The recent meeting in Brussels has dominated the cyber debate in recent weeks and a lot of disinformation and misrepresentation has characterized the debate. We should now try to clarify the fundamentals and here is my “two cents” worth of clarification.

Was the meeting intended to change U.S and E.U position?

The supporters of the meeting have argued that their intention in organizing the meeting was to expose the crimes of the regime and to encourage the U.S and E.U to oppose and take punitive measures against the regime. It is true that some human rights campaigners have used the occasion to expose the regime’s misconduct and to plead support for refugees. It is also true that this was indeed a worthwhile effort no matter who gets to do it. But this does not constitute the fundamentals of the meeting.

The U.S has taken a firm stand to impose sanctions on the Issayas regime long before the Brussels meeting. The Bush administration had in its last days initiated the process to unilaterally impose sanctions on the regime by characterizing it as a terrorist state. It took the Obama administration some time to catch up but they have made their intention quite clear long before the Brussels meeting. France and the U.K as members of the Security Council have also made their intentions quite clear. The E.U. which until recently had followed a different track has been forced to adjust its position to that of the U.S and key member states of the E.U. The E.U and U.S have come to this conclusion, on their own, and based on their geopolitical calculations. The African Union which in an unprecedented move called on the Security Council to impose sanctions on Eritrea may have made it easier for the U.S and E.U to do so but even the AU cannot claim that it has made significant contribution to the change in policy by the E.U and U.S.

The meetings in Brussels could not have been intended to convince the E.U and U.S to take a firm stance against the Issayas regime because it happened long after they made the decisions to do so. The intention could not have been to encourage sanctions because most of those in the meeting and some who opposed the meeting such as the Awate group had opposed the imposition of sanctions on the regime claiming that it would harm the Eritrean people more than the Issayas regime. The meeting was indeed intended to influence policy but the influence desired could not have been to impose sanctions on the regime. The influence desired could only have been to influence policy with regards to the content and methodology of the sanctions which have become inevitable and to chart a course on the post sanction developments. Clearly therefore exposing the regime’s criminal activity was a marginal aspect of the meeting. And encouraging the E.U and U.S to take a firm position on the regime was not the intention of the meeting. All claims to the contrary are patently false.

Democracy had nothing to do with the meeting

Now that the US and EU have made the decision to take a firm stand on the regime and to impose sanctions, the key policy issue is going to be what next. There are two possible options. Either the regime changes its policy or the regime gets changed. It is these policy choices that the meeting wanted to affect through its lobbying activity. It is in the context of such policy choices that the group tried to sell “itself as a valuable partner to the EU and US.” It has every right to do so. But it cannot claim that it did so to promote democracy. It lobbied to promote itself and its specific views not democracy. If its overwhelming concern have been the promotion of democracy now or in the future, it would have made sure that all the diverse views of Eritreans on the policy choices in questions would get a fair hearing. No such attempt was made.

The outcome of the meeting was indicative of the intention of the organizers. The two basic political conclusions were that change should come about (change of regime or policy) through peaceful means and only peaceful means and that in order to facilitate such change Ethiopia should immediately and unconditionally implement the border decision. It was also decided that the international community should engage and partner with the opposition and civic society to bring about the desired change.

Clearly the lobbying effort was successful as far as it went. Consistent with the views of the participants the main stumbling block to change in Eritrea was identified as the un-demarcated boundary rather than the nature of the regime in Eritrea. Again consistent with the view of the participants all means of bringing about change other than the peaceful one were delegitimized. It is also to be expected that the opposition and civic society to be partnered with would be those who agree with both conclusions. The fate of refugees and human rights in Eritrea was dealt with in a perfunctory manner because it was marginal to the intent of the organizers.

Whatever victory the lobbyist might have achieved is however illusory for a number of reasons. First the participants including the Europeans and Americans were mostly people associated with the regime in the past and a specific group in the opposition now. Convincing the real decision makers has not even started. Second if Issayas has not succeeded in convincing them that demarcation of the boundary is the precondition to progress in Eritrea, the Johnny come latelys of our oppositions are not going to fare any better. Third the legitimacy of any means of change is primarily going to be determined by the Eritrean people, and the efficacy of the means of change is likely to be decisive in persuading the Eritrean people to accept or reject it. Apart from initiating the process of selling themselves as valued partners to the EU and US in the new policy environment, the organizers have changed nothing.

The Brussels meeting and the Unity of the Opposition

I believe the organizers of the meeting have been engaged in disinformation as I have tried to show above. But those who oppose the meeting have not been free from it either. One of the main criticisms of the meeting is that it creates disunity within the opposition. The meeting does nothing of that sort. The group concerned has been at it for far longer and the conference adds or subtracts nothing to their basic orientation and action.

The group behind the Brussels conference has been undermining the unity of the EDA for years now. Given their political stand, it is only logical that they try to undermine the EDA by paralyzing it from inside and turning around and criticizing it for its paralysis. The group is adamantly opposed to any resistance other than the peaceful one. Many of the rest of the members of the EDA and the EDA itself consider such resistance as legitimate. The group if it were to be consistent with it’s firmly held view could not but try to undermine the EDA. The group is firmly opposed to any resistance based on religion or ethnicity. Most of the rest of the EDA are established to carry out such resistance. It is thus natural that the group would try to undermine the EDA in every way it can. Brussels was simply a manifestation of such stand and action. It did not create any new source of unity or disunity.

Perhaps more important than the implication of the groups action to the unity of the opposition is its impact on the fate of the resistance of the Eritrean people. Its impact has been one of undermining any meaningful resistance of the Eritrean people to the regime and this was amply manifested in Brussels. By suggesting that lack of border demarcation is the major bottleneck to change in Eritrea, they have tried to hide the destructive nature of the regime and externalized the center of resistance. The Eritrean people can do nothing to bring about the demarcation of the border and hence they cannot remove the alleged bottleneck to change. Only Ethiopia can do that. The EU and US may pressurize Ethiopia to do it. In the end it will be external forces who will determine the fate of change in Eritrea, not the Eritrean people. This is clearly a smart means of demobilizing any and all resistance in Eritrea to the regime.

The group is in effect suggesting that democratization and respect for human rights in Eritrea is blocked not by the very nature of the regime but by the lack of demarcation of the border. If the border is demarcated Eritreans including the regime can go back to where they were before 1998 and that, as far as the group is concerned is all the change that Eritrea needs.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the group is not that it espouses peaceful means of struggle but that it vehemently opposes every other means. I think the reason for it is they do not want to rock the boat too much. They want to inherit the edifice that Issayas has built. They think that is the only way they can implement their program and keep the country together. Ironically that is what Issayas thinks. The identity of views is not accidental. It is because the underlying ideology of the regime and the group are the same that they are more concerned about rocking the boat too much rather than about fostering change. In so doing they cannot but paralyze the movement for change.

None of these have anything to do with the Brussels meeting or some of the participants whose sole concern might have been respect for human rights and the fate of refugees. It has everything to with the nature of the organizations in question. If they have undermined the EDA and I believe they have, they have been at it for years now and Brussels has added or subtracted nothing. If they have threatened the unity of the EDA and I believe they have, this has nothing to do with Brussels and every thing to do with the fact that their views are incompatible with the rest of the EDA and that thus the unity of EDA as it currently stands has no legs to stand on. The rest of the EDA need to divorce itself from the Diaspora version of the Issayas regime and move on rather than whine about the unity of EDA that has no leg to stand on.

Brussels and Exclusion

Some of the opposition have questioned the right of the group to hold that meeting and blamed them for being exclusionist. As I said, the meeting was about lobbying to sell the group as a partner of the US and EU in the current policy environment. No one can question their right to market themselves in any way they wish. This is not about democracy but about the right to market one’s views and organization. No one can expect them to prepare a lobbying opportunity for those who have opposed views. This is not a question of political exclusion. This is a matter of exclusively marketing oneself.

I am not suggesting that these political organizations do not have an exclusionist political agenda. Far from it. I know they are defined by their exclusionist agenda. I am simply arguing that Brussels does not prove that they have an exclusionist political agenda. Their exclusionist agenda is proved by their program and the stands they take on the fundamental issues rather than by their attempt to market themselves and not the EDA.

Their exclusionist agenda is amply manifested by their vehement opposition to any organization that is established to fight religious oppression and inequality, and ethnic oppression and inequality in Eritrea. It is clearly manifested in their denial of the seriousness of the religious and ethnic discrimination and oppression in Eritrea and in the rejection of the right of the concerned people to raise these issues as their primary concern. It is openly expressed in their vehement opposition of all non-peaceful struggles as a threat to the survival of the country. They are exclusionists, Christian-Highland Chauvinists, but Brussels was simply a marketing effort, and everyone can market themselves to the exclusion of others.

Much of the opposition to the Brussels meeting appears to be a matter of declaring the grapes sour. The Christian highland Chauvinists have stolen a march on the rest of the opposition in quickly adjusting to the changed global policy environment and in marketing themselves accordingly. The rest of the opposition is mad about it. They should not, because they can learn from the Brussels group and market themselves better in the future. In any case there will either be fundamental change or state failure in Eritrea and no amount of marketing is going to change that. If the group were to (re)-join the Issayas regime tomorrow nothing of substance would change. The regime would not be any stronger. Indeed their joining the regime might clear the field for those who seek fundamental change and reduce the confusion in the opposition camp. Therefore guys you need to cool down. They have outsmarted you but they have not changed anything of substance. By all means criticize them and expose their destructive agenda but do not discredit yourselves by venting your anger at being outsmarted.