In Somalia, the former chairman of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was elected as the country’s new president over the weekend. Reaction to the election of Sheik Sharif Ahmedhas been generally positive, although Islamist hardliners have been critical.
David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia and professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, spoke favorably about Somalia’s new president.
“It’s generally a positive reaction. It shows that the Djibouti peace process is alive and well and it is an indication that at least the possibility exists that Sheik Sharif and those who support him and the Djibouti process can in fact create a government of national unity. I don’t think there was any prospect of this until this development,” he says.
Asked the significance of the new leader’s former association with the ICU, Shinn says, “It’s significant, but it’s very difficult to know how much real grassroots support he has. Seemingly, he has a considerable amount. But that will certainly bring a number of Somalis into his camp. It might alienate a few, but he did have a reputation as being something of a moderate. So I don’t really see it as being a significant handicap at all. It’s probably much more of a benefit.”
Shinn says Ethiopia, which recently withdrew its troops from Somalia, has expressed favorable reaction to the election. However, the hard-line militia, al Shabab, views it differently.
“Al Shabab opposes it of course… saying they will not join this new unity government. But al Shabab is opposed to just about anything that has the possibility of bringing peace and unity to Somalia. I think al Shabab would only be happy if it were in charge of everything,” he says.
It’s unclear at this time whether Somali’s new president will have the military support to stand up to al Shabab. “That’s the big question and it will certainly be necessary to start peeling away some of al Shabab’s support. And I think that’s possible,” Shinn says.
Shinn says he doubts al Shabab members have any strong political commitment and may remain loyal to the group as long as they’re paid well. The selection of a new prime minister may also affect support for the hard-line group. He says the more broad-based the new government is the more successful it will be.
The former ambassador says the international community must support this process, saying, “There’s really no other game in town.” But he says the Arab world can play a key role.
“The Arab world can play an absolutely critical role, perhaps a more important role than that of any other group of nations. Both the Arab League and the organization of Islamic Conference…can, behind the scenes, simply get behind this effort to help make it work and to support it financially. And if they do that it will enhance enormously the possibility that this unity government will function well,” he says.