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Wither Ethiopia’s opposition? (Eskinder Nega)

Friday, January 28, 2011 @ 09:01 AM ed

By Eskinder Nega

The news headlines are invariably dominated by the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Egypt in particular is at the core of international suspense. If Mubarak is successfully ousted, the protests will most certainly spread to other countries. But for many pundits, the surprising restraints of the security services also dominate their thoughts. Is what is happening in Egypt and Yemen a slow motion replay of what undid Ben Ali in Tunisia—that is, are the Generals refusing to fire on unarmed protesters? If so, what implications does this hold for Sudan, the next most probable country to which the protests could spread—and if Sudan explodes, inexorably, the next country in line, Ethiopia?

The Egyptian protests, which now dominate conversations here in Addis Ababa, started out as a gathering of a small number of people on Tuesday. No one really took them seriously at first. Demonstrations have been banned in Egypt since 1981, when Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamists and a state of emergency was declared. Opponents of the regime, ranging from the tiny Socialists to the menacingly massive Muslim Brotherhood, have intermittently tried to defy the ban over the 30 years since, but their efforts “had drawn no more than a few dozen or few hundred people in the past,’ according to news reports.(There are some exceptions.) And until noon on Tuesday, when a small number of people convened outside Cairo’s Supreme Court building, the latest shot to brave the ban appeared to have been slated for the same fate. But two things surprised the authorities: the unusual intensity of the protesters and the speed with which their numbers swelled in to the hundreds. The demonstrators, however, were manifestly disenchanted by the turnout, “where are the Egyptian people?” they hollered, as they headed to Tahrir—liberation—square, Cairo’s equivalent to Addis’ Meskel square. Thousands responded by joining them.

Normally, the Egyptian security and police would be expected to move in quickly, cordon off the protestors, split heads and crack bones, and if the need arises, shoot at will, and ferry off as many people as possible—including passersby—to a detention center; where they could be held indefinitely under the state of emergency law still in effect.

Oddly, this was exactly what did not happen. The government’s response was clearly mixed. The security forces moved to engage the demonstrators when they were small in number, but as their number and intensity increased, surprisingly backed off. Does this signal reluctance on the part of the Egyptian Generals, as had happened in Tunisia, not to fire on unarmed protesters? Have the Tunisian Generals triggered a domino effect that is set to sway Generals in authoritarian regimes? What happens in Egypt over the next few days will determine the fate of many countries.

If the answers to these questions are indeed what thousands of activists for democracy in authoritarian countries obviously wish they are, the implications for Ethiopia, while admittedly remote, could not be dismissed outright. No nation is immune to international trends these days. But the prevailing consensus for now, which I share, is that Ethiopian Generals would most probably not go the way of the Tunisian Generals— regardless of what happens in Egypt, Sudan or Yemen. The unique historical and psychological intricacies that bind the Ethiopian Generals and the EPRDF leadership have no parallel in North Africa and Yemen.

The similarities between the Ethiopian and Egyptian legal opposition, however, is remarkable. An intractable feature of Egypt’s opposition is their partition in to secularists and Islamists; which had always prevented them from working together. In Ethiopia, the cluster runs between ethnic and multi-ethnic opposition groups, who also so far have been unable to forge a durable, potent and convincing alternative to the EPRDF.(Though there is some potential in Medrek.) But as of Wednesday, Egyptian secularists and Islamists, who had for decades loathed each other no less than they had detested the regime, were miraculously demanding change in perfect sync. No more were they obsessing with which side was posed to gain more.

Tuesday’s protests were called by secular opposition groups through social media—Facebook and Twitter. Islamists hardly noticed. By mid-afternoon, when the protesters increased dramatically, Islamists were joining sporadically, and by midnight, in large numbers (and doing their best to be inconspicuous.) On Wednesday, they had for all intents and purposes merged in the streets—propelling not only the sizable labor movement to join them as well, but crucially, the unaffiliated; who overwhelmed them all. And swiftly, what started out as yet another botched protest by the hapless opposition metamorphosed in to a leaderless people’s movement. Nothing symbolized this transformation more than the hundreds of lawyers who joined the protesters by breaking through a line of riot police who had cordoned off the demonstrators at Thrir square.

The Egyptian government has almost helplessly looked on as the protests gained momentum. And here again is a question that begs an answer: could this because of an internal discord within the ruling establishment? Perhaps. There are wikileaks cables that point in that direction. But a definitive answer will have to wait. In the meantime, much to the delight of the protesters, Cairo is rife with rumors that Mubarak is set to go in to exile (which is discounted by most analysts.) And this is in large part fueling passion and reinforcing determination on the streets.

Could the legal Ethiopian opposition leaders try to replicate what the legal opposition triggered in Egypt? “No,” firmly answered an opposition official I queried. “There will be a massacre, and it will also be the end of us,” he said. I could have been mistaken, but I thought I had sensed alarm in his tone. The specter of the 2007 treason trials all over again could have unnerved him. And emotions and fantasies aside, I must acknowledge the merits of his argument. The horn has always been harsher, crueler, and colder than either North Africa or Yemen. Thus, with legal opposition parties unable to garner more than one seat in Parliament, let alone be an agent of change, they seem to have withered to irrelevance; their role no more expansive than providing a veneer of democratic process to the autocracy of the EPRDF. Their crisis of legitimacy is set to deepen.

The consensus is that both the Tunisian and Egyptian popular uprisings are leaderless. At their core, however, is astonishing cohesion, sagacity of direction and purpose—at least, as far as dislodging their Presidents are concerned. What has made this possible are the tens of thousands of tech-suave under-30 youth—politically unaffiliated and unideological— who have used social media—Facebook and Twitter—to plan, strategize, mobilize and sustain the protests. They have upstaged established opposition groups—-including the Muslim Brotherhood. “It’s the youth that knows how to use the media, Internet, Facebook, so they are (the most effective) players now (in Tunisia and Egypt),” said Emad Shahin, a prominent scholar in the US, to news outlets. And in both countries, while they loath the ruling parties, they have no faith in the ineffectual oppositions either. Thus the protests are too important to be left to the leadership of the opposition. The youth have opted to take charge—peacefully but persistently. And it’s working. Every time the government responds with violence—however limited and restrained—more and more people are joining them. Their moral fortitude—exemplified through their non-violence— is galvanizing not only their peoples but the world to their cause.




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