From Tahrir Square, To Godena Harnet
“May you live in interesting times”, goes the ancient Chinese proverb. It is supposed to be a veiled curse – a prelude to “May you find what you are looking for”. We yet have to discover the actual results of the upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East, but no one can deny that in merely a few weeks, we witnessed the shakedown of systems that seemed as immovable as those pyramids and monuments. The quakes and aftershocks of change are still rumbling and it is exhilarating to see the collective power of the oppressed but determined people crumbling the mighty rule of despots, dictators and the thugs who defend them. Interesting times indeed!
The Revolutions of 2011 have caught many of the traditional power centers in a total surprise and sent them scrambling for the familiar manuals of conventional wisdom. This was not supposed to happen and this fast. The power play was supposed to be among Western Governments who lecture about human rights but empower sadistic dictatorships and monarchies; despots who rule by intimidation and fear; fanatics who only offer death and destruction; religious demagogues who claim to represent God on earth; and the various media, research, think-tank and intelligence groups who only seem to talk to each other.
The real subjects of the real issues were ignored. Everybody pays lip service to them but the young men and women who are shaking the world and inspiring each other from Tunisia to Iran are grabbing life by the horn and making their own history. Conventional wisdom said the majority of the Arab youth were disillusioned, cynical, and docile with religious fundamentalism as their only outlet. All of a sudden, the world came to realize that they are actually more progressive, idealistic, secular and dynamic than they were purported to be. Educated, restless, connected, organized and revolutionary (don’t you love this Time magazine cover?). Empowered by the advancement in communication technology and their belief that there is nobody out there looking to save them, they took matters in their own hands. What used to take months happened in days; weeks became hours. Slow down! You are not supposed to microwave a Revolution; it is meant to brew slowly and erupt at it’s own pace, was the traditional message most people believed to be true, now turned upside down and on its head. It turns out, you can not only microwave it, but also tweet it, text it, Facebook it and televise it. Conventional wisdom, shattered.
The successful youth-led uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt can probably not be easily duplicated in the rest tyrant-laden Arab world or Sub-Saharan Africa. It already has proven to be harder and bloodier in Libya, where tyranny is more prevalent and civil society non-existent. In Saudi Arabia and Syria it might even be impossible. We will soon see if Bahrain, Yemen and Sudan will be part of the domino effect. But we can not un-ring a bell, can we? Success is inspiring and inspiration is infectious. Revolutions are not meant to be acts of calculated reasoning; they are sparks of public outcry that fell on deaf ears for far too long. When young people run out of options and they are sick and tired of getting ignored and being taken for granted, no force can stand between them and their demands. When enough is enough, the youth always steps up to claim its birthright.
In places like our own Eritrea, logic says, any such attempt is doomed to fail because the tyrant is always ten steps ahead of us and the means by which a youth led protest can be ignited are absent. Hard to argue against this reasonable assessment, but let’s keep two things in mind. 1) It has never been tried before; and 2) If we ask those logical thinkers at the beginning of this year, if Mubarak of Egypt would be gone in a matter of a few weeks of protest, and if there was any likelihood that an uprising would take place in Gaddafi’s Libya, none of them would have said yes. Knowing what we knew, it was impossible to even contemplate what actually transpired. Knowledge is power, but there is such thing as the curse of knowledge. Life is not an exact science; it is filled with incomprehensible phenomenon that may be too much for human minds to wrap around. It’s wise to leave room for the unknown and even for a miracle.
Anything is indeed possible, including outright failure; but we can not afford to engage in analysis-paralysis when in reality, very little has been organized and tried to ignite popular uprising inside Eritrea – not to mention that we are in the midst of unprecedented era, where millions of people are simultaneously demanding democracy. The winds of change are upon us, and if we fail to capitalize on this golden opportunity to end 20 years of brutal tyranny in Eritrea, history will not be kind to us. It’s time to organize and inspire our youth both inside and outside the country, embolden the victims of the system to stand up and fight and boldly take the opposition movement to where is has not been before – youth-centric, hopeful, inspiring and vibrant. And damn it, it won’t hurt to be romantic once again!
Out with the Old, in with the Young
It’s easy to take a cheap shot at our organized opposition movement and blame them for being too slow, too old and too unorganized. This is not meant to be such a cheap shot. The fact is that for one reason or another, those of us who claim to belong to the young and the nimble crowd, chose to stay on the sidelines – hence, the result. What we are talking about here is not about criticism of our elders who are doing what they know best, it is about the undeniable effects of the generational and technological waves.
The world as we knew it for most of the last century or even the last decade does not exist anymore. When everything around you changes quickly, you have two choices: adapt or become extinct. Wisdom and experience are attained by having lived longer. Unfortunately, older folks also tend to reminisce too much about dramatic events that happened when they were younger and forget that leadership by definition is about the future. They act as if the future is just a do-over of the past. In the process, they fail to connect with the young and convey their message. May be that is how nature intended; inevitable friction between the old and young, forcing the torch to be passed to the next generation.
Let’s say you are sitting down with an elderly Eritrean man, say around 85 years old, to discuss events that took place in his lifetime. A quick math will tell us that that person’s coming of age (age 15-30), was in the 1940 – 1955 range. Assuming the gentleman was raised in urban areas, we can safely bet that the conversation will tilt toward the marvels of seeing so many Italian soldiers for the first time, the British rule, the politics of the 1950s, the Federation era and life during zebene Janhoi.
For another man, who is currently 65 years old, the coming of age years, where he may have witnessed life changing events as history unfolds in Eritrea would be sometime during 1960 – 1975. This gentleman will vividly recount the student protests against Emperor Haile Selassie (and that, before “Egrgr” you could buy a kilo of sugar for 15 cents); the formation of the ELF and the splits of ELF-PLF, the Eritrean civil war, the Adobha conference, and throw in names of politicians and rebel leaders as if they were his personal acquaintances. You will notice the passion and it will be easy to see whether he is wearing the Jebha or Shaebia rosy glasses.
Let’s bring it down a notch again.
This time our subject is a 50 year old man (but you wouldn’t know by just looking at his designer t-shirts and trendy jeans). He would have been born in 1961, the year the Eritrean Revolution turned into armed insurgency. But using the same reasoning as above, we have to say the ideology-forming, life-altering; events were probably between the years 1975 – 1991. The brutality of the Derg and Menghistu Hailemariam will likely top the list of events he actually lived through. By the time the ELF was forced to exit the armed theater, this man would only have been around 20 years of age; therefore to him ghedli is synonymous with Shaebia. Unless he belongs to the camp that lives in its own bubble, he is probably disappointed at seeing the fruits of ghedli and his post independence high hopes are now dashed. Don’t blame him if his primary solution to our current predicaments revolves around grabbing a Kalashnikov rifle and heading to the mountains of Sahel.
Let us pause here and take a look at the demographic distribution of today’s Eritrea. Most of the data available is estimates for the secretive Isaias Afworki wouldn’t want that to be known. But, it is not that difficult to compare Eritrea’s demographics to the data on populations of the region and extrapolate. Roughly 50% of the population is under 18 years of age. For the sake of this argument (and sanity), let’s not include this group as active or potential players to bring about democratic change. They are children.
Now, let’s see where our 85, 65 and 50 year olds fall in the age distribution. The statistics infer that 65 and over make up only 3-4% of the population. Eye opening perhaps, but since the life expectancy of the country is currently at 62 years, not that surprising if you think about it. An educated guesstimate will also tell us that 50 years and older represent only 10% of Eritrea.
I hope I haven’t lost you already with this fuzzy math, but we have to agree that, our politics (opposition or pro-dictatorship) is currently dominated by men in their 50’s and 60’s. Women are almost totally absent from politicking, which means we have to cut that 10% in half to 5%. It is indeed sad but true that some of the oldest 5% of us attempting to find a solution for the rest (95%) of us. No wonder a lot of their discussion and disagreements reflect their glorified years long gone-by and their actions, desperate attempts to rectify mistakes of their past.
But nature does not care. You can ignore a pregnancy but when the time is due, the baby has to be delivered and make a room for. In a way, that baby is now more precious because it has longer years to live. A child, who was born during Operation Fenkil when Massawa was liberated, is now 21 years old. He and she want a better future, where they can live in a country that respects their personal freedoms, get an education and a job, start a family and make their own history. What they want is no different from what the young people in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are demanding.
It is neither reasonable nor realistic to expect a revolution to be conducted without the active participation of young adults who are now in their twenties, thirties and forties. In Eritrea, this is the generation that is getting the brunt of the PFDJ exploitation; this is the generation, Isaias Afworki systematically tried to emasculate and suppress. He knows what young people are capable of; he too was once that age. The Sawa scheme, “self-reliance” sham, and the artificial state of emergencies are all designed to paralyze the young and render them unlearned and disinterested in politics. Inside and outside of Eritrea, our youth, who were mostly born between 1970 – 1990 have been inactive in political debate of their country for too long. The ones that are inside were told to shut up and listen; the one’s that are outside were told that they are too inexperienced to participate.
Enough is enough. No more excuses. The future rightly belongs to the young, passionate, and energetic (and to those who have Twitter accounts). It is high time the older generation yields to their younger sons and daughters and have faith in their ability to lead us to a better tomorrow.
Don’t get me wrong, what the opposition movement in general (political, civic) was able to achieve in the past decade can not be discounted. What the EDA is attempting to do through the National Conference for Democratic Change is very respectable and something we should all support. When the PFDJ falls, we will need some kind of transition and bridging the gap. However to chart a direction for the country without the active participation of the youth and young adults inside of the country, whose very lives will be affected by those decisions is a bit arrogant and impractical.
We know that there are honest disagreements about the merits of this approach. However, if your first instinct is to passionately defend the EDA’s National Conference for Democratic Change as the only avenue, or the EPDP as the only opposition that can guarantee the territorial integrity of Eritrea, or even the PFDJ as the entity that should be given another shot at 20 more years of dictatorship, you are probably too old. The new converging dynamics of demographics, technology and revolutions in our neighborhood require us to rethink and adjust.
Does the carriage come before the horse? Revolutions are not about governing; they are about toppling a system that refuses to reform or go away peacefully. For some reason (the wisdom of age can be one), we are stuck at trying to agree how Eritrea will be governed after the fall of the PFDJ, but we have no vision or strategy of how we will bring down the system first. What are our youth supposed to make up of this lopsidedness? At this moment in history, we have a window of opportunity to realign our horse and our carriage, but unless it is done at the speed our world now moves (chop, chop, chop, warp-speed), it will be another lost chance we will undoubtedly regret for not seizing. And if you are one of those who constantly ask to be given more time because things are moving too fast for your taste, nature is trying to tell you something. May be it is time to retire; may be you should sit down before you fall down.
Lessons from North Africa
Here is a legitimate question that should be asked: How exactly is this home grown, Warsai-led, “self-reliant” uprising supposed to take place? I don’t know exactly how, no one-person can; but here is what we are learning from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In each case, the key to their success was to cut off the dictatorship from the army, entice members of the regime to switch sides and to seek the glaring attention of the word media. There are those who are quick to dismiss this as a mere pipe dream. Perhaps; but what is the alternative anyway? To have the Ethiopian army invade, chase Isaias and his generals away, hand over power to a transitional government and retreat? Isn’t this actually more of a pipe dream than the former? The Ethiopians can play a positive role by making sure refugees are treated humanely within their borders and by not taking any bait to enter into a military confrontation against Isaias. However, a quick and legitimate change will have to come from and by Eritreans. It is the most pragmatic thing to do.
The generals may be too fat and happy; the colonels may be too corrupt to care; the tegadelti we ones lionized may be too old and too weak; but hundreds of thousands of the Eritrean youth who are wasting their life away and could not even walk freely in the very country they paid with their blood and sweat, should not be discounted. They are disappointed, they are mad and they are armed.
If we don’t kid ourselves, the revolt will be far from peaceful. It is clear that the only language Isaias and his cohorts understand is shear power; but that power has to come from the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF). The very victims of the regime are the very members of the armed forces, especially the Warsai generation. They will need the unwavering support from the Eritrean public both internally and abroad and from the opposition movements. However, the last thing they want to hear is about old men fighting about some fiddling little topic and badmouthing each other like moody teenagers after a boring slumber party.
To Godena Harnet
We have a famous street in downtown Asmara. The main street to see and be seen is Godena Harnet (Liberation Avenue). It is more than a city street; it is also a state of mind. One of the simple pleasures of living in Asmara is taking a lazy stroll in the evenings down this cherished street – window shopping, seeping shahi or cappuccino, greeting friends. Eritreans have learned to appreciate the simple freedoms in life, like walking down a street without fearing for your life or freedom. During the Italian occupation, our grandfathers were prohibited to walk on this very street. Campo Chitato was only for the Italians. The Ethiopians turned this street into a symbol of their tyrannical rule. They adorned it with their flags, curfew was enforced and only their drunken soldiers seem to full enjoy what the center of Asmara had to offer. In May 1991, the final liberation of Eritrea became a reality when convoys of freedom fighters rolled on to this avenue.
Just like in Tahrir Square, that famous plaza in Cairo which was named after Tahrir (liberation), 20 years after Eritrea’s independence, liberty remains absent from Liberation Avenue. Once again, especially for young Eritreans, Godena Harnet became a prohibited place. The constant giffa and the requirements of menqesaqesi (pass/permit) are as humiliating as they sound. The very commanders who led the battles to liberate Asmara and Godena Harnet remain jailed; their whereabouts unknown. Eritrea’s young who should be celebrating Eritrea’s 20th independence anniversary on that street, find themselves enduring foxholes and metal containers, chained and tortured by human traffickers, perishing in deserts and high seas, or getting shot in the back by their own government. No rights, no independence, no liberty, no Tahrir, no Harnet.
The time has come for Godena Harnet to be a place of freedom and rights, instead of just some sarcastically named street. In more than one way, Tahrir Square and Godena Harnet are connected. The rains that wash the streets of Asmara eventually turn into the tributaries and rivers that feed the Nile River. Water flows from the Eritrean Highlands to the Anseba and Barka Rivers, to the plains of Sudan on its way to Egypt. Eritrea’s youth are inspired by their Egyptian counterparts, whose citizens bravely claimed their God given rights and chased their homegrown despot away. The rings of freedom are now rippling on the Nile River and the waters seem to backflow to their origins and remind all the streams and branches to heed the call: Rise up, stand-up and fight for your right!
Take Action Today
The Eritrean youth in the Diaspora, especially those who left the country in the last 10 years are now highly motivated. They want to tell their fellow Warsai generation brothers and sisters that they have not forgotten them. They are currently organizing a world-wide virtual demonstration that will soon turn into street demonstrations with calls to challenge the supporters of the regime head on.
Yes, as we have witnessed, dictator worshipers are not limited to Eritrea. In the coming days, weeks and months, they will insult our youngsters and label them traitors and belittle their demands as “drug-induced hallucinations”. They may even send in their horse and camel riding regiments to try to intimidate them. We know how that story ended in Cairo. They were dragged from their rides and unequivocally told that those days are over. Enough is enough. How it ends in Asmara and all cities and towns of Eritrea is up to us; up to you and up to me.
Several Eritrean youth groups are uniting themselves under the name “Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change” using a recently founded Facebook group. Please take the first step to show your support and join the group. Drop them a line of encouragement and say: selamat menesey Eritra, we believe in you.
Don’t underestimate the combination of motivated young people and the marvels of social network. You have seen that lethal power in North Africa. Before the events at Tahrir Square, the enthusiasm and strategizing took place online and when the numbers were large enough, they dared to conquer fear and take it to the streets. After the fall of Mubarak, Jamal Ibrahim, an Egyptian protestor, named his new born baby “Facebook”. That may be too much for you and I, but clicking a couple of buttons to show our support is the least we can do. Please do it right now and invite your friends to do the same.
Godena Harnet, here we come.