Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 June 2012
Issue No. 1101
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Turkey commits to Somalia

Reinvigorated international support led by Turkey in Somalia has been welcomed wholeheartedly but could signal Istanbul's desire to exert its influence in the Horn of Africa, writes Sayed Abdel-Maguid

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan set off to Mogadishu several months ago, it was not a cynical publicity stunt or tainted by any hypocritical motives. It was in every way a sincere expression of the sympathy that all Turks feel towards the heartrending situation of the Somali people. He had his wife and children with him, as well as several ministers, their wives, and some businessmen, and the purpose of the visit was to draw world attention to the magnitude of the human tragedy there and, simultaneously, to offer humanitarian aid and assistance to the legitimate government of Somalia and to help it in its war against terrorism. Shortly after their plane set off from Ankara another followed carrying Turkish artists, writers and civil society figures bent on the same purpose, to support and lift the morale of the Somali people, who received them with great warmth and hospitality. Another reason for that enthusiastic reception was that not long before this Turkish officials and entrepreneurs had inaugurated some new government buildings and reconstructed urban infrastructure that they funded.

The passengers on the Turkish flight must have felt some relief when their feet touched solid ground in Mogadishu airport. They had just experienced a dodgy moment up there when a bird flew into one of the airplanes engines -- throwing the plane slightly off course as it was heading toward the runway. Fortunately the pilot regained control and brought the aircraft down safely. Still, the incident did nothing to diminish the passengers' spirits. "At least we would have died in a Muslim country," said one.

The visit also coincided with a two-day long fundraising campaign aired on Turkish television that succeeded in raising $300 million for the Somali cause. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been instrumental in inspiring both its supporters and opponents to dig into their pockets and help the small, crisis stricken country on the Horn of Africa which, as Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozda put it, is finally seeing a glimmer of hope after so many years of being caught in the vice between the extremist the Shabab movements and piracy. Bozda continues: "Finally we have a window of opportunity to rescue this country from the cycle of conflict, death and drought. The Somali people deserve -- more than we do -- a normal life after decades of destitution filled with disturbances, warfare, famine and death."

These words were translated into practical mechanisms that placed Somalia together with the principles of "Islam and human brotherhood" squarely at the heart of Turkish diplomacy. Such mechanisms sought to sustain the Turkish drive to reach out to Somalia, in spite of the risks to Turkish diplomats, and they aimed to compel the international community to keep its attention focussed on that country. One of the tangible results is that Istanbul hosted two conferences in the space of less than four months to raise awareness and drum up support for Somalia. The Second Istanbul International Conference on Somalia took place on 31 May and 1 June and was attended by representatives of 54 nations, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and 300 delegates representing all segments of Somali society.

The first day of the conference, which took the theme "Preparing for Somalia's Future," was dedicated to setting goals that could be realised by 2015. In his address to participants, Somali Prime Minister Abdeweli Mohamed Ali stated that he believed that the actions undertaken by the conference's host country under the Justice and Development Party should serve as a model to be emulated not just by his own country but by all Islamic countries. However, he was also keen to stress that he did not want his country's name mentioned in the news solely in connection with famine and piracy. He hoped that reference would also be made to accomplishments, as few as they may be yet, for they are signs of progress which helped him to look forward to the day when Somalia would join the international economic order. He also stressed that the future of his country is in the hands of the Somali people which is why he expected a clear collective position from the international community on the means of support and the sources of funding for these people.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered reassurances on behalf of his government. "Ankara stands beside its Somali brothers and sisters, and will not abandon them, especially at this crucial time." To translate these words into deeds, the conference participants adopted a Turkish initiative to create a fund to meet Somalia's urgent and essential needs.

For his part, Augustine Mahiga, the UN secretary-general's special envoy to Somalia, drew attention to the political progress in Somalia and pledged that this progress would be supported. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon reaffirmed this and lauded the improvement in Somalia, though he also stressed the need for the Somalis to establish the rule of law and to extend the authority of the state throughout all parts of the country.

On the second day of the conference, Somali President Sheikh Sherif Ahmed sought to dispel Western concerns with respect to the progress of democracy in Somalia. He said that women had to contribute effectively in rebuilding the new Somalia and that women would probably occupy 30 per cent of the seats in the forthcoming parliament. The president then appealed to the international community to support his country in its fight against the terrorism of Al-Qaeda.

In this latter context, Sheikh Ahmed noted that his country's security apparatus was being restructured with the help of both Turkey and Egypt. Egypt, indeed, was on hand at the conference and its foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, confirmed the country's willingness to train the Somali security forces, army and coast guard. He took the occasion to remind conference participants that Egypt's support for Somalia in all fields and its contributions to human development and capacity-building in Somalia have continued uninterrupted for many years. Moreover, he added, this support has increased in spite of Egypt's current domestic circumstances.

The minister went on to confirm Cairo's willingness to participate in the reconstruction of Somali institutions, training Somali professionals, supplying legal expertise to assist in the process of drafting a new Somali constitution that fully conforms, without contradiction, to the principles of modern law, Somali traditions, and Islamic law. He added that Egypt, through the auspices of Al-Azhar, was also willing to help disseminate the principles of moderate Islam and to combat religious extremism and radicalism, which was one of the most important keys to remedying the problems in Somalia.

Turkey's Somali drive is part of a long- term strategy developed by the AKP to stake a place for Turkey in Africa that is consistent with Turkey's capacities and potential for helping Africans move to a future that, Turkish officials are certain, will be much better than the present. With regard to Somalia specifically Ankara will continue to offer humanitarian aid without intervening in domestic politics and without expecting anything in return. At the same time, the officials stress, nothing should prevent the two sides from developing common interests and opening opportunities to Turkish investment in Somalia. Indeed, there are signs that such activities have already begun. Ankara and Mogadishu have just signed two agreements on the establishment of regional development bureaus and their activities in Somalia. Furthermore, two months ago Ankara initiated regular Turkish Air flights to Somalia, four times a week, passing through Khartoum.

Which leaves us with one question: Is Turkey trying to compete with Egypt in the Horn of Africa which is closer and more strategically vital to Egypt than to Ankara?

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