If the Bush administration had blacklisted Eritrea as a “terror-sponsoring nation” and imposed the economic sanctions that would gone along with that labeling, there is no doubt that by now the Isaias regime would have collapsed. Under those comprehensive sanctions, there would have been no wiggling room for the kind of maneuverings that the mining companies and PFDJ’s parastatels will soon be attempting to escape the targeted sanctions that the UN has imposed on Eritrea now. If so, labeling Eritrea as a “terror-sponsoring nation”, misplaced pride aside, would have spared us of all the horrors that occurred since then, the worst of which have been a mass exodus of more than one hundred thousand and an on-going, raging famine that is still taking its toll among the peasants. Immaterial of whether the Bush administration was willing to go along with its threat of sanctions or not, the response of much of the opposition then was at its most subversive. Many of them shamelessly rushed to the rescue of the tyrant under the pretext of concern for the masses; a concern that deliberately refused to take into account the huge toll it would take among the masses if the regime was left alone to die a natural death. And what a horrendous toll these past two and half years have taken! Fantastically, the “concerned” opposition treated life for the masses under the totalitarian regime as a safe default position to hold onto in the face of uncertainties that the future held for their respective “constituencies” or “parties”. Strangely enough, the “security threat” they felt as a result of sanctions was greater than the security threat that the masses have been daily experiencing under the Isaias regime.

But now that sanctions are a done deal, what is to be done next? Will there be a mass uprising? Will the disgruntled leadership rise up against the tyrant, as they did once with the G-15? And, more relevant to us in the opposition, what should our role be in the face of these uncertainties??

(I) The opposition’s role: what next?

On April 2007, I wrote an article, “Lessons from the G-15 Dissent”, to convince fellow Eritreans that, given the totalitarian grip under which the Eritrean population were living, the kind of mass uprising that they were looking for was not possible inside Eritrea. My conclusion was, instead of investing our time and resources on a prospect of mass uprising that would never materialize under totalitarian circumstances, we ought to actively search for ways and means that would bring back Isaias’ moment of vulnerability that emboldened the G-15 to dissent. Such a moment of weakness throws the totalitarian system off balance by rearranging its power distribution in radical ways and opens a window of vulnerability unusual in such a system – something that could again take place with the sanctions.

The lessons that I drew from the G-15 dissent were:

  1. Given the totalitarian grip under which the masses are living, that the prospect of mass uprising in Eritrea is dim;
  2. that a call for such an uprising should never be framed in terms of appeal to democracy only, if ever;
  3. that the issue of “survival” (instead that of “democracy”) should take center in facilitating any uprising or regime change;.
  4. that if any meaningful dissent is going to take place in Eritrea, it would have to be spearheaded by the members of the leadership itself – at minimum, by those at the midlevel position;
  5. and that the leadership would rise up only if their survival is threatened (and not because of any love for democracy) and if they feel that Isaias is at its most vulnerable point.


Then I ended up my article by asking this critical question: Is it possible to bring back that moment of Isaias’ vulnerability that emboldened the G-15 to dissent? And if so, how? When I said that, I had the roles that sanctions and Ethiopia could be made to play in recreating that very context of vulnerability. And now that sanctions have become a reality, I do believe that that moment of weakness that might usher regime change has arrived. Now, the critical question is: can sanctions play the same role the Ethiopian offensive played in making the Isaias regime vulnerable and in fostering a meaningful dissent among the leadership? The answer is: there is high probability of that taking place, but only if we play our cards carefully.

Although the opposition has not contributed an iota in the making of the sanctioning, we should grab this rare opportunity to fully own it and milk it for all its worth. Let’s remember that for us sanctions are useful only so far as they facilitate, at minimum, and usher, at maximum, the downfall of the Isaias regime. And this is not going to take place on its own; it requires active participation on our side. Among other things, this will require intense focus (a) on the mining companies, with the goal of stopping all mining prospects in the country; and (b) on the Red Sea Trading Corporation’s (and other parastatals’) economic dealings outside the country, with the goal of totally debilitating the PFDJ’s economic arm; and (c) on the regime supporters’ network in Diaspora, with the aim of stopping all their clandestine funding and the moral sinister support that goes with it. There is no reason why the sanctions card offered now cannot be used to cover all these areas; there is a lot of room for interpretation in the details, and we should make the most of it. And in those instances where sanctions come short, we will have to find a way (of the peaceful kind, of course) of complementing them in a way that covers all these three areas. If we succeed in doing that, there is a high probability that we can bring back that moment of Shaebia’s vulnerability we saw during the border war and engender a leadership uprising from within that the masses could be made to follow. If so, 2010 may turn out to be the year we will bury the Isaias regime once and for all.

For a detailed approach on how this facilitating of regime change would go, we will have to compare the circumstances of the G-15 dissent and that of the sanctions, and take whatever lessons learned from the former to apply them on the latter. Below, I am reposting my old 2007 article – (II) – [minus a few paragraphs] for readers to see how the argument goes. After that, I will come back to the issue of sanctions – (III) – to explore what our role should be to make sure that this time around we get everything right and, once and for all, finish off the Isaias regime!

[In my old article, I used the term “Woyanyes” profusely. Although I changed some into “Melles government” or “Ethiopian government, I left the rest as was for originality’s sake.]

(II) Lessons from the G-15 Dissent (written on April 21, 2007)

Eritreans who pin their hope on a mass uprising to bring down the hated Isaias regime can take a lesson from the last and only notable dissent in independent Eritrea: that of the G-15. The one thing that strikes us most about this “uprising” is the total lack of participation from the general population. Primarily, it was “a family affair” totally confined to Shaebia; and, within that, mainly confined to the leadership. The case of the G-15 was – as in the Russian case – a case of the leadership rising up against itself. It has also to be noted that it was not what one would call a full-blown democratic movement. First, as noted above, there were no masses clamoring for democracy; the dissent at the top lacked any reflection at the bottom. And second, if one looks carefully at the democratic credentials of the G-15 prior to the war crisis, it was almost as dismal as that of Isaias. This late conversion to democracy came as a result of an existential angst that came with the worst turn of the war. The fact that it was then seen as the only means available to the dissenters to get rid of the dictator further obscures the nature of its role. Since both the issue of mass participation and the call for democracy still remain at the center of the Eritrean resistance in general, and nonviolent resistance in particular, it would be wise of us if we take a closer look at the G-15’s dissent; both at its initial success and its final demise.

There are two main reasons as to why we should focus on the G-15 dissent:

(a) This is the only notable dissent that took place in independent Eritrea. So the first lesson that we ought to extract from this dissent is: How did it ever come to take place? What were the conditions that made it possible?

(b) The G-15’s dissent, despite its promising starting point, was brief, and soon came to a disastrous end. So the second lesson that we ought to extract from this is: Why did it fail? Where in particular did it go wrong?

In looking at how the dissent came to prevail, while it lasted, and how it came to fail, we are mainly interested in one thing: whether it is a REPLICABLE phenomenon, albeit one with a broader base and more resilience, for our aim is nothing short of success. For that, we have first to go back to the last days of the war, where the fatal drama soon to be played out had its triggering point.

The irony of the TSZ agreement

On those last days of the war, when the Ethiopian army was still deep inside Eritrea, Haile Duru was shuttling back and forth to eke out some kind of concession from the Woyanies to finalize a cease fire agreement. As many Duru sympathizers triumphantly came to relate later, this agreement came to be finalized even as it left both Isaias and the Melles government unhappy.

With the TSZ (Temporary Security Zone) entirely located within Eritrea, there is no doubt that it has been a constant reminder of defeat to Isaias. Prior to the cease-fire agreement, the despot’s mood was swinging form outright panic to unwarranted temerity. The first bout of panic was displayed when the Ethiopian army broke through the Eritrean defenses, on its way to Barentu. Isaias frantically called the UN to belatedly accept the Algiers agreement that he had been contemptuously rejecting till then. That state of panic stayed with him for long. In his next bout of panic, he ordered the EDF to evacuate the Assab front. But as soon as he sensed some success in that front (which, by the way, took place in defiance of him), he tried to replicate it in other fronts (a notable example being his failed attempt to capture Senafe) with little result. It was in the midst of this swinging mood that the despot was forced to accept the humiliating terms of the cease-fire agreement. Both the internal and external pressures had by then left him exposed to his most vulnerable moment, and he had no choice but to accept the TSZ agreement. Later, to vindicate the despot, many of his followers even came to blame Duru for accepting the TSZ condition, alluding that the EDF would have prevailed in the end.

The Woyanies, on their side, were at least hoping that their victory in the field would somehow translate into a political victory within Eritrea: a regime change. But for that to take place, they needed a context where they could put the Isaias regime under constant pressure. It was precisely that context that was abruptly denied to them with the TSZ cease-fire agreement. Once the UN blue helmets were squarely put between the two warring factions in the TSZ, there was no way the Melles government could put the military pressure [and this needn’t be an active one, only the threat of it] it taught essential to bring the Isaias regime down. Given this huge relief that the TSZ agreement brought to the Isaias regime, it is astounding how Ethiopia not only came to accept it, but to propose it in the first place.

As the story has been told by Duru and his supporters, it was the case of Eritrea snatching some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat. They say that when the Woyanies proposed the TSZ condition for accepting a cease-fire, it was with the belligerent character of Isaias in mind. In other words, it was with full confidence that Isaias would reject the humiliating condition that they proposed it. Given the despot’s track record, they were not that far wrong in their expectation. Where they miscalculated though was that at that particular moment Isaias was so weakened from the twin-pronged pressure that was being exerted on him that he could do nothing but accept the outcome of the Algiers negotiation. On hindsight, we can only say that it must have been hard for the Melles government to asses the extent of its initial military successes and the extent of existential angst that that success brought about among the teghadelti. In the end then, it was Isaias who came to profit as a result of the TSZ agreement, with both the dissenters (the G-15 and others) and the Melles government losing big time. How so?

There is no doubt that the greatest moment of Isaias’ vulnerability came with the Ethiopian army’s incursion deep inside Eritrea. Many of the teghadelti were in a sour mood, and began to openly question the wisdom of both the political and military maneuverings of their leadership. The G-15 realized this moment of vulnerability for what it was, and courageously grabbed it. But soon thereafter two fatal mistakes were made. Fist, as stated above, with the TSZ agreement, the pressure on Isaias was taken off too early. Had the Ethiopia demanded a cease-fire agreement without the TSZ in between; or better, had it kept holding on to a foothold inside Eritrea a little bit longer, there is no doubt that the pressure from outside and inside would have culminated in the unraveling of the Isaias regime.

Thus, unwittingly, both Duru and the Ethiopian government came to Isaias’ help at the nick of time by finalizing the TSZ cease-fire agreement at the time they did. Now the despot would be able to entirely focus on the internal dissent without looking back over his shoulder, wondering what the Ethiopian army might do at the border. This is a classical case where the pressure was lifted a little bit too early to make any difference at all. This provided Isaias with ample time to do two things essential for his political survival:

(a) Not only did he ruthlessly stamp out the G-15 mini-revolt, but he left no stones unturned to make sure nothing of the like would ever happen again. The grip of his totalitarian regime was soon to be felt everywhere in the country, with no single population group being spared.

(b) He was able to regroup his army. With the blue helmets creating a safe buffer zone between him and the Ethiopian army, he had ample time to restructure the army in a way that favored his survival – not only as a potent weapon against Ethiopia (and others), but also as a loyal army answerable only to him.

The G-15’s fatal mistake was the failure to realize that much of the potency of their dissent did not come from the backing of the Eritrean population, but from the pressure of the Ethiopian army and the disgruntlement of a sizable portion of teghadelti that that pressure brought about. We have seen the consequence of not realizing the former. And not realizing the latter is what led the G-15 to bet on the wrong population group: the Eritrean masses. How so?

Shaebia’s survival at stake

What is the harbinger of the crisis that started in the last days of the war and that culminated with the G-15 openly dissenting? The cardinal sin that Isaias committed with his foolhardy approach to the border problem was not that he put Eritrea’s survival at risk, but that he put Shaebia’s survival at risk, given the minimal role the general population played in this crisis. It only happened that in those last days of the war the threat to the survival of Shaebia happened to coincide with the threat to the survival of Eritrea. So far as the interests of these two came to converge, to work for the interest of one was to work for the interest of the other. And that is exactly what the G-15 did, oblivious of the temporary nature of this convergence.

With the incursion of the Ethiopian army deep inside Eritrea, there is no doubt that Shaebia was deeply traumatized. Isaias and his company were even thinking of the unthinkable: in the worst case scenario, to retreat to Sahel. Many in Shaebia – and many of those in the leadership – were mad with Isaias for having put them in such an existential predicament, and were actively looking for ways to avoid the contemplated catastrophe, even if it meant sacrificing the despot. They were quick to realize that the contemplated Pol Pot-like retreat to Sahel would have a Pol Pot-like tragic end. This was indeed, as stated above, the despot’s greatest moment of vulnerability. So where did the G-15, for the second time, go wrong? Well, they betted on the wrong party: on the interest of the Eritrean masses, instead of the interest of Shaebia (teghadelti).

At the beginning, the G-15’s strategy got momentum because, as noted above, the interest of both parties converged at that particular moment. But Isaias was more aware of the temporary nature of the situation than the G-15; he only had to bide his time. He rightly sized up the masses as immaterial in this survival game. Their anger, if there was any, was mainly directed at the Woyanies; and whatever disenchantment with Shaebia they exhibited then was too diffusive to be threatening. What he was really worried about was the wrath of teghadelti, a population group that suddenly found itself in a precarious position. By then, many of them were in their middle ages, and most of them have started raising families. So the prospect of renewing the struggle didn’t look appealing to them. Many of them were entertaining the impossible: if sacrificing Isaias would leave them unscathed in their new settled lives, with Shaebia still at the helm of power, then they were willing to listen to whoever proposed an alternative. It was from this new receptivity that the G-15 partly drew their power.

But it was Isaias who came to understand the source of the G-15’s power more than the G-15 themselves. So, for Isaias, the urgent task was how to disentangle the interests of Shaebia from the interest of the masses (that is, how to quickly bring the convergence of interests to an end), and then work only for the former; thus denying the G-15 the very context in which their dissent would have had any chance of success.

The ironic part is that the first opportunity for Isaias to embark on such a task was provided to him by none other than Duru and the Melles government, with the finalization of the TSZ agreement. That was a great relief to the teghadelti, not only because it took off the imminent threat to their political survival, but also because it provided them with ample time to consolidate their power; discredited as they were in the eyes of the public. Isaias took this opportunity with all the ruthlessness he is known for, and did everything at his power to mollify the teghadelti – all at the expense of the masses. He took various steps to that effect:

  1. His message to the teghadelti was: everything that the G-15 was proposing, the foremost of which was the democratization of the nation, will come at the expense of Shaebia.
  2. He soon quarantined the whole adult population in the wilderness under the pretext of national service, thereby giving former teghadelti an unprecedented power over this population group.
  3. He transferred all the administrative power to the military. He did his utmost to satisfy the whims of his colonels and generals, be it power or money.
  4. He shifted almost every sector of the economy from the private sector to Shaebia; be it farming, fishing, banking, commerce, industry, tourism, construction, transportation … or any other endeavor believed to generate hard currency.

All of this was being done with a single message to the teghadelti in mind: “Now that everything has been shifted to Shaebia, if any change is to take place, it will be at your expense!” In other words, Eritrea’s gains – be it in democracy, peace or prosperity – could only be made at the expense of Shaebia. So, Isaias’ great strategy after the war was to put an enduring wedge between the interest of the people and the interest of teghadelti, such that the two could not coexist with one another.

Isaias succeeded – where the G-15 failed – because he was in tune with the survival instinct of Shaebia, one that was well tuned in mieda. In its decades of existence, Shaebia has morphed into a “self-sufficient,” insulated organism that has so far refused to meld into the general population. This has created a discordant parallel existence of a nation within a nation, where Shaebia has to fiercely compete against the Eritrean nation for its survival. True, this could only be achieved through an eventual suicide, for the moment Shaebia completely beats the nation in this survival game is the moment of its final death, given that the former lives off the latter. And this is exactly what we have been witnessing in the last eight years, where the nation has been thoroughly hollowed out to make way for Shaebia’s survival. But now, we have come a full circle: many of teghadelti are currently displaying the same existential angst they displayed at the time of the last war. It seems that the economic demise of the nation has again brought the interests of the teghadelti and the masses into some kind of convergence. And this time around, the convergence might be more lasting. But that doesn’t mean the moment of vulnerability has already arrived. A push from the outside still remains an essential component.

(III) Isaias: a number one security threat to the masses

I ended my 2007 article, “Lessons from the G-15 Dissent”, with the following questions: “Is it possible to bring back that moment of vulnerability? And if so, how?”

And what could that “push from the outside” possibly be?

From the argument in the article, we understand that Isaias has been able to prevail in the past decade not only by keeping the interests of the masses and teghadelti separate of one another, but also by making sure that the interest of the latter comes at the expense of the former. Conversely, his point of vulnerability will come back when the interests of these two population groups come to converge and the interests of the teghadelti and Isaias come to diverge, as it temporarily did during the border war. Or to put it in terms of liability: it is when both the masses and the teghadelti, especially the leadership, find Isaias to be a liability; that is, when they see him to be the only thing standing between them and their welfare and survival.

As you can see from my argument, I am not enamored with the “democracy project” of the opposition. I believe it has been the most harmful project among the arsenal of “peaceful resistance” that the opposition has been marshalling; not only because it is superfluous to the task of regime change, having zero causal impact on that front, but also because it has been the most obstructive one, having diverted our attention from regime change to preparations for the takeover in its aftermath. And, more precisely, when it comes to bringing back the moment of vulnerability, democracy has little role, if at all, to play. It is only if couched in terms of “survival” instead of “democracy” that the appeal gets resonance both among the public and teghadelti.

The PFDJ has effectively sold the current crisis of the nation as a “security threat” to its supporters. You can see from the news of the “Woyanie attack on the Zalambessa front” that the Isaias regime is just doing that, hoping that even some from the opposition side will feel the threat of it. What a security threat does is create existential angst on the threatened subjects and trigger their survival instinct to “defend the nation”. That is why the “security threat” card got so much traction among many Eritreans for such a long time. But in between, in the past decade, a sea of change has taken place. Most of the people in Eritrea now do not consider Ethiopia as the number one security threat in their lives. That number one spot is now reserved for Shaebia, in general, and Isaias, in particular. That is why, among other things, hundreds of thousands are stampeding to exit, instead of staying put to “defend the nation”.

That Isaias (and Shaebia) has become the number one security threat to the nation is to be seen in the draconian hardships the masses are facing in their daily lives. With his misguided “self reliance” policy and his refusal to let in food aid, and the famine that these policies have ushered, Isaias has become the number one security threat to the starving masses. With land expropriation, food products confiscation and market restrictions, he has become the number one security threat to peasants. With market monopolization, he has become the number one security threat to merchants. With indefinite national service, and the mass exodus it has caused, he has become the number one security threat to hundreds of thousands of Warsai. With giffa, Sawa and other coercive means of recruiting into the military, he has become the number one security threat to the youth, in particular, and the family, in general. By targeting them for punishment for a “crime” committed by their fleeing children, he has become the number one security threat to Eritrean parents. By forcing them into the army and making them readily available to the colonels and generals, he has become the number one security threat to women in Eritrea. By closing the only university in the country, he has become the number one security threat to the future of the nation. By banning minority religions and structurally interfering in the major religions, he has become the number one security threat to religion in general. With the proliferation of prisons and concentration camps all over Eritrea, Isaias has become the number one security threat to Eritreans in general. By instigating wars with Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti and sponsoring terrorism throughout the region, he has become the number one security threat to the nation. One can go on and on …

In the last decade, while the image of Ethiopia as the number one security threat to the nation has been gradually fading, the image of Isaias/Shaebia as the number one security threat to the daily lives of the masses has been gradually solidifying. Unlike the abstract “security threat” of Ethiopia that has so far remained potent only in its potential form, that of Isaias/Shaebia has increasingly become as immediate and as tangible as it could possibly get to the common man. So there is no doubt that the masses, by now, have come to understand that the threat to their survival primarily comes from Isaias. How about teghadelti?

As pointed above, the genius of Isaias lies in the fact that he made the gain of teghadelti dependent on the pain of the masses. Shaebia is becoming rich at the expense of bankrupted merchants and landless peasants. The colonels and generals are not only getting all the power, money and villas but also all the women they want. The Yikealo are able to wield tremendous power over Warsai because of the drastic power rearrangement made possible by the indefinite nature of national service. With sanctions, all of this is set to change; in the order of priorities that will soon emerge, such privileges would attain only secondary status, at best.

There are three strong reasons why the colonels and generals won’t find the sanctioning amusing: First, it doesn’t discriminate between them and the masses; in fact, the imbalance of fire-power between Eritrea and Ethiopia that will surely emerge as a result of the arms embargo would cause more anxiety among the generals and colonels than the man on the street. And second, if the mining companies are adversely affected – be it directly or indirectly – by the sanctions in a way that inhibits or totally prevents production, the colonels and generals will begin to see Isaias as the only thing that stands between them and the gold. And third, with the worsening of conditions in general, they will begin seeing the sanctions as something that could have easily been avoided, given the fact that, unlike domestic terrorism that profited them, they see no immediate benefits from the tyrant’s regional terrorist excursions. Some of the questions that they may ask: Could a smarter dictator have avoided all these pitfalls that Isaias seems to easily fall into? Is he capable of reversing this process, or would his hubris make it impossible for him to do that? If so, they might start believing that with the sanctions, he is becoming a liability even to the men at the top. That is to say, if the opposition does its part right, there is a high probability that even the leadership, let alone the rank and file teghadelti, will find the tyrant to be a number one security threat to their welfare and survival.

There is no doubt that sanction will somewhat bring back the existential angst that we saw during the Ethiopian offensive among the Yikealo, in general, and the leadership, in particular. But that by itself won’t do the job. As pointed out in the beginning of this article, it will require an active participation of the opposition to target: (a) the mining companies, (b) PFDJ-owned companies and (c) PFDJ’s Diaspora network. This will have to be done in a way that will drive a wedge between Isaias and a sizable segment of the leadership. I will explain how in my next posting, “Sanctions Watch: The Moment of Isaias’ Vulnerability”.

03/ 03/10

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