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Mainstream On Main-Street: Opposition Echo People’s Voices

In our ongoing public discourse, it’s important that we communicate in a clear, simple and- as much as possible- consistent manner. It helps us to avoid any misunderstanding and confusion. Our goal should always be to peel off the layers of confusion and unmask the hidden truth. A healthy public discourse should always be guided by the love of the truth and the love of freedom. The two can’t be divorced from each other. The end result, I hope, would always be to inspire justice. 

 

It would be very helpful if we would all take a deep breath; pause, and, ask ourselves if we are adding any new information to our fund of knowledge, or, if we are providing a new perspective that helps us to see a point of view from a different angle. No sermon, regardless of how lofty, moving and passionate it is, will help us, if it does not address the main issue. Let’s stick to the issue. 

 

Ali Salim has raised an important issue. Indeed, he could have argued in a less belligerent and inflammatory manner, but, attacking him does not address the important issue he and many others are raising. The issue Ali Salim is raising is too important to be overshadowed by mannerism. We need to all go beyond that and respond to Ali on the merit and substance of his arguments. Ali Salim, the person, should not be the center of our focus. To do so would mean to belittle the issue at hand, and, we deserve better. 

 

There is a lot that I agree with Ali Salim, but, there is even more that I do not agree with him. If seeing Brother Ali eye to eye; however; makes me an apologist, then, I wear that label proudly. One of my heroes in the history of the United Orthodox Church is the Egyptian 4th century Patriarch; Abuna Athanaseaus; a first-rate theologian, who was responsible for consecrating the first abuna; Aba Selema; of our Tewahdo Church (Not a monophysite church as most people assume it is). Abuna Athanaseaus was famous for saying that, “If the world is against the truth, then, Athaneseaus is against the world.” I’m for the truth and against anybody who is against the truth. I’m for justice and against anybody who is against justice.  

 

I’m an Eritrean first and foremost as my brother Ali is. He calls the lowland, his birth-place and the land of his ancestors home. Likewise, I call Hamasen home. I see more Eritrean pride in Ali than in those preaching about Eritreanism. I’ve to admit that Ali is a rough diamond. I hope his mannerisms will not camouflage the beauty of his ideas. These are the same noble ideas that have inspired the Eritrean revolution. 

 

At the end of the day, when the dust settles down, Ali’s voice is that voice in the wilderness – calling us to stand for justice and righteousness. Amid all the uproar, anguish and cacophony, there is nobility to what he says. He is following a long and proud tradition of standing up for justice and righteousness. If my own father was alive (mengiste semyat yewarso), he would have said, “agenA Ali wedey. ishokh bbelaHa twlled:: nay men de’a nay abotatka imber twesd.” Bravo, Ali, my son. A prick spur is born with innate sharpness. After all, you can only take after your fore-fathers. In his place, I say, “Ali Hwye seni wedeka:: Halib ste::” 

 

I agree with Ali that there is a widespread feeling of marginalization and disenfranchisement among our Muslim and Lowland population. One could reasonably argue that the genesis of this feeling is perception or reality, but, no one could deny this feeling is real and common. I happen to think it is a combination of both. Ali is simply articulating this feeling. In the language of Malcolm X, Ali did not land on this feeling, the feeling landed on him. 

 

Decency however dictates that we hear him out, let him vent out and provide him a broad shoulder to lean his head on. We need to empathize with him. We need to first connect with him at an emotional level before we even begin to address his issues. If we fail to do this, we forfeit any moral authority of being voices of reconciliation and rapprochement.  

 

I think it is very important that we constantly remind ourselves that this is- first and foremost- a family affair. The first rule of engagement within a family is that of love, respect and understanding. We’re not negotiating boundaries of polarization among us. No one is being asked to concede wrongdoing or waive the white banner. The ultimate goal- to the best of my understanding- is to create an air of openness, whereas, as family members, we can all sit together and discuss mutual concerns for the benefit of all of us.  

 

This is not going to be the case of either the perpetrator or the victim (if there is any) forgiving or apologizing to the other, but, the case of the wisest leading the way to peace and harmony. I’ll be bold enough to predict that Ali would be the first one to categorically reject the Lowlanders approaching this issue from a victims’ perspective. It is not like the Lowland is an insignificant minority in Eritrea, and, of all people, Ali knows this full well. So one has to go beyond the rhetoric and read between the lines to understand the full scope of Ali’s argument. 

 

What Ali is demanding is a level playing-field, but, if that playing-field is tilted in favor of the Highland, he will do whatever is necessary to make it equal. He is hoping all family members- Eritreans- to join him to ensure a level playing-field at a minimum cost to all, or he can do it on his own, and the cost would be exorbitant to all. It is a fair deal and one that I’m more than happy, ready and willing to double-down on the first option. I apologize for the black jack metaphor- I can’t help it. 

 

Love Conquers all:

 

 

 

I’ve a Christian upbringing that taught me that love conquers all. In fact, Christianity can be fairly summed up as loving God with all heart and soul and loving thy neighbor as one loves thyself.  

 

Incidentally, I attended a seminar over the weekend at our local Tewahdo Church. The speaker was a talented and articulate young deacon and in him, I saw the future of the Tewahdo Church and the future looks good. He told a story that resonated with me in a big way. And here it is. 

 

In the Tewahdo church, there are two kinds of priests: those who can marry and have children and those who take an oath of celibacy and are completely devoted to the church. The former are known as “aqshshti” or “qeshi” for singular and the latter as “kahnat” or “Kahn” for singular.  

 

There was this particular Kahn, who was adamantly and uncompromisingly anti Satan. Satan was his number one enemy. The Kahn would; invariably and at all time; carry his cross, and, whenever Satan appears, he would recite his prayers seven times and consequently banish Satan from the village. The Kahn would always say, “bsm ab bweld bmenfesqudus, weHade amlak.” In the name of the Father, of the Son and the Holy Spirit and God is One  

 

A long time had elapsed as Satan tried- in vain- to tempt the Kahn and his flock, and the Kahn fought back with the zeal and passion of St. Paul. The Kahn’s mission was to ensure that Satan does not succeed in misleading people, but, that is what Satan does. It was a zero-sum game. A defeat for Satan was a victory for the Kahn and vice-versa. This never-ending; cold-war type conflict raged on for many years. There was one man in the village that was getting tired of this active hostility between the Kahn and Satan and he wanted to bring an end to it. He approached both of them and asked them to agree on a truce. Both parties, of course, refused to agree by making unrealistic and unattainable preconditions and objectives. It was hard to make any kind of a break-through. 

 

The man who took upon himself the role of brokering peace between the two was a man endowed with wisdom. He approached both parties separately and found out what their non-negotiable demands were. Satan demanded that the Kahn should stop banishing him from the village by reciting, ‘bsm ab…” and the Kahn demanded that Satan should stop tempting him and his village.  If these conditions were met, both the Kahn and Satan could live in the village. In other words, both parties have to give up their professions. 

 

The man, then, asked the Kahn to stop reciting the prayer and the Kahn agreed if it would mean the end of hatred and the beginning of love. The Kahn, who had taken an oath of celibacy so he can give God his undivided loyalty, gave up the essence of his call- the prayer- for the sake of love. Sle fqr bsm ab yqr. For the sake of love the Kahn abdicated his obligatory prayer. 

 

Igri tfelTa megedi fqri.” The feet know the road of love. It is love of Eritrea that brings all of us to Awate.com and it is this love that would ultimately bring us together. This road of love starts with openness, humility, tolerance and the simple recognition that nobody has an exclusive monopoly of the truth. And this is particularly truer in politics than in anything I could think of. 

 

It is easy to know a simple truth for its opposite is falsehood. But, there is another kind of truth that is hard to agree on. The opposite of this truth is another truth. The latter is what often characterizes our public discourse. The context and timing is really what determines which truth gets the spotlight. There is truly a season for everything. This is the stuff of politics in a free society.  

 

Our public and political discourse must there-fore be tempered by the recognition that the other side might have an equal claim to the truth. There is no need to vilify or demonize the other side. As far as our goal is the common good, and, we all have equal opportunity to be part of the process, then, mutual respect and civility should be the only game in town. The procedure or the system is not just a means but an end in itself. 

 

But the PFDJ is a different matter: 

 

One could fairly ask why I don’t extend the same courtesy to the PFDJ regime. My problem with the PFDJ is that it is inherently exclusionary and discriminatory. The regime has an entitlement mentality that I absolutely abhor and categorically reject: the right to rule over the people without their consent. Its rational is simple and it’s as old as their medieval thinking: to the victor goes the spoilage. It liberated the country and there- fore, it has to own it. 

 

In their twisted and convoluted logic, the regime is the country and the country is the regime. The sad and tragic thing is that these people are absolutely convinced that they are the best Eritrea has to offer. They simply could not grasp the possibility that there might be other Eritreans, outside the clique; who care about Eritrea as much as them if not more. They are shocked beyond belief by the audacity of our criticism. Their natural and first instinct is to say, “men eyom izi om”- who are they? How dare they? The irony is that we are equally; if not more; shocked by their incompetence and mediocrity. 

 

There is no boundary between the state and society. The regime has failed to make this vital distinction and has completely eliminated any space for civil society. The regime has marginalized an overwhelming majority of the people and rendered them powerless. The Eritrean people do not count. 

 

The system is evil and has to be changed. The regime is incapable of accommodating any dissenting opinions. It’s survival hinges on conformity and it’s important that it criminalizes any kind of dissent and opposition. This is the source of “Hade lbi and Hade hzbi” mantra- one people one heart. This system can’t be reformed or improved upon. It suffers from a major character flaw and no therapy or surgery could cure it. It is a malignant cancer that needs to be removed immediately before it spreads all over the polity. It has to be discarded into the dust-bins of history, because, that is where it belongs.  

 

This, of course, does not mean that all the people serving the regime are evil. In fact, a majority of them are decent people that we need to win over. These are the people that we need to appeal to and help to mobilize. We need to come up with better organizational and mobilization skills if we are to capitalize on the enormous opportunities we are squandering with the passage of every night and day.   

 

“Injera baytas aykab Awdn kab bayto.”

 

The source of injera (food/prosperity) is not the threshing floor but the village agora. 

 

I like smart people. They ask simple and down-to-earth questions. I think that is because their primary motif is the search for understanding. Although, they’re deep, they’re very transparent and one can see what they are truly made of. Indeed, the mouth always speaks what the heart is full of. A mouth that speaks clearly and with simplicity is of a heart full of light.  

 

In a private email, a smart reader and a fellow Eritrean asked me to define what our problem is. This is in response to my remark that “we’ve to make a strategic choice of whether we want to be part of the problem or part of the solution.” I completely understand that we can’t make a proper prescription without a proper diagnosis of the problem. I also agree with the reader that we first need to agree on what the problem is.  

 

That being the case, however, a majority of our focus should be on seeking solutions. We don’t have the luxury of time. In the long run we’re all going to be dead. We need to be solution oriented and we need that solution now.  

 

The reader stated that the more he reads, the less he understands our problems. The articles he had read are many, diverse and occasionally contradictory and do not seem to shed light. He is more confused today than he was few years back. I like to take the challenge and briefly try to define the problem as I understand it. This is my take and I hope it helps.

.

 

Our problem is that of citizenship: The Absence of our own “Bayto” 

 

Whenever I’m unsure or unclear on something, it helps me greatly to go back to the basics and ask some simple but fundamental questions. “neger ab mjmmaru: ikhli ab mukhumaru”.  A problem as well as crop gathering is better understood in its initial stages.  

 

It is important that we go back to the beginning of the nation-building project to see what kind of system we put in place. As I’ve argued in “Eritrea- our Black Stone” the system was essentially exclusionary, illegitimate and unjust. To borrow a famous phrase from the Clinton era: It is the system that is stupid. 

 

We’ve had a variety of governments throughout our history where order and security prevailed. Ngus zeyblu aynged. One without a king should not go on a pilgrimage/trade mission. We’ve had also periods of unruly times where semi-anarchy reigned “kino Mereb ngus alo kino Bahri Sharia alo ab mengo gn Hnfshfsh alo” There is a king beyond Mereb and there is Sharia beyond the sea, but there is chaos and bedlam in-between.  

 

These governments of feudal lords, Naibs, Sultans, kings and emperors were different, but, they were the same in one fundamental aspect. They treated the people as their subjects and the people, in return, didn’t care who was in power. “zbereqet zeHayna znegese ngusna” A sun that rises in the morning is our sun and whoever occupies the throne is our king. 

 

With the advent of the modern nation-state and democracy, the idea of a citizen was born. The citizen is the alpha and omega of a modern democratic state. The sixty-four thousand Eritrean heroes that paid the ultimate sacrifice did not die as subjects or mercenaries for the glorification of king or emperor. The liberation struggle was not a medieval “zemecha”- looting and military expedition– but, a revolution that was inspired by the idea of a citizen. Our freedom fighters died for a noble idea that would be meaningless without the idea of citizenship. It is an idea that is deeply rooted in the premise and promise that Eritrea is for Eritreans, to Eritreans and by Eritreans. It is this idea that the PFDJ has trampled upon. 

 

The idea of a citizen can not be realized without the idea of the peoples’ assembly- bayto. It is in the bayto that citizens deliberate to form a system of government that would serve their best interests. The idea of equality is the central tenet of citizenship. All citizens are equal and this equality best manifests itself in the noble idea of one person one vote.  

 

In fact, a government is established by citizens to ensure and promote equality, liberty and security. In today’s Eritrea, the people are neither equal, nor free nor secure. The government has stolen the “bayto” and without the “bayto” the people would not be able to address their problems and find a solution. The PFDJ regime has taken away the citizenship rights of every Eritrean. The PFDJ is the biggest thief. 

 

Our number one priority should be to catch the thief, bring him to justice and restore the “bayto” to its rightful owners. Once we own our bayto, we would have the platform to address all sorts of issues that affect out society. The concerns for equality, liberty and security will always be with us, but, without first taking back our “bayto”, it will be the case of “bzereba znegs bkokAda zHares yelen.” Talk would not get you crowned and a plowshare made of hallow wood would not enable you to plow the land. 

 

Framing the language: 

 

It seems to me that we- all of us opposing the PFDJ regime- have not been effective in framing the problem in a language that our people can understand. Our message or language does not seem to resonate with the majority of our people. Our people do understand the language of equality, liberty and security. The balancing act of these three is what is known as societal justice, fetHi. FetHi or al-Adala is what animates our people and what compels them to rally behind a cause. 

 

I’m a believer that the best way to institutionalize equality, liberty and security is through democracy. Although, democracy is not a direct political end in itself, its institutional framework is so vital a means in the preservation of freedom, that it has become- de facto- an end in itself. We can not avoid democracy, but, I’m not sure if the democratic language is the best way to frame our issues. 

 

The scholar and the semi-literate Imam and Sura(t) al beqera:

 

 

 

“BeAl Hade Ayni ab Adi ‘Awrat ynegesIn a village of the blind, a one-eyed man becomes the king. There was a semi-literate Imam in a Muslim village where all the people were illiterate. A prominent Muslim scholar was passing by the village, and, that particular day happened to be a Friday. It was mid-day and the Muezzin was calling the faithful for selat-al-zhur. The scholar decided to stop by the village mosque and perform his salat obligations in the company of the faithful.  

 

After the Selat, the Imam gave the Khutba; the Friday sermon. The Imam was misquoting the Quran, and the Haddith and his sermon was far from being mainstream Islam. The Khutba was a pot-lock of pagan, animist, Christian and other traditions. The scholar was disturbed by what he had witnessed and upon minor probing found out that the Imam was not properly educated. The Imam could barely read. The scholar had to wrestle with this moral dilemma of whether to tell the truth about the Imam or let sleeping dogs lie. The scholar opted for the truth.  

 

He was compelled to tell the village Muslims of the need of getting a qualified Imam. The people could not believe what seemed to them an outrageous accusation. The scholar, however, looked to them as someone that is evidently learned, trustworthy, honorable and very knowledgeable. They asked the Imam if there was any validity to the scholar’s charge. 

 

The Imam might have been semi-illiterate, but, he certainly knew his people and how to communicate to them. He asked the people to bring two loohs, tablets, one for him and one for the scholar. He asked the scholar to write Sura(t) al begera; the sura of the cow; on the tablet. The Imam drew the picture of a cow on his tablet and then looked at his congregation and asked them to see which looh, tablet has Sura(t) al begera on it. All the illiterate villagers were able to tell the picture of the cow and they all pointed out the Imam’s tablet. The scholar was defeated and was told by the villagers to immediately leave the village. 

 

Mainstreaming the message to main-street

 

The problem with the opposition is not the message, but, the way the message has been framed and conveyed. It lacks some good and common-sense marketing and sales strategies. It does not appeal to main-street. There is nothing wrong with the product- the message. The opposition talks like the scholar and the regime talks like the semi-literate Imam. We need to speak in a language that will resonate with the majority of the people. When we speak the people must feel like they are hearing their own voices. This is how one leads and mobilizes people. My simple message to the opposition is there fore: be relevant or die.  

 

weriz@yahoo.com

The author is an Eritrean-American writer, activist and founding member of Eritrean Global Solidarity (2006) and was elected chairman of the umbrella organization in its first formal congress (Dec. 2007) and served as its chairman until Dec. 2008. He is also a founding member of Eritrean Public Forum-Dallas-Fortworth.

About Semere T Habtemariam

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