To The East! To The East!
My New Year resolution (which usually lasts all of January) was to get all my news and entertainment from Eri-TV because I heard a true believer explain, with conviction, that Isu-TV provides him with all the entertainment, domestic and international news he needs because he just likes a source that hits and swerves the truth. When it comes to entertainment, well, let’s just say that the next vocational school they should open in Adi Keyih is the School of Choreography. You have seen the dance moves in all the Eritrean music videos, haven’t you? God damn! I thought we are a bit more rhythmic than that, what the hell happened? Maybe “When Did We Start Dancing So Poorly?” should be the subject of the next interview by the talk show host (Minia Afwerki?) who has, for reasons known only to Eri-TV (I am guessing somebody lost a bet) designed her studio to look like a bathroom with large red tiles. But that’s entertainment and Isu-TV is all about news and information. When it comes to news, there are great benefits to adopting the ostrich lifestyle (“if I didn’t see it, it didn’t happen”) and I will tell you about these benefits as soon as I think of a single one. What’s important is that Eri-TV was all over the two pieces of news that have dominated the Internet, satellite TV, Facebook, Twitter and every talk show all over the world, and that’s what this column will be all about.
One international news headline at Eri-TV was, of course, about… the collision of two trains in Germany. One, it turns out, was a cargo train and the other was a passenger train. The news reader said that there was a great deal of damage to property; I am not sure if he mentioned if there was loss of life, but I am sure there was. Yes, it is quite tragic—but I don’t know how to stretch that to a column.
The second piece of news dealt with… a 25-story building in Brazil which was reduced to rubble. This comes a week after a 20-story building in Santa Cruz, Bolivia collapsed and people are still trapped inside. Police are investigating the cause, the anchorman assured me. Then he reassured me again and again in Arabic, Tigre and English. Yes, that too was tragic.
I am teasing; I am sure that’s not what you had in mind!
The real international news was… apparently, there are millions of Chinese who are flocking to China to commemorate the start of a new year, The Year of The Sinking Rat I think it is and…no? Oh, oh, wait. Are you talking about the suicide bombers in Afghanistan? No? The fire in Oklohoma? Well, then, I really don’t know what international news you are talking about.
I do know that preparations are being finalized for the celebration of Operation Fenkil. The theme is “Operation Fenkil: Apiary of Eritrean Independence.” That’s right, Apiary. What is Apiary? Look it up, man, I don’t have to do all the work for you. Whenever you read PFDJ English, you should always remember that it is written by this guy: the Damon Wayans character from In Living Colour, a prisoner who studied the dictionary while incarcerated. The result is that his brain was scrambled and his idea of speaking was to string along big, barely used or entirely made up words that made perfect sense to him but to nobody else. This is how we get “resolute rebuff” and “evidences” and “Apiary.”
I often get emails from frustrated Eritreans who want the Opposition (which they don’t even concede exists) to act as a gdusat hagerawian who politely criticize the policies of the ruling party and then offer alternative policies. What they don’t seem to understand is that this is impossible to do because we really don’t understand 80% of what the PFDJ is trying to say, much less do, because it speaks in a cryptic language it invented.
For example: Isaias Afwerki recently went to Qatar on a “working visit.” First of all, really. Really, shabait? We get it: when Isaias travels it is not for pleasure or vacation but for work. But since you really have no Internal Revenue Service that will demand that he provide a detailed expense sheet for his trip—and since nobody (except wikileaks) would be any wiser if he really was on vacation–why do you even bother? So he went on a working visit. What exactly happened in this working visit? Here’s shabait.com: “In the course of the visit, the President held talks with the Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamed Bin Khalifa Al-Thani and the Prime Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al-Thani on developing bilateral relations, as well as issues of mutual concern to both countries.”
How is this news report any different from “the two guys met and talked about stuff”? What are the bilateral relations being developed? What are the issues of mutual concern to Eritrea and Qatar? Since there are no details, what policies do the ghostly gdusat hagerawian criticize and propose alternatives for?
The Gulf Times, reporting on the same “working visit”, tells us marginally more: that Isaias Afwerki was accompanied by a delegation. Yay! But that is that.
What is odd is that Doha is the home of Al-jazeera which has outdone the American cable news stations in the scope of its reporting on Tunisia and Egypt, but the rest of the Doha news outlets, like The Gulf Times, are as terrible as any you will find in the Middle East.
Oh wait, I get it, you wanted to talk about Tunisia and Egypt.
“We are waiting for another article that either foresees the possibility of ‘tsigereda revolution’ in east africa or not”, writes a troublemaker from East Africa.
Well, I know next to nothing about Tunisia so I refuse to repackage what you have already read and heard or saw and to pretend that I have any insights I can share with you. All I know is that the banned Islamist party is called “Al Nahda”, which sorta pisses me off a bit, you know. First came this column, which named itself Alnahda as it was trying to herald some sort of renaissance where people actually open up and embrace politics, art and literature. Then came an Australian-based Eritrean website, also named Alnahda. Then came an Eritrean opposition political party also named Nahda. Come on people, can’t you pick another name (he said despite the fact that the Tunisian “Alnahda” has operated—illegally–under that name since 1989, eleven years before this column picked the name.)
The leader of Tunisia’s Alnahda party returned from Europe after eons in exile and Al Jazeera had all his followers crowding out the airport waiting for The Man and he came… wearing a suit and professing no interest in politics. But I got nothing to say about Tunisia really other than burning yourself to death has got to be one of the worst ways to go: it is painful, and your body defies death. As Richard Pryor, a veteran of burning yourself, once said, “Fire is inspirational. They should use it in the Olympics, because I ran the 100 in 4.3.”
But Egypt… Ah, Egypt.
The last time I was there was in 2008, shortly after the bread riots. (When the PFDJ is trying to flatter the people, it tells them that unlike some people, Eritreans don’t riot when they are starving. Aw, shucks.) Anyway, Egypt in 2008 was more crowded, more polluted, and more rigidly class-conscious than I remember. How class conscious? I was in a cab driving around a low-income neighborhood: the cabbie hit a cyclist and the cyclist was apologizing profusely —la muakeza y’abeh—to the cabbie who hit him. If that happened in, say, San Francisco, the cyclist would give the cabbie a lecture for 30 minutes about how his fumes are endangering Planet Earth, threaten to sue him and the police would have been called.
From the place I was staying at, you could look out the window and see the pyramids—theoretically. No disrespect intended to my hosts but in real life, you saw no pyramids: just lazy smog threatening to kill you, like Los Angeles used to be in the 1980s. This is why all the buildings in Egypt are in desert camouflage colors. It is stifling.
You can’t discuss politics because everybody was in the Mukhabarat—the thuggish intelligence. You can’t do the tourist-with-his-camera-taking-pictures routine: you are constantly made aware that you should not take pictures. There was a sense of resignation and foreboding that Hosni Mubarek who was always elected by tis’A we tisEeen we tisA min Ashera min miya (99.9%) was about to give the family business to his son Gemal—a Bashar Assad without the ears or the MD.
The commuter trains were now segregated—some of the cars were for “women only” and some for men and women. Partly due to religious conservatism and partly due to the god-awful things frustrated men tend to do in crowded mass transit.
The coffee shops, the restaurants, the barber shops had 10- and 13-year-old boys working: serving tea, sheesha and shampooing hair. If you have been so Westernized you forgot you are Westernized—hintitty hint hint to the scolds who are scandalized that young Eritreans fought in the Eritrean revolution–this will be a shock to your system. I asked a restaurant owner: shouldn’t your son be at school? He said, “no, he is too stupid!” In the West, this would be an entire Dr. Phil episode, with the son crying about how his dad abused him and scarred him for life. Here, the son was smiling innocently. I say, no really, shouldn’t he be at school? The father says: “so he goes to school, he goes to college, he graduates with honors, and then what? At least here he learns a skill and, if he does well, he can make a living.”
Another self-righteous balloon deflated.
And, on the way in and way out, there is Egyptian immigration and their favorite exercise of not accepting things at face value. Yes, I see here you have an American passport but your name is Saleh so “aslek mineyn?” (where are you from, originally?) I smile, thinking of my favorite Somali joke: a Somali man is carrying a forged passport which belongs to a woman named Halima. The humor is in the contrast between Somalian audacity and Egyptian wit. The Egyptian, understandably, is not buying the story that this Somali man is named Halima. The Somali guy says, “what do you care if my name is Halima; I didn’t know that besides my parents anyone had a say in what I was named!” The Egyptian says, “belash fedayih, Ya sit Halima!” So I answer the aslek mineyn question, and I am given the classic Egyptian hollow compliment–agdaE Nas!–for my country’s fine football team (many moons ago the under 14 Eritrean football team won in Egypt). This compliment is followed by mild, then stronger, then extra strong requests for a bribe. But with a smile: you never feel threatened, really. It is perfectly rational: we just did a little business, what kind of a cheap bastard are you not to tip for service rendered?
I was not surprised that the first attempt to burn down a building associated with the regime was the headquarters of the dreaded ruling party. But I wouldn’t have been much surprised if it was the Mugamae—a monstrosity of a building for the civil servants where graft, corruption, bribery are the currency for moving from one window to another.
So Egypt is a country full of frustrations: a nation of educated but unemployed people fearful of their own government, where connections matter more than merit, a country that is very much aware of its history, of its once-greatness, Um-Adunya before, and hub of Arab literature and arts more recently, but now decaying in slow-motion, all the way while its population is exploding. But to a tourist, it doesn’t feel like a police state. India is what Egypt should have become, but it got overtaken. It has become a parody of itself, where even the once great Al-Azhar is supplanted by weird pronouncements from high priests whose sole goal seems to be to see who can say the more outrageous things.
Most of the things Egyptians complain about–rising cost of living, deteriorating quality of life, corruption, lack of opportunity–will not be changed even after a new government is instituted. They may even get worse. But they will have the pleasure of knowing that they can fire the new government and the one that follows it, too, any time they feel like it. And that is liberating. What this uprising has given Egyptians is an opportunity to reclaim themselves. Oppression has a demoralizing impact on the oppressed: they begin to doubt themselves and to blame themselves for their oppression. They begin to believe that there is something inherently bad and weak about them. In 1988 and in 2000, Egyptians (and Tunisians) looking at Palestinians’ intifada were saying, “now those are men! We are weak people!” But now? I saw an Egyptian woman say on TV: “At long last, I realize that there are men in Egypt!” And the Palestinians are now the ones whose state TV shows them episodes of Sesame Street in lieu of the uprising because the Palestinian Authority does not want to offend its partner Hosni. But if there is such a thing as “the Arab street”—this sense of “why not me?” will be very contagious. After all, not too far from Meidan Tahrir where the Egyptians have been congregating is another building dedicated to a great farce: The League Of Arab States.
There is this one thing that has surprised me about the Egyptian uprising. That Hosni has not brought on his “Fedayeen Hosni” to stage a massive and fake mekete, a counter-demonstration, to denounce the demonstration as an intervention of fill-in-the-blank (Mosad, CIA, terrorists, etc.) He needs some pointers from Isaias Afwerki on how to excite his Chequar Danga and the art of using folding chairs to beat political opponents and videotape them. Ok, I spoke too soon. The Egyptian demonstrators have been nearly perfect so far–with one flaw, which could create a backlash: I don’t understand why the Egyptian demonstrators are calling on Hosni to leave the country, instead of demanding that he resign. It is his own damn country too! Besides, four decades ago he was considered a hero for his role in the 1973 Arab Israeli war.
And the US? I tell my inquisitor who writes me about the possibility of the Tsigereda Revolution that since he is closer to the action, he has a better feel for the pulse of East Africans than I, living in the US, do. “But the remote control is in the US,” he jokes.
But people forget that the remote control of the US is not as powerful as it used to be during the Cold War. If you don’t believe me read the wikileaks of Johnnie Carson, the US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, haggling with Yemane Gebreab, the Political Director of the PFDJ, at the AU summit in Libya. Yes, Yemane is only the political director of the ruling party and here he out-talks the Foreign Minister of the State of Eritrea who is accompanying him, but that is a topic for another day. Yemane tells Carson that it is not correct for him to say that his visa application to travel Eritrea was rejected; its status is “not approved yet.” Yemane tells Carson that Isaias did not take Clinton’s call because the precondition of laying the groundwork had not been done. You see, Clinton’s call was not rejected; it has just not been transferred to the party she was calling: will you please hold, all our customer service agents are currenly busy please stand by! Carson says, “The choice is yours. The only thing we can do is encourage you to do the right thing.”
That is some remote control! Back in the day, can you imagine Kisssinger or Crocker accepting these answers from a small country?
They say that “generals are always fighting the last war” and US diplomacy’s only point of reference seems to be: Iran. From America’s standpoint, the Shah was replaced by something worse, so what guarantees are there that Mubarek won’t be replaced by something infinitely worse? Who wants to be the subject of “Who Lost Egypt?” books and think tank essays? So the US has this weird parallel universe thing where its State Department, every year, tells the world how awful Mubarek is; and the military/foreign policy apparatus tells the world what a great and strategic partner he is.
And thus, the quandary and the call for “orderly transition”—which is code for “managed democracy” and “For God’s sake please keep your Muslim Brotherhood in a leash.”
But in politics, it is not the most numerous, but the most organized and the most people-oriented who make headway. And in a truly pluralistic democracy, the Moslem Brotherhood probably has a role in Egypt, just like Hezballah in Lebanon and Hammas in Palestine. These organizations earned their support the same way that–shush don’t tell anybody–that Barack Obama did: community organizing, community service.
Meanwhile, poor Sudan was once again overshadowed by Egypt: they had their secession vote and the entire spotlight was taken by Egypt. A friend tells me that way back when the Ethiopians had a sense of humor, an Ethiopian described Eritrea’s referendum decision to separate from Ethiopia thusly: ye smuni doro, ye bir gemed yiza RoTech: A 25 cent chicken (Eritrea) ran off with a $1 rope (Massawa, Asab.) I miss the days when Ethiopians were creative in their insults.
I don’t know if South Sudan is the chicken or the rope but I am hoping that the loss of South Sudan will be a trigger for North Sudanese to take out their long-brewing frustration against the dictatorship of Omar Al Bashir.
If there is an uprising against Al Bashir, would Isu-TV find time to cover it, somewhere between a collapsing building in South America and awfully-written reportage of resolute rebuff of something or another? Probably not.
Will a Tunisian uprising, followed by an Egyptian uprising, followed by a Sudanese uprising have an influence over Eritrea?
To answer that question, all you have to do is replace the word “Eritrea” with the words “Libya”, “Saudi Arabia”, “North Korea”, “Cuba”– countries which don’t even pretend to have multi-party elections. All you have to do is answer this question: if the Eritrean generals went to Isaias Afwerki and asked, “there are hundreds of thousands of Eritreans demonstrating in Asmara, what do you want us to do?” Would he say, “find out what they want and let them express themselves” or would he say, “Keda’At! Belwom!” I think he would do the latter, and then schedule a flight for a “working visit” somewhere in the Middle East. So the answer, I am afraid, is that there won’t be any Tsigereda Sewra anytime soon in Eritrea. To quote a statement from the last edition of Al-Nahda: according to Colier, “severe political repression yields a lower risk of conflict than partial democracy.” And political repression doesn’t get anymore severe than in Eritrea.
To say it is not likely to happen in Eritrea should not in any way be a negative reflection on the character of the people of Eritrea. The Eritrean people are are just as bold and hungry for change as the Egyptians are. It is to say that they have been shell-shocked by the brutality of the Eritrean regime. As a young Eritrean who was held at WiA in 2001 and who is now completely agnostic about Eritrean politics once told me: “when we were in detention, we looked right, we looked left: and there was nobody speaking for us. And we learned a harsh lesson.” The comparison is not between the Eritreans and the Egyptians; the comparison is between the Eritrean dictator and the Egyptian dictator. Whereas Hosni Mubarek would not give the order to kill thousands of Egyptians en masse, Isaias Afwerki wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Despite all the PFDJ attempts to paint it ice-blue and draw ice-cubes on it, the Eritrean kettle is boiling. And when it boils over, well, it is as Bereket Mengisteab sang in the 1970s: “sewrana: maEbilu: genfilu.” If the Tsigereda (or AwliE, as Ghezae Hagos calls it) Revolution came to Eritrea, I fear that the thugs in charge would use the Tienanmen Square solution. Remember Isaias is a graduate of the Chinese political school of repression. But this is not cause to be down on the Eritrean people: it reflects nothing more than timing: the Egyptians and Tunisians of 2011 are the same Egyptians and Tunisians of 2010: they just boiled over.
But for those who think that, indeed, what happened in Tunisia and Egypt could happen in Eritrea now, then work for it to happen: don’t use it as one more reason to compare and contrast yourselves with your political opponents. Work for it now: organize, agitate, and practice the art of persuasion. All of us should, actually. And if you really want to be optimistic and you want to find justification for your optimism, remember that the Eritrean Liberation Movement of the 1950s was inspired by the Sudanese Communist Party; and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) of the 1960s was inspired by the Algerian Liberation Front.
But for now, it is enough that it is open season on Yemen and Algeria and Sudan and any other Arab country that has a pretend multi-party system. As one of my favorite bands once sang: “The only way to fix it is to flush it all away.” Flush away all these decaying autocrats. The North Sudanese are heavily influenced by the Egyptians—as my friend Saleh Johar says,when it comes to political influence, the trajectory is the opposite of the Nile River, so flush away Bashir too. Meanwhile, I am reminded of a couple of Awate Forumers who used to sign off their postings with “To The East!To the East!” And if it crosses the Red Sea and moves to the Arabian peninsula, well, then, Awate can make “To The East!” our own “Awet nHafash.”