A few weeks ago, an odd thing happened in the utter anarchy of Somalia.
The bandits who presided over the treacherous road from Mogadishu to Afgoi were gone. The pick-up trucks packed with gun-brandishing youths who manned some 50 roadblocks along the 20-mile stretch were nonexistent.
The combined militia forces of five Islamic courts cleared the road. It was the second time the courts - that view Islamic law as the only antidote to Somalia's chaos - acted together. In April, they took control of the Bukhara market in Mogadishu. This second action reveals a unity of purpose largely unseen in the capital since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991.
"Islamic law is the only thing that will save this country," says Sheikh Hassan Sheikh Mohammed Adde, a cleric who merged and presides over the Joint Islamic Courts.
Sheikh Hassan is clear about his political ambition and his determination to impose Islamic law over Somalia. Although it is close to stricter forms of Islam, Somalia has held fast to a tradition of Sunni religious moderation for nearly a millennium.
But beyond Sheikh Hassan's ambitions, analysts say the issue is whether the courts will act as conduits for Islamic fundamentalism - or merely help bring about an organized state, and then compete fairly for power.
Somalia devolved into a state of near anarchy nearly a decade ago. The guns of different warlords have kept it at the bottom of the United Nations index of human development. Life expectancy is 43 years, infant mortality one of the highest in Africa, with 1 out of every 4 children likely to die before the age of five. In a country where nearly everyone is armed, crime is rampant.
Yet as recently as 1992, Somalia was at the center of the world's attention. A colossal relief operation to feed victims of famine saved the lives of thousands, but soon became embroiled in factional warfare for the control of Mogadishu. In October 1993, 18 US Marines were killed in a gunfight by militiamen loyal to warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid. That prompted the first military intervention mounted by the UN for humanitarian purposes to haul down its flag and leave Somalia to itself.
Predictably, Somalia's warlords prospered. But years of constant fighting and unregulated economic activity have finally taken their toll. The prolonged closure of Mogadishu's main port and airport, the languishing banana trade, and a drop in the export of livestock have drained resources. The warlords became financially weak and increasingly vulnerable to the emerging power of the courts.
Whether the courts will succeed in challenging the factional rule of the warlords will depend largely on Somalia's businessmen, observers say. Exasperated by the cost of lawlessness, business owners have thrown their financial weight behind the courts, providing sufficient means for them to acquire guns and set up their own militia.
Each of the five courts claims to have between 200 and 250 gunmen and an unspecified number of "technicals," pickup trucks with machine guns and grenade launchers mounted on them, and armored personnel carriers.
The gunmen - who dress in the same torn clothes as the previous warlords - patrol the areas in which the courts operate. They round up thieves, rapists, and murderers, and deliver them to the first detention centers set up in Mogadishu since 1991.
The courts have won the loyalty of the gunmen with the guarantee of two meals a day and 30,000 Somali shillings ($30) a month. The businessmen pick up the tab.
"Without the businessmen, the courts would not exist," says a Western observer. "The businessmen don't care whether it's Islamic law or Napoleonic law or Common law. Any law will do."
That, however, is not the way others see it. According to a Middle Eastern Muslim diplomat in Mogadishu, a growing number of Islamic countries and organizations - including Somalia's own homegrown fundamentalist At-Ittihad al-Islam group - are contributing money in the hope of seeing Somalia evolve into an Islamic state.
Somalia, though, has a history of ingratitude, as well as what appears to be a natural resistance to fundamentalism.
In 1992, the fundamentalist Islamic government in Northern Sudan sent 30 tons of arms to General Aidid. He readily accepted, but never reciprocated. Moreover, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, among others, welcomed Somalia to the League of Arab Nations in 1974 with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military and structural aid. By 1984, the Arab world was funneling more than $60 million a year to Somalia. But in 1985, Arab countries sharply reduced assistance to $12 million - because Somalia did not promote Islam.
The court's own interpretation of Islamic law is perhaps the most accurate measure of the sort of innate religious moderation that has made it difficult for fundamentalism to gain ground here. None of the five courts has dared resort to amputation for fear of becoming unpopular. There have been public executions of felons convicted of murder, 37 over the past 14 months.
"We don't cut people's hands off because they don't like it," Sheikh Hassan says.
The courts also have been careful to operate within the confines of Somalia's clan structure, limiting their jurisdiction to members of the clan. The court set up by the Murosade clan, for example, is unable to prosecute members of the Suleiman or Ayr tribe, both notorious for their violence, and both with newly instituted Islamic courts of their own.
"Very simply, even though there is an Islamic component, the courts are clan-based organizations which are imposing discipline among themselves" says Mohamed Nur Gutale, Somalia's former ambassador to the US.
Analysts say that if the courts succeed in taking over Mogadishu's main port and airport as they have vowed to do, the era of the warlords will most likely come to an end.