Sunday, August 19, 2018
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Sayyid Ahmed: A Charismatic Somali Bridge Builder in Egypt

By Hassan M. Abukar

In 1978, when I was 18, I left Somalia to join my older sister, a diplomat, in Cairo, Egypt. It was my first trip abroad, and I was both excited and ambivalent. On the one hand, I was apprehensive about an unknown future. On the other hand, I felt I was embarking on a new adventure in search of better educational opportunities.

Sayyid Ahmed Sh. Musse as a young man in Cairo

In the year and a half I spent in Cairo as a student and a local employee of the Somali Airlines’ branch office, I met some interesting Somali individuals, both leaders and ordinary people. Cairo was a transit stop for many Somali officials heading to Europe or other parts of Africa. It was also a city in which many Somalis attended school, while others came to get their work permits on their way to the Gulf. Still others had left their families in Cairo as they went to work elsewhere, while a good number came to spend their vacations in Egypt.

Interestingly, I met one Somali elder who made a lasting impression on me—the legendary Sayyid Ahmed Sh. Musse. The loveable and brilliant leader had helped cement Egyptian relationships with Somalia. Sayyid Ahmed (1910-1980) hailed from Somaliland (Habar Yonis) and had come to Egypt in the 1930s. He was a jack of all trades. His career seesawed between being a university student, a successful businessman, who imported camels from Somaliland, and a journalist at the Somali Service of the popular “Sawt al-Arab” (Voice of the Arabs) radio program in Cairo.

He was a charismatic and sociable character, an excellent conversationalist who had played a crucial role in the politics of Somaliland in the 1950s as an activist. For many, he was the point man of Egypt in the Somaliland British Protectorate, and he had notable influences in the fields of culture and politics. After 1960, he mentored a group of Somali diplomats stationed in Egypt about the country they were posted.

As a young adult, Sayyid Ahmed proved to be a resourceful and powerful figure to whom many looked up. The following story excerpted from his fascinating years in Egypt proved this. Former ambassador Abdullahi Adan (Congo), whom I also had the pleasure of meeting in Cairo, said in an interview that he was one of the 22 students from Somaliland who were told that they would be met by Sayyid Ahmed, the “Somaliland Representative in Egypt” once they arrived in Egypt. When the students disembarked at Port Said, to their surprise, there was no one to receive them. They took a bus and arrived in Cairo in search of Sayyid Ahmed. Apparently, Sayyid Ahmed had not been informed of the arrival of the new students.

The students struggled to find Sayyid Ahmed in such a cosmopolitan city as Cairo, and navigating the unfamiliar terrain of outdoor meat markets, street peddlers, and towering buildings became a Herculean task. The students split into groups in the crowded streets of the city shouting Sayyid Ahmed’s name. But to no avail. Some of them went to Al-Azhar University, where they inquired about Sayyid Ahmed’s whereabouts. This time they were lucky. A tall young man with Somali features approached them and introduced himself as Sayyid Ahmed. They were thunderstruck by his appearance because, in their harried calculations, they had assumed such a powerful position would be filled by a middle-aged, professional-looking man. Sayyid Ahmed, it turned out, was a slim, smiling youth attending Al-Azhar University. However, his resourcefulness did not disappoint them as he took every one of the 22 students to a tailor and got them coats and pants. “It was quite a scene,” Ambassador Abdullahi Adan said many decades later, “seeing 22 Somalis walking in the streets of Cairo wearing the same clothes.” Sayyid Ahmed then took the students to al-Mujammac, a government center located at Tahrir Square, and obtained their immigration papers.

Al Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt

In the 1950s, Sayyid Ahmed returned to Somaliland, where he became a relentless champion for teaching the Arabic language in the British Protectorate. He was instrumental in opening the first Islamic institute in Buro. Moreover, in 1956, he founded a political party called “Hizbu Allah” (God’s Party). According to Dr. Abdurahman M. Abdullahi (Badiyow), the author of The Islamic Movement in Somalia (2015), Sayyid Ahmed was influenced by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Nasserist ideology. He skillfully combined Islamism (a globalist religion and ideology) and nationalism (a particular ideology for a nation-state), a contradiction in terms. His Islamic activism was relatively moderate. First and foremost, he advocated the independence of Somaliland from Britain.

Sayyid Ahmed wrote three books in Arabic, which are all out of print: “Hizbu Allah wa Hizbu al-Shaydan” (The Party of God and the Party of Satan), “Al-Tharwah al-Taaci’ah fi al-Soomaal” (The Continued Loss of Wealth in Somalia) and “Khadarul al-Casabiyyah cala Soomaal” (The Danger of Zealous Clannism to Somalia).

Sayyid Ahmed was married to an Egyptian woman who bore him several children. He also fathered children from a Somali wife. His son, Mahdi from the Egyptian mother, was quite popular among Somalis in Cairo. He was a handsome social butterfly who helped many Somalis navigate Egypt’s social and administrative landscape. Some Somalis dubbed him the “Egyptian” for adopting the local habits of “Mujamalah” (sucking or kissing up).

Sayyid Ahmed had a son, Mohamed “Cirro”, who became an accomplished Somali journalist working in Mogadishu. I met him in Cairo during one of his visits to his family, and we struck up a lasting friendship. He was smart, educated, and a capable reporter who encouraged me to pursue journalism. A nationalist who believed in Somali unity, he stayed in Mogadishu after the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime. In the early 1990s, Cirro worked as an adviser to General Mohamed Farah Aidid, and later to his son Hussein Aidid. He later became ill and was brought to Hargeisa, where he passed away several years ago.

Asmahan Sh. Musse, a niece of Sayyid Ahmed who lives in Canada, fondly remembers her uncle from long conversations she had with her father. Moreover, as a child, her uncle would bring her and her siblings sweet treats from Egypt. “My whole family was proud of his immense contribution to the Motherland,” she said. “He was simply a hero who the new generation has yet to learn about and appreciate.”

Sayyid Ahmed is best remembered as a nationalist who championed the preservation of Islamic identity and culture in Somaliland. He helped establish Islamic institutions there and was a catalyst for many Somali students to win scholarships in Egypt. He served as an informal ambassador for many Somalis long before Somalia became independent. He blended Islamism and nationalism and is credited for lending crucial support to the then-nascent pro-independence party in Somaliland, the Somali National League (SNL). He is also the first Somali student to graduate from the prestigious Al-Azhar University.

Hassan M. Abukar

Hassan M. Abukar is a contributor to Wardheernews and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at Email:

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