Shifts in Somalia as exile returns
By Mohamed Mohamed BBC Somali Service — The return of the Islamist opposition leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys to Somalia after two years in exile is the latest move in the seemingly perpetually shifting sands of Somali politics.
He fled to Eritrea in 2007 after Ethiopian troops ousted his movement, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).
While in Eritrea, Mr Aweys broke ranks with fellow UIC leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, because the latter started talks with the Somali government.
Mr Ahmed is now Somali president, after UN-brokered talks, while the US labels Mr Aweys a terrorist.
In Somalia, however, he is still considered to be the spiritual leader of all Islamist groups and is seen by many as being the country’s real kingmaker.
So who he chooses to align himself with matters for the future of Somalia.
President Sharif welcomed his return and hinted at the possibility of talks.
But Mr Aweys does not seem to be interested in making up with his former colleague.
Speaking to supporters in Mogadishu, Mr Aweys described the government of President Sharif as being appointed by the enemies of Somalia.
“Mr Sharif’s government was not elected by the Somali people and it is not representing the interests the Somali people,” he said.
He described the African Union peacekeepers is Somalia as “bacteria” who should leave or he will fight them.
Members of the radical Islamist group al-Shabab were said to have been at his welcoming rally and reliable sources say that Mr Aweys is talking to its leadership and other Islamist groups, including the newly formed umbrella organisation Hisbul Islam or Islamic Party.
If this is the case, it confirms fears that the kingmaker is more interested in toppling the president than supporting him.
Negotiating with al-Shabab is certain to provoke the anger of the government because it has been waging an open war on President Ahmed’s administration.
Al-Shabab want to kill meaningful people in society
They have attacked members of the government including the Interior Minister, Sheik Omar, who was slightly injured in an assassination attempt which killed one of his bodyguards.
Before that ambush, Mr Omar could move freely around Mogadishu.
He was a senior UIC official and the only one who stayed in the country to fight against Ethiopian troops and government forces led by former President Abdullahi Yusuf.
After the assassination attempt, Mr Omar’s forces raided al-Shabab hideouts in Mogadishu.
In one, three al-Shabab members were killed and another injured member was captured.
In the other, al-Shabab fought back and captured two members from the militia and a battle wagon (a vehicle mounted with an anti-aircraft gun).
Al-Shabab retaliated by killing a close friend of Mr Omar whose militia were thought to have been involved in the al-Shabab raids.
In response, the government seems to have adopted a twin-track policy.
First, it wants to negotiate with Islamist groups who are willing to talk.
We must deal with the mayhem of al-Shabab
A senior source told the BBC Somali Service that the president recently sent four close associates to meet Mr Aweys when he was in Sudan.
But Mr Aweys refused to talk to the delegation and also declined an offer of Sudanese mediation.
Second, it has taken the decision to fight back against any group that takes up arms against it and in particular al-Shabab.
In a strident statement, the Security Minister Omar Haashi declared war on the “satanic” al-Shabab.
He said: “We must deal with the mayhem of al-Shabab”.
The Somali parliament also changed the law so that anyone who fights against President Sharif is guilty of fighting against Islam.
But al-Shabab has also antagonised the leaders of the Hawiye clan, which dominates the area around Mogadishu. Their spokesman Ahmed Dire said he had been targeted.
Mr Dire said that the council was neutral and was “working for peace and talking to every group involved in the violence”.
“But whenever we try to contact al-Shabab, they lie to us or never call back”. He accused the group of wanting “to kill meaningful people in society”.
The battle lines seem to be drawn and al-Shabab seem to sense that a political storm is growing around it.
They deny that they attack members of the government or that they target Mogadishu elders.
Meanwhile local analysts say that moderate Islamists led by the president are on the verge of a violent confrontation with al-Shabab which could create little fiefdoms controlled by different factions in Mogadishu.
The government would be one of those factions and given past experience it would have a serious fight on its hands.
Perhaps looking ahead to this possibility, President Sharif has been travelling around a number of countries to get financial and technical support for his government to help with security.
The United Nations, European Union, Arab league and African Union have all pledged support worth millions of dollars.
Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke has said that AU forces will have to stay in the country to train Somali government troops – a statement which, given Mr Aweys’ recent comments, is bound to ratchet up tension.
The president says he has plans to deal with the security and piracy issues in Somalia, but if Mr Aweys openly sides with radical Islamists and al-Shabab, the president will have to decide what to deal with him too.
All eyes are on Mr Aweys.
Can an alliance be formed which could lead to peace? Or will the two former colleagues be locked in violent struggle?
From here, opposition and conflict look the most likely outcome.