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In Somalia, a Twist on 'Handshake Diplomacy'

Somalia's President Sharif Ahmed addresses a news conference inside the presidential palace in the capital, Mogadishu, Aug.4, 2009.
Somalia's President Sharif Ahmed addresses a news conference inside the presidential palace in the capital, Mogadishu, Aug.4, 2009. (Str - Reuters)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 6, 2009

NAIROBI, Aug. 5 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Somali President Sharif Ahmed are expected to discuss weighty security issues when they meet in this city Thursday. But many Somalis will be paying close attention to a more delicate, but highly symbolic, matter of diplomacy: whether the two will shake hands.

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"The talk is everywhere," said Abdirhaman Mumin, a Somali sugar exporter who is hoping for the handshake. "Will he or won't he? For many people, whether he's loyal to Islam or not depends on the handshake."

Somalia is a traditionally moderate Muslim country. Music and poetry are treasured, and handshaking between men and women -- taboo according to some conservative readings of Islam -- has long been considered normal. But since the collapse of the last central government in 1991, a more conservative strain of Islam has taken hold, with Somalis depending more on Islamic law to establish order.

Ahmed, a former geography teacher and Islamic scholar, was the widely respected leader of a movement of Islamist courts that briefly took power in 2006 and imposed a more strict interpretation of Islamic law. The movement was soon ousted in a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion fueled by accusations that the movement's military wing, known as al-Shabab, had ties to al-Qaeda.

These days, a more resolutely moderate Ahmed is back in power and battling the Shabab, which broke with him and now controls much of southern Somalia.

Increasingly, though, its members are rebels without a cause. They lost one of their main battle cries when the Ethiopian army withdrew from Somalia. They lost another recently, when Ahmed heeded a popular call and adopted Islamic law for the country. And so, at the moment, the Shabab is relying heavily on portraying Ahmed as an "impure" Muslim, a puppet of the West, a turncoat.

Last week, pro-Shabab Web sites were speculating about a possible shake between Ahmed and Clinton, arguing that, were it to come to fruition, it would prove that Ahmed had lost credibility with Islamists. Some Somalis have argued that Sharif should refrain from pressing palms, if only to keep the Shabab from scoring a public relations victory.

"If they shake hands, they'll definitely use it as propaganda," said one Somali analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Shabab is known to target critics.

But in recent interviews with Somali exiles -- a generally moderate bunch -- most said they are in favor of the handshake, a view that reflects their cautious optimism about U.S. support for Ahmed, usually referred to as Sheikh Sharif. The United States recently shipped 40 tons of ammunition to help the government fight the rebels.

The pro-shake crowd also reflects a deep-seated desire among many Somalis to shed their image as citizens of one of the most dysfunctional and anarchic countries in the world.

"I think it's good for him to shake hands," said Abdi Ibrahim, who was discussing the issue with friends at a cafe in Nairobi's bustling Eastleigh neighborhood. "Sheikh Sharif has to show Somalis that this is normal. Everyone shakes hands. Why should Somalis be different? Why the big deal? We need to join the world."

"But," he added somewhat gloomily, "the insurgents will use it to say he has changed a lot -- maybe he shouldn't. I cannot say 100 percent."

The former spokesman for the ousted Islamist courts movement, Abdirahim Issa Addou, said that in his view, Sharif is no longer interested in appeasing the Shabab and that "we need to show the Americans we're different."

Following that line of reasoning, he said, Sharif should not just offer Clinton a hearty handshake. "To me, I'd go as far as kissing her," Addou joked. "But really, Sheikh Sharif is in a difficult position. "You know," he said with a sigh, "that Sharif has a lot of problems."



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