EGYPT’S EXPERIENCE IN RECENT CRISIS OFFERS LESSONS ON UPHOLDING THE FUTURE By Keffyalew Gebremedhin
In an article entitled “Is Ethiopia’s rendezvous with history really arriving, or are we in some fantasy? (http://www.transformingethiopia.wordpm) of 24 May 2011, among other things, I noted as caution, “the Mubarak regime is only decapitated, but its unhealthy legacies have not been uprooted.” I am pleased to state here that in the five months since then I have become more optimistic about Egypt being firmly on course toward its future its revolution has charted.
A week before the visit to Cairo by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Egypt witnessed a brief chaos, whose consequences linger. Of that situation, the Egyptian information minister indicated, “Egypt is undergoing a real crisis that is threatening its internal and external security.” This was caused by the 9 September attack on Israel’s embassy in Cairo. I was near certain that the visit by the Ethiopian prime minister would either be postponed or scrapped altogether.
Normally, an attack over a diplomatic mission, wherein the ambassador and his diplomats had to flee for their lives is no less than an act of war; thank God it did not rise to that level though. On the part of the host country, three Egyptians were killed and over a thousand injured, following the struggle by Egyptian commandos to drive away the protestors and protect diplomatic personnel and the properties.
More serious, of course, according to media reports, fate of the government itself was uncertain for a brief. Also news came out that Prime Minister Essam Sharaf had requested to resign, but was refused. Ahram Online gave better dimension to this, when it reported about tension between the military and civilian leadership. This was about handling of “several pressing crises,” precipitated by Israeli operations in August that entailed killing of six Egyptian border guards, “triggering angry demonstrations against the Israeli embassy.”
In my opinion, Egypt rose to the occasion superbly, responding in a matured fashion, its actions politically sensitive and, most of all, legal, notwithstanding monstrosity of the crisis and its security implications primarily for Egypt and the ramifications thereon to their relations with Israel. Within days, my attention shifted from Meles Zenawi’s visit to handling by Egypt of the Cairo crisis.
Although the violent attack of diplomatic territory was a serious breach of international law, the SMC and the Sharaf government quickly separated the crime and the aspirations of citizens. They began walking a tight rope between ensuring the nee3d for the state to shoulder its primary responsibilities for security and the day-to-day activities of the people in all spheres without undue curtailment. Reactivation of the emergency laws stay in effect until the end of the year and is setback to aspirations of the people for freedom and justice. In spite of that, even under this trying situation, the new Egypt has shown to be sensitive to fulfillment of the rights of its citizens.
Why focus now on the September 9 crisis in Cairo?
In reading this piece, one may ask why an Ethiopian should bother with its details. I say it should interest us all. First, it speaks to the fact that Egypt has come a long way along the path of the revolution that promises them a better future and a good example for our region in its efforts toward democratic governance.
Secondly, as an Ethiopian whose country is passing through a distressing political, security and economic and enormous human rights violations situations, I could not help wistfully observing importance of consultative leadership and the role of institutions, governed by the rule of law.
Thirdly, if this crisis occurred under the Mubarak or Meles’s regimes in Egypt and Ethiopia tens of thousands of people could have been rounded up, including substantial loses in lives. The records of the two regimes’ respect for human and civil rights of citizens being already atrociously poor and violent, they would all the more have introduced new legislations to ban them altogether.
As it happens, Egypt did not jump the gun and round up political activists or members of political parties, some of whose views those in power may not like or support. Egypt did not declare any laws or adopt any ordinances that impede political activity by 47 registered political parties. Within days the state moved into fulfilling its duties by arresting 134 alleged culprits of the 9 September incident. At not time did Egypt accuse its citizens of being terrorists.
If the SMC has been harboring secret desire to remain in power, none of its actions signaled that. It did not withdraw its commitment to return to the barracks. Nor did it revoke the 21 November parliamentary election and the terms for participation therein. The fact that Egypt allowed life to continue as before has enabled Egyptians to come together, as they usually do when it is in the interest of the common good, despite their diverse and mutually opposed persuasions (political, religious and social), the revolution’s unfulfilled promises, setbacks suffered to date and dissonances along the way jockeying for power has entailed.
Moreover, it is important to note that in all this the establishment has not dispensed with Egypt’s pride and vertebrae as a nation. It did not clutter everything to please Israel, say for instance, by going after some individuals, including some party leaders that the day after the incident showed public sympathies to the angry young men.
Egypt also did not need to politicize the situation with a view to covering its security failures—a thing Ethiopians are too much sued to.
In addition, the visit by the Ethiopian prime minister went ahead, as if nothing has ever happened. As its engagement with Ethiopian officials from 15-19 September has shown, Egypt did not bat its eyes when it came to the defense and promotion of its national interests. There is no doubt that Egypt has managed to attain all that it needed to serve its long-term interests.
This calmer, measured and legal courses of action undertaken by the Egyptian establishment must have helped in positively influencing and profoundly contributing to the shaping of character and operations of state institutions that in the past had played less honorable roles under the Mubarak regime. This situation gives lessons about Egypt in three important areas.
• First, the already better quality and characteristic of Egypt’s institutions helps them often to find their default position, even in times of crisis.
• Second, Egypt’s strength lies in its clear vision, strong will and survivability that are predicated on the people’s habit of coming together to seek meaning and better direction after crisis.
• Third, there is far deeper political awareness in the populace that has helped them to take responsibility for themselves and by themselves, aware that the country belongs to all of them.
These three points are of singular importance going forward, especially in ensuring continuity and renewals at different stages. These political values of the people have helped power to behave responsibly.
Indulge your imagination to see how TPLF/EPRDF could have reacted in similar situation
Turn your attention to today’s wave of mass arrests in Ethiopia, wherein strong political opponents of the regime, independent journalists, teachers and peaceful citizens are being picked one by one and thrown into jails, accused of being terrorists. In a situation such as Cairo’s on 9 September, total darkness would have befallen Ethiopia.
The Meles regime always begins by ascribing political motives to every failure, even when they originate in polices, much less deliberate incidents. Its automatic response is to search for real and imagined enemies. It then employs excessive state violence to shock the society with awe and fear. This happens because the situation has afforded politicians to get away with their lack of sense of proportion in their governance methods, as Ethiopians have learnt in the past four decades of their recent history.
In a circumstance such as this, the Meles regime would not even have time to postpone or cancel any planned state visits. This is because the country’s institutions in their default mode cannot operate independently. Instead their focus would be on rounding up all known and suspected political opponents of the regime. Instinctively, it would then seal the country off. The next step is war on Eritrea, as its way of working backwards to salvage what is left of the status quo ante.
For reference, recall what happened in the post 2005 election. Young unarmed citizens protesting what they believed was stolen election were gunned down. To this day, Ethiopia does not know the exact numbers of those whose lives were cut short throughout the country. Countless lives also were disrupted, with some businesses persons with blood ties with individual protestors closed down and the owners thrown to prisons. A very high number of individuals still continue to languish in prisons, with no review of their cases or sentencing.
In a country that is not so much given to inter-ethnic conflicts, the prime minister hinted in a public rally that genocide on the scale of the Rwandan massacres was on the offing, he alleged, encouraged by opposition parties. Many intellectuals exiled themselves and many others fled the country, a trend that persists to this day. Unfortunately for Ethiopia, the crises linger on. To this day, Ethiopia continues to suffer systematic repression, with officially undeclared emergency laws. The unanswered question now in Ethiopia, however, is what good it would do the state in turning itself into the bogyman that terrorizes its citizens.
Policies of the regime have denied the country functional institutions
The September 9 diplomatic incident between Egypt and Israel should enable us to get better understanding of why our state institutions are in comparative terms a failure. Like Egypt, Ethiopia prides itself with its thousands of years of political organization, statehood and civilization. Like Egypt, today we in Ethiopia have government that is seen playing active roles, utilizing the country enormous endowments. Nonetheless, we see that Ethiopian institutions lacking a sense of nation, civic mission and commitment and vision for the country’s interests over the long-term.
In other words, one major difference between the two countries is that Egypt is committed to ensuring that its institutions survive on a perpetual basis. Underlying that is the shared belief that the nation belongs to all its citizens, an outlook that now has been strengthened by the 25 January revolution. In contrast, in Ethiopia the TPLF/EPRDF, as a ruling party, has chosen to create institutions that solely serve its interests of remaining in power endlessly, instead of functional institutions that can serve the people and the long-term interests of the nation. In other words, the regime’s first commitment is the permanence of power in its hands.
The first major task along that direction has been to eliminate the distinction between state and government, ruling party and the state. In essence this means, there cannot be state institutions whose primary commitment is to the nation’s long-term interests, but to the party. As a stage in that direction, the ruling party now has appropriated the civil service. This has forced civil servants to pledge loyalty to the party, instead of the nation.
In offices, promotions, perks further education opportunities go to members of the ruling party, an institutionalized behavior that has become apathetic to merits. What they do not seem to accept or agree with is that no nation worth its name has found its way to better life for its citizens with bureaucracies managed by deadwoods. This has deprived Ethiopia of the critical mass it needed from capacity building through education and performance of improved and institutions accountable and governed by laws.
Therefore, this situation of weak institutions in Ethiopia is a deliberate outcome of the long-term objective of the ruling party. It is committed to obliterating the distinction between the state and itself as a ruling party. In so doing, its singular objective has been its total control of the institutions of power. Through them, it controls the lives of citizens and resources of the country. Instead of civil servants working for the nation, they are compelled to work for the party.
On the need to reflect on the country’s future
Aware of consequences of this national and institutional imbroglio in Ethiopia, in May 2006 the World Bank approached the Meles regime on the need for separating state and party, as means of nurturing the country’s inchoate democracy. That in mind, the Bank devoted its Interim Country Assistance Strategy (ICAS) for the period from 2006-2009 to persuading the regime in that direction. It made it clear that, if Ethiopia is to make progress with all the opportunities available to it, it should broaden and deepen its social contract with the people and become beneficiary of their trust and confidence. To that end, it urged action at the level of the state, its institutions and generating fairness and competition throughout the economy, as follows:
• Separate political party from the state, without which the evolution of strong state with appropriate institutions and good public administration is unthinkable;
• Professionalize the civil service system in order to facilitate institutional development. At the best, this serve the goals of checks and balances, control of expenditures; proper delivery of services to the public. In it the Bank also underlined that at the core of governance lie public administration, decentralization of state structures and public financial management that would serve purposes and visions of devolved power to regions and lowest rung of administration in the country; and,
• Ensure that party-owned businesses do not become corruption and leakage points. The essential message is that they could affect the nation’s economic growth by chocking competition. If allowed to continue it would also undermine development and strengthening of the role of the private sector in the Ethiopian economy.
The Meles regime was arrogantly dismissive of these ideas. It is easy for anyone to see how much by this stubborn resistance the TPLF/EPRDF has terribly affected the country, its politics, its resilience and its future. This is evident from how polarized politics evolved and undemocratic governance has become the norm. The same is also true with the stunting distortions Ethiopia’s institutional development has faced. In the end, this has been translated into fragility of the state and its allergic predispositions to the rule of law. This has deprived the ruling party of the faith and confidence of people, notwithstanding it has been trying to garner it through either buying loyalty or repression or both, to which is added the worst forms of human and civil rights violations.
The country has been running only to remain in the same place, where it matters most especially eradicating poverty and hunger. Because of that today, out of 494 woredas—districts— (excluding Addis Abeba and Harrar), 262 of them, or 53 percent of Ethiopia’s total administrative zones, are sustained through multi-donor food and cash aid through the Protective Safety Net Project (PSNP). The World Bank provides 17 percent of the overall requirements in cash. From 2005-2009, the US provided 2.92 million metric tons of food aid. During this period, WFP delivered 2.41 million metric tons of food. At its lowest, 7.6 million Ethiopia are entirely dependent on this aid and at the peak this number could head north to around 10 million people.
The question of graduation from food aid has crossed the minds of some experts in the World Bank and in the donor community. After all these years of food aid, the conclusion is that in a country “where poverty and food insecurity are generalized across a large proportion of the population and where humanitarian responses and emergency appeals are the norm rather than the exception”, the conclusion for now is to leave it as is.
As a concerned citizen this tells me that Ethiopia could have done better, given all the opportunities under the improved post Cold War international political, economic, financial environment. But it has not on the essential metrics of human security. It has veered off from opportunities, among others, on account of numerous political problems silenced by military means and low intensity conflicts continuing to distract attention and destroying scarce resources, as the country keeps on bleeding. This cannot go on indefinitely, if not because of popular strength, but the reality itself.
With rising uncertainties in the global economy, things could get harder going forward for primary and commodity producers, such as Ethiopia. The more constrained financial flows are, the more difficult it becomes to cope with rising population and the demands thereon a fragile economy and declining economic performances cannot satisfy.
We cannot blame others for all of Ethiopia’s misfortunes, especially when the root causes of the problems is policy failures. Ethiopia has been one of the top recipients of international aid, even as its economy is reported to be growing in double digits. For instance, in 2009 with $3.8 billion in aid, Ethiopia was pushed to second place only by Afghanistan. From 2000-2009, Ethiopia received $27.4 billion, an average of $2.7 billion a year. Not only that this aid pipeline could remain open for long. But has also all the more created huge dependence and insatiable appetite that instead has diminished self-reliance. It is not any longer a matter of choice in the present reality. Donors themselves are increasingly becoming shorthanded owing to economic realities and growing domestic public backlash.
That is why Ethiopia needs to focus on political solutions to its festering problems, develop its institutions and cater to the people’s aspirations, instead of the militarization of politics and society.