After the twin suicide attacks that killed 14 people in Mogadishu last week and an assassination attempt on the president a little more than a week before that, predictions of a Somali Spring would seem to be, at the very least, premature. But buried beneath the grisly headlines of the last few weeks was some unexpectedly good news: The newly appointed Somali parliament elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to serve as the first post-transition head of state. This is a seismic event in Somalia -- but not for the reasons many observers presume.
Mohamud's election does not signal an end to Somalia's 21 years of state collapse. Nor will it bring a quick end to the country's systemic political violence. The new president is taking the reins of a failed government that exercises only nominal control over the capital, Mogadishu, and faces a real, if diminished, threat from the al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab. Even in a best-case outcome, it will take years for the government to extend and deepen its authority. And though it brings to a conclusion Somalia's deeply flawed, eight-year political transition, Mohamud's new administration must still take on a host of difficult, unfinished transitional tasks.
The real significance of Mohamud's election -- as well as the election two weeks earlier of Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Osman Jawari -- is that it demonstrates that Somalia's civil society is alive and well, after years of political violence that forced many of Somalia's best and brightest to flee the country or withdraw from public life. The election constituted a well-executed civic mobilization against the corrupt, illegitimate government of transitional President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and the mafia that surrounded him. According to U.N. investigations, 70 percent of foreign aid and other revenues flowing to Sheikh Sharif's transitional government in 2009 and 2010 went unaccounted for, earning Somalia the top spot on Transparency International's 2011 ranking of the world's most corrupt governments.
This may be the start of a Somali version of an Arab Spring, with all the uncertainties that entails. It has involved no street protests and no bullets, just ballots -- and a lot of commitment, savvy, and collective action by a coalition of professionals and civic leaders who jumped into what looked like a fixed game and beat the incumbent.
Practically no one saw this coming. The last year of the Transitional Federal Government was grim. Key transitional tasks -- like the drafting of a constitution -- were rammed through, circumvented, or only partially completed; the transitional government was paralyzed by infighting and corruption; and the country was emerging from a serious famine. Desperate to produce a sitting parliament, U.N. diplomats engineered what became known as an "appointocracy" -- appointees appointing appointees. Understandably, the process had little legitimacy in the eyes of Somalis.
Most observers were convinced that appointed members of parliament would be in the pockets of Somalia's "moneylords" -- a quarreling, dysfunctional coalition of political entrepreneurs who have used control over transitional-government finances to rent allegiances and enrich themselves since 2009. Instead, a combination of nationalists, moderate Islamists, business people, and cross-clan interests outmaneuvered Sheikh Sharif and his supporters. Mohamud, a civil society leader, educator, and peace-builder, emerged as a finalist in a runoff vote against Sheikh Sharif and won resoundingly.