Post-Islamism in Eritrea why does it is matter?
Reflection on the 6th congress of Eritrean Democratic Homeland Party
The reality of the Eritrean regime’s longevity and the cost associated with that reality has messed up Eritreans’ priorities and their way of thinking. Nowadays, posts, slogans and discussions around toppling the regime regardless of its efficacy dominate to the extent that any rhetoric beyond this point is not welcomed and may be condemned.
Against this background, a major transformation of one of Eritrea’s opposing political organisations has taken place and gone unnoticed – as should be the case, to say the least – which prompted this article in the hope that it may shed light on the significance of such a transformation and its impact on the Eritrean political arena.
On October 2019, the then Eritrean Islamic Party for Justice and development (EIPJD), in the final statement of its 6th congress, announced that the party had adopted four major resolutions:
- Its transformation into an inclusive political party that accommodates all Eritreans.
- Pursuing its goal through peaceful means.
- Restricting its activities to only political sphere, preserving the right of individuals to Pursue other forms of activities as individuals or civic societies.
- Changing its name to the Eritrean Democratic Homeland Party (EDHP).
EDHP’s roots as a clandestine organisation could be traced back to the mid-seventies. The organisation is, in fact, a combination of two groups with different experiences and a generational gap; however, both groups were influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The first group was mostly composed of freedom fighters Tagadelti, such as the late Mohammed Ismail Abdu and Hamid Salih Turki. MB, since its inception in 1928 in Egypt, engaged actively in recruiting students from other countries who came to study in Egypt, particularly Al-Azhar University. Among those recruited students was one of the founders of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in Cairo, the martyr Saeed Hussein. Hussein left Cairo and joined the armed struggle leading special operations in Asmara. He was captured by Emperor Haile Selassie’s security apparatus in 1963 and was jailed for 12 years until he was freed by the ELF’s army during the Senbel prison break heroic operation in early 1975. Shortly after he was released Hussein joined the second national congress of ELF 1975, during that period the Labour Party (LP) – secret communist party – was in full gear and gained full control over ELF leadership. Hussein, with his MB background, was agitated by LP’s control over ELF and decided to resist LP’s aggression by force, if necessary. The LP was one step ahead of him; hence, he and his group were liquidated in Dankalia in 1978. Mohammed Ismail Abdu and Hamid Saleh Turki were arrested and tortured by the LP along with other nationalists, such as Jaffar Ali Assad; Ibrahim Idris Mohammed Adam – the son of the ELF founder, Idris Mohammed Adam; and Suleiman Mussa Hajj. This group was released in 1981 due to ELF’s defeat and its complete withdraw from Eritrea.
The second group was mostly composed of students who were studying in Sudan, namely at the Omdurman Scientific Institute. This group of students were influenced by the MB through its books and publications in addition to relatives and acquaintances and those who study in Egypt and regularly visit their families in Sudan where the Eritrean refuges had started to settle since 1967. A dialogue started between the MB influenced freedom fighters and the students, and the process eventuated in the formation of the Eritrean Muslims Pioneers Organisation, Alruwad, in November 1981. Most Eritrean Islamists during that period saw themselves cornered between a rock and hard place. A notorious communist’s leadership of ELF/LP from one side, and the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) from the other. While the roles of the ELF/LP began to diminish with every passing day, EPLF in contrast was gaining more ground and attaining steady progress militarily and politically. With the escalation of war on many fronts, EPLF conducted forced conscription campaigns that targeted females in Baraka, Dankalia and other Muslim-dominant regions. EPLF females’ conscription was considered by the communities as a provocation and goes against their religious values and social customs. Communities in the targeted area opted to defend their ‘honour’. As a result, many were killed by the EPLF soldiers. Eritreans Muslims in Sudan residing in refugee camps and cities stood in solidarity with the victims and considered the EPLF forced conscription campaigns as an intentional provocation to their creed and social norms. This time, the Salafi affiliate activists and the MB affiliates were both at the forefront. This activism against EPLF’s provocation contributed significantly to narrowing the gap between these two groups that seldom converge. This convergence of MB and the Salafi groups led to the formation of the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement (EIJM) in 1988. The convergence, however, proved to be tactical and was short-lived. EIJM seems to be a manifestation of instantaneous enthusiasm more than a well-thought project and therefore lacked clear vision and strategy. While the enthusiasm might somewhat disguise the EIJM’s lack of vision and strategy in its early years, the EPLF freedom fighters storming the gates of Asmara on 24 May 1991 created a new reality that EIJM was not fully equipped to deal with. Internally, EIJM was consumed by bickering and mistrust between Salafi faction and the MB, each faction trying to gain control concerning the EIJM’s affairs. MB affiliates were politically mature as they benefited from two factors. First, MB historically prioritised politics and envisioned the state as the most crucial vehicle of social, economical and moral changes; therefore, many scholars see it as a political movement. Second; among the MB affiliates were the senior cadres of the EIJM, such as Mohammed Ismail Abdu and Hamid Saleh Turki, whom both severed in the leadership ELF. The Salafi side in contrast, and until recently, tended to shy away from politics with little consideration to its nuances as they saw things through the prism of prohibited and permissible ‘halal & haram’. The two components, therefore, conceptualised the post-liberation era differently. The EIJM leadership, coming predominantly from the MB faction with other groups that splintered from ELF, issued a statement calling upon the EPLF to start a new chapter and accommodate all Eritreans, regardless of their political affiliation, through a national dialogue. EIJM coordination with groups of ELF background was seen by the Salafi faction as betrayal to the creed and principles of the EIJM, let alone a call for a dialogue with the EPLF. With each passing day, the chasm between the two groups grew to the extent that it was impossible to be bridged. The inevitable divorce occurred within less than five years of the inception of the EIJM. As a result, two EIJM became a reality, EIJM ‘Arafa wing’ where MB affiliates and most of the political leadership, and EIJM ‘Abu Suhail wing’ predominantly Salafists within the armed wing of the EIJM.
Both factions claimed that they are the legitimate leadership and the guardians of the true tenets of the EIJM; hence, bitter campaigns to smear and delegitimise the other faction were waged. Luckily, there were no armed confrontations.
Five years after the EIJM’s fragmentation on August 1998, the MB faction of the EIJM held its congress and adopted a new name: the Eritrean Islamic Salvation Movement (EISM) ‘Alkhalas’. The EISM leadership that encompassed the ELF’s experience, MB principles of a political nature and a relatively broad base across ethnicities and regions, in particular Muslims from highlanders and lowlanders, were features that greatly benefited this group in dealing with other political opposition groups in the events that led to the formation of the Eritrean National Alliance (ENA) on March 1999. The Salafi faction joined the efforts to establish the ENA, through another façade created for this purpose, which was called the Eritrean People’s Congress. This maneuver was necessitated by two factors; the EIJM discourse underpinned by Halal and Haram consider such coalition with non-believers unjustifiable to both its members and external supporters. On the other hand, the ENA components preference was to not have an organisation with the term Jihad in its name among the list of ENA founders. Hence, this maneuver was a convenient and acceptable solution to both sides’ dilemmas. The EISM-Alkhalas embarked on a transformation trajectory in many ideological and organisational fronts, such as democracy, coexistence and the role of women in the public sphere, particularly in politics. In August 2004, the organisation held its 4th congress where it adopted a new name: The Eritrean Islamic Party for Justice and Development (EJPJD). The opening ceremony of this congress was well-attended, and the attendees included, in addition to the representatives of the Eritrean and Sudanese political organisations, the pastor Abba Petros of the Eritrean Orthodox church in Khartoum. A significant number of women participated in the congress; therefore, women constituted approximately 15% of the elected legislative council, ‘Majlis AlShoura’, which was unprecedented in the history of this organisation. In its 5th congress in 2013, the organisation discussed dropping the reference to Islam in the organisation’s name. The suggestion, however, was defeated by a very slim majority. In the 6th congress, however, the organisation started articulating its position towards the previously mentioned ideological and organisational issues in much clearer terms. The organisation, since its 4th congress in 2004, has adopted democracy and democratic principles to guide its internal affairs, as well as its relationship with other organisations and coalitions. Furthermore, the organisation explicitly envisioned democracy and a multiple party system as the most suitable regime of governance for Eritrea. Secularism sparked a heated debate within the organisation, and the congress settled on calling for ‘Civil State’, ‘Dawla Madaniya’, without in-depth deliberations that would reveal the dimensions and applications of this vague concept.
What the 4th and 5th congresses fell short of was accomplished in the 6th congress, and the organisation dropped the reference to Islam in its name and opened its doors to all Eritreans from all walks of life, creeds and affiliations for them to join the organisation. Furthermore, the organisation adopted strictly peaceful means to bring about democratic change in Eritrea.
Post-Islamism within the organisation context
Normally, transformation from identity politics to broad-base politics is challenging in many ways. From a historical analogy, such transformation has occurred as a response to a significant political dynamic change. For instance, in Tunisia, the Islamic Tendency Movement has changed its name to the Ennahda Party, which means Renaissance. This step was a response to Ben Ali’s 1988 new laws, which stem from the concept that no one should claim the representation of religion exclusively. Therefore, no political parties with reference to religion would be legitimised and allowed to contest in an election. The MB in Egypt established the Justice and Development Party in response to the political openness post the Arab Spring and the departure of the strongman Hosni Mubarak. No one would claim that the Eritrean political dynamic has witnessed any significant change that requires such transformation. The other aspect is that this is an organisation that has been orbiting on identity politics for a long time – a reality that shaped its discourse, affiliates, supporters and sympathizers. The reactions of Muslim activists to this transformation in the Arabic domain demonstrates cautious welcoming signs, but most reactions illustrate disappointment or perplexmxent. The disappointment and perplexmxent are understandable due to many Muslims conceptualisation of the Eritrean regime through the lens of sectarianism whereby the vast majority of Muslims believe that they are intentionally marginalised culturally, politically and economically. Whilst the regime marginalisation of Muslims is an undisputed fact, many Muslims will question if the solution for this marginalisation lies in the adoption of identity politics based on the dichotomisation of ‘Muslims vs. Christians’.
It would be naivety to assume that Eritrean from different beliefs will be queuing in order to acquire a membership of EDHP as a result of this step, hence, no instant gains will be obtained. Furthermore, the organisation must explain how it is different from the existing Eritrean political organisations functioning beyond the orbit of identity politics.
In contrast to these challenges, there are many opportunities that cannot be underestimated. First, Eritrea has a unique demographic composition. Although it is true that no formal census has been conducted publicly since 1952 to illustrate the demographic composition, the 1952 census illustrated that Muslims and Christians equally share Eritrea in addition to having other beliefs. Such composition may constitute a blessing or a curse – it depends on how the elite utilise it. In such a delicate demographic formula, utilising identity politics based on religion that belongs to one segment and excluding the other for a constructive outcome is a dangerous game and doomed to fail. The early realisation of this fact and its consequences – breaking out of the comfort zone and walking the inevitable transformational path – gives the EDHP a huge opportunity to reposition itself comfortably in both opposition camps and the post-regime change era.
Second, by the end of the Cold War, the prevalence of liberal democracy spurred Fukuyama to hubristically claim, ‘There are significant consensuses that liberal democracy may constitute the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the final form of human government and as such constitute the end of history.’ Terms such as the ‘civil state’ instead of ‘secular state’ would not be considered at that stage of history. Three decades since Fukuyama declaration, many forms of a culturally oriented democracy has emerged. In the days leading to the 6th EDHP congress, in an interview conducted with the chairman of the congress preparatory committee, he talked about ‘positive secularism’ as a form that the EDHP may consider. Again, the timely transformation allows the EDHP to intellectually contribute to a form of democracy, and a formula governs the correlation of the religion and state that suits Eritrea.
Third, Eritrea’s politics, particularly the political organisations within the opposition camp, are going through acute stagnation. The failure to mobilise Eritreans towards effective action against the authoritarian regime in Asmara is apparent. The EDHP is previously known for playing a constructive role in the formation of opposition coalitions, such as the ENA, the Eritrean Democratic Alliance and the Eritrean National Council for Democratic Change. During this process, the EDHP has gone along with many secular organisations. With this transformation and the removal of the ideological barrier and transcending identity politics, EDHP today, more than any time before, is suited to developing its relationship with these organisations into a unification or at least united front.
However, there are a plethora of caveats that must be taken into consideration in order for these opportunities to be seized. At the forefront, although the EDHP, known for its well-established democratic producers and a smooth transitioning of leadership (four leaders since 1994), such transformation might be more than some file members and cadres can comprehend. This requires reaching out to all cadres and members through an open dialogue in order to get them on the same page. Further, the discourse consistency, both internally and externally, is essential. Inconsistency will jeopardise the credibility of such transformation, which has already been questioned by many or described as a tactical move.
Post-Islamism within Eritrean opposition and Eritrea’s future context
Two decades ago, in particular, post the G-15 open letter and it is ramifications, Eritreans were more optimistic towards bringing about democratic change in Eritrea, thereby Eritrean opposition started to discuss a post-regime change and transition. This optimism dwindled a few years later due to the aggressive reaction of the regime, which entailed the Eritrean president gaining full control. This optimism was rekindled a decade later during the Eritrean Forum for National Dialogue; Addis Ababa in August 2010 and the Eritrean National Congress for Democratic Change in Awasa in November 2011. The rise in optimism in both stages sparked a discussion concerning serious issues, such as national unity, reconciliation and a transition stage.
Nowadays, however, the focus has been shifted towards directing the message towards one goal and one goal only: regime change; an aspiration summed up in the term ‘enough’ – Yiakil or Kifaya. This is understandable as the discussion around complicated issues without a proper platform may divert these efforts that are supposed to focus on weakening the regime. Having said that, Eritreans must remember that they have been through a similar stage in their recent history when they suspended any serious discussion until Eritrea was freed from the Ethiopian occupation. The Eritrean political spectrum right now is very complicated. There is an authoritarian regime in Eritrea that utilises every possible tactic found in the playbook of dictators throughout humanity’s history to prolong staying power. The opposition camps are divided, and identity politics based on religion, ethnicity or region are dominant features. The Eritrean diaspora operates in two separate orbits, Tigrinya and Arabic. Each camp has its own imaginable Eritrea, interpreting the history and perspectives of Eritrea’s present and future. The legacy of the Eritrean authoritarian regime that accumulated throughout the past three decades, in addition to the state of the current opposition, is circumstances that leads to anything but united, stable and democratic country as many Eritreans contemplates.
So, what should be done? No one can reverse history; hence, the focus should be on the future. A nation’s future shaped through many factors in the forefront, however, is the role of its elite. ‘Elite’ in this context refers to a segment of society that is politically, intellectually, economically or socially influential. Here, many would argue – including Isaias Afwerki – that establishing a sustainable democracy requires a democratic culture, which is true, but I would argue that what is more crucial is the elite consensus on democracy, which is the decisive factor, not because democracy only reflects their common values, but because it also serves their interests.
In this context, the transformation that the EDHP has gone through is a significant step towards a stable and democratic Eritrea. The EDHP, as many realise, is presumably one of the largest Eritrean political organisations, if not the largest in terms of the quantity of committed members. However, what distinguishes EDHP is not the quantity of its members but their qualifications. MB is known for focusing its recruitment strategy on students, and this strategy has proven to be fruitful. Eritrean MB affiliates were no different, and since the inception of the Eritrean Muslims Pioneers Organisation in November 1981, the movement spared no efforts to reach out to any student adhering to the faith of Islam and communicating in Arabic. As a result, the EDHP has among its members thousands of graduates in various academic fields in Sudan, Egypt, India, Malaysia and the Gulf States, with most of these members working in their respected fields in the Middle East and beyond. This fact might be astonishing or implausible for many who rely on Tigrinya or English to understand Eritrean society, but again, it is understandable. As stated earlier, Eritreans operate in two different orbits and know little about each other. A reality fault of no one. it is unfortunate for Eritreans that they went from colonialism to a regime whereby Eritrean national unity, coexistence and prosperity is not on its agenda.
The EDHP with these distinguished features has been utilising identity politics for the past three decades. Moving away from identity politics to democratic principles based on citizenship and believing in a national comprehensive solution to Eritrean challenges, including issues that triggered identity politics in the first place, is a tremendous gain for the camp of democracy and should be welcomed and celebrated.
For those democrats, whether liberal, social or developmental, who envision democracy as the most suitable form of governance that leads to a stable and prosperous country, the EDHP’s transformation should not be taken lightly. While believing in democracy is important, it cannot be imposed on someone. If a segment of Eritrean society insisted on identity politics based on religion, ethnicity or region, the prospect of a democratic Eritrea would diminish proportionally to the size of those utilising identity politics. In no way would it be justifiable or even achievable for a certain segment of Eritrean society to proclaim itself as a safeguard of Eritrea or its democracy and supress others who do not share the same beliefs and prioritise their cultural or regional issues over national issues. Historically, this method has been tested and proven to fail. With the current state of Eritrea’s political spectrum where three decades of authoritarianism resulted in polarised societies and fractioned oppositions where some organisation adopted identity politics; the best formula can be reached is through a pact of power-sharing among the actors in this spectrum based on their identity. A formula similar to the Taif’ agreement that ended the civil war in Lebanon; however, it resulted in a dysfunctional state, and that is certainly not what the Eritreans are looking for. They have suffered a lot and deserve better, and it is up to the Eritrean elite to rise up to Eritreans’ aspirations.
The EDHP transformation might serve as a vehicle to draw more Eritreans beyond identity politics, and that is achievable only if this transformation is taken by the Eritrean elite outside the organisation as a sign of progress and dealt with accordingly politically and intellectually. To this end, applauding EDHP transformation is a good start, but more importantly is addressing the issues that led to utilising identity politics in the first place. The consequences of not doing so is a vindication to the skepticisms of the elements within the EDHP that not in line with this transformation. Furthermore, there are many other Eritrean organisations that orbiting around identity politics and following closely the costs and benefits of breaking away from identity politics through the paradigm of EDHP, and it is up to Eritrean elite to encourage or discourage them.
Post-Islamism in a general context
Post-Islamism is a new trend that started to attract the attention of scholars and researchers of Islamism and democratisation in the Islamic World. Debates concerning the compatibility of Islam and democracy has produced rich literature. Since the Sudanese scholar Abdulwahab Al-Afendi wrote in his book, ‘Who Needs an Islamic State’, organisations that were influenced by MB have embarked on a path of revisiting their tenets and repositioning themselves. Many of these organisations concluded that democracy and ‘positive’ secularism is not necessarily antithetical to the essence of their beliefs. Dwelling on the aspiration of an Islamic Caliphate as the ultimate aim seems to be revised within these organisations’ literature. The Arab Spring and Obama’s administration response, where some elements of the administration’s position were underpinned by the ‘inclusion-moderation’ theory, helped these organisations with an MB background or influence to be receptive to the notion of democracy and to abide by its rules. The Ennahda Party in Tunisia voted for a constitution that does not refer to Sharia Law as one of the sources of legislations. Ennahda and other post-Islamist organisations conceptualise the role of state not to advocate for religious values but to grant and protect the freedom of societies to peacefully preach about and adopt these values. Therefore, they consider the state that protects their freedom as more important than any form of state, and only a democratic state does that.
This general context may help in understanding the transformation that the EDHP adopted in its 6th congress. If similar organisations in countries, predominately Muslims, opted for democracy and were willing to abide by its rule, then Eritrea, where dichotomisations of Muslim-Christians, Highlanders-Lowlanders and Arabic-Tigrinya is a salient feature, breaking away from identity politics is of the utmost necessity if the ultimate aim is a united, stable, prosperous and democratic country.
In its 6th congress, EDHP, by breaking away from identity politics and opting toward a broad-based organisation, declaring itself a democratic organisation and willing to adhere to its values and principles has gone through a tremendous transformation. This transformation, particularly from this organisation with its history, size and capabilities, brings Eritrea one step closer towards a democratic state. If identity politics is not been taken seriously, the prospect of a democratic Eritrea post the current authoritarian regime is merely a mirage as the current state of Eritrean political arena leads to anything but a democratic state. The EDHP in its 6th congress has done its bit, and it is up to the Eritrean elite, particularly the democrats, to build on this transformation, and this starts with welcoming this transformation politically and intellectually.