Sixteen years after descending into anarchy, there still seems to be little hope of a lasting peace in Somalia.
The capital Mogadishu is plagued by continuing violence. Thousands have been killed in the city this year as Islamist insurgents battle the country's transitional government, which was set up in October 2004, and over half the city's inhabitants are reported to have fled the violence.
Until this year, the strongest of the many groups which had been battling for power in Somalia was the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC). The loose-knit union of Islamic courts took control of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia in 2006 and also threatened to take countrol of Ethiopia's Somali-speaking eastern region, the Ogaden.
The Islamists imposed Sharia law during the second half of 2006. They managed to reunite Mogadishu, which had been divided up among rival warlords, and brought some semblance of law and order to the anarchic country.
The Ethiopian army marched into Somalia in December 2006 to help Somali's interim government oust the CIC. The Islamic group, who are strongly opposed to the presence of Ethiopian troops in the country, fought back, prompting the current wave of violence.
However the CIC is not a homogeneous group but is divided between moderates and hardliners, all of whom claim they want to restore stability and the rule of law in the country. However the hardliners also want to stamp out "immoral" foreign influences: While in power, they closed down cinemas showing foreign films and banned some radio stations from playing foreign music.
Meanwhile the Somali transitional government has been criticized for cracking down on the media. The government accuses the media of undermining national security and has arrested journalists and media managers. Seven reporters have been killed in the country since January.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed is the chairman of the Council of Islamic Courts and is considered a moderate. He talked to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the "popular uprising" against the Ethiopian troops, his opposition to al-Qaida and the future of Somalia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Sheik Sharif, why don't you give your rebels the order for an immediate ceasefire?
Sheik Sharif: I'm powerless to do that. The popular uprising against the hated Ethiopian occupation troops -- which every Somali patriot must see as his enemies -- can't be stopped.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But this isn't just about the Ethiopians. You're also fighting against the army of the legitimate Somali government.
Sheik Sharif: The so-called legal government is a farce. There were no free elections worth speaking off. They're keeping us out of a true national dialogue -- which we've always called for -- with the slimmest of arguments. Critics of the government find themselves in jail without trial or simply disappear without a trace, just because they condemn military collaboration with that very part of Ethiopia which has been oppressing millions of Somalis for decades ...
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You're referring to the eastern Ethiopian province of Ogaden, which is populated by Somalis and which the last Somali president, Mohamed Siad Barre, wanted to "liberate"
Sheik Sharif: but how can we question the internationally recognized borders of Ethiopia when our own country of Somalia is breaking up into several regions, where local interest groups have grabbed power for themselves and can operate without any kind of control? You don't need an intelligence service to figure out that Ethiopia and Kenya, along with other countries in the region, interfere pretty openly in Somalia's affairs. But the Somali people, which right now is held together only by a common language and by Islam, is no longer going along with them. The resistance against the Ethiopians and their stooges in Somalia keeps spreading and will sooner or later topple the regime.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Ethiopians marched in to keep Somalia from turning into an Islamist state.
Sheik Sharif: That was a weak pretense which only complicated the situation even further. We never intended to declare an Islamic republic.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But it was clear which way things were heading in Somalia. Alcohol and music were outlawed and women had to wear veils. Some of your coalition partners declared open sympathy with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. And didn't the terror network al-Qaida gain a foothold in Somalia?
Sheik Sharif: That was an evil slander. Even if a few of our comrades favored a strict interpretation of Islamic law, it was up to the citizens to orient themselves toward Islamic custom according to their own discretion. I was, and still am today, strictly against giving asylum in Somalia to al-Qaida criminals and their kind.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But that couldn't happen right now anyway, because government troops still hold the reins of power.
Sheik Sharif: The government troops are fighting with their backs to the wall. They control only 5 percent of the country's territory. The Ethiopians, whose army composes the real backbone of the current Somali government, are not very motivated. They are moving through an occupied country, haphazardly murdering and pillaging, fully aware that sooner or later they will have to leave. When the last Ethiopian armored car leaves Somalia, the regime will collapse like a house of cards. We are gaining territory every day -- it's only a matter of time.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That means the bloodshed will not end any time soon. Is it true that Eritrea is providing you with weapons and money?
Sheik Sharif: Although Eritrea has experienced the expansionist and racist regime in Addis Ababa at first hand, it is neither providing us with weapons nor any other logistical support. We are surviving because the Somali people are on our side. At first it was students and shopkeepers who supported us, but now we are backed by every social class. Our influence is growing inexorably.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That sounds like wishful thinking. If you truly wanted peace and democracy, wouldn't you ask the United Nations to actively intervene?
Sheik Sharif: If the international community simply opened its eyes to the continuing violation of human rights in Somalia, and if it were ready to make a fresh start here, we would of course welcome a UN intervention. But that doesn't seem likely, unfortunately. Nevertheless, I stick to my position that if, instead of trigger-happy Ethiopian occupiers, we had neutral blue helmets here in our oppressed country, who could make free elections possible and secure a transition to a future of peace and reconstruction, we would welcome them. The European Parliament in Strasbourg has already taken the first step. It has imposed an arms embargo against the current Somali government in protest against the violation of human rights.
Interview conducted by Volkhard Windfuhr