Some Reflections on the Current Popular Uprisings in the Arab World Messay Kebede
While events of historic proportions are occurring in the Arab world, the question that haunts Ethiopians is whether similar uprisings are possible in present-day Ethiopia, that is, whether the inspiring impact of events in Arab countries would be strong enough to provoke unrests and demonstrations in Ethiopia. Since the occurrence of the French Revolution, scholars of revolution are familiar with the outcomes of demonstration effects, some going to the extent of counting as one powerful cause of revolution its tendency to spread to other countries by the sheer effect of its inspirational appeal.
That an increasing number of Ethiopians argue that decisive lessons to topple the Meles regime can be drawn from events in the Arab world is a promising evolution. In an article titled “The Quagmire of the Opposition and the Way Forward” posted on various websites (June 2010), I contended that the results of the last election showed clearly that the strategy of changing the Woyane regime by winning parliamentary elections is no longer tenable. I suggested that opposition groups should design a new strategy, which is “to work toward the gathering of conditions favoring a popular outburst with a political organization and a program ready to step in.” In other words, in light of the failure of the electoralist strategy and the little chance of creating in the near future an armed movement capable of threatening the regime, the only option left was to help build up the conditions of a popular uprising and be ready to take up its leadership. Thanks to the events in the Arab world, most Ethiopians now consider a popular uprising in Ethiopia as a very likely possibility and call for opposition groups to be ready for such an event. Of course, the main question is to know whether their expectation is realistic or simply a wishful thinking.
Let me begin by saying that events in Tunisia and Egypt, impressive and mutational as they are, are not yet revolutions. The latter require the overthrow of existing states and the implementation of a new social order. The fact that the two ruling dictators were removed does not necessarily entail a drastic social change in Egypt and Tunisia unless the removal is soon followed by the initiation of profound changes. All we can say now is that the removal is just a first step in the right direction, and that it is too early to speak of revolution.
Even so, the fact that the uprisings remained mostly nonviolent (with the exception of Libya) strongly renews the conviction that nonviolent form of struggle is the best method to remove dictatorial regimes. Nonviolence means here essentially active defiance and noncooperation. So understood, nonviolence is indeed, as one of the apostles of nonviolence, Gene Sharp, puts it, “the most powerful means available to those struggling for freedom” (From Dictatorship to Democracy, p. 13). There is no doubt that protests in Egypt and Tunisia prevented the early intervention of the army essentially because they remained largely nonviolent.
What is most striking about the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere is the metamorphosis of ordinary people. These people had so thoroughly submitted to the dictatorships that any prediction just a month ago of impeding protests would have sounded foolish. The uprisings came as a surprise to everybody. Most of all, all these protests were spontaneous in that they were not initiated by any organized opposition.
Spontaneity is undoubtedly one of the strong aspects of the movements. The dictatorships could not stop them because they could not find leaders they could put in jail or kill. People were driven by their own frustration, not by the appeal of a party or a leader. They were now in charge of their own destiny and, more importantly, free of the fear that paralyzed them for so long. How did this metamorphosis become possible?
It is a truism to say that dictatorships rule by fear and collapse the very day that they fail to inspire fear. This issue of fear is the key to the question of knowing whether similar uprisings are possible in Ethiopia. I am not impressed by the argument of those who discard the possibility of uprisings in Ethiopia on the ground that, unlike the Arab countries, Ethiopia does not have a large educated class and a vast means of internet networkings. Without denying the effective role of internet communications, the argument overlooks that popular uprisings have occurred before the invention of the internet, not to mention the fact that Ethiopians carried out a successful uprising in 1974 that toppled the entrenched imperial regime. Be it noted that the uprising against the imperial regime was successful because it was not initiated by an established leadership.
Another issue is to know whether the Ethiopian army can behave in a way similar to the behavior of the Egyptian army. Most Ethiopians are inclined to say the opposite owing to their belief that Ethiopia has no longer a national army per se, but a TPLF dominated mercenary army exclusively committed to protecting the interests of the ruling clique. The question is indeed a serious one, but there is no way of knowing the answer unless the uprising starts and shows some resilience. The 2005 violent crackdown on protesters cannot be taken as evidence, since except for taxi drivers and protesting young people, no massive movement of protest took place. In fact, the confined nature of the protest may have led to the belief that it could be easily suppressed. We cannot tell how the police and the army would react in the face of a determined massive protest all over the country. We should move the discussion from what the military will do to what a massive uprising can compel them to understand.
What this means is that the crucial issue is indeed the question of fear. Are Ethiopians any less fearful of the Meles regime? Stated otherwise, the possibility of uprising solely hinges on our ability to ascertain that Ethiopians are today angrier than ever before. For anger alone can dissolve fear. More than the availability of internet communications, what explains events in Arab countries is the increasing fury of ordinary people, especially of unemployed young people. When anger grips the human mind, nothing else matters, including the likelihood of death. Anger is force and defiance because it mobilizes the power of emotion. People defy bloody regimes, not because they become suddenly courageous, but because the overwhelming power of rage made them do things that they would not otherwise have done.
I know that many Ethiopians see unity as an essential condition for the occurrence of a massive uprising. In effect, people begin to protest when they see a fair chance of success, and no chance of success can be expected if ethnic divisions prevail over unity. For an uprising to succeed, it must be massive, and it cannot be massive unless ethnic alignments are put aside. What else is this requirement of unity but another facet of the same question of anger? Are Ethiopians angry enough to overcome their divisions so as to rise together against their common enemy? The overwhelming nature of anger unites more than any rational discourse in favor of unity.
Although it is true that the mobilization of emotion explains the power of popular uprisings, it is also true that rage can only be a trigger. It cannot sustain itself over an extended period of time, especially if the regime in place uses deadly means to suppress the uprising. Very quickly, organization and smart politics must take the lead. Notably, anger must be controlled in such a way that it does not burst into an orgy of violence, which will end up by giving the upper hand to the dictator. Everything must be done to minimize the intervention of the army, and the best way to do so is to keep the movement nonviolent. In other words, nonviolent movement is nothing but the control of anger, more exactly, its transformation into a force of internal resistance that wears out the repressive power of the dictatorial state. Nonviolence does not generate anger; it sublimates it by reorienting its compulsion for outward furious expressions toward the buildup of an internal force of defiance.
In sum, the possibility of popular uprising in Ethiopia wholly depends on the psychological state of the masses. No doubt, events in the Arab world can be inspirational, but they are not enough to cause revolts unless the masses are going through the state of anger. Inspiration can strengthen confidence, but it cannot generate the emotional state of anger. What is more, it is not possible to know in advance what drives people to the tipping point of anger. We can definitely say that most Ethiopians are unhappy with the regime, that they even hate it. But dislike and hate are not yet anger. While hate is a contained or differed emotion, anger is in need of immediate reaction or lashing out. You get to live with hatred, not with rage, which, as an impulsive need for outward expressions, explodes.