For more than two weeks, Eritrean activists guessed and speculated about the whereabouts of Isaias Afwerki. The unelected ruler of Eritrea was not seen in public for a long time. But a few days ago, curiosity seemed to have come to an end when Isaias made a four-minute appearance in a recorded video.
In the early nineties Isaias rubbed shoulders with teenagers in nightclubs when he frequented Shamrock, the hip nightclub of the day. He flirted with young girls, often beat up patrons, and forced himself on their partners. But now, long after Independence Day in 1991, memories of the first few euphoric years are gone. Isaias is no more seen in showy strolls down the main street of Asmara donning Shidda plastic sandals. On the contrary, now he has a hideout, a “presidential complex” near Adi Halo, a village in the surroundings of the capital city. And the complex is endlessly showcased as a major achievement of his development projects.
Of course, the complex is on the side of a dam whose construction he personally supervised. Yet, a few kms away, residents of Asmara line up on the streets, in anticipation of tanker trucks to get their weekly ration of water. They drag their blue plastic barrels, a chemical container commonly used as a water container in Eritrea. Tens of thousands of such barrels have found their way to Eritrea from the Gulf countries and almost every household has one. That blue plastic barrel has been a landmark of Eritrea for forty years, the Shidda is not even a remote second. And since more than forty years, Eritreans have been living under acute water and electricity shortage.
But the above is not the focus of this editorial. That’s rather a preamble. The topic is about the similar behavior of the UAE and Eritrean governments.
Dahlan and Isaias imitating David Copperfield
In the last few weeks, some Eritreans fell into Isaias’ trap, yet pretended to have credible sources and invincible intelligence networks inside Eritrea. They claimed Isaias is dead, he had a stroke and is being hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, and other tasteless exposition about his disappearance. But at long last, Isaias shot a four-minute clip from Adi Halo and aired it on the television station owned by the ruling party, that monopolizes all media, including the Tigrinya, English, Tigrayit, and Arabic prints. All are clones of each other. Surprisingly, the short clip was unusual for Isaias who needs more than thirty minutes to answer a simple question by interviewers, who are too scared to ask follow up questions.
The Adi Halo clip should have ended the speculations about Isaias’ whereabouts, but there are a few Eritreans who think it’s cowardly to admit mistakes, and to apologize. Therefore, they elevated the craze to a new level, claiming the videoclip is doctored, and Isaias is actually dead, hospitalized, in hiding, jailed, and anything else they fancy. Such amateurish undertaking has backfired many times, but a few hardheaded activists within the opposition do not seem to learn from experience.
Luckily Eritreans were relieved after discovering it’s now the turn of other countries to guess the whereabouts of their strongmen. Mohammed Dahlan, the infamous Palestinian-Serbian advisor of Mohammed Bin Zaid, the UAE’s crown prince, has not been seen for a while. Rumors had it that Dahlan was arrested together with Gaddafi’s son in AlWatyah, a Libyan airbase southwest of Tripoli, and controlled by General Khelifa Hafter. The base is under heavy fire and reports indicate it’s expected to fall in the hands of the advancing government forces. But so far no credible news outlet has reported the arrest of Dahlan, though the Arab social media platforms are buzzing with rumors.
If the past is an indication, Dahlan could have released the false news hoping his adversaries would take the bait. He might let the rumors ferment for a while before he smilingly appears on television to embarrass his opponents. Dahlan has done it several times before; many suspect he is pulling one such usual trick. But the rumors will not die out until his arrest is confirmed or denied by credible sources, or he appears on television like Isaias did.
Dahlan, the overly smart intelligence professional is the UAE’s front man in most of its destructive adventures. In 2011, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas accused him of killing Yassir Arafat (died 2004). In 2013 he was accused of involvement in the overthrow of president Mursi of Egypt. In 2016 Turkey accused him of conspiring to oust its government; a bounty of $700,00 was put for his arrest. Dahlan’s fingerprints are also in the aggression on Yemen and the Libyan conflict. Last February, the Sudanese Popular Party (founded by Turabi) accused Dahlan of conspiring with separatists in Kordufan.
To ward off criticism of its wide involvements in the internal affairs of other countries, the UAE has established a trolling and misinformation infrastructure. It has been training operatives of the Eritrean ruling party and others in Abu Dhabi. But judging by the mediocre performance of the UAE trainees, including the Eritrean ruling party’s Tweeter ambassadors and ministers, the training didn’t pay much. However, Isaias is an expert in the field of manipulating and misinforming the public. Some Eritreans are still dancing to the tune of his erstwhile agitational music, his manifesto of 1970, Nehnan Elamanan (We and out objectives). Usually, once his signals penetrate the skulls of his unquestioning followers, it becomes a perpetual reference in any circumstance. Obviously, the ruling party is torn between staying loyal to the old and effective Isaiasque manual, and between implementing the tactics its cadres were trained on by the UAE.
What are the stakes of Eritreans?
The Awate Team is concerned about the Libyan conflict for two reasons.
- Sudanese mercenaries: As reported by Gedab News, the UAE and the Eritrean ruling party are secretly transporting thousands of Sudanese mercenaries to Libya via Asmara. And judging from the statements of some mercenaries and their commanders, Sudan will face a grave danger once the Libyan conflict ends. The Guardian quoted Sudanese mercenaries who said their presence in Libya is temporary, and when they get enough resources and weapons, they will go back to Sudan to face the government there. One of them told the Guardian, “We don’t believe that Omar Al-Bashir is gone. We are now in Libya … but there are other battles waiting for us in Sudan.” This will mean conflicts and instability in the region, and Eritrea can ill afford that.
- Refugees and human trafficking: The Sudanese mercenaries are not limited to fighting in the Libyan conflict, they have been involved in human trafficking since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. Thousands of refugees have been abused, raped and slaughtered by extremist groups in Libya. And many others have drowned sailing onboard rickety smuggler boats while crossing the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in Europe. Still, many Eritrean and African refugees are detained in different militia and smuggler camps in Libya, some waiting for their ransom to be paid.
Conclusion: For years, Libya was having its own Mini World War. Sudanese mercenaries are fighting alongside both sides of the conflicting forces. National interests has pulled in France, Italy, Qatar, Russia and other countries that are supporting one side or the other.
Until recently, General Hafter controlled large parts of the Libyan Mediterranean shores from where he threatened the internationally recognized Libyan government. Egypt provides him with experts, field commanders and weaponry, and the UAE provides financial support and fighter planes that had given his forces air superiority. Recent report indicates that tens of wounded and dead bodies of Egyptian soldiers were brought back home from Libya. As of last year, Turkey threw its might behind the Libyan government and provides it with air-cover using Turkey’s Byraktar type of drones. Since then, the balance of power has drastically swayed in favor of the government forces that pushed deep into the regions that Hafter controlled—that is where the rumors claim Dahlan was arrested, though we believe it’s a false news.
We know Isaias proved the speculations wrong, and we are left with a question: will Dahlan do what Isaias did so that we can all await for the next Copperfield moment?