A tale of two Shabab movements: Egyptian and Somali
As I watched the youth-driven upheavals that have awoken the comatose Arab people into action to reclaim their dignity and their freedom, I could not help but compare the situation of the Facebook empowered youth that spearheaded the Egyptian revolution with the Al Qaeda inspired Somali youth Al Shabab.
In the following paragraphs I will highlight the similarities and differences as well as the two movements’ national references, international appeal and historical significance.
At the outset one can see some similarities as both movements were born out of frustration, anger and humiliation; the Egyptians by years of dictatorship, unemployment and hopelessness and the Somalis by years of internecine and protracted civil war, warlords, foreign occupation, unemployment and hopelessness.
They were both equipped with youthful energy and enthusiasm to bring about change and both revolted against fossilized status quo and old people robbing them of their future and holding them back. Both wanted to have their voice heard and counted.
But one may ask if both movements were born out of despair and humiliation, why has one inspired and rallied the whole world behind it, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and the other has alienated and infuriated the world, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Let us count the ways.
Different Approaches, Different Results
The Egyptians being more urbane, more educated and better connected to the world have taken a non-ideological, peaceful and sophisticated approach to civil unrest; a Gandhian type of civil disobedience. They have stunned the world with their mature behavior, their tolerance and macro vision of their demands as being like those of any other human beings. They rejected all kinds of division on religion, gender, ethnicity or clan. They based their cause on universal values of freedom of speech, good governance, jobs by merit and social justice.
They expressed their feelings in music, arts, graffiti and billboard slogans. They won the trust of their local communities by guarding suburbs, cultural institutions and banks. They prayed together despite their differences in religion, they danced together boys and girls, mothers and fathers, young and old people. They were all one people, Egyptians par excellence. And at the end the youth had cleaned up the mess they created during their campaign to prove that their revolution was to clean the country of all dirt and not to add more dirt to it.
On the contrary, the Somali Al Shabaab chose a brutal way. Their struggle was not driven by shared human values but by exclusionist, sectarianism, religious ideology. They proved to be less educated, less urbane and less humanist in their approach than their Egyptian counterparts. Al Shabab chose the gun and not the word as their tool of change even long after the Ethiopian forces, the raison d’être of their war, have left Somalia. They practiced brutal, inhumane atrocities that are reminiscent of the Spanish acquisition. They used coercion to subdue their own people. They alienated the youth by making music, dancing and all kinds of entertainment as punishable offence. They erected walls between genders. They forced women to be invisible and ordered them to disappear from the market where they used to earn the livelihood of their families; they shrouded them and even made wearing a bra a punishable offence. They separated women and men in public transport and in schools and made it impossible for boys and girls to socialize together or sit in one class together despite the scarcity of schools in Somalia.
While the Egyptian youth reached out and won the sympathy of the world through their perfection of the English language, the Somali Al Shabaab banned English language to be taught in schools, slamming it as the language of the infidel.
Whereas the Egyptian youth sought to win the support of the world media and international community, the Somali Al Shabaab shunned the international media as enemies of Islam and treated international organizations with derision and contempt, making it difficult for them even to help the poor and locally displaced people without paying heavy jizya to them.
The Egyptian youth’s revolution has recognizable human faces and names of dozens of media friendly young men and women who conveyed their message to the world as people with universal demands, jobs, accountable government and freedom of speech, with no ideological strings attached; while the Somali Al Shabaab is a faceless organization whose members are mostly masked as they are aware of the crimes they commit and they don’t want to be recognized. Their heinous crimes include severing limps, stoning girls and boys to death, beating women and men for socializing together or meeting for business. They also go around by false names that are alien to the Somali people.
The Egyptian Revolutionary youth are proud of their identity and they brag about waving the Egyptian flag for the whole world to see, while the Somali Al Shabab are ashamed of their identity and their national symbols. Instead of the Somali flag, they wave a black rag, a mourning symbol, a sign of death that is reminiscent of the pirate flags of the 19th century. The Egyptians are worldly, modern, nationalist and internationalist in their outlook. They embrace what is good of other cultures. The Somali Al Shabab is unworldly, antiquated, isolationist and revisionist in their outlook.
Different Role Models, Different Messages
The Egyptian youth-driven revolution shares similarities with revolutions that have changed the fate of humanity for the better such as the French Revolution, the American Revolutionary War and the revolutions for freedom in the former Soviet dominated Eastern European countries. On the national level they invoke the revolt of Ahmed Basha Orabi, the first Egyptian nationalist revolt against repression in 1882. It holds up Arab nationalism at the time of independence as its role model. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions took their legitimacy from the will of the people and inflamed the feelings of the elderly by chanting the nationalist lyrics and poetry that their fathers and forefathers chanted in their struggle against colonialism.
Al Shabab instead derives its legitimacy from medieval religious wars, the Spanish inquisition and in modern days from the damp, dark caves of Al Qaeda and Taliban. They echo the images of the Mogonlian barbarians and the marauding medieval hordes that destroyed the Roman Empire with the striking difference that Somali Al Shabaab has no empire to destroy and the only thing they managed to destroy is whatever remained of the soul, spirit, culture and pride of the war-weary Somali people. They do not want to take the Somali Youth League (SYL) that spearheaded the Somali struggle for independence as a role model. They dismiss them as a secular, sacrilegious movement. They even shy away from invoking the legacy of the Somali National hero Sayyid Mohamed Abdullah Hassan’s Dervish Movement which they see as heretic, sufistic and deviant school of Islam that does not agree with their puritanical and narrow interpretation of Islam’s holy scriptures. Even rekindling the people’s feelings through nationalist music is sacrilegious to them as they assume music in all its forms is an evil deviation from Gods’ path.
Whereas the Egyptian youth have united their people and rallied the support of the world through their refined behavior and humanitarian demands, the Somali Al Shabaab divided the people they intended to unite and shunned the sympathy of the outside world through their radicalized and religious-driven message of us against them.
The Tunisian, Egyptian and other youth-led Arab revolutions won the hearts and minds of the world. Attracted by the civilized demonstrations of the Egyptians, the youth of the world had lent their support to the Egyptians in helping them to bypass the government’s blockade of the internet. The Egyptian and Tunisian youth have written golden pages in the history of their countries and have changed the world perception about the Arabs.
On the contrary, the Somali Al Shabab has written a dark page in the history of Somalia. It has tainted the identity, culture and dignity of the Somali people everywhere in the world, leaving behind a legacy of repression, darkness and fear in the psyche of the Somali people.
End of Extremism and Al Shabab
The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world have stolen the thunder from Militant Islamism represented by Al Qaeda, Somali Al Shabaab and others. The death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street vender that sparked Arab revolutions, had also toppled the wobbly house of extremism. The beleaguered people of the Muslim world have found a peaceful and civilized way to express their grievances and reclaim their rights without denigrating the great religion of Islam and without sending fearful and hollow religious slogans to the outside world. People have recognized their needs are basic and worldly and not grand and heavenly. Arab youth-driven revolutions have signed the death of Al Qaeda, Al Shabab and the much hyped argument of the Clash of Civilizations. Al Shabab will soon be in the dustbin of history but they should not be allowed to get away with the crimes they committed, the hundreds of people they maimed, killed and the millions of mothers and children they deprived of their livelihoods and made them to live in hell. They should face their fate in the International Criminal Court (ICC).
It is time that the educated, modern, cultured and nationalist Somali youth begin to restore the pride of the Somali nation. I know we have plenty of you who are better connected and pained by the plight of your people back home. All you need is to get a collective voice and it is about time that you should have it. You should not allow retired politicians and the cowardly Somali intellectuals who preferred to keep silent about Al Shabab’s crimes dictate your future. As I said it before in an appeal I addressed to the youth long before the Tunisian revolt and I repeat it again, your people are looking to you to salvage their once proud homeland by employing your brains, your pens and your laptops in building a proud new nation and not by wasting your time and energy in seeking to change men’s beards and women’s bras.
By Bashir Goth