Between waiting for the Eritrean spring and making it: An attempt to find a new approach to change in Eritrea
More than two decades after the liberation of Eritrea, it seems that the chances of change in the Eritrean political scene is diminishing, not because there are significant new conditions in favor of the regime or against the opposition, but because the promise of change by the latter did not go past the concept of hope to reach the concept of action. This is because the difference between hopes and wishes on the one hand and actions on the other is considerable. Hopes do not require an effort more than unlocking the imagination, while actions needs a real conscience that prompts an accurate knowledge of the details of the action, mechanisms and methods in a possible timeframe. Given these understanding, I think change does not exceed being a desire or a wish that the opposition would rather have than an action that could see the light in a specific timeframe. I hope that this article would not be understood as a cause for inhibition of determination or pessimism because I seek to set the facts in their proper context, especially since expectations of the masses who are hungry for change are heightened when there are signs coming from a new party or organization: a conference, or a council. Knowing that all these is emphasized in the media, it gives the indication that the life of the regime is approaching its end, that the time for change has come, and that the fruit is ripe awaiting picking.
Perhaps some repeat these phrases and believe in them without exerting any effort to find how realistic they are or identifying factors on which they are based; but the presence of a certain action of opposition does not necessarily mean the fall of the regime within a determined timeframe. Dictatorial regimes do not fall on their own, they are overthrown by people who realize the consequences of what they are doing and who are willing to bear the sacrifices and consequences for their choices. Accordingly, this approach seeks to examine the scenarios of change as talked about or wished for by the opposition forces, and how applicable they are in reality as well as the possibility of converting them into actions that can determine whether they are feasible or wishful.
How do I see change
The term change in the dictionary of the Eritrean opposition constitutes a vast area starting from a full radical change, meaning the removal of the regime with all its structures, symbols and laws, and replacing them with an opposite regime that conforms to the agreed upon values among most of the Eritrean opposition and its allied entities. It is a change that seeks to create a democratic regime that takes into account values of justice, preserves diversity, and balances between the center and the peripheries. The concept of change advances putting pressure on the regime to present substantial concessions through external or internal pressures that would create a conducive environment for negotiations which can lead to a transitional phase in which everyone participates, or change of the regime itself through moderate forces at home that could negotiate with the opposition forces to reach a compromise. Between the option of a radical change and a partial one, so to speak, extends other options that approach or move away from one of these options.
Change is the norm of life, and nothing is eternal except the Almighty creator. According to the laws of extinction, the situation in Eritrea will change sooner or later. Nevertheless, questions remain: how and when will that change take place, and what is the alternative?
It is difficult to have definite answer for such questions since there remain possible scenarios for change according to the realities on the one hand, and human experiences on the other. These are two factors that guide us to guess what tomorrow holds for us owing to the fact that knowledge of the unseen is exclusive to the creator alone. The more the knowledge of the reality and all the factors forming it is accurate and truthful, and the analogy of human experience throughout history is realistic and objective, the more accurate the results of extrapolation of tomorrow becomes. School curricula and theories are created based on this science, but this should not distract us from the subject of this article.
If the change in Eritrea is inevitable, scenarios of change can be limited to two major ones each of which constitute scores of details. This article focuses on two main subjects: external change (external forces) and internal change (Eritrean national forces). I will attempt to clear these two scenarios by focusing on the latter which pertains to the internal forces for its significance to the current phase and also because this is the preferred option since it would lead to results that we aspire: the creation of a free, democratic and inclusive homeland.
Here, the external change means that which is mainly achieved by the interference of external forces even though there would be national forces whose role would not exceed a supporting or secondary role; but the effective and key player in realizing that change would still be the external force. To make the picture clearer we can give several examples from recent history: change that occurred in Panama and toppled president Manuel Noriega in 1991; overthrowing of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001; overthrowing the Baath regime led by Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.
If it is hard to imagine such a scenario taking place in Eritrea, we can imagine the U.S. as an active agent if its vital interests are exposed to danger, mainly the Bab El-Mandeb strait which is passage of oil from the Gulf region where the US and its allies have strategic interests, or if violence escalates in Somalia led by AlShabab and implicates Eritrea in fueling this conflict, and if that conflict becomes a direct threat to the interests of the United States and its allies. It is also a possibility that there would be a French intervention if the Eritrean President suddenly decides to attack the state of Djibouti that has the largest French military presence in Africa in its territories, and has a defense agreement with it. But the most possible and palatable intervention, considering the realities of the region, is the Ethiopian intervention. This is due to the fact that Ethiopia is the only country which has declared its desire to see the demise of the regime in Eritrea and publicly supports the opposition forces. Moreover, Ethiopia had previously penetrated deep inside Eritrean territories and occupied many Eritrean towns during the 1998-2000 war between the two countries. Such a scenario remains valid and potentially more probable than the other possibilities. This is because Ethiopia has a direct interest in changing the Eritrean regime which in turn also makes no secret of its desire to remove the minority rule in Ethiopia as it describes it. It is for that reason that Eritrea embraces and supports the Ethiopian opposition with its various military wings. What supports this scenario as well is that Ethiopia agrees with the United States on reducing the phenomenon of extremism, especially that which is growing in Somalia. The Eritrean regime’s connection with that phenomenon renders changing it an Ethiopian-American joint desire. The U.S. prefers to support regional powers such as Ethiopia and Kenya to deal with the terrorism in the Horn of Africa rather than intervening directly; the U.S. assumed this attitude after what happened to its forces, Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1993, under the umbrella of the United Nations.
Ethiopia has repeatedly stressed through its top governmental officials that changing the regime in Eritrea is not its business but that of the Eritrean people, and that it supports the right and choice of the Eritrean people in determining the authority that rules them. Moreover, the events on the ground demonstrate that at this stage Ethiopia prefers draining the Eritrean regime through a no-war-no- peace approach, especially after it became certain that the regime has become too weak to fend off any attack let alone pose a military threat. The best proof of that is the clear failure of the Eritrean regime in dealing with the Ethiopian intervention deep in Eritrea in March last year. Most probably that is the reason behind the deteriorating health of the Eritrean President who entered in a severe state of depression as a result of his conviction that his army lacked the ability to respond to the incursion. However, the chances of the occurrence of such an intervention is diminishes at least in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, such an option is not considered as a preferred or desirable by the majority of the opposition forces, and its consequences are not guaranteed. Ultimately, the external change scenario remains in the hands of other forces, a fact which denies the opposition the right to accept or reject it.
No doubt that the national forces that wish to change the Eritrean situation are many and spread over a large area. Some of these forces are political organizations; others are civil organizations as well as sect, youth and women organizations some of whom are declared while others are undercover. Some believe that change should be pursued militarily while others adopt peaceful means. Despite the fact that all these powers agree on the indispensability of changing the situation in Eritrea, and are working towards it, yet at the same time they differ on the means and manners by which they should carry out that change, as well as the shape of the desired change, and the alternative to that change. This is the area addressed by this article in an attempt to define change, noting that almost all of the powers agree that the change must include, as a minimum, the relinquishing of power by the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, under whom the state has become akin to a kingdom totally controlled by an individual. Moreover, most of the forces that believe that the relinquishing of power by the President is perhaps the solution envisioned by many opposition elements with an Eritrean People liberation Front (EPLF) background. But this vision is also shared by many others who had worked with the Eritrean government after liberation.
Perhaps the optimism that swept the opposition forces in all their structured or unstructured forms by the rumor of the death of the Eritrean President, or his chronic illness, is an expression of the longing of many who consider the president as a stumbling block on the road to change. Furthermore, his exit is seen as an international magic formula in treating the peoples’ revolutions.
The above formula is similar to the Yemeni model where domestic and international pressures had led to a combination of concessions whereby the strongman of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, handed powers to his deputy while in return ensuring his immunity. This is also one of the scenarios proposed to solve the Syrian crisis with variations in details. Change brought about by national forces in accordance with human experiences in modern history does not exceed specific and known scenarios. Change might take place when the opposition overwhelms the regime militarily and consequently defeats it, or pressures it and forces it to fully or partially give up power through political solutions; at least that is if the opposition is operating from outside the country. However, if the opposition is publicly or secretly working at home, the most prominent scenario is that a people’s revolution will take place similar to what happened in the Sudan in 1964, or during the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia. Change can also take place through a coup d’etat from within the regime, a military or a civilian coup, peaceful or violent; or more than a scenario might integrate to accomplish change. Importantly, the opposition forces that seek change should know which scenario to adopt, and work hard to accomplish tasks according to a specific schedule and subject to assessment and evaluation. But, does that apply to the Eritrean opposition? To answer this question one needs to look into the circumstances in which the Eritrean opposition was established and within which it operates.
The nature of the Eritrean opposition
The Eritrean opposition is essentially a force which has disagreed with the EPLF before the liberation, based on the two schools of the Eritrean Liberation Front: ELF and the EPLF. Such differences still manifest in many disagreements within the current opposition. Islamic organizations, whose roots are in the initial Liberation Front, joined the opposition at a later time. The more prominent aspect, however, was the one which appeared in the late eighties as a reaction to the practices of the EPLF which was classified on sectarian basis according to the interpretation of this opposition whish started its violent struggle against the EPLF before the independence of Eritrea. At a later stage, nationalist movements joined the opposition. These movements were formed as a reaction to the practices of the EPLF as the governing party that controls the state and controls its resources and its distribution. At a later time, forces from within the EPLF joined the opposition, including a number of its historical leaders after the split of the EPLF in the early years of the second millennium. If these are the most prominent movements that form the opposition, it should not be overlooked that there are large factional sectors that have joined the opposition which are not included in these movements as a result of geographical location, or age groups that cannot be classified under these movements. The most prominent of such movements are some intellectuals or youth who left Eritrea due to various reasons which can be summarized in a single reason: lack of hope in Eritrea due to practices of the regime. A large number of the nation’s youth left for exile and Eritrea recorded the highest rate in creating refugees in comparison to its population. This is the new state’s opposition generation; and it cannot be considered part of the previous categories. The above background is necessary for the identification of the means that would be pursued by the Eritrean opposition in its quest for change.
The common trait of all these movements is that their links and communication with Eritrea is very weak, if not non-existent altogether; the influence of these movements is almost up to the point of nothingness. Here influence is mean as an organizational influence that operates through a specific plan. Perhaps the reasons for that are well known: the historic opposition did not enter Eritrea in the first place or that it entered Eritrea but for very limited periods and then left. Furthermore, later generations left Eritrea on a journey to save only themselves, not to save their homeland. The difference here is clear; for in seeking to save the self, one exerts all his effort and is fully focused on leaving without thinking of returning. Leaving the homeland to save it, on the other hand, requires orderly exit which is something that did not occur in any of the sectors or individuals who make up the Eritrean opposition. In addition to that, Eritrea has not witnessed the formation of parties or elections, and thus there are no grassroots forces except those of the ruling party. If political trends existed, they are of factions that were considered to follow the ELF school of thought that is something that had taken place long time ago; nearly three decades separate us from the time the ELF exited from action.
There are also Islamic trends that reject practices of the EPLF in principle; but the EPLF was able to hit them in the first days of its rule. What remained of these Islamic movements was eliminated by the Islamists themselves as the result of their internal differences and divisions which rendered them hopeless and unfruitful. There was hope on the opposition that came out of the EPLF to have bases; however, due of its unorganized exit from the scene, as well as demonization by the regime as mischievous, weakened its impact on Eritrea. The absence of internal opposition as a result of historical circumstances of the formation of the opposition, and the weakness of influence be it in words or deeds, makes the chances of the opposition in causing an internal people’s revolution closer to impossible. Moreover, changing the regime by force and the exerting pressure that compels the regime to give up power or forces it to the dialogue table, is something that is not reinforced by the reality of the opposition. Furthermore, in light of the opposition’s inability to bring about change peacefully or through violence, using known as well as proven methods and scenarios, their talk of bringing about change does not exceed being dreams and wishes rather than action as I have previously mentioned in the preface.
An attempt to probe the roadmap
As the aim of this approach is not to cause any discouragement, or implant despair; it is important to conclude it with an attempt to penetrate through walls of objective conditions, that make change by Eritrean opposition as the central actor, an elusive matter and as difficult as trying to square a circle. At the same time, we must bring along positive factors such as the steadfastness of the opposition in difficult conditions, and the opposition’s principle in confronting the regime regardless of its ability to bring about change. In addition to that, there is the existing state of hate and discontent towards the regime which is still in its passive phase. Finally, there is the international isolation of Eritrea as a result of the regime’s practices and not as a result of the opposition’s strength of argument or its diplomacy. All those positive aspects can be built upon to find a way towards change, in spite of building a comprehensive plan, is not a possible matter in this approach.
The People at home are the mainstay in the process of change
Obviously, the change required relates to the political situation in Eritrea with its known geographical boundaries. Because we have not reached that degree of development which enables us to found a device that can remotely control the destinies of country and people, it must be recognized that the required change is within Eritrea. Therefore, change must take place from within Eritrea, whatever the form of the scenario.
We have excluded the scenario of a military invasion because of psychological conditions related to the Eritrean people who hate to have any more wars, and other structural conditions concerning the opposition and their logistics capabilities, and a third type of objective conditions related to regional surroundings. Moreover, there are no indications that the scenario that says that the regime would suddenly come to its senses and call for a constitutional state for and by everyone would ever happen; this has no precedent in the history of dictatorships. It therefore follows that change must be imposed on the regime through the will of the masses. Nevertheless, it is not easy for this simple fact to be recognized in the dictionary of the Eritrean opposition and it will give scores of justifications by which to support its point of view, starting from the tight security grip of the regime, the lack of internal organized forces, the absence of an effective section of the society–which is that of the youth who are either being pushed to the trenches in battlefields, to labor camps in Sawa, or are in exile–in addition to other reasons. The fact is that even more objective justifications can be quoted, but the essential fact that remains and cannot be disregarded (no matter how many justifications there are) is that the Eritrean people about whom we are talking are at home (in the scene of events) and are the ones suffering the most from the existence of the regime and its continuity, and they will be the ones who will most clearly and profoundly benefit from the demise of that regime. These facts are the cornerstones of any revolution and they are sufficient incentive for a revolution.
There are certainly other factors, such as the revolution’s program and its leadership, which are factors that can be created. What cannot be created is people who have the sufficient motive to carry out a revolution in the scene of events. Based on this foundation, what is needed is completing the factors that lead to the success of the revolution; this is a possible matter and can be proven by evidences from the political history of other people; nations of the Arab Spring may be regarded as fresh models of that matter. However, so as not to fall into the trap of comparing between the people of the Arab Spring and Eritrea, let us return to the Eritrean people and remember that in more difficult conditions than those they live in today, they managed to create a comprehensive revolution and were victorious. Relying on this foundation is not only because the people are those who will most suffer from the continuation of such a regime, that they are the party that will most benefit from such a change or because they are in the scene of events, but because there are many indications that show that the seed of revolution has began to grow in the womb of that people. We find that the Eritrean people at home have moved beyond the phase of euphoria caused by victory and liberation and reverence towards the regime, followed by a phase of fear, and eventually into that of hatred which is the phase of passive resistance. By going beyond that phase, there are several signs that indicate that some sectors of the people have begun positive resistance which, albeit being unorganized, is certainly a step to the right direction.
Opposition abroad as an integral factor in the change process
The features that people at home lack are the ones available to the opposition abroad. The Diaspora opposition has the potential and flexibility of movement, experienced leadership and can communicate with the outside world. Furthermore, they have the potential to influence the lifeline on which the regime breathes: finance. Above all, they have the principle of opposing the regime and adhering to that principle despite situational variables. The opposition, however, lacks precise definition of its role which it can comprehend and is within its capabilities and it determines for itself goals that cannot be achieved; the goals are simply unrealistic therefore impossible. The opposition, moreover, carry slogans which raise the bar of public expectations, but in time, people discover the truth, and then lose confidence in the leadership, the program, and the organization. It is, therefore, imperative for the Diaspora opposition to have a clear and precise role: It will not bring change to the Eritrean people at home, but will help them plan for change if they take the lead. This intellectual step followed by an action program that is entirely different from what is seen on the Eritrean opposition scene. The matter, however, is not that simple. The people at home who have withdrawn themselves from taking the responsibility, and are waiting for a savior represented by the Diaspora opposition, will not easily accept this burden. Rather, it will think that it is not worthy of that responsibility for dictatorships first targets the peoples’ confidence in themselves, limiting their interests to everyday breadwinning issues till they reach that point where they think that even the air they breath is a grant to them from the regime which is able to give or take it from them as it wishes. People feel grateful to the regime when they get their minimum demands without comprehending that these demands are at the heart of their rights. People in such a phase will not shift their thinking overnight to issues pertaining to freedoms, the constitution, and welfare. This is, therefore the path to which the Diaspora opposition should lead the people at home; but the following steps needs to be done: -
1) Communicating with the people at home through a thoughtful media work and informational messages focusing on exposing the regime and uncovering its practices, as well as motivating the active sectors especially the middle class (college students, state forces, middle or low ranked state employees, middle or low ranked army officers middle class of national capitalism). This should be a media message based on the truth and on accurate information from sources; gaining the confidence of masses can only come through experience. Talking, for instance, about imagined events or details of events based on inaccurate information from a certain city, causes the loss of the confidence of the people of that city since they live there. But if the information is accurate and timely, it would not only win the confidence of the people, but it will also to give them a sense that the opposition’s eye is watchful and is monitoring all events. Certainly, information sources will be limited in the early stages, but the list of volunteers who would provide news will increase amaze the the institutions. Many sectors of the people at home need people they can trust and those who give them hope and who interact with them not only by listening but by participating in the exchang of information which can developed.
2) The media message must focus on the responsibility of the Eritrean people at home towards change and that no one will carry out this task on their behalf and that the history of these people testify that they are able to accomplish the task as they have achieved the liberation task. The message must focus on the points of strength that characterize the Eritrean people, and bring up all forms of peoples’ resistance in whatever form or geographical location since people imitate each other–if that is on the level of nations, then it should certainly be effective within a single country.
3) Focusing on the emotional side since peoples are aroused by passion more than numbers. This could be done by reminding the people of the tragedy they are experiencing since sometimes people get used to a situation and need an outsider’s eye to show them the extent of the humiliation they are suffering. In this regard we have stories and horrors that, if used well, can draw tears from a rock and raise the dead.
4) One of the tasks of the Diaspora opposition is to block all external sources of funding for the regime, working towards criminalizing the payment of the 2% tax through the national laws of all countries in which Eritreans reside, especially Western countries, and reduce the regime’s social base through the use of all social relations. The achievement of each organization or committee in a certain area should be equal to the number of those who have stopped infusing blood to the regime through their financial contributions. Moreover, it is necessary to stop all forms of aid, grants and loans provided to the regime through closely monitoring and following and then carrying out protests in front of any country or organization that offers something similar.
5) Since the regime relies on the gold extraction project, this must be the most prominent target of Diaspora opposition which must communicate and put pressure on all companies, especially Western companies, through demonstrations, letters, and legal procedures, and through other means of pressure such as winning over members of parliaments and local governments. If the opposition succeeds in doing this, it would really contribute towards bringing down the regime. In the incident of the arrest of the employees of the British security company, Britain threatened to criminalize the 2% tax collection, and the regime could do nothing but free the detainees, despite the serious accusations of the detainees by the regime, which warranted sentenced of eternal prison terms. This only reflects the weakness of the regime that the opposition has not been able to exploit.
6) The Eritrean people at home need to see opposition parties that have put aside their absurd differences as well as their struggle on a tiger skin they dream to hunt down. Speaking in a unified voice gives motivation to those who are at home to resist positively. It also gives meaning to their sacrifices that they will get what they deserve for their sacrifices, even if what they get is only moral honor.
7) The opposition must not win over the masses abroad or at home with false glamorous slogans like those related to the approach of change, and they should be realistic in their slogans and programs. I cannot understand how a political organization or leadership presents a plan or a work program and then comes a year later to say that the plan has not been implemented for lack of financial resources. The plan is not a real one if it does not contain its own sources of funding and time frame; it explains that it was nothing but a wish and the leaders of the opposition have to stop playing with the emotions of the masses.
8) Despite the repeated talk about transition, yet there should be a consensus about this sensitive phase among all sectors of the opposition. Consequently, what has been agreed upon should be marketed to give the people at home a guarantee that the demise of the regime does not mean the demise of the state and that the opposition will be able to contribute to the stability of the state and can overcome its differences. Leaders of the opposition have to stop their power rivalry; opposition is not the seat of power; those who want power should seek power in a government in a country. Leadership positions should not be considered as recognition or favors; but should be entrusted to those who can work and perform. There is a confusion within the opposition: a concept of leadership between the leaders of a specific work, and a ceremonial status for someone who has sacrificed much and in recognition of his former favors and therefore he must be acknowledged and given a leadership position. The issue of honoring and recognition because of favors done by the former leaders should not be a definitive criterion in determining who should lead.
9) As the Eritrean people at home are the main pillar in any change, they should find themselves in all the opposition’s literature, not as marginalized, quite helpless forces waiting for a savior to come from abroad, but as active forces in all what is issued out of the opposition at the resistance phase, then the transitional phase, and what follows. That is a very important matter in breeding leaders at home and allurement of the middle rank leaderships in the regime to change their positions from being on the side of the regime to the opposition as long as their interests will not be harmed.
10) A timeframe must be determined for the change project through a specific plan. That plan must be subjected to evaluation and then to adjustment or alteration for it does not make sense that the opposition repeats the same activities and speeches over twenty years without noticing that the road in which they are moving will not take them to their target. As long as targets are clear, the ways and means might obviously change.
It would not be fair to deny the existence of that Eritrean opposition, and that most sectors of this opposition have a sincere desire to change the political situation in Eritrea. But these two factors are not sufficient to bring about change. Moreover, betting on the time factor have no guaranteed consequences as it is a double-edged sword that might benefit the opposition or not. Perhaps the Cuban opposition model is the best to demonstrate the effect of the weapon of time. The Cuban opposition found sympathy and support in the U.S, and a base abroad, since some 10% of the Cuban population lives in America. Opposition leaders, however, who had sufficient incentive to resist the regime and who came out in the mid-fifties of the last century, moved to the other world or to the world of memory loss because of the time factor. New generations who were born and lived abroad and boasted of their Cuban origins, but were not considering returning to Cuba, regarded the policy of the U.S. blockade against their country as unjust. Therefore they lobbied until the U.S. started changing its policy to become more lenient and humane. The case is similar in Eritrea. Most activists living abroad do not find sufficient enthusiasm in their children to continue the struggle against the regime in Eritrea. Moreover, prospects for return of the generations born and brought up abroad is minimal; the factor of time should not to be considered an asset. In addition, the reliance on external pressure, despite its importance, was not and will not be a decisive factor for change, bearing in mind that Eritrea is not an appealing state with vital strategic sources for great powers to fall upon. Furthermore, political regimes do not fall by foreign pressure alone, and Western pressure on the regime in Eritrea will not be more than it is on Zimbabwe or North Korea; these regimes are still holding up. It is, therefore, necessary to make the change and in a limited timeframe. This will not happen except with the support of those who reject the regime at home through a strategy that would transfer them to positive action, and transfer the neutrals to the stage of regime hatred, and neutralize the regime’s supporters, leaving behind only those who get direct benefit from being on the side of the regime and, those are not many. This is only possible through a new approach to change, without feeling embarrassed to admit that the opposition does not have clear strategy for change and that if it does, then it must have failed to lead the opposition to the target. Whoever says or thinks otherwise, should be reminded of the proverb mentioned by the Eritrean President in his famous interview after he came back from the dead: Follow the liar till the door steps. As twenty years are more than enough.
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*This article was originally written in Arabic and published in June 2012.