Where are the Arabs? This is a question that we have heard repeatedly with regards to different events and occasions. This is an inquiry that often remains unanswered, failing to quench the thirst of those asking this question, or alleviate their suffering. During the disastrous events in Syria, and the regime’s suppression of its own people, we often heard demonstrators questioning the Arab absence. During the early days of the Libyan uprising, when Gaddafi’s army had already turned their weapons against the demonstrators, we saw the Libyan protesters repeatedly appeal for help on satellite television channels, saying “where are the Arabs? Where is the Arab League?” We heard this same question repeated during the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Yemeni revolutions, and what was meant in this regard was not the role of the Arab media or individual action by Arab states, but rather a comprehensive, concerted, and effective Arab role towards putting an end to the violations and suppression.
In Libya, of course, the Arab League moved to take action to issue a resolution that paved the way for the UN Security Council and NATO to intervene, opening the door for international support being provided to the Libyan rebels. However this action represented an exception in the Arab Spring, and was perhaps taken because Colonel Gaddafi never met anybody that he failed to provoke or turn into an enemy, and also perhaps because the international community wanted Arab cover before it decided to intervene against Gaddafi’s battalions. As for the situation in Egypt and Tunisia, the two revolutions had – relatively quickly – established themselves and settled the situation in their countries, causing people to forget about their initial questions regarding the Arab role. However these questions continue to be asked in Yemen, whose crisis is ongoing.
This is what is happening today in front of our own eyes, but if we were to look back into history we would see that this question about the absence of the Arab role has been asked on numerous occasions, particularly with regards to the Palestinian crisis. We have also seen this question asked during other bloody occurrences in the Arab world, from the Sudan to Lebanon, Algeria to the Comoros.
Today, the same question is being asked in Somalia, a war-torn country whose people are starving and suffering from a lack of food and medicine. Before anybody rushes to claim that the Arab are preoccupied with monitoring the revolutions and the faltering popular uprisings taking place in our region, we must recall that the crisis in Somalia – a country mired in chaos and war – has been ongoing for more than 20 years, during which the Arabs have been completely absent, except for issuing stilted statements and undertaking peripheral actions. Even if the news of revolutions is captivating a large part of the Arab attention at present, this cannot justify the absence of the Arab role, nor does it explain why only one single meeting of the Arab League was held – on Tuesday – to discuss ways of aiding the people of Somalia.
The UN has said that nearly three million Somalis require urgent humanitarian aid, while UNICEF has indicated that 1.25 million Somali children are under threat and need urgent aid to save them from starvation, malnutrition and disease. International reports indicate that more than 29,000 Somali children have died so far as a result of famine, and this figure will rise further if urgent international measures are not taken. Such figures are horrifying, particularly if we look at the bigger picture; the Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] of the UN had warned of a deadly famine in the Horn of Africa as a result of what is considered the worst drought in decades. The FAO indicated that 12 million people are suffering from the consequences of this drought which extends from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya into parts of the Sudan, Djibouti, and Uganda.
However, the situation in Somalia is the worst owing to the war and the lack of a strong central government. Even prior to the drought, there were a number of logistical problems and a lack of foodstuffs in many areas of the country due to the civil war that caused more than 730,000 Somali citizens to flee the country for neighbouring states, particularly Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen. In addition to this, nearly 1.4 million Somali citizens have been displaced within Somalia itself, fleeing towards the capital Mogadishu and its surrounding area. The UN has declared five provinces of Somalia to be famine-stricken areas, including Mogadishu, whilst it has warned that six other areas are under threat. This is something that will further intensify the crisis in Somalia, unless the international community takes control of the situation.
The paradox is that a large part of the famine-stricken areas falls under the control of the extremist al-Shabab movement that claims to be fighting the central government in order to establish a just Somali state. Despite this claim, the al-Shabab movement is preoccupied with setting up [Islamic] court, killing anybody who dares to object to its rule, forcing people to grow their beards, shave their moustaches, banning music, and forcibly collecting zakat despite the people’s deplorable living conditions. The al-Shabab movement is not responsible for the drought, but there can be no doubt that its actions have contributed to the ensuing famine and disaster. The al-Shabab movement has forced millions of Somali citizens to flee their homes by preventing foreign relief organizations from operating in the areas of the control that they control under various pretexts including that these foreign relief organizations are made up of non-believers, [Christian] missionaries, or foreign spies. When the reports of a famine in the region first emerged, the al-Shabab movement emphatically denied that there was any famine, although it was later forced to retract this position after the state of affairs become undeniable, particularly after the entire world saw images and footage of the suffering. As a result of this, the al-Shabab movement allowed some relief organizations access into the areas of the country under their control in order to offer relief and distribute foodstuff. If only the al-Shabab movement had remained silent following this, but it did not and its spokesman has recently come out to claim that the UN has exaggerated the state of drought in southern Somalia with the aim of “politicizing” the issue.
The extremist stances taken by the al-Shabab movement reminds us that Somalia – with all features and dimension of its crisis – remains an Arab problem that must be dealt with, not ignored. At the present time, there is a dire need for humanitarian intervention in this Arab and Muslim country that is facing an impending disaster. It is not sufficient for the Arab support [of Somalia] to be confined to a few Arab countries offering limited initiatives. It is a stain on the honour of the Arab and Muslim world that we have not taken collective action in response to these images of [Somali] children starving to death, mothers unable to feed their own children, and men who do not know whether they will have food to break their fast [in Ramadan]. In the long-term, Somalia will require coordinated and continual political effort in order to emerge from this crisis, although this might be an unachievable dream when considering the Arab’s past record in handling major crises.