Public Space in Eritrea: Lessons from the Egyptian Uprising

Yosief Ghebrehiwet

(I) Introduction

Let’s start with one sobering fact in the Eritrean scene that none of us seeking regime change can escape from: if change is going to come from within Eritrea, there is only the army to look for. This is so not only because, as in the Egyptian case, it would have to play the determining role in the final outcome of any unrest, but also because there is no other body but the army in the scene of possible unrest – be it in the cities or the trenches. If so, the most important lessons that we draw from the Egyptian case would be those that directly concern the Egyptian military’s role in that uprising.

Here are some of the lessons that we draw from the Egyptian military case pertinent to its counterpart in the Eritrean case: Lesson # 1: that armies are not in the business of conducting revolutions at all; at most, they join one already started by the masses, albeit reluctantly. Lesson # 2: that the military does not easily give up on one of its own; it does so only under intense pressure; and for that, only if it finds the leader to be increasingly a liability to itself, and not necessarily to the nation. Lesson # 3: if and when the army decides to abandon its leader, the decision is reached not by the rank and file, but by the generals and colonels. I know that these lessons won’t sit well with revolution romantics who want to accord the army high-minded ideals appropriate to a revolution that they are seeking for. But if we are to draw the right lessons, we better remain brutally realistic in our analysis.

Do we have precedence in the Eritrean case where the leadership rose up against one of their own because he became a liability to the EPLF (the army) to compare with the Egyptian case? Yes, we do: the G-15 dissent. The G-15 and their followers were seeking to get rid of Isaias Afwerki because they felt he put the EPLF into an existential predicament through a senseless border war he instigated and directed and, hence, became a clear liability to the organization. But as in the case of Egypt, the dissenters wouldn’t have risen up against Isaias had it not been for the intense pressure put on them by another force. There is critical a difference though: while in the Egyptian case, it is the masses that put the indispensable pressure on the military to abandon Mubarak, in the Eritrean case it was the Ethiopian army that put that intense pressure. The G-15 dissent failed because the pressure was lifted too early in the game, unlike that of the Egyptian case where the pressure was kept up until the dictator resigned.

Seyoum Tesfaye reprimands me for not asking the right question in my article,  Why the Tunisian Revolution Cannot Be Replicated in Eritrea. According to him [The Wrong Question and the Wrong Prescription], the question should not be whether we can replicate the Tunisian version but whether we can come up with our own version of that revolution.  I don’t see anything wrong in asking both; in fact, it is asking the first question and looking at any other similar cases (the Egyptian uprising, the G-15 dissent, etc.) that would lead us to appropriately frame the latter question. Seyoum never tells us what version he has in mind. It is not for lack of words that four brilliant and eloquent writers (Seyoum Tesfaye, Paulos Natnael, Selam Kidane and Petros Tesfagiorgis) have absolutely nothing to say – not even a single sentence – on how their version of nonviolent struggle is supposed to work inside Eritrea. Their articles gain plausibility not on the merit of their nonviolent strategies, but on the supposed shortcomings of the alternative. There is no surprise there because whatever they have up in their heads is not doable down there on the ground; it simply remains an article of faith with them.

Now that we have three cases – the Egyptian uprising, the G-15 dissent and the current situation in Eritrea – to compare and contrast with one another, we may be able to draw the appropriate lessons applicable to the Eritrean case. In doing so, I will try to respond to what I think is the most important question in the Eritrean case: where should the pressure indispensable to make the EDF abandon Isaias come from? Or to put it in terms of liability: how is it possible to render Isaias a liability to the army? Since it is the very pressure exerted on it that renders the leader a liability to the military, to ask one is to ask the other.

To a hardheaded realist like me, it is immaterial whether that indispensable pressure comes from the public or outside force so far as it does an appropriate job of targeting the military’s self interest in forcing it to abandon its leader. It is doubly so when the former choice is totally absent. To the proponents of “self-reliant resistance” though, the idea of that indispensable pressure coming from other than the “uprising masses” is totally unappealing; it is neither romantic nor revolutionary – understandably, something that rubs the ghedli romantics in the wrong way.

The theme of this article will be: if public pressure is impossible to materialize in Eritrea due to utter lack of public space, the indispensable pressure needed to usher regime change in Eritrea could only come from outside. In a follow up article, I will argue why such a change is desirable even if it doesn’t guarantee democracy in its aftermath.

(II) Indispensable public space

Many Eritreans from the opposition camp have been drawing the wrong lesson from the Egyptian unrest: "If they can do it, so can we!" That this bravado is coming from Eritreans in diaspora, and not from those who are living under the totalitarian grip of the regime, says it all. It is asserted without carefully looking at points of convergence and divergence that hold between the Egyptian and Eritrean cases. As a result, they seem to get it all wrong when it comes to the relevant aspects of the major players in this uprising. There are four major players in this unrest that one needs to look at carefully to fully grasp the nature of the Eritrean predicament, for the public space needed for an uprising to take place – whether it succeeds or fails – happens to be the result of various interrelations that hold between them [denoted by arrows in the diagram]. Therefore, as Eritreans, it would do us well to ask the nature of these indispensable roles that have been rendered absent in Eritrea:

  • (a) The youth: what is it about the youth (their urban background, residency, education, net connectivity, population, etc) without whose massive presence in the Egyptian cities, nothing – absolutely nothing – would have happened, that has triggered and sustained this uprising?
  • (b) The authoritarian leader: what is about the nature of authoritarian leaders like Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak (unlike that of totalitarian leaders like Isaias Afwerki and Kim Jong Il) that, in spite of themselves, has made it possible for these uprisings to take place?
  • (c) The military: what is it about the Egyptian military that makes it straddle for long between the two antagonistic forces, given that finally it would have the determining role to play in deciding the outcome of this uprising? What is the true nature of its hesitation?
  • (d) The outside world: what is it about the outside world – Al Jazeera, the US, EU, the Arab world, etc – that has been driving it to play an essential role in the way this uprising has been unfolding? What is it that is at stake beyond the borders of Egypt?

Those in the Eritrean opposition camp enamored with their “self reliant” resistance keep deluding themselves and confusing others by saying that we can replicate the Tunisian or Egyptian uprising without ever looking at the above mentioned determining roles. Given that it is the dynamics brought about by the roles played by these major players that provide the indispensable public space, it is surprising that they never ask themselves: could there be such dynamics in the Eritrean case? Instead, they either keep looking at each of the players in isolation, independent of the enabling or disenabling context, or they try to locate that public space outside of Eritrea – in diaspora! – to fill in the deficiency within, thereby endowing the most important role as “agents of change” to themselves. [In terms of the diagram, they completely ignore the arrows of relationship in between.]

Regarding the Eritrean youth, they say they have to rise up against the Isaias regime in cities and towns across Eritrea, oblivious that almost the entire young generation has been evicted out of the urban areas in an experiment reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge, to be indefinitely consigned to internal or external exile – hundreds of thousands of them! Isn’t it a necessity of the most elemental type that any action, let alone a massive uprising, requires a bodily presence of the agent on the ground for it to materialize? It requires a peculiar kind of detachment that only the diaspora kind can afford to call for an uprising where those who are supposed to rise up are almost entirely absent from the most likely scene of uprising. Public spaces don’t come for free. What the Tunisian and Egyptian youth have done through their social networking (Internet, cell phones, etc) and their massive presence in the streets is snatch enough public space from the jaws of authoritarian regimes to stage their uprising. No such opportunity avails itself to the Eritrean youth who have been deliberately kept at a safe distance both from the urban areas and the cyber space.

Regarding the EDF, they say that it has to play similar role as that of the military in Tunisia and Egypt, forgetting the fact that the military in these two cases hasn’t started the uprising but reluctantly “joined” it, with the jury still out on the final verdict. But more importantly, wasn’t it the pressure that was coming from the public that was putting the military’s legendary loyalty to its leaders to test? In absence of that pressure, there is no doubt that the military would have still remained loyal to the leadership. Paradoxically then, the public space needed for the military to join the uprising was provided by none other than the demonstrating masses that put it to relentless test until it finally gave in. And let’s not forget that it is the fact that the masses had already put the autocrat in difficult position that made it easier for the military to let him go. But if the youth in Eritrea are totally absent from the scene of uprising, how are the military supposed to join or not join them? That difficult choice, one that could only be forced upon the military, is not available in the Eritrean scene.

And in their call for the Eritrean masses to rise up, diaspora Eritreans don’t realize that one of the main reasons that has made it impossible for Mubarak to go all the way to stamp out the uprising by resorting to an all out brute force is the watchful eye of the outside world. Would the world give a damn if a massacre takes place in the streets of Asmara? The intense focus on Egypt comes not only because of the uprising’s relevance to Egyptians, but also because of the nation’s relevance to the outside world, in general, and the Arab world, in particular. No such relevance would be accorded to an Eritrean uprising, if one is ever to materialize. Moreover, if a massacre takes place in the streets of Asmara, would the world even be able to know about it in real time, let alone react to it appropriately? There is a reason why totalitarian regimes like Eritrea and North Korea eradicate all forms of free press and cut off their nations from the rest of the world: not only to prevent information from coming in, but also from coming out. If so, there would be no Al Jazeeras to report on a massacre in the streets of Asmara (Remember Adi-Abeyto!) It is clear from the above that the public space provided by the watchful eye of the outside world would also be totally absent in Eritrea.

The proponents of “self-reliant” resistance have gotten these three pieces of the uprising puzzle wrong because, among other things, they are unable to differentiate between two types of governments: one authoritarian (in Tunisia and Egypt) and the other totalitarian (in Eritrea). It is in the nature of totalitarian states to completely obliterate the public space wherein dissent, let alone mass uprisings, could take place without any consideration to its social cost. Authoritarian rules like Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak inadvertently became “agents of change” when they decided to enter modernity, in general, and the information age, in particular, with full speed – mass education, industrialization, internet connectivity, cell phone, satellite Tv, etc. Whereas totalitarian leaders like Isaias Afwerki and Kim Jong Il wouldn’t hesitate to take their nations back to the Stone Age if that is what they feel is needed to keep themselves in absolute power.

As we can see from above, it is not only from the points of convergence that hold among the Eritrean and Egyptian cases that we should draw our lessons; the points of divergence too have equal validity. Therefore, superimposing one map over the other would give us enough points of departure to make our conjecture regarding the Eritrean case. Let’s just do that to study the nature of the military’s hesitation, because which ever way the “hesitation” finally gives way to would decide the fate of the nation.

The nature of the Egyptian military’s dilemma

Let’s now look at the role the Egyptian military has been playing, straddling as it found itself between the uprising masses and the authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, in order to figure out what the military’s role in Eritrea could turn out to be under similar circumstances. It is important to examine the nature of the military’s hesitation because, as pointed above, it could have gone either way in deciding the fate of the revolution.

Let me start by reiterating an obvious point: in Egypt, it was not the military that rose up against the Mubarak regime, but was asked to join in only after the fact. It is important to stress this obvious point because it is entirely missed by those who are calling for the Eritrean army to do likewise in absence of any “invitation” from the public. Even so, the fact that both the masses and Mubarak had both been wooing the military to side with them against the other tells us that the determining role was to be finally played out by the military. But the nature of its hesitation tells us that its final decision was driven less by democratic ideals than by its self-interest. It is true that, in its calculation, its standing in the eyes of the public loomed large. But, in the end, it abandoned Mubarak only because it found him to be increasingly a liability to itself and not necessarily to the nation, even though the temporary overlap of the two interests in crisis like this makes it difficult to tell which is which.

Mubarak was keenly aware of the military’s dilemma; after all, he is a military man himself. That is why he was moving one step ahead of the public to meet the military’s, and not the public’s, demands. His concessions, although seemingly addressed to the public, were actually meant to appeal to the military. All his new appointees were from the military. Even his demand to stay in power until his term ended was done in a way that would appeal to the military. If Mubarak had stayed in power for eight more months, it could only buy the military enough time to consolidate its position, be it for takeover or for upcoming elections. Still, the fact that in the end it dropped him without a glitch tells us that the military’s dilemma had gone way beyond Mubarak himself.

Recently, the military’s dilemma has been the subject of discussion among many analysts. At the center of their analysis is its self-interest: how it would fare under democracy, in contrast to the privileged position it enjoyed for decades under Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak reigns.

The military’s dilemma was not simply whether to side with the people or Mubarak, for the dilemma still remains with it even after Mubarak is gone. And the fact that Mubarak had come to overshadow the military didn’t play well among many in the military. Thus, shedding off Mubarak only sharpens the nature of the dilemma. Sheered off its Mubarak confounding factor, one clearly sees the true nature of the military’s dilemma: it is whether it is willing to cede power to civilians. We have to realize that under the guise of democracy, it is actually the military that has been ruling the nation since the end of monarchy – starting with Gamal Abdel Nasser. With its hegemony over the political, social and economic aspects of the nation uncontested, the military has been wielding a tremendous power over the nation. Under successive military rulers that includes Mubarak, it has turned out to be the most privileged institution in Egypt. With almost half a million soldiers strong, it has become a class on its own.

The military’s reach in the national economy is staggering: “… the Egyptian military's business empire probably accounts for 10 percent to 15 percent of the country's $210 billion economy.” [In Egypt's secret military empire lies a cautionary tale] Others put the figure even higher: At 40 percent! [Military is 40 percent of Egyptian economy]

Reuel Marc Gerecht of NPR captures the military’s dilemma when he says: “… Do the senior officers really believe in a ‘soft landing’ in a democratic Egypt? A democratic Egypt, cursed with bloated bureaucracies and a still vibrant socialist ethic, would likely cut back military expenditures severely in an effort to maintain public-sector civilian jobs. ... A democratic Egypt will demand a more humble, less well-fed military establishment. Do Egyptian military officers believe that angry liberals and even angrier Muslim Brothers won't eventually expropriate all that their families have accumulated under martial rule?” [Weekly Standard: Egypt's Army Could Fail Democracy : NPR]

One may not appreciate but fully understand the military’s hesitation, given the huge stakes it has in the final outcome of this uprising. Looking at precedence in the region for an answer gives us mixed results. If the Muslim Brotherhood is to come to power, would it relegate the military to secondary status by creating its own version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard? Or would the military be able to create a precarious balance with a democratically elected government, the way Pakistani and Turkish armies have been doing? The Pakistani case in particular is appealing because even under civilian rule, it still owns a huge section of the nation’s economy.

The Egyptian people, cognizant of the military’s dilemma, were playing their cards carefully. Showering the military with their “love”, as opposed to the disdain they were showing towards the police and Mubarak, was meant to show that they hold no ill will but respect towards the military as an institution. But more relevantly, behind this “love”, there was the resolve of the masses that the military couldn’t ignore. The strategy that the masses effectively employed was how to pry the military loose from the regime and tie its fate with that of the nation. Such convergence in interests don’t last long, hence the urgency that the public felt in finishing its job quickly. It also explains why, on the other hand, the military wanted to buy time.

It is important to remember that it is the nature of the pressure exerted on the military that decided which way the hesitation would go. If the public hadn’t started the uprising and began to exert its pressure, the military wouldn’t have found itself in such a difficult position. But, more importantly, if the public had slackened that pressure in the middle of the uprising, they could have easily lost. The more intense became the pressure, the more Mubarak was rendered a liability to the army. In the end, the military could only stick with the leader at a prohibitive cost to itself. That is when it decided to let him go.

In the Eritrean case, if we count the youth out of the equation, whether we like it or not, we are left with the military only to bring the desired change. But it would be a tall order to call for the military to rise up against itself without any pressure exerted on it. If so, the only option left is to seek that pressure from outside. In fact, as stated above, we have a model for it: the G-15 dissent is an example par excellence of the EPLF rising up against itself, not through public pressure, but through the intense pressure put on it by the Ethiopian army during the border war. Below, in Part III, I am posting “Lessons from the G-15 Dissent” for the third time for us to see what a rebellion spearheaded by the leadership in EPLF could have turned out to be had the G-15 and Ethiopia played their cards right. And in Part IV, we will explore how this strategy might work in the present case.

III: 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, 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 Woyanies 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, the Woyanies 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 Woyanies could put the military pressure [and this needn’t be an active one, only the threat of it] they 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 the Woyanies 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 Woyanies to asses the extent of their 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 Woyanies 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 Woyanies demanded a cease-fire agreement without the TSZ in between; or better, had they 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 Woyanies 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 Woyanies 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 him 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 Woyanies 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 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 Woyanies, 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:

  • (a) 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.
  • (b) 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.
  • (c) He transferred all the administrative power to the military. He did his utmost to satisfy the whim of his colonels and generals, be it power or money.
  • (d) 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.

IV: Indispensable pressure

Now that we have seen the military’s role in the Egyptian and G-15 cases, wherein lays the main difference? Whereas the Egyptian uprising has been instigated by the masses and, for its success, needed the military to join them, in the G-15 case, it was the other way round: it was the leadership within the EPLF that started the dissent, and expected the masses to follow them. And as in the case of Egypt (and Tunisia), the military would have never risen up against its leader had it not been pressured against its wish by another body. The only difference is, whereas in the Egyptian case that indispensable pressure came from the inside, in the G-15 case it came from the outside: the Ethiopian army. How about now? Can the masses in Eritrea provide that essential pressure? Have circumstances changed enough for the masses to start an uprising on their own or to follow one started by leadership within the army? In answering these questions, we have to look at changes that have taken place since the dissent of G-15 that may advantage or disadvantage the tyrant.

To the tyrant’s advantage

Isaias has carefully and meticulously eliminated every factor that would make him a liability to the military – a lesson that he has learned from the G-15 uprising. Let’s now look at all the factors that have been working for the tyrant since the dissent of G-15.

First, by emptying the cities of their youth and banishing them to internal or external exile, he has emasculated the youth to a point of impotence when it comes to any kind of dissent, let alone mass uprising. To the question where do we find the youth, the answer is: in prisons and concentration camps scattered throughout the Eritrean landscape; in Sawa, where tens of thousands of high school students are quarantined; in make-shift colleges deliberately built away from Asmara; in National Service, where hundreds of thousands had to spend a decade or more of their lives; in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, in their tens of thousands making their way to the West. In short, the tyrant has either put them in internal exile, under the watchful eyes of the Yikealo, or has forced them to external exile, where political dissent takes its harmless form. Talk about drying up the sea to catch the fish – Shaebia had to evict almost the entire youth population out of urban areas just to eliminate any form of dissent.

I am sure most of you have heard the news from Radio Erena regarding preemptive measures that the tyrant is taking against any possible unrest in the cities. Given the high concentration of the youth in the military, the tyrant feels it too has to be evicted out of Asmara. This goes to confirm what I have said before: what started with Sawa and the closing down of Asmara University to render the cities safe for the Yikealo ruling class has now reached its culmination with the contemplated relocation of the army outside of Asmara.

Second, the prominent roles in the political, social and economic domains of the nation have been entirely transferred to the military (EPLF). In the political sphere, almost all the ministries and departments, from national to local level, are being run by former teghadelti. In the social sphere, any organization that competes with Shaebia for the hearts and minds of the youth has been ruthlessly dismantled; religions that were attracting large number of the youth were in particular targeted. To complete the social experimentation, the entire youth population have been handed over to the military at their tender age, followed up by years in the National Service, meant to make them subservient to the Yikealo. In the economic realm, the tyrant has transferred almost the entire nation’s wealth to the military; the proportion of the nation’s economy owned by the military beats even those of the military in Egypt, Pakistan or Iran. Thus the despot has made it clear to the military what they would lose if they ever side with the masses or with democracy.

The boom in mining could only accelerate that economic empowerment of the military. The high growth rate that is supposed to take place this year is entirely due to the mining boom. Unlike the Ethiopian case, where the growth is coming from every sector of the society, in the Eritrean case the revenues from the numerous mining projects would directly flow to Shaebia coffers. Besides, the local companies subcontracted to do various jobs are PFDJ owned companies. So, at all levels – at employment level, at contract level, at taxation level and at ownership level (the government’s share of the mining projects) – the public are out of luck. With all the revenues in Shaebia’s hands, three things are likely to happen that would further strengthen the hand of the military. First, the bulk of the money will be spent in buying all kinds of military gadgets that the military requests. Second, PFDJ’s ownership of the nation’s wealth will further expand – be it in farms, factories or businesses. And, third, a lot of money will be made available to the colonels and generals to further consolidate their allegiance to Isaias.

And, last, by shutting off the free media, by cutting off any economic dependence from the outside (such as NGOs) and, in general, by insulating the nation from foreign influence, he has been eliminating all outside factors that could potentially put pressure on him. We have to realize that Shaebia is an organization that preferred to loot the koffo of peasants to feed its privileged class and let the peasants starve rather than allow food aid to come into the country. In doing this, it was seeking a strange kind of independence: the kind of independence that allows it do with its subjects whatever it wants, unconstrained by any conditions that would be imposed by donors from the outside world. Thus, its self-reliance mantra works on the same level with the elimination of free media: both of them are meant to insulate the nation from outside pressure so that it would have an unprecedented power over its people.

As can be seen from the above, the tyrant has carefully preempted the conditions for public space from the three major players: the youth, the military and the outside world. And by doing so, he has also factored himself out as one of the “agents of change” in the sense that authoritarian leaders inadvertently do in their quest to modernize their nations.

To the tyrant’s disadvantage

But it is not all gloom and doom; a lot has also been going to the disadvantage of the tyrant since the days of the G-15 dissent.

First, there has been a sea of change in the people’s outlook towards EPLF, in general, and Isaias Afwerki, in particular. In the past dozen years, they have come to intimately know the brutal hands of Shaebia. Unlike rural Eritrea, urban Eritrea was spared from ghedli’s wrath for most of its duration in mieda. And the seven years of honeymoon soon after independence remained fluid enough to enable Shaebia to go back to its old self with the first opportunity – the border war. Since then, the totalitarian grip of Shaebia has reached a suffocating level, and no population group has been spared, demographically dissected whichever way: along ethnic or regional lines, along religious groups, along rural-urban groups, along male-female groups, along different age groups, along poor-rich groups, etc. The only population group that has been spared is that of the Shaebia family, the very people that hold key positions in all secotors, all the way from the top to the bottom. The very fact that the only distinction that matters to this regime is that between the civilians and teghadelti is that by now the whole nation has come to belatedly realize that Shaebia, in general, and Isaias, in particular, is the greatest liability the nation has right now – a sea of change from the passive attitude of the masses at the time of the G-15 dissent. That means if a meaningful dissent erupts within the military, the likelihood that the masses will back it up is great.

Under the above contemplated scenario, what is important is the synergy between the military and the masses that would hold if an uprising emerges. Even though it would be the masses that would follow the military’s lead, the latter would not sustain it without the masses’ help. That means that the masses’ involvement would not only make it possible for the military to depose the tyrant but it would also make it impossible for it to retain its totalitarian grip after the Isaias regime is gone. In other words, even though the masses would be late joiners, they would provide the necessary pressure to sustain the uprising and usher some kind of reform – although that reform may come short of full blown democracy.

The second thing going for this strategy is the exhaustion factor. We know that in the past decade, the tyrant has taken every step imaginable to emasculate the population. But this is a double-edged sword. In an article that I wrote in 2007, I said the following regarding the exhaustion factor:

“… Pol Pot was in for a surprise of his life when he wrongly surmised that the Cambodian people would conduct a protracted war against a foreign army (Vietnam’s); he was especially counting on their nationalism, given the traditional apprehension that the population had over Vietnam [similar to what Eritreans have over Ethiopia]. But the Cambodian people, after having been massively brutalized under the hands of Pol Pot, were in NO MOOD TO REBEL – either against inside or outside forces.  That is why, when we say that the Eritrean people are ‘in no rebelling mood,’ I see virtue in the ambiguity of the phrase. Totalitarian leaders see capital in the weakness (that is, in the submissiveness) of their subjects. But they forget that outside forces too see capital in that very weakness; in that they expect little resistance from the masses if and when they decide to strike. This is especially true in those cases where the masses don’t see any ill will from the invaders [here, there is a lesson for Ethiopia].” ].” [On Nonviolent and Violent Resistance in Eritrea – Part I. Feb 28, 2007]

Throughout the border war, the army was willing to fight. Not only did it believe in the “cause”, it was not as brutalized then as it is now. Since then, the massive brutalization of Warsai under the hands of their Big Brothers, the Yikealo, have resulted in two things that have terminally affected the EDF: first, with the mass exodus of army deserters and conscription evaders, the army has been hollowed out of its most dynamic group: young, male and educated. Second, most of those who are left behind are either actively seeking a way out to join the rest in Ethiopia or Sudan or are resigned to their fate – either way, this is not an army that could stand its ground and fight for long. The brief armed confrontation with Djibouti is a case in point. The EDF soldiers brought to the border to fight the Djibouti army instead took it as a rare opportunity to flee across the border, braving even as the danger from crossfire was. [Djiboutian–Eritrean border conflict - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]

Third, the TSZ buffer zone is gone for good. The moment the regime decided to evict the blue helmets from the buffer zone, it made itself vulnerable to Ethiopian attack. But, so far, it has been the unintended consequence of such a foolish move that has been hollowing out the army at a faster rate: accelerated mass desertion. With the buffer zone, the entire army was put, at minimum, 25 kms inside the Eritrean territory. In fact, the regime’s policy had been to station the military as far away from the border as possible. With the TSZ gone, a huge part of the army was moved forward. It is not by coincidence that as the army began to be stationed at the border in large numbers, the number of deserters entering Ethiopia increased dramatically. Even the roving death squads put in place between the army and the border have been unable to stem the flow. Again, one could only imagine what would happen if a military confrontation with Ethiopia arose: no doubt, the mass exodus would turn into a flood.

Pressure from Ethiopia

There are only two ways that could bring the Isaias regime down: economic strangulation or military intervention, or a combination of both. And none of those are doable by Eritrean forces, be it inside or outside Eritrea and be it through peaceful or violent means. That is to say, “self-reliant” resistance won’t do it. So far, we have seen the economic sanctions imposed on Eritrea have no bite. And, what is more, it is from the very Western nations to whom we are appealing to that all of the major mining companies originate from: Nevsun Resources Ltd. and Sunridge Gold from Canada; South Boulder, Sub Sahara Resources, Chalice Gold Mines Ltd and Gippsland Ltd from Australia; Bermuda-based Sahara Minerals, Andiamo Exploration and London Africa from the UK, etc. As in most things Western, self-interest seems to win the day. So the only nation left for us to appeal to would be Ethiopia. If the call is heeded, there is a great likelihood that the Ethiopian card will be both economic and military.

The Ethiopian military card could take many forms, from military buildup in the border, conducting preemptive strikes to gaining a foothold inside Eritrea, but whatever form it takes one thing it would do is bring the economic and political uncertainty in Eritrea that goes with such maneuvering. The gold rush of the mining companies would make sense to their investors only if there is peace and stabilty in the region. A climate of war, let alone an outright war, in the region would make it impossible for these mining companies to work there, and would economically devastate those that entirely depend on the Eritrean projects to survive – like Nevsun Resources Ltd, the only company that has started full production. Given the steep rise of their stock prices in past year or so, the likelihood that these companies will see a steep drop in their stocks with the climate of war is great.

Unlike Ethiopia’s economy, where the growth is coming from various sectors, Eritrea’s economic growth is very vulnerable to a climate of war mainly because its growth will entirely depend on its mining projects and those projects tend to be more sensitive to a climate of war. With military confrontation, the entire mining industry can be shut off like a faucet. In contrast, war or no war, farmers will keep on producing their coffee.

It is not only economic meltdown that we expect out of such military confrontation, but also military meltdown. The hollowing out of the Eritrean army that ICG Report talked about, taking it as a clear sign that it is heading towards being a failed state, [ERITREA: THE SIEGE STATE] can only be accelerated under a climate of war. If so, with both economic devastation and military defeat in the horizon, the same existential angst that afflicted the Shaebia family during the border war will make a come back with vengeance.

The weakest link possible

To reiterate the biggest lesson that the opposition could get out of the Egyptian experience is: How do we render Isaias a liability to the military? How do we convince them that tying their fate with Isaias will come at their own expense? How do we make them give up on Isaias because they cannot afford it anymore? There is nothing romantic about these questions; they don’t invoke “patriotism”, “love of the nation”, “revolutionary spirit”, “Eritreanism”, “our martyrs”, etc to woo the military. It is brutally realistic and appeals directly to the self-interest of the officers in charge. And what it makes this strategy potent is that the threat to their self-interest comes both in its economic and existential sense.

But what is interesting is that, as opposed to the extreme gravity of the threat, the link that holds the colonels with the tyrant is very weak. There is no overarching ideological or even patriotic link that holds them together. Whatever robust link they had in the old days has shriveled into a “pragmatic” one. Isaias has no illusions; that is why he is trying to buy loyalty among the colonels and generals by appealing to their lowest instincts: money, villas, women, power, etc. The good thing about this weak link is that one can easily outbid him if the right occasion arrives. It is easy to see how this works with military confrontation, or the threat thereof, if one looks at the two best weapons left to the tyrant to buy off the colonels and generals: gold and power.

Even the gold rush has a silver lining, in the sense that it has wetted the appetite of the generals and colonels. In the article, Sanctions Watch: Lessons from the G-15 Dissent, I wrote on the subject matter: “So I do believe that all these preparations that are going on in Eritrea to develop various mining projects have come at the right moment as a blessing in disguise: they have heightened the expectations to such a high level that the generals and colonels will have to fight to keep their self-interest.” They wouldn’t want anyone to stand in between them and the gold. Now the question is: how does one make Isaias to be the only one to stand in between them and the gold? That is, how do we render him a liability to the colonel’s material self-interest?

Even as their material welfare angst is great, their biggest worry is existential one. The fear of the Warsai generation has meant that all the important posts within the army have been reserved for the Yikealo. This too is a double edged sword. While it may keep the army loyal to the tyrant, the fact that it is loyalty that is being used for promotion, and not talent, doesn’t bode well for the army. If the colonels and generals were in their fifties during the border war, many of them are now in their sixties, with grown up kids to attend to. These old guards are in no mood to start a protracted war against Ethiopia. They are also in no mood to emigrate and start a new life at their retirement age. They would rather settle with any force that would leave them relatively well off both in terms of material wealth and position. If they have to hand over Isaias with his arms and legs shackled, they wouldn’t hesitate.

The weak link that the generals and colonels have with Isaias is also to be seen in their link with Badme or any other territorial claim. They have no emotional connection that the diaspora foot soldiers exhibit whenever Badme is mentioned. They wouldn’t hesitate to sit down with the Ethiopian government and make a final deal, if that would leave them with their material and existential wellbeing intact.

We have seen how the easiness with which the Egyptian military dropped Mubarak. The fact that he has become superfluous to their welfare long before the uprising is what made it easy for them to let him go. With the replacement of the weak ling, it has been a while since Isaias has become superfluous to the colonels’ welfare. And if any event comes that would turn his superfluity into liability, there would be no incentive for the colonels to hold on to him. And the Ethiopia’s pressure would surely do that: it would create enough “public space” – in the sense it did in the case of the G-15 dissent during the border war – for an uprising within the military leadership to hold, and for the masses to join in. But whether it is though the military or the masses or both, in the Eritrean case, nothing will materialize without going through some sort of chaos.


There are two critical questions that we should ask regarding any method of resistance that we espouse: Will it work? Is it worth it?

This article has tired to convince skeptics, first, that the “self-reliant” resistance espoused by many in the opposition camp, in the sense that has materialized in Tunisia and Egypt, has no chance of success in Eritrea; and, second, that the only alternative is the Ethiopian card. There is no 100 percent assurance in what we expect to happen, and none should be expected. But I am convinced that the “self-reliant resistance” has not only been a total waste of precious time, but that it will have no chance whatsoever of ushering regime change in Eritrea in the foreseeable future. And worse, it has been most obstructive in that it prevented many good meaning people form seeking workable alternatives.

There is one critical question raised by all the four writers and many commentators that I have yet to respond to: even if the Ethiopian card works in deposing the tyrant, would it be worth exploring it given the many uncertainties that surround it? Among the many fears articulated so far are: Ethiopia’s design on Eritrea and the fate of democracy in the aftermath. And since the strategy that I have expounded above doesn’t promise democracy as its end result, the latter fear is directly relevant to what I have written so far. I will respond to both fears in another posting. I will still be drawing lessons from the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in doing that. But the next posting will be a response to issues raised by the four writers that directly or indirectly has to do with the “public space” that has been central to this article.

Yosief Ghebrehiwet