these individuals routinely freelance on narrow-vision fatwas and espouse rigid interpretation of Islam. These seem to be oblivious to the fact that the Qur’an itself was revealed in a piecemeal process, attesting to what the majority of the Islamic scholars agree: that societal reform is a process and that it should only be approached as such; and that no reform ever takes place without education.

As a result of the image that they project, some experts were quick to blame the September 17th murder of an Italian nun in Mogadishu and the attempted assassination of TFG President, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, in Baidoa the day after on ICU….describing these crimes as the “prevalent fanaticism” that personifies the courts. In reality, of course, the ICU issued statements condemning both acts and their perpetrators.

Either way, as more and more controversial (social and religious) measures are implemented in its name, it might become very difficult to convince people that this is not “the Taliban in their heyday”.

Externally, Ethiopia continues to aggressively use “war on terror” to push what the majority of Somalis recognize as that nation’s historical hegemonic ambition toward war-torn Somalia. "We will use all means at our disposal to crush the Islamist group…" said Ethiopia’s Information minister, Berhan Hailu. Threats like this one, coupled with the widely reported claim that Ethiopian forces are already in various towns in Somalia, has galvanized the ICU to run for its survival and mobilize some of its armed militias to specific boarder towns.

When not threatening a unilateral military confrontation, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, has actively been pushing a military intervention initiative that would send troops from “frontline states” such as his own, Kenya, and Uganda. And while the initiative has recently been approved by the African Union, it is adamantly opposed by the president of Djibout, Ismail Omar Guelleh, who is on record saying "to send troops to Somalia is meant to serve the interest of particular nations and not Somalia", and the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, who labeled the initiative as an “Ethiopian crusade”.

In the meantime: In a frantic diplomatic effort aimed to defuse the intensifying tensions in that part of the world, the UN and the Arab League have been sending their respective envoys to various countries to directly or indirectly pressure the TFG to not boycott the Khartoum peace process and for ICU to stop taking steps that could damage the peace process.

The US, on its part, has been the anxious spectator ever since the June fiasco in which the Bush administration was caught red-handed supporting the most vicious warlords of Mogadishu…

However, this might change soon.

The voices urging US paradigm shift toward Somalia have been growing in authority. An October 18th Washington Post editorial piece asserted that the Bush administration “ought to appoint a special envoy to the region that could begin to work with the Ethiopian, Eritrean and regional Somali governments, and try to restrain them from touching off a regional war”. Moreover, the administration “should seek contact with moderate elements in the Islamic courts (there are some) and encourage the ongoing mediation efforts of the Arab League” concluded the piece.

Already there are sporadic reports confirming that the State Department has been working through indirect diplomatic channels in dealing with the ICU. This may prove to be a golden opportunity for the US to mend fences with the Islamic world and regain its lost credibility, and to demonstrate that its controversial “war of terror” is not war on Islam. Conversely, this may also prove that the ICU is not, as some accuse them, ragtag radicals who severely lack both the vision and the diplomatic skills necessary to run a modern state.