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EGS On The Verge: Seeking Civic Identity & Stature

It was not a surprise that at one point the Eritrean Global Solidarity (EGS) will not survive with its undemocratic organizational structure and dual membership of its base. Leaving the tittle-tattle going inside its political house, EGS leadership resisted for almost four years to transform their quasi-civic organization to a true nature of civic identity and civic organizational structure. Now EGS leadership seemed to understand four important factors that are quintessential  to the  overhaul of the organization  (a) civic-identity and civic-stature will not egg- on the hybridism of its members or allowing dual membership to their base and (b) the un democratic and  unconventional leadership electoral process that undermine the relationship of the leadership and the base has to be rectified (c) the importance of the organic nature of civic society is embedded on individual voluntarism to practice civic duty, and hence the enrollment of membership should be on individual bases (d) that there is a clear recognition on the delineation between the political and civic space.

Therefore, what is needed by the leadership at this time? The answer is, they must re-organize and start off on a clean slate – a civic organization with a civic-space and free from confusedly interlaced or inter twisted strands.

The inorganic civic structure status of EGS, that has stuck the organization with practical tangles, could be observed in its policy-positioning, the struggle to adopt civic culture, and the lack of the means to do it. For the last four years the leadership of EGS was docile and self-absorbed rather than an agent of change and civic practitioners to create common civic identity – the foundation to any liberal democracy. And it was understandable that many meaningful individuals who contribute to the foundation of this organization have inconveniently remained inactive.

In sociology civic society is branded as “third way politics” aimed to policy orientation, building capacity, and encouraging diversity. And yes ultimately, it is the path to the creation of civic sphere – the watch dog to any civic governance. Definitely, the fragmented conflicting nature within the composition of EGS organization necessitates a type of politics which does not reflect to the creation of civic sphere.

Seyoum Tesfaye, the Chair person of the organization in his recent article, lamented about the regular misuse of the right to dual membership. Indeed, my self have warned to the participants about the danger of dual membership during the founding-conference of the organization. For one who lived in politics knows the conflict of interest that could arise from dual membership. But as the Amharic proverb says “mkerow mkerow embi kale mekeraw yemkerow” Seyoum has now to learn from the practical obstacles he faced – too late to listen and too little to refine the organization during his tenure.  But let us listen to his specific lamentation.

“The dual loyalty of the individuals who belong to given political organizations and join civic societies is used to manipulate the civic societies into the middle of all political disagreements and force them to take side in favour of or against the burning issue within the camp of the opposition.” (Eritrean CS and PO’s: Synergy or Paranoia)

I don’t know whether this lamentation represent the entire leadership or only to Seyoum himself. But he must recognize that members of the political organizations who were first loyal to their own political organizations have the right to influence the direction of the EGS as long as they are members of EGS. That is their membership right. You could not deny them. Instead of blaming to the individuals who have dual membership within EGS, he must blame to the organizational structure and to the membership rule of his organization. Isn’t it easy, Seyoum first to admit the structural deficiency of the organization and the lack of clarity on the difference of CS and POs on your side and then demand to re-organize EGS to claim its civic status?  But how could I expect Seyoum to come for and admit his mistake which is not a culture in the Eritrean politics? Aren’t we told in the founding conference that we were not there to restructure the “political forums” into civic structure based on “individual-voluntarism” but rather on cluster of groups? Wasn’t individuals who would be members rejected indirectly because they have not group membership of any shape or form? Seyoum must be frank on this issue rather what happened aftermath. To undo and recalibrate history, history must be told in its making.

 Seyoum eloquently argues on the fears that permeate within the political organizations regarding the emergence of civic societies. Indeed he aptly put it as follows:

“The second myopic approach, without delving into the motivation of the actors, is a classic example of the ingrained fear that permeates most of our political culture towards independent institutions. Since, for a long time, the political societies have been dominating and controlling the political space, the emergence of the civic societies has created a deep insecurity within them.”

I believe Seyoum read the psychological fear of the political organizations correctly. I can’t agree more with the above statement. A clear example to justify his statement is the recent postponement of the national congress – a demand by the political organizations to create inconvenience to the civic participants. But there is always “But” for individuals who are inconsistent and hypocrites.  Seyoum, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank that is in your own eye? (Mathew 7:3) Why don’t you rinse your organization form its mess before you asks to rinse the members of the POs from their tendencies? It does not make you look in good position to argue against their position when your organization is guided by undemocratic ruling.

In any case, to reflect both my disappointment and my hope, I wrote an article titled “Civic society beyond our entrenched thinking” on Dec 29, 2007 posted at Asmarino website. It was a Lamentation but with optimistic view for change within a year as promised by the participants of the founding conference. Four years later the chairman is lamenting indirectly reflecting the warning signals we share honestly in the conference. For the benefit of my readers I am posting the entire article to read side by side with his article.

 

The following article by the Amanuel Hidrat appeared  on Dec. 29, 2007 at www.asmarino.com under the title “Civic Society Beyond Our Entrenched Thinking”

“The person who is really in revolt is the optimist, who generally lives and dies in desperate effort to persuade other people how good they are.” - From Introduction to the Defense

Introduction

Many concerned citizens are trying to conceive and articulate goals that left people out of their petty preoccupations and unite them to the pursuit of objectives worthy of their best effort. I have seen and recognize those efforts by some of our colleagues at the founding conference of Eritrean Global Solidarity (EGS) a net work of public forums, human right organizations, and two outlet Medias. It was an atmosphere and exchange of ideas where we found civic society as the missing link in the quest of Eritrean Democracy.

My endeavor to this topic is purely to deconstruct the existing and confused conversations about civic society and then reconstruct the idea to the natural formation of gene carriers of civic Eritrean society, along the microclimates and skills required for living Eritrean democratic foundations. The founding conference of EGS is one step forward in such a way it united all the public forums and human right organizations under one unconventional structural umbrella. I have embraced the outcome of the founding conference by its openness, its civic discourse, and its deliberations, but with some reservations in the nature of building the organizational Structure and the choices of the democratic process we have exercised in the deliberations.

From the get go this essay will try to resurrects the Rousseanean notion that the question of democracy is not ultimately but immediately the question of people’s sovereignty. What that means otherwise is that democracy is the immediate question of individual citizen’s sovereignty. Hence therefore, I will argue and share my take on the issue how the metamorphosis of the organization (EGS) should it be as we go forward – a change in character and conditions that transform the public forums into civic societies that empower citizen. It is a thought that goes beyond our entrenched thinking and demand the readiness to change our thinking to enable and reframe the public forums into civic societies.

History of Civic Societies and Its Relations to Our Reality

The concept of civil society has long history and goes back to Greek philosophers. Social scholars and philosophers always contemplate the relationship between individuals and society as whole. “The core problem has been how to reconcile individuals pursuing their own personal interest while at the same time ensure that collective needs are met” (Delue 1997). The creation of the state as means of governance is an important step in the reconciliation to keep society civil and enact laws that protect the rights of others, while the governing body must be restrained from using their power to oppress others. In ancient Athens, according to Seligman (1992) “political communications were predicated on freedom of assembly of individuals in a public.” The aim is to discuss public issues. Such a forum for public involvement has been termed the “public sphere” (Habermas).

Although the concept of civil society has been developed from earlier writings of Locke (1690) and Hegel (1967), this author emphasize de Tocqueville’s (1969) idea of voluntary association and Gramsci’s (1971) separation of civil society from the state in the public realm. Interestingly, in the last six decades, the rise of civic societies has become a prominent political phenomenon to gain autonomy from oppressive states. The Kmara in Georgia and Pora in Ukraine are the living examples in recent history.

In the Eritrean case where the state is governed by a totalitarian regime, the emergence of grassroots organizations is quintessential with a primary purpose for change of government. In this instance, the civil societies which are on the formation currently should be defined in terms of being “anti the existing regime.” The main constituents of our civil societies must engage as an opposition to “an all-powerful state.” There is no question that the public forums which are in the EGS umbrella have created the public sphere also known civic space for citizen to discuss national issue. At the same time there is no question that the Eritrean public forums must be elevated to a historical transformation. Hence the concept of public (the collective individual base) is a polity that cares the common interest, with the capacity to deliberate democratically, is the central to my thinking on civic society. The clue to my approach is how free individuals play a decisive role in the engagement of mass movement without pre-conditions and no strings for that matter. It is well proved, that a free will citizen always comes with energy, resources of know how, and often with vigor commitment.

Civic Society Is A Strategic Goal for Grassroots (Individuals) Movement

Civic society is a goal to aim, a means to achieve, and a frame work for engaging with each other. When these three aspects of its value turned towards each other and integrated into mutually supportive frame work, the idea of civil society can explain about the course of politics and social change. Beyond that, it also serve as a practical frame work for organizing individuals on individual base both for resistance and alternative solutions to social, economic and political problems. We should support civic society for three distinct but related reasons: (a) as a matter of principle (b) as a contribution to the democratic process (c) as a cornerstone of our individual freedom.

Since civic societies are institutionalized as a watch dog to the state, it becomes a goal aimed in principle to deter the power of the state. Michael Edward who explored the practical and theoretical significance of civic society in governance had said, that “it is impossible to have conversation about politics or public policy these days without mentioning the magic word civil society.” Civic societies are the engine of mass movement for social change by mobilizing individual citizen to contribute to the need for change. They granted freedom of individuals in the public sphere they have created, which in turn the individuals become the cornerstone of the institutionalized structure, to give the guidance to their civic movement.

Based on the above analytical approach and current structure of Eritrean Global Solidarity (EGS), one can surmise about the relationship between the base (members) at the bottom and the leadership (board of directors) at the top. Since the board of directors is formed from one member of the leadership (mostly chairpersons) of the organizations, the structure is susceptible to drawbacks to be accountable to the base. By virtue of its structure each member of the board is only accountable to his/her organization but not to the other organizations who are members of EGS. I will elaborate as I proceed on democratic process of civic societies.

The Democratic Process of Civic Society

Civic societies or civil societies is a collection of organizations talented for something specified and are bent for mimicry. These organizations or movements are formed by voluntary individuals and work together on a voluntary basis in order to effect civic and social change. Membership by virtue of voluntarism is based on individual basis and represent themselves directly but not by others. Civic society and democracy are linked inherently. Their connections reside in their philosophy. When I began to think the relationship of civic engagement and democracy, the work of John Dewey often comes to my mind. Dewey have stressed in his writing that “democracy depends upon the willingness of learned citizen to engage realm for the betterment of the larger social group.” It is this basic dependency of democracy made me to think on how EGS could handle the role of individuals and the democratic exercise on deliberating on organizational issue or national issue.

Prospectively, I will argue that civic societies must exercise “participatory democracy” as oppose to “representative democracy” in such a way citizens (individuals) plays an active role in the missions and goals of their civic movement. The civic participatory and democratic deliberations will have many benefits within Eritrean society. To mention few from many and results to (a) give superior educations (b) increase public trust (c) reduce conflict when policy moves forward (d) give access to balanced and accurate information (e) explore intricacies of issues through discussion (f) creates propinquity among the participants (g) allows cross fertilization of ideas across organizational boundaries.

Incidentally, I subscribe myself to the argument of Alexis de Tocqueville which says “the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived.” Equality of conditions helps to deploy a broad discourse between the socio-political forces and active role of individuals as a means to achieve solutions to the problem of our nation. Equality of conditions in civic society is not on organizational bases which is applicable to political organizations, but on individual basis to increase the magnitude of voluntarism and wave of mass movement. Critically, if we re-examine our most fundamental assumptions about our civic knowledge, we tend to forget the connections across difference, the links of freedom, the role of individuals, and the sense of responsibilities to one another.

Despite that all resolutions of EGS were passed on consensus, the democratic rules of voting were set “one organization one vote” which makes it unconventional as I stated in my introduction. Such practice should be avoided in the future, because it violates individual freedom to exercise his/her own right. After all, the goal was to galvanize and energize a mass movement while restructuring and transforming the “public forums” into civic societies.

Structural Transformations

Though I am aware that real civil societies are established in the process of a lengthy and contradictory development, we can build the foundations for our young to continue the journey to the realization of our population’s civic activity. When we think about civic society, a key question arises: In what ways we might restructure our public forums to promote the work of civic society for the enhancement of democratic path? What learning experience most likely will encourage civic engagement? Consideration of such questions will lead us to examine the current structural essence of the public forums that made the EGS umbrella. Leaving aside the human right organizations for a moment, all the public forums are established to facilitate debate and discussions among the Diaspora- Eritreans and occasionally leaders of the political organizations. In order all the public forums and members of the media outlet to be restructured into formal civic associate-ship structure based on professionalism and social stratum, like association of journalism, youth association, women association, bar association etc…, EGS structure and its doors in itself has to be changed in order to create a condition for the formation of civic societies.

While unity of the public forums is feasible, human right organizations must be independent, simply because of their limited scope and of being non-political organizations. However, they could work together with the public forums on common issue that could relate to both of them. Hence they could be bonded under the EGS umbrella. This is not accusatorial message, but depicts our deficiency, so in the one year transitional period members could debate on it, learn and research how we can develop our EGS structure. Because of time restraint and the urgency to do something on the problem of our people, the current structure is acceptable to go forward. I am confident that we can learn more about the topic I have raised when we are tested with tasks and responsibilities which are on our shoulder. Let us also be reminded that this struggle is dependent on our shared future to regain the strange disappearance of Eritrean courage.

Conclusion

What embitters the Eritrean society is not excess criticism but absence of self-criticism. Nevertheless, the establishment of civic society within the Eritrean populace will survive and prosper in a rigorous critique. As we recommit ourselves (EGS members) to the unique challenges of reconstructing EGS and affirm our commitment to the abiding questions of social responsibilities in participatory democracy, the influx of citizen to join to our cause will be enormous. If we succeed in doing so, it will be a precious historical experience, which significantly facilitates the definition and application of adequate efficient models for creating civic institutions and organizations inside Eritrea.

Last but not the least, this author expresses his profound appreciation and gratitude to the efforts of EGS in general and our media outlet (Asmarino and Awate) in particular for their commitments to the cause of democracy and justice in our nation. With the hope for a fruitful journey, I would like to conclude my remark by the words of John Winthrop which says “we must delight in each other, make other conditions our own, and rejoice together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.” Unmistakably, EGS members believe on Winthrop’s idea as such they put the people’s interest before their eyes.

For any comments e-mail me at  tebeges@yahoo.com.

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