The unprecedented street protests sweeping North Africa and the Middle East have toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. Three more undemocratic rulers – Yemen’s strongman Ali Saleh Abdella, the monarchy in Bahrain, and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi – are precariously hanging to ropes suspended above raging rivers of protests, and those ropes are fast decomposing.
Initially, Tunisia’s strongman responded forcefully with a brutal crackdown. But, what began as a small and regional protest rapidly exploded into a national torrent of outrage. Ben Ali then desperately tried to mollify the masses with sweet promises of reform, putting on a charm offensive by visiting Mohammed Bouaziz, the young man who immolated himself in protest against police brutality and unemployment and ignited the fury, at the hospital before he died. The tide of the protest continued to rise. Finally, the military was forced to ease Ben Ali out of power.
A month after Ben Ali was given a safe passage to Saudi Arabia; protests began in Tunisia’s eastern neighbor, Egypt, the nerve center of the Arab and African world. Egyptian authorities reacted with contempt: Egypt, they argued, was different. Pundits echoed the same sentiment. A few days into the protest, U.S. Secretary of State Clinton proclaimed that “the Egyptian government was stable,” a statement she would quickly regret. Eighteen days after her proclamation, the Egyptian dictator, whose sophisticated security state had been bankrolled by the U.S., was forced to bow out.
Ben Ali and Mubarak played many cards in their sleeves to sniff out the revolution. The fear of “terrorism” was fanned to scare off the U.S. and its Western allies. The menace of an Islamic revolution was invoked, not only to divide the society, but also to frighten Israel into pressuring the West. The protesters were cast as agents of one or another enemy. They were called a malcontent minority. It issued a stern warning that the silent majority, who allegedly overwhelmingly supported the regime, would flood and reclaim the streets. In Egypt, a few hundred rowdy thugs were unleashed on the protesters at Tahrir Square, the epicenter and symbol of the revolution. A generational war was to explode, the authorities blurted. The youth was portrayed as gullible troublemakers. The specter of civil war, mayhem, and anarchy was raised. But, the protesters refused to relent. Instead, they became more defiant and, having run out of tricks, Mubarak, like Ben Ali, was forced to give up power.
The wily survivor in Yemen tried to make an early strike – declaring that neither he nor his son would run for president in 2013. However, when unrest still erupted, the security forces responded brutally. But, they failed to make the storm to subside. Ali Saleh Abdella attempted to foment tribal animosities. Promises of reform were made. But, none of this is likely to stem the rising tide of protest. As in Tunisia and Egypt, the regime’s collapse is only a matter of time.
In Bahrain, the regime made a bid to buy off the public before protests broke out by doling out free money. When the protesters gathered anyway, they were greeted with heavy-handed reprisals. Using force and deploying it early was the lesson the monarchy drew from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The protesters did not budge. Rather, the resulting casualties poured fuel on the fire as funeral processions swelled the protesters ranks and emboldened them. The authorities then surprised everyone by withdrawing their forces to the sidelines and offering an olive branch, but the number of protesters kept rising, and their demands became more and more pronounced. Then came another failed round of repressive violence.
The protests that are sweeping North Africa and the Middle East have diverse local roots. While all of the countries in turmoil have been governed by repressive, undemocratic regimes for decades, the economies in Tunisia and Egypt had grown at moderate rates recently. However, in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the poorest Arab country, the fruits of any economic gains were skimmed off by tiny elites with lucrative political connections, creating a long simmering resentment among the vast unemployed and underemployed highly-educated youth in these countries.
While political grievances formed the roots, it was the rising costs of living and economic worries which galvanized the cross-section of the population. This is also true to some extent with the uprisings in Yemen.
Bahrain is totally different in the sense that it is a wealthy country, with one of the highest per capita income. However, at issue were not only disparities in the distribution of wealth, but also political power between the Sunni minority and the Shia majority.
Libya is a total outlier. As an oil rich country, the public relatively enjoyed a comfortable standard of living. Income disparity was not as grave as the rest of the Arab states. Besides, the Libyan regime had been no friend of the West, unlike the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. Gaddafi’s idiosyncratic mode of autocracy was also considered by some to be benign compared to Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. It is also peculiar in the sense that it had no obvious and serious opposition.
Libya is also an odd ball because the rebellion was swift, almost a lightning speed, catching the authorities unawares as was the regime’s reaction, deadly, cruel, and abhorrent, but futile. The use of vicious and lethal force, including heavy weaponry, planes, mercenaries, and what not, seems to be perhaps the primary reason that has undone the Gaddafi regime, which is all but finished. The thunderous response vowed by the regime has come to pass creating a river of blood. However, rather than breathe precious life into the generic regime or scaring the populace into submission, it spelled its imminent decomposition. By so doing, the family that ruled Libya for the last 42 years assured itself the fate of Caucescou or Najibulah.
What becomes apparent from the above is that promises of reform, intimidation, manipulation, and deadly force are ineffective in subduing the revolutionary fervor. These methods served only in exacerbating it.
The world has a recent experience with such tectonic social upheavals. Starting in 1989, the former Socialist block in East Europe, with its system that alienated, repressed and crushed the spirit of their people for fifty years, collapsed like a house of cards. Neither promises of reform nor deadly forces were enough to satisfy the hunger for freedom.
The wind of revolution of 2011 has not run its course. No regime built on repression everywhere in the world is immune from it.
The next inevitable and almost certain earthquake is not far from Egypt. Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, sits at the very center of the fault line. The minority Tigrean-dominated overlords in Ethiopia are known for brutal response to street protests as well as dissent. In 1992, a year into its reign of twenty years, it chased the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a party that spoke for Ethiopia’s largest political community, the Oromo, out into the bushes when it knew that its battle-earned victory was about to be snatched at the ballot box. This was followed by years of brutal repression bordering on genocide. The suppression of dissent is not confined to the vast Oromo country. Ogaden, the Sidama (Awasa), and Gambella saw bloody reprisals. The South, a real mosaic of diversity, was battered in election-related clashes between locals and the Tigrean hierarchy. In 2005 it quashed the CUD, a party dominated by the Amhara, Ethiopia’s former rulers and the second largest political community, killing 192 protesters in broad daylight in the capital. The ruling party reached the nadir of its arrogance, and the start of its downhill slide, when it rigged the 2010 election to “win” by a whopping 99.6% margin.
Ethiopia’s rulers sit atop a restive population aggrieved by extreme repression, extreme economic deprivation, and extreme domination of the majority by a tiny minority. The economy is ailing. The exorbitant cost of living is becoming unbearable.
The authorities are banking on the loyalty of its huge security establishment and an ethnic army as the first line of defense. The regime’s ultimate weapon is however the country’s national, religious, and political diversity, a fertile goldmine which they have been exploiting successfully – heretofore.
Given his stubbornness, Meles is unlikely to introduce reform. He believes his street cleverness would enable him to cheat fate once more and ride out the storm. Even if he made a gesture, few would find it credible.
The only problem is that, as we learned from the experiences of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and now Libya, these tactics, while potent, are no guarantee of success in stamping out people’s aspirations for freedom.
Meles has been able to pit the two largest communities, the Oromo and the Amhara, to maintain his highly detested and reviled reign. At other times, he frightened the minority ethnic groups into its arms by presenting the risk of being marginalized by the two giants, the Oromo and the Amhara.
As all dictators, he feels the methods, such as divide and rule, intimidation, scare tactics, and violence that had been highly effective, would continue to serve him well.
The fact of the matter is that we are dealing with new phenomena. The genie is out of the bottle. Meles has many choices. For one, he could play a Gaddafi. Two, he would warn hell itself would break loose, going as far as alleging that Al-Shabaab would overrun the African Union contingent in Mogadishu. Furthermore, he could threaten the Amhara with the break up of Ethiopia by the Oromo and to the latter, the return of Amhara domination. The propaganda machine would be busy with talks of civil wars, Rwanda-style genocide, and an economic meltdown.
If the events in North Africa give any indication, none of these schemes are likely to deter and forestall a gathering storm in Ethiopia. The only unknown is how Meles would respond: a Mubarak, a Ben Ali, a Saleh, or a Gaddafi.
The TPLF’s military performance has been stellar, both against foreign enemies, domestic armed groups and civilian subjects. Chances are Meles would pull a Gaddafi. When he does, there is a little rarely talked about incident that protesters can draw valuable lessons from. This comes from April 1991. The place is the town of Ambo in Oromia, 100 miles west of the capital where civilians defeated the TPLF rebel army, chasing it out of town, derailing, even if briefly, its march to power. A repeat of an Ambo-like uprising all over the country is sure to, not only blunt the edge of TPLF’s military and security prowess, but also chase it out of power. Besides, the police, the security forces, and the army are irredeemably and irreparably plagued by internal divisions as to offer the TPLF much comfort. TPLF’s first line of defense is not a solid wall, but rather a hallow facade ready to crumble with strategically coordinated, all-rounded, distributed, and sustained pressure.
It is incumbent on the opposition at home and abroad to immediately enter into dialogue to allay debilitating anxiety about the future, the main obstacle to breaking the fear barrier, by agreeing to a simple platform: the departure of Meles and forming an all-inclusive and broad-based caretaker government. This entails bridging the divergent narratives and a firm belief in our capacity to jointly chart a new mutually agreeable future. In the past, reconciling our divergent aspirations and narratives has been impossible. However, in a time of revolution, nothing is impossible.
Victory in this difficult and trying journey requires mobilizing all our material, financial, intellectual, and physical resources. We already have all the resources needed. However, these resources are scattered. Thus heeding Rousseau’s timeless dictum that human beings “… cannot engender new forces, but only unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome resistance” is vitally important to overcome the many obstacles that would crop up here and there. Those at home need to work in tandem with those abroad. Obviously, the youth at home need to take the lead. But the diaspora has a moral responsibility to share in the sacrifices.
While preaching freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights, the international community has been financing tyranny in Ethiopia. We can hardly count on their support. In fact, at the outset, we can safely expect them to persist in their emphasis on the false sense of stability provided by the regime at the expense of the aspiration of the people for freedom, democracy and justice. However, by persevering in the face of the huge sacrifices that our yearning for freedom and democracy demands, we can present the conscience of the international community with a clear moral choice: whether to side with the people or with tyranny, even on its death throes. What we can assure the international community is that the success of people power in Ethiopia, which I believe is all but certain, and, more importantly, the triumph of freedom and democracy would go a long way in righting the many wrongs afflicting the troubled Horn of African region.
The going is bound to be tough. The pain and suffering caused by EPRDF’s determination to cling to power at all costs would be enormous. But, we shall prevail at the end. For this to become a reality, we all need to work together across all the divides, freed of mutual animosities, mistrust, ignorance, stereotypes, fixation on past history, dismissing the suffering of others and taking one’s own opinions as the only and eternal truth, and political dogma.
As a people we deserve much better than the starkly depressing binary choices the status quo offers: repression or disintegration. The time to, not only remove the dictator in Finfinne/Addis Ababa, but also to heal Ethiopia’s age-old ills – inequality, injustice, repression, domination, centralization and concentration of power, exploitation, and marginalization of the majority – is not tomorrow, but rather today; not later, but now.
Enough with tyranny! Beka-gaye!