[dehai-news] Sheikh Sharif's Power Play

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From: Eri News (er_news@dehai.org)
Date: Tue Feb 10 2009 - 06:35:54 EST

Somalia: Sheikh Sharif's Power Play
Feb 10, 2009 - 5:38:03 AM

Report Drafted By:
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

In the days following Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad's election as president of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) on January 31, there has been an outpouring of analyses, journalistic commentaries, opinion pieces, and official statements from all the domestic and external interests with a stake in that country's future; they have focussed on what he should do to achieve the goals for which they desire him to work. Their agendas are diverse and often contradictory, reflecting Somalia's political fragmentation and the different priorities of the multitude of actors, each of which is pursuing its own perceived interests. Were Sheikh Sharif to attempt to heed all of his well wishers and critics, he would be politically drawn and quartered, and rendered
immobile. The only actor whose interests have been neglected is Sheikh Sharif

Some interests that are concerned primarily with blunting the power of Islamism want him to go after the armed resistance groups, particularly al-Shabaab, that oppose that T. F. G., with some among them urging that he reach out to the "moderates" within those groups, and others that he move to suppress them with military force. Others counsel that he should heal the rifts between his faction and the secular clan-based factions in parliament. Some tell him to involve the self-declared independent Republic of Somaliland and the provisionally autonomous sub-state of Puntland in negotiations; others counsel that he concentrate his efforts on southern and central Somalia, or even on the country's official capital Mogadishu, where his fledgling administration has yet to move from Djibouti. Some tell him that he needs to gain the support of international donors and regional states for an enhanced African Union peacekeeping force; others tell him to try to have the small force that is currently on the ground leave a
s quickly as possible. The litany of advice could go on much longer and each of the suggestions/demands could be nuanced interminably; the foregoing simply provides an indication of the "demand overload" with which Sheikh Sharif is burdened from all sides.

Reading the mountain of commentary on Sheikh Sharif's presidency gives one the
sense that his would-be advisers and critics understand him not as a prince but
as a puppet; yet at the same time, they often appear to endow him with extraordinary powers - a perfect servant or compliant genie. Optimists say that he has a "window of opportunity" and pessimists that he has been given a "poisoned chalice" - both of those phrases appeared side by side in an editorial in Kenya's East African. In either case, the sentiment is accompanied by marching orders, which taken together lead in wildly different directions.

The text(s) of Sheikh Sharif would be an occasion for postmodern literary criticism, in which the Sheikh plays the role of "empty signifier" to be endlessly coded and recoded, were it not that the various opinions represent greater or lesser vectors of power acting on him. As can only be expected, everyone claims to have Somalia's interest at heart, as well as their own, with the latter upon even superficial inspection trumping the former, which is not to condemn any of the "stakeholders," but only to state the obvious - that they are political actors.

Sheikh Sharif as Prospective Prince

Lest we forget, Sheikh Sharif is also a political actor with his own agenda and strategies for fulfilling it, which are revealed by his words and deeds since he carried his faction of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (A.R.S.) to Djibouti in 2008, after splitting with his rivals in the political opposition to the T.F.G. who remained in their base in Asmara. After the split, Sheikh Sharif made it plain that his aim was to institute a broad-based Islamic-influenced state in Somalia through a dual-track strategy of using diplomacy with the donor powers to turn them against the Ethiopian occupation of the country while condoning armed resistance against the occupation to wear Ethiopian forces down so that they would be forced to withdraw. Sheikh Sharif's strategy involved wooing the "international community" by agreeing to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the T.F.G. in Djibouti brokered by the United Nations and supported by Western and regional powers, except for Eritrea.

Through the second half of 2008, Sheikh Sharif walked a tightrope between the external powers, which insisted on an "inclusive" political formula for Somalia, and his domestic base in the Islamic Courts Union (I.C.U.), which was rooted in the Hawiye clan family and supported a political formula of Islamic nationalism, stressing the broad base to the former and his commitment to Islamism to the latter, which he has continued to do since his election. Confident that the T.F.G. would be rendered powerless by an Ethiopian withdrawal and that the donor powers would be forced to hand the transitional institutions over to him, Sheikh Sharif dug in and waited for his opportunity to pounce.

That opening came when Ethiopia began to pull out of Somalia in January and the
donor powers panicked over a looming "security vacuum." At that point, Sheikh
Sharif insisted that he would only cooperate in power sharing if the membership of the transitional parliament was doubled to 550, with 200 of the new seats going to his Djibouti faction of the A.R.S. and 75 held back to be filled in the future by groups outside the negotiations. Anxious to rush the process, the external actors applied diplomatic pressure on the T.F.G. to accede to Sheikh Sharif's demand and to add the bonus of extending the T.F.G.'s term from August 2009 to August 2011. The only concession that Sheikh Sharif had to make was to agree to apportion the seats given to A.R.S.-D on the 4.5 clan representation system of the Transitional Federal Charter, which worked to his benefit by making A.R.S.-D appear to be representative.

Having pressured the transitional parliament to submit to Sheikh Sharif's demands, the external actors - still seized by panic - moved to have the presidential election held immediately in the expanded 475 member parliament. Eleven candidates competed for the presidency - ten of them representing sectoral and clan interests, and one of them - Sheikh Sharif - leading a political bloc. The results were foreordained: having failed to receive the required two-thirds majority, Sheikh Sharif won the first round of voting
215-154; in the second round, facing only Maslah Barre, the son of former dictator Siad Barre, Sheikh Sharif prevailed by 293-126 by the force of his bloc (Barre received a majority of electors outside A.R.S.-D).

The intent here is not to add to the "What should Sheikh Sharif do for Somali (meaning what the interests in question want for themselves)?" discourse, or to detail the obstacles he will face in achieving the aims of those interests (or his own), but to look back for a moment and see how he achieved his position through a well-crafted power play that let him pick up the pieces of the T.F.G.'s wreckage by taking advantage of the armed resistance's successes on the ground against the occupation; the weak resolve of the external actors and their fears of revolutionary Islamism that resulted in their panic; and his ability to hold his bloc together. Whatever he once might have been during the Courts Revolution of 2006, when he was overmatched by his rival, the "old fox" Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys who is currently a power in the militant A.R.S. Asmara faction, Sheikh Sharif is now a prospective prince in Machiavelli's sense, who has learned how to be a political in-fighter.

Describing Sheikh Sharif's strategy shows that he is neither the naive reformer lacking political savvy, the craven and greedy sell-out to the West (infidels), the "man-of-the-year" celebrity, or the last great hope for the Somali people, as he has been cast by different would-be directors; but a seasoned politician who is unashamed to exploit the successes of his rivals and prey upon the weaknesses of potential supporters, and - at least until now - is capable of controlling his base. It is understandable that acknowledging Sheikh Sharif as a power player is not expedient for his supporters in the Hawiye clan family, his Islamist backers, and his Johnny-come-lately external sponsors, all of whom want to market him as a unifying figure for their own purposes. Nor do Sheikh Sharif's opponents and detractors want to give him credit for political finesse. Yet the fact remains that Sheikh Sharif has come to resemble his predecessor Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who was forced out of the presidency by the
"international community," or the "old fox" Aweys, with the difference that Sheikh Sharif is holding an olive branch - for the moment - rather than a gun. In short, Sheikh Sharif is a member in full standing of Horn of Africa politicians - the prospective boss of a political machine - which is to give him due credit for learning the ropes.

That is not to say that Sheikh Sharif will succeed in executing his strategy; the odds are stacked against him so high that they appear to be insurmountable. Every time he makes a move to broaden his base in one direction, he will excite the opposition from other directions and risk shedding from his base - unless he has favors to dispense, which can only be provided by the tepid donor powers. The prospective prince is in this case dependent, which is not part of Machiavelli's play book. The outpouring of tendentious "advice" pelting Sheikh Sharif is sufficient to show his compromised predicament without going into the substance of the friendly and hostile interests, and allies of convenience giving it. Among all the analysts commenting on Sheikh Sharif, the most perceptive is Ahmed Egal who grounds his studies in political science and
concludes that Sheikh Sharif's best short-term chance is to lead his Hawiye-Abgal sub-clan into an alliance with the Hawiye-Habar Gedir so that he can gain a foothold in Somalia's central regions. Going beyond Egal's astute judgement, should Sheikh Sharif be able to do that, he would get a machine going that might stop there and consolidate, or in some unforeseen way extend its power.


The optimism of some Western analysts concerning Sh.Sharif's prospects demands a radical suspension of disbelief.The most extravagant among them, John Prendergast of the Center for American Progress, went so far as to tell CNN's Tricia Escobedo that the "ascendancy of Sheikh Sharif provides an opportunity to create an inclusive coalition governing Somalia from the center outwards." If that was not enough, Prendergast went on to say: "The fulcrum for change is in the hands of Sheikh Sharif's government. If he is able to put together an inclusive government - even if it's only on paper, even if it's only in Djibouti n- I think it will quickly defuse any fervor of support for Shabaab."

Prendergast's effusion beggars belief; but its fantastic perspective can be traced to the interest that incites it - Washington's continuing obsession with "anti-terrorism," which has always led to manic-depressive political psychosis that promises to characterize the new Obama administration, now in its manic phase.

Compare Egal's sobriety to Prendergast's intoxication and one will learn volumes about the persistence of the ethnocentric colonial mentality. Sheikh Sharif has already seen it all and he will play his weak hand accordingly, as Yusuf, Meles Zenawi, Isaias Afawerki, and Ismail Omar Guelleh have done, relative to circumstance and strategy, and acknowledging that principle without power is empty - he will try to build a machine, which can never be all-"inclusive."

Report Drafted By:
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein, Professor of Political Science, Purdue University

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