Who is Hasan Sheikh Mahmoud? And is Somalia capable of turning a new leaf?

Somalia has a new president today — Hasan Sheikh Mahmoud (pictured above) — after his election by Somalia’s new parliament, which itself was sworn in just last month.

Mamhoud defeated current president Sheikh Sharif Ahmed in the second round of voting — although the incumbent won the first round of voting, Mamhoud finished a close second, defeating prime minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, who came in third.

But who is Mahmoud?

And, more importantly, can he succeed where 15 prior transitional governments have failed in reviving a country that vies as perhaps the world’s most infamous failed state?

Mahmoud, and academic and a civic activist, speaks both Somali and English, has worked for the United Nations Children’s Fund in Somalia from 1993 until 1995, and he co-founded the Somali Institute of Management and Administration Development in Mogadishu, the country’s capital, in 1999.  Last year, he formed the Peace and Development Party.

Allegations of bribery (among all factions) are already marring Mahmoud’s victory, but the fact that the vote even took place is perhaps itself the bigger victory for a country that’s effectively been without a government for over two decades– Somalia descended into anarchy and clan-based fighting after the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, who had ruled the country since 1969.

Recently, a UN-backed transitional roadmap, reinforced by the African Union, has prompted some hope that Somalia may have reached a transition point — the roadmap led to the current political process, and last year, AU and other regional forces ended fighting in Mogadishu.  Although al Shabaab and other militants have been swept from the capital, ending years of street-battle violence, Islamic militants still control much of the rest of the center and south of Somalia.  Al Shabaab  (Islamic for “the youth,” it formed in 2006 as a radical spinoff from Somalia’s main Islamist group, the Union of Islamic Courts, and is now affiliated with al Qaeda).

Despite the gains, Mahmoud and the Somali parliament have a very long road ahead in regard to gaining control in Somalia and securing the entire country, to say nothing of other pressing needs for infrastructure and economic development.  Mahmoud’s legislative counterpart, Mohamed Osman Jawari, who was appointed speaker of the federal parliament on August 28, is also an English-speaking academic and an attorney by occupation.  Jawari served briefly as the minister of transportation and as minister of labor and sports in the Siad Barre regime, and he lived in Norway in exile after civil war broke out in 1991.

Both Mahmoud and Jawari as seen as technocratic and academic moderates, in contrast to both the Islamist fundamentalists who rose to power in 2006 and the warlords of Somalia’s various clans.

The new parliament, which was appointed to serve for four years, is comprised of an upper house with 54 representatives and a lower house of 275 MPs, 257 of which have already been appointed, and features various members of Somalia’s four major clans and other political elites.

Since Siad Barre’s fall, Somalia’s problems have gone from bad to worse to intractable — the country, if you can even call it a country, has faced a Pandora’s Box of nightmares for both itself and the international community.  It has become a haven not only for al Qaeda, al Shabaab and other Islamic terrorist groups, but also become notorious as a center for piracy in the Indian Ocean, making the seas around the Horn of Africa among the most dangerous waters on the planet.

Somaliland, the region that juts to the west along Ethiopia’s northern border, declared independence in 1991; Puntland. the northern corner that marks the Horn of Africa, followed with a declaration of “autonomy” in 1998.  An initial UN peacekeeping and aid force, with the backing of U.S. troops, ended in 1995 after a U.S. Army helicopter was shot down in 1993 above Mogadishu.  The rise of Islamist rule in Somalia in 2006 led to a U.S.-backed advance by Ethiopian troops, who displaced Somalia’s Islamists through a messy occupation of Mogadishu that lasted through early 2009.  Nearly two decades of tumult have resulted in masses of internally displaced persons, and a famine in 2011 may have killed nearly 750,000 people.

Somalia, a mostly Islamic country and a former British and Italian colony that gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, has a population of just over 10 million — its GDP per capita is around $600, making it one of the poorest countries in the world.

Photo credit to Sabahi.

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