Ethiopia: Any lesson from Tahrir Square? – By Meraf Nebiyu
In the past few weeks we have witnessed a tremendous outburst of bottled up frustrations and yearnings on the streets of Egypt’s cities. This spontaneous regeneration of Egyptian society from all walks of life is truly a remarkable event, and one that will undoubtedly leave a lasting residue on Egyptian society and the Arab world. It is also the first of its kind, in that, it was born out of the internet and continues to be sustained by it.
As I watched the events unfold, it became impossible not to think about the similarities with my own country of birth, Ethiopia. As many of us would agree, the circumstances faced by people in Ethiopia are not that much removed from the plight of those in the streets of Cairo. They revolve around the same issues. Without going into too much detail, the aspirations of the people orbit around basic necessities for a dissent living. Unemployment, poverty, and rapid inflation are all too common in Ethiopia, just as they are in Egypt and around the region. Under pinning these commonalities is bad governance and lack of democracy. As Protesters in Egypt put it so diligently, ‘it is the deficiency in dignity which perpetuates their struggle’. Though economic insecurity is the primary cause of revolt, what underscores and sustains it is the fight for dignity and common decency. In other words protesters are not just seeking bread, but also their dignity. It is what Thomas Jefferson so brilliantly coined as, the pursuit of happiness.
For the past thirty years under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, a vast majority of Egyptians were restricted from their pursuit or happiness. Similarly Ethiopians have lived under the iron fist for far too long. As in Egypt, Ethiopians suffer from rigid elections, human rights violations, nepotism, and corruption. Poverty is rampant and perhaps more so than in Egypt. Though the economic outlook is projecting significant growth year after year, people are increasingly finding it harder to climb the economic ladder. In fact they are falling backward, thanks to inflation. What explains this is the increasing concentration of wealth at the top while very little trickles down. How else would you explain increased economic growth with increased poverty? Akin Ethiopia, during Mubarak’s time in power, Egypt has earned some significant economic growth projections from the World Bank. Yet people’s satisfaction score continued to plummet, as they were finding themselves poorer and poorer. To add to the indignant feelings already existent in Egyptian society, Mubarak and his associates were enriching themselves beyond the wildest dreams of ordinary Egyptians, all thanks to the rampant cronyism present among officials in power. Given this, it’s not hard to guess where that 5% growth was heading. So who is to say Ethiopia doesn’t suffer from the same ailment, if not worst ones. And could all of this lead to a spontaneous outburst similar to the ones we are seeing in Egypt? This might not happen today, but if the status quo doesn’t change, then revolt will be inevitable. The question is how prepared are the people of Ethiopia to stage a peaceful revolution? Will we succeed or could the country be thrown into chaos?
On January 25, 2011, in the aftermath of spontaneous protests in Cairo, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of Egypt played by its usual playbook, which had succeeded for the past thirty years in crushing any kind of free expression. However this time things were different. The secret police that once struck fear in the hearts of ordinary Egyptians were no longer feared. This time protesters meant business. After years of repression and humiliation, they’d had enough. Having seen the bravery of their fellow citizens in confronting the brutal police force, and having seen the latter’s vulnerability; more people were braving to take to the streets. It snowballed so fast even the NDP was unable to protect its party headquarters in Cairo. Subsequently this icon of Cairo was burned to the ground. The interior ministry, which many Egyptians credit for Kidnappings and torture, also had a similar fate. This was once a place Egyptians never dared to criticize. Now it was openly being defiled and ransacked. These events emboldened more and more people to come to public squares and the revolution was suddenly, in a matter of days, transported from the digital world to the street, where it found its life. Something was truly different in Egypt now. All the training and planning of the security forces was not enough to thwart the people. For authoritarian regimes spontaneous outbursts are a nightmare, precisely because they are unpredictable. If the Mubarak regime, which for decades was labeled by western powers as the beacon of moderation and stability could face such a surprise, then by all mean we should prepare for any outcome in other authoritarian states, not least of which is Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is similar to Egypt in many ways, but the two countries are not entirely the same. Egyptians have better access to the internet and Arabic satellite television networks provide greater access to information. As a result Egyptians are a lot more informed and connected. On the other hand access to the internet in Ethiopia happens to be one of the lowest in the world. Cell phone distribution, according to a United Nations report is also one of the lowest in the entire planet. For similar sentiments as the once we are seeing in Egypt to reach critical mass and finally surface a medium of communication is the key, which Ethiopia currently lacks, for reasons that have to do with government ownership of these industries. So judging by these standards it is reasonable to suggest revolt in Ethiopia is not an immediate worry for the regime. However, if living standards continue to plummet, Ethiopia will eventually find herself immersed in revolution. It is anyone’s guess as to the direction of these uprisings. One would hope we would have learned a thing or two from our Egyptian counterparts and choose the peaceful route. One would also hope the Ethiopian armed forces would be magnanimous enough not to use lethal force on their compatriots. This is something the Egyptian army has, thus far, so admirably upheld in Egypt. Judging by events that transpired in the aftermath of rigid elections in 2005, whereby close to 200 people were shot dead, counting on the Ethiopian armed forces not to use lethal force could be wishful thinking.
The only thing more dangerous than a dictatorial regime is a dictatorial regime on the brink of collapse. During the past couple of weeks this point was made clear by “the salaried plainclothes security personnel of the Egyptian government”, who were unleashed to wreak havoc on Egypt. They were ordered to loot, set fires to buildings, to attack peaceful protesters using live ammunition, Molotov cocktails, knives, and even to run people over with vehicles at high speed. All of this was being done as part of a calculated effort to create a sense of fear and chaos. The regime was hoping to capitalize on this fear and disorder by shooing would be protesters from joining the ranks of those who had already taken to the street. Unfortunately for the regime the effect was contrary to its intended purpose. The people of Egypt who were all too familiar with these tactics were able to thwart the attackers. Embarrassingly for the Mubarak regime, it was the protesters who were orderly and well intentioned. Major international news outlets were now reporting on how protesters saved the Cairo museum from looters and how make shift security checkpoints sprung up spontaneously around Cairo to reassure neighborhoods and secure buildings. It was indeed a major blow to Mubarak’s regime, which was of the mind set; it alone could guarantee security in Egypt and by unleashing chaos, it could get the better of Egyptians, who would eventually submit to the regime for fear of chaos. It was also an incredible moral boost to the protesters, who were now beginning to believe they can do better for Egypt, and that they can guarantee security.
Sitting at the root of the Nile, in Ethiopia, is another authoritarian regime, unashamed to use the same tactics in order to remain in power. Like Egypt it has a track record of using plainclothes security personnel, who will stop at nothing to crush dissent. This regime is even willing to foment ethnic and religious strife in order to preempt possible opposition. Given these circumstances, it is absolutely pertinent for activists to take notice of recent events in Egypt, as there is a lot to be learned there. Certainly past experiences of popular expression in Ethiopia are encouraging. In particular, the peaceful gathering of over a million opposition supporters in the run up to the 2005 election was a great sign of civility. What people were unprepared for was the overwhelming use of violence and coercion perpetrated by the regime in the aftermath the election’s rigging. Perhaps the biggest culprit for this credulity is the lack of a free communication medium. This is where Egypt differs from Ethiopia. Pro-democracy protesters in Egypt had information through the internet and satellite television stations. This helped them not only to discern the tactics of the regime but more importantly it gave them a voice. As a result they were better able to cope with the destructive strategy of the regime, which are not too different from the playbook used by the EPRDF. In essence Pro-democracy forces in Ethiopia should be willing to utilize successful methods of activism that are peaceful. Egypt is a glimpse of what that would mean.
One of the promising signs of the demonstrations in Egypt has been the people’s ability to remain peaceful while disobedient. This is a tactic that has worked for Gandhi, The Civil Rights movement in America, and for the anti-Apartheid struggle of South Africa. For decades, the peaceful disobedience has been a proven tactic of bringing some semblance of decency in all societies. Interestingly authoritarian regimes prefer violent dissent, which they are confidant in disrupting, as they hold the monopoly in violence. This point was clearly demonstrated by the Mubarak regime when it tried to despoil the peaceful nature of protest in Egypt. Imagine the impression it leaves on the Arab world when Muslim and Christian Egyptians march shoulder to shoulder to demand their rights. It is a remarkable achievement when you consider, just a few months ago these two communities were openly feuding. Recall the church burning that took place in Alexandria on New Year’s Day of 2011, and the aftershock it entailed. Given these factors it is an extraordinary turn around to see how this push for democracy has united large sectors of Egyptian society. With Egyptian society uniting around a common struggle, the regime now finds itself isolated. One can easily sense the significance of this for Ethiopian activists, also faced with a fractured society, seemingly insurmountable on the surface. As Egyptians have shown in recent weeks, digging deeper reveals how that surface is truly paper-thin. Whatever happens in Egypt from this point on, one thing has been made certain. There is no way of putting this gene back in the bottle. Let us hope the fight for common decency extends throughout the Nile and into Ethiopia.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org