As I was passing by the brilliant young Eritrean who sells hotdogs near where I work, I noticed that he took off the picture of president Obama that always hang on his stand. When I asked him why he said he was mad at him for breaking many of the promises he voted him for. Then we started talking about the spectacular events in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and other countries in the region and during our conversation, he gave me an analysis that was so well-reasoned and so insightful that I was very much impressed and told him so. He laughed and said I was a fool to think that because …the credit really belonged to Al-Jazeera station where he had been glued -he said – since the beginning of the uprising in Tunisia!
I think most of us can identify with him. We owe a great deal to Al-Jazeera for its in-depth and timely reporting of the uprising. The station played a crucial and major role not only at keeping people in the region (and the world) informed about the rapidly unfolding events but also at keeping its listeners well attuned to the deeper context and factors that surround these uprisings through its many roundtable discussions where regional and international experts shared their views. Of course Al-Jazeera is not the only one that has been covering these events. It just stands out among the pack.
What a wonderful spectacle it was this Arab uprising particularly that of Egypt! What an inspiration it will be to activists in the region and around the world. And how soundly it demolished a long standing caricature of Arabs and Muslims that portrayed them as inherently averse to democracy and the rule of law – a myth that has spawned volumes of scholarly non-sense about why the Middle East and many Muslim countries lagged behind in establishing democratic governance; some blaming it on the economy, others on religion/culture when in truth it had been western powers and their allies that held them back and prevented democracy from mushrooming in the region.
The uprisings made it clear (for those who did not or would not see it before) the conditional nature of US/western support for democratic aspirations in other countries (Arab/Muslim countries in particular). Democracy, justice, and human rights are to be supported if and only if they are likely to bring about a regime friendlier to the west and to Israel but to be opposed tooth and nail otherwise. Even in the face of clear and unmistakable popular uprisings and calls for democracy, western powers were unable to voice (or even feign) support for the revolutionaries and would not relinquish their overt and covert support for their dictatorial friends in the region until their defeat became a foregone conclusion.
What I found remarkable, heroic, and praiseworthy in the revolutionaries in both Egypt and Tunisia is their adamant refusal to settle for anything less than a total removal of the old system. They understood that the mere removal of a head of state would achieve little. They therefore went about dismantling the old system progressively and methodically building on intermediate successes along the way to achieve the ultimate goal: the removal of the entire corrupt political structure from top to bottom!
The ouster of Mubarak or Ben Ali would not do; the removal of a few officers here and there is not enough. The entire clique must go! No bribe in the form of conciliatory gestures from the leadership and no threats could dissuade these daring revolutionaries from their ultimate purpose. How successful they will be in this only time will tell but the Egyptians and Tunisians at least have made it clear that they want a total replacement of the old regime. Others in the region are likely to insist on the same (and many in fact already are). Eritreans in the opposition will do the same I hope when the time comes.
As we watched mesmerized and enthralled at the rapidly unfolding events in countries that are so close to us, I am sure many of us hoped or dreamed for something similar to happen in Eritrea and wondered: Is it feasible or doable in our country? And if you are like me, you immediately dismissed the possibility as wishful thinking. But who can say for sure? Though huge impediments certainly exist, people sometimes find a way as the Arabs certainly did.
To many experts, Arab revolt had seemed impossible. Nobody, not even seasoned political experts who spent a lifetime studying Arab politics saw it coming. It just seemed to descend upon the region like a bolt from the blue. The former Soviet Union is another example. Neither think tanks in the US nor political pundits in the former Soviet Union were able to predict the stunning series of events that led first to the downfall of the Soviet Union and then to the birth of the many independent nations that sprang in its wake. The same can be said about the sudden demise of the shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatullahs. All these examples show the difficulty of predicting the future with any degree of certainty based solely on present conditions.
Outward appearances can be deceiving. As there was no inkling of what was brewing underneath for many years in the Arab uprising, currently there is no sign in Eritrea of any widespread uprising but again, just as in those countries, a single event may trigger a chain of events that would end it all. Though many of our youth have fled the country, we must remember that there are still people in Eritrea (young and old) that can stir things up somehow. After all, Isaias is not presiding over a completely depopulated land or region and however powerful he is, his powers are in the end derived from the people he governs (inside Eritrea). Nor is a revolt from within the military altogether impossible. Theoretically therefore a popular revolt in Eritrea is possible. Still, tactical decisions should be based on current tangibles not on future theoretical possibilities.
But whether we espouse pure non-violence as a doctrine or not, it behooves us to study carefully and reflect on the different outcomes of on the one hand, the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia that were largely non-violent and on the other that of Libya that quickly turned violent. Isn’t there a lesson for all of us in this not to be rigid and dogmatic in our thinking? Doesn’t it call for customization of our techniques to match the current challenge or foe? Haven’t we learned from the recent Arab uprising and from our perusal of history that there is no magic formula that works against all dictatorships and at all times – and that we must keep all options on the table? Isn’t Isaias likely to prefer decimating the country than cave in to any peaceful popular uprising like his ranting friend to the north (Gadhafi)? Can’t we all agree therefore (at least for now) that the most effective option for the opposition is an armed guerilla style attack coupled with sabotage inside the country to the extent possible? Why limit ourselves? Let us go for the final push using all our resources!
It is indeed high time! Twenty years is too long to suffer peacefully! Who would have thought back in 1991 when the entire nation breathed a huge sigh of relief that right after independence, Eritrea would be mired into two decades long of domestic dictatorship? After 30 years of struggle who would have imagined that we would be tyrannized anew by one of our own? I may be exaggerating here a little but couldn’t a case be made that life under Haile Selassie was more tolerable in certain ways than life in the last two decades?
I am not going to lie. Even under the brutal occupation of Haile Selassie, there was a semblance of normality to life where I grew up. I was born and grew up in Asmara completely carefree, happily romping through the streets of Asmara from Edaga hamus to Setantaotto, Acria to Godaif oblivious of the carnage elsewhere. To me, childhood in Asmara was wonderful but so was vacation time in Senafe with its exquisite mountains and beautiful scenery. Oh, how I loved to climb those high peaks with my elder brother! How I loved to smell the exhilarating morning country air and the leisurely walk between cultivated fields so many, many, many years ago!
Of course while I was contentedly playing soccer and Ashekakat Alem in Emba Galiano, Asmara and climbing peaks in Senafe, entire villages were being razed to the ground and innocent people (including some of my own families or relatives) were dying in many places across Eritrea as was vividly captured by Saleh Gadi in his latest book. And though like Jemal in the novel, I too saw hangings in Asmara, I quickly forgot the horror with a child’s typical resilience. The point however is that it was possible at that time to experience childhood to some extent and to snatch some happiness here and there despite the pandemonium that was raging on elsewhere. What is different for today’s youth is that there is no place in Eritrea where they can hide and enjoy their childhood or their youth for even a few moments safe from the brutal clutches of Shabia’s slave camp.
Then came Menghistu the terrible to dash all our hopes of growing up normally. If Janhoi was the devil incarnate, Menghistu was the arch-devil himself. With Hitler-like iron determination, the Derg pounded our tiny nation again and again relentlessly and with a degree of ferocity hitherto unmatched triggering a 2nd major exodus. Forced to flee Eritrea (for many of my generation long before adulthood), we still had high hopes that one day (after independence), we will return to our cherished and beloved country.
But alas! The cherished day came in 1991 but far from ushering a new era of peace, the triumphant EPLF/PFDJ came in full splendor and Caesar-like saw and conquered everything on its path (taking our freedoms, our aspirations, our faith, our children, our livelihood, our peace of mind). With a slogan very much like President Bush’s “you are with us or against us”, it quickly suffocated the country and brought it near extinction. If Mengistu made life unbearable in Eritrea, Isaias turned it into a virtual hell.
Isaias’s dictatorship was harsher and psychologically more damaging to our people due to the betrayal of a sacred trust it represented. Isaias did more of course by polarizing our people and by plunging our nation into all kinds of conflicts and avoidable wars causing starvation and misery to countless of our people. It is not altogether unreasonable therefore to state that EPLF/PFDJ/GOE did more psychical and material harm to our nation than all the previous regimes combined.
We are now approaching the 20th birthday of our nation (May). Will the next few years end it all? Will the chain of dictatorship finally come to a halt? I personally would answer in the affirmative. Isaias’s rapidly deteriorating popularity, his dubious sanity, and the steady and skyrocketing exodus of youth all point to a nation ready to explode – ready for change. That is why I believe we are approaching the end or at least the beginning of the end of EPLF/PFDJ/GOE reign of terror.
May the wind be on our backs!
Thanks for the highly articulate and beautifully written article and also for letting us know about the “Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change”. Hopefully, the movement will grow quickly and spread beyond its borders of origin to reach Eritrean youth all over. We should all encourage and support them in any way we can.
Please allow me to disagree with you a little about what you wrote under the subtitle: “out with the old, in with the young”. Though mild and very respectfully expressed, your age-based statements carry a subtle stereotypical message that may be interpreted to mean old people are bereft of technical know-how or unfit to lead in today’s rapidly changing technology. That was not your intention I am sure but the provocative subtitle itself is problematic. “Out with the old”? I don’t want anyone to think that technology belongs to the young or that it is hard to learn or that its mastery is a prerequisite for leadership. Nor should we subscribe to the notion that leadership should of necessity devolve to the young. Whoever is competent should lead regardless of age. There is a very good reason why most countries have anti-age discrimination laws.
Technology is a powerful force no doubt but young or old, Facebook and tweeters do not produce or instill leadership skills. Technology’s main use is to speed up things and to facilitate communication and this can be picked up or learned at any age excepting when senility sets in or in infancy years of course. I just wanted to make that clear to readers who may misread your thoughts.