A Short-lived Democracy That Never Was

Two men surveyed the scene in Eritrea from afar. One saw (or thought he saw) a new era of freedom and prosperity and turned to his companion with tears in his eyes and said “how lucky we are to finally witness the birth of a free and democratic Eritrea”


His companion who was peering as hard as the other was totally baffled. He didn’t see anything that remotely resembled democracy. He saw the opposite: killings, kidnappings, deprivations, and dungeons. Puzzled, he followed the other’s gaze and immediately knew why. His companion’s stare was fixated on one tiny spot where people indeed seemed freer.


Thereupon, he grabbed his companion and turned him around to enable him to see more of Eritrea and then bade him to look again. The other looked and was momentarily taken aback by what he saw but finding it difficult to acknowledge what he saw shrugged it off saying “hey, none of those suffering are my friends or yours… They are probably a bunch of traitors who deserved to suffer.”


The other reminded him that these were Eritreans who were never tried in a court of law and some were never charged of any crime …


“I know, I know” his companion interrupted. “No lectures please… you forget that I am a law professor but these are dire times my friend and laws can be temporarily suspended when a nation’s survival is at stake.”


Anticipating a fierce denial, the other abruptly ended the dialog saying:


Let us not argue the point for now. I am sure what you saw has stimulated you to study the issue further. Go gather a larger and a more representative sample of our population and meet me in the same spot next year…

I wrote this article to critique Dr. Mohammed Kheir’s latest article and in particular to evaluate the claim that he so casually makes that Eritrea had a “short-lived democracy” and a “thriving private press” in the late 90’s to early 2000’s. Mohammed personally witnessed (we can infer) this wonderful period of freedom and democracy which was to him like a “deep dream” as he tells us. Considering that the period refers to a time when dictatorship was still in full force (alive and well) and also considering the fact that these claims are being made in late 2011, these are truly extraordinary assertions! Just when we thought that the inner workings of the dictatorship have finally been universally understood by all Eritreans, something like this turns up to spoil our glee! It seems that we have grossly underestimated the staying power of illusionary thinking assuming as we did that the rise of dissenting voices from within the ranks of EPLF/PFDJ would spell the end of PFDJ-tainted thinking. Mohammed’s reminiscence of a phantom democracy that never was amply demonstrates how dead wrong we were!

But despite my disagreement with him over the core points mentioned, I found Mohammed Kheir’s article very interesting, touching, and beautifully narrated! What adds to the readability and poignancy of his article is the inclusion of his own family’s ordeal and his depiction of the helpless and heart-wrenching cries of mothers as their children were wheeled away in broad daylight. Such public recounting of past events is beneficial particularly when it is peppered with personal testimonials (as Mohammed’s was). It reminds us of the ongoing cruelties of the regime. I therefore want to thank Dr. Mohammed Kheir for sharing it with us so openly and so vividly. My deepest sympathy goes to him and his family for what they had to go through and I wish them Ramadan Kareem!

Though I was naturally moved by the events he described, I nonetheless wanted to go beyond sentimentality to critically assess the truth-value of the article because the events he chronicles though extremely painful to Mohammed and his family neither marks the start of the regime’s barbarity nor its worst brutality. In fact, within the larger context of the history of dictatorship in Eritrea, it represents only a tip of the iceberg.

But If Mohammed’s article is read (as it should) with the understanding that he speaks from within the myopic world of EPLF/PFDJ political culture, one will find no surprises there. That does not mean of course it should therefore go unchallenged. No. In fact, it is precisely this self-centered egotistical political ethos of EPLF/PFDJ that we must repeatedly challenge, critique, and debunk. Mohammed’s article provides a perfect illustration of the willful blindness or callous disregard that afflicts many in that culture. Take for instance the following assertion he makes:

Reflecting back on it today, it looks like a deep dream. We had a relative short-lived democracy then

Above Mohammed is telling us that Eritrea of the time did not only have a democracy but it was like “a deep dream” to him. The fact that innocent people were languishing in prisoners and dungeons across the country during the period he describes as a “short-lived democracy” is apparently of no consequence to him. This leads me to think that perhaps what he remembers as a “deep dream” was literally so – a sleep induced dream. It may well be because democracy can be conjured up within a full-bloodied hardcore dictatorships like ours only in a dreamy or dazed state.

Mohammed Kheir seems slightly aware of the untenability of his claim as is borne by the fact that he attempts to soften his remarks by adding qualifiers such as “relative” “democratic space” etc… but I consider such ploys pure semantic obfuscations because the qualifications themselves fail when scrutinized.

Take for instance his use of the term “relative … democracy”. Relative to what we may ask? It is a meaningless qualifier because one cannot relativize a non-existing entity. Rudiments of democracy must first be in place before we can think of comparing it with other democracies. The same can be said about his other qualifier “democratic space”. One cannot speak of having “democratic space” when people’s powers have never been secured and when the populace remains totally and completely powerless. I therefore consider such use (misuse) of the term democracy prostituting its true meaning.

But his remarks reminded me of a debate I once had with an Associate Professor (later a G13 dissenter –name deliberately withheld) who similarly had the effrontery to publicly profess that Eritrea is not only a democracy but the “best democracy in the world”! Now about ten years later, Dr. Mohammed Kheir (also a G13) is telling us yes, sure, Eritrea had a “short-lived democracy” and a “thriving private press!” to boot…I can testify I was there!

Dear reader: I hope you realize the full import of such assertions. But whether you are aware of it or not you are subtly being coaxed or manipulated into believing that democracy and tyranny can coexist side by side and that freedom is possible within a slave-driven police state! Can you think of any greater insult, dear respected fellow compatriot – any greater affront – to our collective intelligence than to be subjected to such wildly bizarre claims?

No, Mohammed Kheir no, we never had a democracy in any shape or form (short-lived, long-lived or anything in between) nor did we have “a thriving private press” that is genuinely free. What we had then is exactly what the dictator wanted us to have and when (exactly) he wanted us to have it. As a dog* owner might occasionally allow his dog to run free while holding the leash securely in his hand, the dictator may at times ease his stronghold over his subjects but that does not mean that democracy has dawned. It merely means that a trap has been setup for us as I will explain shortly.

When a dictator grants such “freedoms”, he does so while closely monitoring the effects to forestall its spiraling out of control. But why do dictators allow such respite to their people in the first place? Dictators do so for a number of reasons. First, it temporarily lulls the public into thinking or believing that things are going well and that the leadership deserves to be supported (as Mohammed and many others in fact did or believed). Second, giving a semblance of temporary “freedoms” helps the dictator identify his loyal supporters that will be easily distinguishable by their raucous support of the regime even when they believed they were free to dissent. It is from this pool of trusted followers that the dictator later hand picks his personal hound dogs.

Finally and most importantly, doling out token freedoms helps the dictator mark his enemies. Many fall prey to this ruse naively believing that the benevolent dictator (forgive the oxymoronic expression) has kindly granted them freedom of expression. Much too late and to their utter dismay, they realize that they were setting themselves up for a special harsh treatment by the regime as we saw it happen to Beraki, the G-13/15, and others.

The “thriving private press” that Mohammed so fondly remembers was in fact never free at all because a freedom that can be given and taken away at the whim of a tyrant is no freedom at all but is analogous to crumbs that are tantalizingly proffered and withdrawn from a submissive dog. The whole thing was just a farcical illusion, a dream, and a tool that the dictator used to isolate his outspoken enemies that are then marked for liquidation at the dictator’s own convenience.

That is exactly what happened in Eritrea as we all know! Isaias gave freedoms to a certain segment of our people when it suited his grand design and just as quickly took it away when it didn’t but throughout he never lost total and complete control which renders any assertion that there was a semblance of democracy a totally tasteless and cruel joke! Amazingly, more than ten years later, some still fail to realize or admit that they were soundly, roundly, and decisively outwitted by a clever charlatan with very mediocre educational credentials!

Mohammed Kheir praised students and other Eritreans who spoke critically against the leadership and I praise them too but is that the definition of a democracy? Since time immemorial, people have stood up against tyrannies even in the worst forms of dictatorships. Are we then to label such dictatorships as democracies? Of course not! The main difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is one of power and where or in whom it resides. If ultimate power resides in the people, then one of the main ingredients of democracy has been fulfilled. Otherwise, there can be no democracy. Since Isaias retained and continues to retain absolute power over the country throughout the post-independence years, it is mere sophistry to speak of democracy under such circumstances. To further drive the point home, let us take stock of what we know about Eritrea since independence.

Consider the following facts:

1. No popular elections were held at any period since independence.
2. No working constitution at any period since independence.
3. No independent Judiciary at any period since independence
4. No political pluralism at any period since independence
5. Ongoing detentions of innocents who are never charged or tried.
6. Ongoing slave labor, devastating wars, and wanton religious persecution.
7. Etc… Etc…

The above partial list constitutes what has become a permanent feature of Eritrean polity since independence. If we still believe democracy and freedom was made possible within the above itemized scenarios, we are not only delusional, we are insane! Democracy and tyranny simply do not mix. You can have one or the other but not both at the same time.

For those who care, facts are out there. Neutral observers such as Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have carefully documented human rights abuses in Eritrea since independence. Check it out and you will find that the history of Eritrea since independence has been written in tears, terror, and blood. What Mohammed Kheir remembers as a “deep dream” is remembered by others as a horror-filled nightmare. What he fondly recalls as a period of “thriving private press” was for others an era of permanent censorship, repression, religious discriminations, disappearances, and assassinations.

Instead of imagining ghost freedoms and still-born democracies, former supporters of the regime need to either acknowledge that they were deceived and bamboozled by an accomplished con artist or else muster enough courage to confess that they still have tender feelings for the regime. If the latter, there is only one solution: go to the dictator and beg for his forgiveness because the cure for such a malady is to be found only at its source!

Before ending, I want to briefly comment on Mohammed Kheir’s use of the term “Eritrean summer”. I am not sure exactly what he means by that but I see no harm in it if the intention is to uplift our spirits or to “embolden” us as Saleh Y put it and provided we don’t go overboard to liken Eritrea’s sporadic pockets of mild protestations with the widespread popular uprising that we witnessed in places like Egypt and Tunisia. Ramadan Kareem!

*this is just an illustration to make a point and not meant to imply God forbid Eritreans are dogs.


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