Eritrea: The Missing Element for A Democratic Change
The main proposition of this article is that change in Eritrea is inevitable. However, that does not imply it will occur within the timeframe that the Eritrean opposition professes claiming the regime is at the verge of collapsing. Moreover, change does not imply an automatic transition to a democratic system. The recent events of the so-called Arab Spring are good illustrations that ousting an incumbent government does not always lead to a democratic replacement, as evidenced by the Eritrean case itself. The country was liberated in 1991 and formally became independent in 1993. At that time, Eritreans anticipated a democratic and prosperous country, but their hopes never materialized. Eritrea’s trajectory has been no different from that of the newest state in Africa, South Sudan.
The inevitable change
The current proposition of the inevitability of change is not a cliché which attributes change as a result of economic failure and external isolation. That has been part of the opposition’s discourse for the last decade and a half. In fact, the regime is currently in a more comfortable position than it was in previous years in respect to its international relations and its fiscal situation. Its comfort is gained by its alliance with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and its axis in the so-called Decisive Storm. And that is the result of successful efforts led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), liaising directly with the Eritrean president. Indeed, the UAE has formed a strong alliance with Eritrea, which may vindicate many reports that the former has hired Eritrea’s port, Assab, and established its first military base outside its territory. This is really perplexing considering that Eritrea was not neutral regarding the conflict between Iran and KSA, particularly in their proxy war in Yemen. Since the outbreak of the conflict, many credible reports have confirmed the presence of Iran and the Houthis in Eritrea. Logistical supplies from Iran to Yemen have been routed through Eritrea, and Iranian military training of the Houthi militias has been conducted on Eritrean soil.
Switching allies always comes with disadvantages. In the case of Eritrea, however, it seems that the regime made a perfect calculation. Its previous alliance turned to be advantageous and yielded the financial benefits that the regime was desperate for. Although the financial support was crucial for the Eritrean regime, its gains from allying with KSA and UAE have transcended financial relief. The regime has gained political strength which has manifested in the discomfort of its long-time rival, Ethiopia. This is due to the military and commercial presence of the UAE in Eritrea, particularly in the Assab area. The Ethiopian Prime Minster, Hailemariam Desalegn, has voiced concern about this. Unfortunately, Ethiopia seems to have very limited influence in hindering such an alliance. Even the matter of the Renaissance Dam and Ethiopia’s growing relationship with KSA’s rival, Qatar, seems to have done little to strengthen Ethiopia’s position as all the Gulf States, including Qatar, have adopted a similar approach to the crisis in Yemen.
The improvement of the Eritrean regime’s fiscal status as a result of its alliance with the KSA axis and its growing revenue from gold mining have positively impacted its confidence in itself. This self-assurance has manifested in at least two major situations: currency redemption and engagement with the European Union (EU) and member countries. The currency redemption issue was a very bold decision by all standards: economically, politically, and in terms of security. A shaky regime would not have made such a decision as it would have negatively affected the interests of powerful groups within it and would have had a major impact on the public, which could have triggered unwanted unrest. However, the Eritrean regime managed to overcome all these hurdles, neutralising both the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) and the Eritrean Civil Servants (ECS) by leaking news regarding significant salary increases for them.
The other issue is the regime’s approach to dealing with the EU or the individual countries, which are experiencing unprecedented waves of refugees. Based on EU statistics, Eritreans are the second largest group to arrive on EU coasts after Syrians. As a result of the unprecedented crisis, the EU and its states are desperately seeking measures to mitigate the waves of refugees. Aware of their desperation, the Eritrean regime has applied a useful strategy that allows it to maximize benefits from the plight of refugee with minimal damage. For a long time, the preliminary assessment of the Eritrean refugees’ motivations have suggested that they are fleeing a systematic violation of human rights. The recent increase in the number of refugees could certainly lead to the conclusion that there has been a proportionate increase in gross human rights violations.
To avoid such a conclusion, the regime has opted for what one may call half-open-door tactics. It indirectly encourages the youth to contact its embassies and consulates abroad and to sign an apology form for fleeing the country illegally. Such a step allows the signatories access to consular services and allows them to visit their home country with no fear. The impact of signing the apology form goes beyond legal obligation. It also has a psychological effect, reviving the signatories’ dreams of enjoying the money that they earned during their stay in the host country in their Eritrea with their family or friends. It also reawakens their wishes to buy houses in their preferred location, Eritrea. These hopes make the signatories reluctant to participate in any activities that may be considered against the regime. They fear losing the chance of ultimately returning to their home country. Moreover, these category of refugees mostly are those who recently fled the country and still have much to worry about there. Therefore, they engage in activities such as transferring money back home, obtaining visas to visit Eritrea, and participating in regime activities such as festivals and conferences, particularly those organized by the YPFDJ, the regime’s youth sector.
Preliminary conclusions drawn from aggregate data regarding these activities yielded completely different results. These are conclusions that the regime has carefully shaped, implying that the youth are not political refugees but economic migrants, driven to leave by the absence of opportunities in Eritrea. Resolving such a dilemma requires a different approach from the one required for dealing with political refugees. Not only does this conclusion serve the Eritrean regime, but it also serves the EU and its members. It enables the Eritrean regime to defiantly avoid political pressure and gain economic assistance and simultaneously justify EU members’ hesitation to accept Eritreans as genuine refugee. More importantly, it vindicates the EU’s proposal of positive engagement, allowing it to help Eritrea financially regardless of its human rights violations.
In addition to Eritrea’s economic deterioration, the EU’s assessment identified another major motive behind the Eritrean youths’ exodus: compulsory indefinite national service for everyone above 18 years of age. Therefore, the EU proposed that Eritrea consider the possibility of shortening the period of the national service. However, the Eritrean regime, which has received financial support from KSA and gold mining revenue, rejected the EU’s proposal, leaving the EU no room to manoeuvre. As a result, the EU resumed its development assistance to Eritrea almost unconditionally. The regime was the sole winner, getting away without any commitment to political or economic reforms or even the possibility of shortening the national service period.
The pillars of the inevitability of change premise
The factors underpinning the inevitable change in Eritrea are neither economic deterioration nor external isolation, as the opposition’s discourse suggested. The regime is currently in a more comfortable position than it was three years ago. Hence, the inevitability of change is based mainly on endogenous factors. It is an open secret that the regime in Eritrea is highly centralized, and the burden of managing the state lies on the shoulders of a very small circle around the president. Even this circle exercises executive power only through its members’ roles as aides to the president. That indicates the burden of state affairs lies entirely on the president’s shoulders. Regardless of any state’s size and resources, managing it is not an easy job that a single person can manage rationally and effectively. The abnormality of such a situation would eventually lead to the president following up on every detail or ignoring it. In either case, it would be impossible to manage state affairs rationally as it supposedly should be in any states apparatus.
One of the major factors for the death of the late Egyptian president, Jamal Abdulnasser, was attributed to his obsession with details. He used to spend a long time reading detailed reports, a job that he should have delegated to one of his aides. Following up on details is a real obstacle to seeing the overall picture, and it is the latter that would help one to craft a holistic approach. Revisiting any of Isaias Afewerki’s recent interviews reflects this sad reality. In most of them, he appears to be disoriented and out of touch, and he dwells on trivial issues that have nothing to do with the larger picture. In each interview, the president contradicts something he has addressed in that very interview, a previous one, or a public speech. This is to be expected when one is dealing with trivial details that it is impossible to remember.
The second factor that will certainly result in inevitable change in Eritrea is the mass exodus of the youth in unprecedented numbers. Even those whose parents are still in office are leaving the country. The youth are not democracy or human rights seekers; they simply dream of a better future, which they do not see in the horizon in Eritrea. The dream which motivates them to take such major risks in financial and social terms will motivate members of other sectors who cannot afford the financial or social cost of escaping, to take the risk of seeking change inside Eritrea. There are many indicators of the desire for change. They include the public’s criticism of the regime, particularly in social forums, without fear of consequences. In addition, urbanite Eritreans, especially the youth, are connected through social media, though very low bandwidth and low Internet availability, has relatively contributed to breaking the wall of isolation. Video clips that captured life in Ade Abito prison and the nature of the prison, and the April 3rd events in Asmara confirmed the news that circulated in the Internet. The middle and low ranks in the EDF and the Eritrean civil administration, traders, farmers, students, women, and youth, whose social and financial commitments have deprived them of the opportunity to flee the country, have an obvious interest in bringing about change in Eritrea. These interests will manifest in organized efforts as a prerequisite for change. The two endogenous factors described above will ultimately bring about change in Eritrea.
The timing and nature of change
As was previously indicated, the premise of the inevitability of change in Eritrea does not necessarily suggest that such change will occur within a timeframe commensurate with that which the Eritrean opposition favours, nor does it imply that the outcome of the change will be a democratic system. The time for change due to natural developments is unpredictable; it’s somewhat similar to a chemical interaction that requires a catalyst. The catalyst is not only responsible for speeding things up, but is also pivotal in determining the timing of the change and its outcomes. Although all the major ingredients for change in Eritrea are present, the catalyst is missing. This is essential for two main reasons: the absence of a catalyst means that it is not possible to accelerate the process or to guarantee that it will lead to a state of a stable country governed by a democratic system.
At the present moment, Eritrea does not have the luxury of waiting for change to occur within the normal cycle (with its unpredictable timeframe and outcomes). Consequently, the introduction of the catalyst is indispensable. Any change that duplicates the current pattern of PFDJ with its authoritarian, sectarian and corrupt system will not be less devastating than allowing the current regime to continue.
To this end, it is crucial to determine the identity of the catalyst that will accelerate the change and contribute to a transition to a stable country and democratic governance. Change resulting from foreign inference, as was the case in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, and in Libya in 2012, is less likely to happen in Eritrea. Moreover, if it happens, it will not result in a stable and democratic replacement. Therefore, this article suggests that the most favourable catalyst constitutes of the Eritrean forces for democratic change in the Diaspora. However, executing this role requires the forces in question to have conviction, consciousness, a strong will, and knowledge of the nature of the task, all of which can manifest in an action plan that can be measured and assessed.
At this point, I would like to point out to the essential factors that will enable the forces of change inside Eritrea to take the initiative and organize its efforts to bringing about change. A measurable plan must be drafted based on the needs of the forces of change and in response to the challenges that face them. The main challenge involves breaking the fear barrier that came into being as a result of the tight security grip inside Eritrea and the propaganda regarding its strength, effectiveness, and brutality. The notorious reputation of the security forces (whether justified or otherwise) has created mistrust among various sectors of the society and among individuals. This environment hampers any organized efforts to bring about change in Eritrea. The absence of such efforts inside Eritrea is caused more from fear that holds people back, and less from the actual ability of the security forces. At this stage, breaking the chain of fear is only possible if the segments of the society regain their self-confidence and mutual trust. To this end, well-designed media messages that provide accurate information and analysis and promote the values that Eritrean people inherited during the armed struggle for independence (pride, sacrifice, and valor) are necessary. In addition, the messages should focus on the positive news that occurs in other cities as it is well known that people imitate each other and gain confidence by doing so. For instance, a single incident in a remote area in south Tunisia provoked the Arab Spring, encouraging the expression of discontent to spread to other parts of Tunisia and to the region beyond.
The second issue that needs to be addressed is the role of Eritreans in the Diaspora. People inside Eritrea are subjected to a single source of information in the form of regime-controlled media (television, radio, and newspapers). The media outlets continuously broadcast information about “the huge support that the regime enjoys abroad”. YPFDJ’s activities abroad receive priority over other news. The outcome of promoting such images is clear: they send the message that the only viable solutions are those of the individual. That is, people can cross the border and find heaven waiting for them. The sentiment that change is impossible and reforms are not an option, at least in the foreseeable future, discourage them from thinking about collective solutions.
The third issue that demotivates the forces of change inside Eritrea is the uncertainty that lies beyond change. There are no guarantees; the country could plunge into chaos, ultimately ending up a failed state akin to Libya, Yemen, and Syria. The regime fosters such concerns through its media outlets by constantly portraying Eritrea as prey that many regional and international predators are targeting.
In conclusion, I reiterate the inevitability of change, with the forces inside Eritrea playing the major role. However, this process requires a catalyst to determine its timing and outcome. As I have ruled out external interference, the forces of change in the Diaspora are likely to be a compatible element for the interactions that such change will entail. Their capacity to play such a role and their competence are a necessary precondition. In a subsequent article, I will evaluate the forces of change in the Diaspora based on their ability and readiness for this pivotal task.