Somalia’s New President: Should Democracy Be His Priority?

Since its descent into civil war in 1991, Somalia has come to be known as the world’s prime example of a “failed state.” Between 1991 and 2012, it had no central government. The central government that exists today is wildly corrupt, and it struggles to administer its territory and provide basic services to its citizens. The Islamist militant group al-Shabaab controls portions of the country, and a large section of the country’s north is administered by a separatist government. As of Wednesday, Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, is now the man in charge of country’s slow healing process.

The location of Somalia in Africa

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, nicknamed Farmaajo, became the president of Somalia after a long-awaited and much-delayed election. Considering the fact that Somalia does not have the resources to extend the vote to all of its citizens, Farmaajo was elected not by the people but by 275 Members of Parliament and 54 Senators. These, in turn, had been elected by a group of 14,000 elders within Somalia’s traditional clan system. According to the New York Times, the election was marred by characteristic Somali corruption, with bribes from numerous sources buying off clan elders and MPs. It is surprising, then, that the victor of this expensive election is widely seen as the toughest on corruption during his tenure as prime minister.

For eight months in 2010 and 2011, Farmaajo was appointed the prime minister of Somalia. The prime minister has considerably less power than the president, but is responsible for numerous administrative duties. Farmaajo became known for reducing the number of ministers, regularly issuing military salaries, and setting up an anti-corruption commission. As a result, he became widely recognized as having the interests of the population at heart. He was dismissed by the president and speaker of the Parliament in 2011 “as part of their deal to extend the transitional government,” and “although the president was reluctant to see Mr. Mohamed go, he agreed in order to keep his own job.” After Farmaajo’s dismissal, riots broke out in response to what the people saw as one of the country’s few selfless politicians being dismissed by in a selfish act by his superior.

Farmaajo’s reputation for selflessness is accentuated by the fact that, after he stepped down as prime minister, he returned to his previous job in Buffalo, New York. A dual citizen of Somalia and the United States, Farmaajo had worked for many years as a nondescript employee of the New York State Department of Transportation, and he returned to his old cubicle in 2011. Thus his humble background is promising in that he appears to be motivated by a desire to help Somalia rather than by the pursuit of wealth or power, but it also raises the question of whether he will be able to rein in those who are not as selfless as he is.

The Somali government only controls the areas colored red on this map.

While he was prime minister, his harsh criticism of corruption failed to translate into progress. According to the anti-corruption organization Transparency International, “more than $72 million in donor assistance was stolen between 2009 and 2010, and a further $250 million in revenues could not be accounted for.” Clearly, the Somali government is plagued by a deep-rooted culture of corruption. Furthermore, the fact that the government frequently recruits high-ranking officials from overseas as it did with Farmaajo is indicative of the fact that the political elite is made up of only a tiny sliver of the population. What this ultimately means is that, despite Farmaajo’s best efforts, political power will likely remain concentrated within this very small, very corrupt group until the country’s security and developmental situations have improved enough to allow for greater civic participation. That’s something that the international community does not seem to understand.

After Farmaajo’s election, the US State Department released a statement that said “We encourage Somalia’s new administration to take credible steps to stamp out corruption and to establish strong electoral institutions to enable a free and fair one person one vote poll in 2020.” The west’s primary aim is to facilitate the establishment of democratic processes. This is a noble aim because democracy in western countries has largely succeeded in increasing the government’s accountability to the people, but it has often failed to live up to its promises in countries with dire security situations, low levels of development, and tiny governing elites. The real priority in Somalia should be to discourage a selfish political culture and encourage an accountable one, and building easily abused institutions around those who may exploit them may not be the way to do so.

The most promising aspect of Farmaajo’s election is that his attitude toward government seems to indicate that he will not exploit Somalia’s governing institutions. What is less promising, however, is the fact that the international community continues to push the belief that democracy is the ultimate goal. Before reaching for this goal (and reach for it he should, eventually), Farmaajo should focus his honest governance on prioritizing the security and developmental issues that impede it. Much of the world believes that democracy is an end to strive for. In reality, it is a means to achieve the end of a more responsible government. While it is often the most effective means to achieve that end, we mustn’t forget to question whether there are times when it is not.

No Iranians in Mecca: A Boycott and the Balance of Power

This Friday marked the beginning of the Hajj. Every Muslim must live in accordance with five essential pillars, and The Hajj–one of these pillars–stipulates that every Muslim must make a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia at least once in their life as long as they are able to do so. Thus millions of Muslims from dozens of sects and countries converge on Mecca each year to fulfill the Hajj. This year, however, there will be a significant absence. There will not be any Iranians in Mecca.

If we look into the past to find why exactly Iran is boycotting the Hajj this year, there a few different dates that could be pointed out. Many would agree that the conflict began on January 2, 2016. Others would point to September 24, 2015. Others would go further back and single out February 11, 1979. Still more would go even further to June 8, 632. Most would agree, however, that his year’s Hajj has become the latest flashpoint in the increasingly tense cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

On September 24, 2015, a catastrophe rocked Mecca. Around 2,400 pilgrims were crushed to death in a stampede during The Hajj. Over 400 of those were from Iran. As a result, the Iranian government has been harshly critical of Saudi authorities. It has accused them of being unable to successfully administer The Hajj and protect foreign citizens. For this reason, it has barred its citizens from participating this year. Iranians were not the only foreign citizens who perished, however. Why, then, has Iran been more critical of Saudi authorities than other countries? Well, there some political reasons. Or religious ones, depending on who you ask.

On January 2, 2016, the Saudi government executed a Shia cleric by the name of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. He was accused of inciting violence by the Sunni Saudi government, although most foreign observers believe his execution was merely a means to silence criticism. After al-Nimr, who was very popular in Shia Iran, was executed, Iranian protesters broke into the Saudi embassy in Tehran. As a result, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran. Thus it was in this state of heightened political tensions following the execution of al-Nimr that Iran has decided to bar its citizens from attending The Hajj.

Like Saudi Arabia, the United States also broke ties with Iran following an incident at their Tehran embassy. While the similarities shared by these two events may seem coincidental, they are, in fact, related. This is because the root of the political tensions that were inflamed by the execution of al-Nimr can actually be found even further back in history on February 11, 1979. It was on this day that Iran overthrew its monarchy and established an Islamic republic. Before 1979, Iran was like Saudi Arabia and the gulf states in that it was controlled by a pro-western monarchy. Revolutionaries derided this status quo, claiming the the Shah–the king of Iran–was a puppet of the west who was allowing the country to be contaminated by western culture. It is natural, then, that Saudi Arabia’s western-backed monarchy would feel threatened by this anti-monarchial and anti-western way of thinking. When this way of thinking came to power in Iran through the revolution, it legitimized an alternative to the Saudi model of government. As a result, a political rivalry was born.

Some, however, would argue that the roots of the Iran-Saudi Arabia go back even further. Back to June 8, 632. It was on this day that the prophet Muhammad–the founder if Islam–passed away. His death raised the question of who would succeed him as the religious and political leader of the Islamic world. Some supported Abu Bakr, who was one of Muhammad’s closest friends and confidants. Others believe that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, was chosen by Muhammad as his rightful successor. This disagreement resulted in the first split of the Islamic world into its two major sects. Supporters of Abu Bakr eventually came to be known as Sunnis, and the supporters of Ali came to know be known as Shias. Iran is the most powerful Shia country while Saudi Arabia is the most powerful Sunni one. Because of this, many view the rivalry between the two countries as a continuation of the religious differences that have divided them for centuries.

Do we have our answer, then? Is Iran boycotting The Hajj this year because Muhammad’s death resulted in a succession crisis in 632? Well, it isn’t that simple. Whenever a conflict arises in the Middle East, the split between the Sunnis and Shias is often cited as its root cause. Despite its convenience, however, we should be wary of using this centuries-old religious conflict as a scapegoat. In reality, it is the power dynamic between the two countries that has resulted in Iran’s decision to boycott The Hajj.

Like the United States and the Soviet Union, Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a cold war. Just as those two countries emerged as the two global superpowers following the Second Word War, Iran and Saudi Arabia have emerged as the two most powerful countries in the Middle East, and each threatens the other. The Kings of Saudi Arabia fear a revolution like that which toppled the monarchy in Iran, and the mullahs of Iran fear a popular rejection of their anti-western ideology in the face of Saudi Arabia’s vast wealth and prosperity. By bolstering their own power and attacking the power of the other, the two countries are attempting to prove the legitimacy of their own model of government so that it will not be replaced by the other’s. The boycott of the Hajj is merely an attempt by Iran to delegitimize the Saudi government, and the prescence of religious conflict merely offers a way for each government to justify their conflict.

While the United States and Soviet Union may have justified their conflict with airy proclamations of protecting “freedom” from “tyranny” and protecting “the proletariat” from “the bourgeoisie,” what the leaders of both countries really wanted, whether consciously or subconsciously, was to guarantee prosperity for themselves. It is for this reason that they worked perfectly well together when united against the common threat of nazism and only turned against each other once both had developed a nuclear weapon.

In the same way, the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia are using religious conflict to justify their political rivalry. The esoteric religious divisions between the Sunnis and Shias are not enough, in and of themselves, to cause conflict. It is the instinct of self-preservation among the leaders of the two countries that will keep the Shia-Sunni conflict alive, it is this instinct of self-preservation that will keep Iran and Saudi Arabia from working together until the interests of their leaders align, and it is the very same instinct of self-preservation that will keep Iranians out of Mecca this year.

Balancing Act: How the Kurdish-Turkish Conflict Imperils Progress in Syria

In a significant escalation of the Syrian Civil War, Turkish forces crossed into Syria on Tuesday in order to take the city of Jarabulus from ISIS. With the help of US air power, the Turkish offensive allowed the city to be taken by the Free Syrian Army, one of the largest groups in opposition to Assad’s regime. The Turkish offensive, however, was not simply an attempt to combat ISIS. It was also intended to send a message to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish group.

An alliance of militias in northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces are responsible for protecting a newly founded federation called Rojava. In the chaos of the Syrian Civil War, the people of Rojava have gained significant autonomy and have begun forging a society based on the principles of direct democracy, multi-ethnic confederalism, sustainability, and gender equality. While the implementation of these ideals sounds like a positive development in Syria’s Civil War, the Turkish government is strongly against the increasing power of Rojava. The reason for this is because it is dominated by an ethnic group called the Kurds.

The area inhabited by the Kurds
The area inhabited by the Kurds

The Kurds are an ethnic group of around 30 million people divided mostly between Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, the middle east was divided into independent states and European-controlled mandates. The way the land was divided, however, failed to provide a state for the Kurds, which is why they are now a large minority in many countries. For some Kurds, this has created a nationalist identity that has been fueled by a lack of representation.

This nationalist identity has caused significant conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish government. As the largest minority group in Turkey, the Kurdish population has long had a tense relationship with Ankara. The Kurdish population in Southeastern Turkey has long advocated for greater autonomy, with some agitating for secession. Despite recent progress in achieving peace between the Kurds and the Turkish government, conflict was renewed in 2015 with the disintegration of peace negotiations.

This conflict explains why Turkey fears the rising influence of the Syrian Kurds in Rojava. The Turkish government fears that the Syrian Kurds are supporting the Turkish Kurds, meaning that an increase in the power and autonomy of Rojava will increase the power of the Kurds in Turkey. This is a direct threat to the national integrity of Turkey.

Thus the offensive against ISIS was also a message to the Kurds. As a show of Turkish military strength, the offensive can be viewed as a veiled warning to the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish military also helped the Free Syrian Army secure the area, depriving Syrian Democratic Forces from occupying it.

So far, the United States has been supportive of the Turkish government. Vice President Biden, who is currently visiting Turkey, has warned the Kurds that, if they wish to continue receiving American support, they must withdraw to the east of the Euphrates river. The United States also showed its support of Turkey by providing air power to assist yesterday’s operation. At this time, the United States government believes that it is imperative that it shows support to Turkey.

Hold on, though. Isn’t Rojava attempting to forge a society based on democracy, ethnic inclusion, and gender equality? Aren’t those values that the United States considers important? Yes, they are. Furthermore, the Kurdish forces in both Syria  and Iraq have proven to be the most capable and reliable American allies in the fight against ISIS. Because the United States is so reluctant to put boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, it is the Kurds who are acting as the foot soldiers against ISIS. Why, then, is the United States alienating its crucial ally by supporting military action against it?

To understand why the United States is so unconditionally supporting Turkey, some background is needed. First, Turkey is a member of NATO, so the United States feels a certain obligation to support its ally. More significantly, Turkey was recently rocked by an attempted coup d’état. The coup attempt was meant to depose the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has slowly been attacking Turkey’s democratic institutions in order to cement his control. Erdogan blamed the coup attempt on Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric who is living in exile in the United States. Because Gülen is in the United States, the American government feels that it must show Erdogan that it is supportive of his government. It has done this by supporting the Turkish cause over the Kurdish cause.

The conflict between the Kurds and Turks has put the United States in an awkward place. How could it possibly choose which one to support? Turkey under Erdogan is slowly sliding away from the democratic values that the American State Department claims to promote. Rojava, on the other hand, is attempting to develop these values in a place where they are in short supply. Turkey, however, is a NATO member and a significant power in the region. But Rojava provides many of the most crucial logistical elements in the fight against ISIS. Each one is crucial to ending the conflict in Syria. It is in the interests of the United States to support both, but supporting one alienates the other.

By continuing to stoke the flames of conflict with the Kurds, Turkey is compromising the fight against ISIS. The United States should not allow this. It must use its considerable influence in the region to encourage reconciliation between these two groups. While reducing the tension between Turkey and the Kurds will be difficult, it is crucial that the United States pressures both sides to do so. If it takes a side–as it has over the past few days–it will risk upsetting an important ally.

Why a Peace Deal Won’t Solve Yemen’s Problems

The peace process between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels appears to be on the verge of breaking down after the government’s delegation walked out of negotiations. The two parties have been negotiating for months in Kuwait, but they have been unable to reach an agreement. The government delegation left Kuwait after accepting a proposed UN peace deal. The deal, however, will not be finalized unless the Houthis accept it by the August 7 deadline. Thanks to Yemen’s complex history and the geopolitics of the region, however, its conflict will be far from solved even if the Houthis do accept the deal. To understand why Yemen’s problems are likely to persist, it is important to understand how the country got to where it is now–17 months into a violent civil war.

The location of Yemen

Yemen is a very old place. Located in the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula, it has a temperate climate and has long been at the center of prosperous trade routes. As a result, its capital Sana’a is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Yemen’s recent history, however, has not been as bright. While the Arabian peninsula is often associated with obscene oil riches, Yemen could not be further from that reality. With rugged mountains and very little oil, Yemen is the poorest country in the Arabian peninsula. Most of its roughly 24 million people are employed in the agricultural sector.

During the Ottoman Empire’s long decline, Yemen–located at the empire’s southern fringes–began to slip out of its control. The northern portion of Yemen came under the control of imams of the Zaidi sect. The Zaidis, a Shiite group, established an independent kingdom. At the same time, the southern portion of Yemen became a British protectorate.

North and South Yemen
North and South Yemen

In the 1960s, great change came to Yemen. The Zaidi imams who had for years dominated the the north were overthrown by Arab nationalists. A civil war ensued, and the nationalists, with the help of an Egyptian military intervention, succeeded in establishing a secular republic. At the same time, an insurgency in the south prompted the United Kingdom to grant independence to its protectorate. Thus South Yemen was formed as a communist state. Despite the Cold War-era tensions that generally existed between democratic and communist states, North and South Yemen agreed to to merge in 1972.

North and South Yemen finally merged to become the Republic of Yemen in 1990. It was not, however, the smoothest of transitions. With a larger population, the institutions of North Yemen came to dominate the new nation. Sana’a, the capital of North Yemen, became its capital, and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of North Yemen, became its president. In 1994, officials from the south attempted to secede and a civil war ensued. The war resulted in a northern victory, which further marginalized those in the south south.

From 1994 to 2012, Yemen was ruled by Saleh. During that period, various insurgencies plagued the country. The Houthis, a group that claims to represent the Zaidis–whose imams had once ruled the North–began an insurgency near the northwest border with Saudi Arabia in 2004.  In 2007, a new group emerged in the south–the Southern Movement–that once again called for independence from the north. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emerged as one of the most dangerous branches of Al-Qaeda in 2009. While Saleh successfully consolidated his own leadership, his government struggled to consolidate its control over the country.

In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen. In 2012, Saleh, who had ruled North Yemen since 1978 and unified Yemen since its creation in 1990, was overthrown. He was replaced by Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. Hadi led Yemen through what was once lauded by US President Obama as a model transition. Since then, however, the model transition has fallen apart.

The evolution of Houthi control in Yemen
The evolution of Houthi control in Yemen

In July of 2014, Yemen’s government announced that fuel subsidies would be reduced, provoking mass protests. Recognizing the opportunity to take advantage of popular discontent with the government, Houthi militants left their northern stronghold and entered Sana’a in 2014. In January of 2015, they took over the presidential palace and forced Hadi to flee. The country was paralyzed. Supporters of former president Saleh joined forces with the Houthis and continued their sweep across the country. They were opposed by forces loyal to Hadi and southern separatists, who control parts of the south. The Houthis–a Shiite group–were also opposed by AQAP–a Sunni group. AQAP took advantage of the chaos to expand its own influence. ISIS, too, has now entered the fray.

The conflict escalated in March of 2015 when Saudi Arabia began an airstrike campaign in support of Hadi’s deposed government. The primary reason it intervened was because it feared that a Houthi government would expand Iranian influence to their southwest border. This is partially because Iran, which funds the Houthis, is Shiite while Saudi Arabia, like much of Yemen’s former government, is Sunni. Thus Yemen’s civil war has expanded into a religious conflict, an Islamist conflict, a separatist conflict, and a regional proxy war.

The situation in Yemen as of May 22, 2016. Control by the Houthis and Saleh supporters is shown in green, control by Hadi's forces red, by AQAP white, ISIS in gray, and other groups in blue.
The situation in Yemen as of May 22, 2016. Control by the Houthis and Saleh supporters is shown in green, control by Hadi’s forces red, by AQAP white, ISIS in gray, and other groups in blue.

This complexity is why previous peace deals have failed and why the proposed peace deal will do the same. Even if it is signed–which seems unlikely at this point–it is only Hadi’s government, the Houthis, and suppporters of Saleh that are at the negotiating table. Other groups that have taken advantage of the conflict, like AQAP, ISIS, the Southern Movement, and even Iran, will have no reason to support peace.

This war is the confluence of multiple historical forces that have resulted in the disenfranchisement of millions. The war began when the country’s widespread poverty resulted in frustration with the reduction of fuel subsidies. The violence of the Houthis is partially due to the fact that the Zaidis lost their place of power decades ago and became a Shiite minority in a Sunni majority country. The violence in the south is due to its loss of influence in 1990 and 1994. The violence of Saleh supporters is due to his loss of power in 2012. The violence of AQAP and ISIS is part of the global rise in Wahhabi terrorism that has taken advantage of society’s most disadvantaged individuals. These forces will remain even after a peace deal is signed. For this reason, peace in Yemen will not arise from a negotiating table. Instead, the underlying disenfranchisement that motivates those fighting must be addressed.

Letter to (Some) Liberals: Israel is Here to Stay

Over in the United Kingdom, a controversy has been brewing as Ken Livingston, the former mayor of London, was suspended from the Labour Party for comments that were deemed anti-semitic. A few weeks before, a Harvard Law student was criticized for calling a visiting Israeli politician “smelly.” And before that, the University of California released a statement condemning anti-semitism in response to accusations that criticism of Israeli policy had taken on a more sinister tone. Across the United States and Europe, it appears that a minority of liberals has begun to express opposition to the very idea of Israel’s right to exist. While criticism of Israeli policies are usually completely justified, the claim that Israel has no right to exist is at odds with liberal ideology.

The recent surge in anti-zionism has its roots in liberal opposition to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Over this course of this occupation, Israel has built illegal settlements on Palestinian land, has arguably responded to Palestinian protest with excess force, has blockaded the Gaza Strip, and has enforced overtly discriminatory policies. There is widespread consensus that these actions constitute human-rights abuses. On top of it all, the current Israeli government has shown little commitment to restoring peace and dignity to the Palestinians. As a result, it is no surprise that liberals, who value equality and the respect of human rights, object to Israel’s actions. Yet channeling opposition of these policies into a hatred of Israel is a gross oversimplification of a complex conflict. Thus, while the criticism of Israel’s policies can and perhaps should be encouraged, the small group of liberals that condemns Israel’s mere existence should rethink their beliefs.

Israel was founded as a refuge for persecuted Jews. In the years following the Holocaust, it became clear that such a refuge would be a welcome addition to the world. Now, its Jewish residents have called it home for generations. Over the years, it has developed into the strongest democracy in the Middle East. It has a prosperous economy and is a beacon of stability in an unstable region. For that reason, it is a stalwart military ally of the West. It is unfortunate that such progress came at the expense of Palestinians, but to argue that Israel should be dissolved is foolish based on both strategic realities and liberal principles.

To many, it appears that Israeli Jews have switched sides. They’ve gone from the oppressed to the oppressor. And because they are the oppressor, that means that some liberals consider them the enemy. Such reasoning is incoherent. To direct one’s anger at millions of innocent Israeli Jews is an example of the same generalization and lack of empathy that many liberals take pride in loathing. While Israel certainly is oppressing Palestine, we must still remember that Israel is a nation of individuals who, like everyone else, deserve our consideration. Those who condemn Israel’s existence seem to forget that.

For this reason, criticisms of Israel should be kept within the realm of politics. We must always feel free to criticize policies and governments, but we must refrain from judging an entire country or people. It is judgements like these that we liberals hate most. This is a very complicated conflict, and we liberals owe it to both the Israelis and Palestinians to consider every facet of the issue before coming to a conclusion.