In one of his finest and most extensive interviews so far, Eritrean Global Solidarity Chairman, Seyoum Tesfaye, offers very pragmatic and philosophical insights into the Eritrean political landscape ranging from the ongoing UK-Eritrea diplomatic row to the tyranny at home, to questions of the fragmented opposition leadership to lack of unified organizational structures and absence of common plans. Reporter Michael Abraha first asked Seyoum whether people should be worried by the fact that Eritreans have not yet been able to rally behind a common strategy.

SEYOUM TESFAYE: I do not know if worrying will be beneficial or will in some way contribute positively in fixing the glaring absence of “effective strategy”. It will take lots of pages to even make a modest attempt to try to explain in detail why the Eritrean opposition has not been able to come up with a workable “effective strategy”. From my perspective, I feel the effort to deploy a vertical strategy in the new Millennium’s flat World, a la 1970, is the core reason for the absence of an effective strategy.

The independence struggle-style of strategizing and organizing, I feel, has no validity or applicability in the new era. The so-called Revolutionary United Front concept, in all its various reincarnations, has not worked. The Vanguard era is over.  In a flat world revolution we do not need a Moses leading the people across the Red Sea. We need thousands of characters like Jonas - thousands of individual dissenters unencumbered by exhausting meetings and machinations. Networking is not the same as putting everyone or every organization under one bigger organization and under one leadership.  This is compounding the problem. This is too cumbersome and not cost effective. I say while all the dedication and determination has to be truly appreciated and respected the way the struggle has been managed has not produced extraordinary achievements. The expectation of the Eritrean people has not been fulfilled. This is our collective failure.

The brutal regime has imposed its draconian Sahel experience on the whole nation. The opposition is now learning, albeit slowly, that the desire to bring everyone under one organization (umbrella/united front) has not worked and it is not going to work. The centralized control-top-down revolution is a passé. At the minimum, 80% of Eritreans in Diaspora will never return to Eritrea. Yet we observe the desire by some within the Diaspora political elites struggling overtime to make all critical decisions for Eritreans living inside and outside of the country. It defies common sense. The effort to draft a constitution in exile and even be tempted to try to form some kind of a “government in exile” or “a transitional council” in the waiting etc is an extension of the ongoing confusion. We are living in a digital world where one web-based independent media outlet can do more in terms of influencing the population than 20 or 30 organizations with their annual and semi-annual congresses and resolution.

We are struggling to help the people defeat the authoritarian regime but we have always to be reminded of the fact that we are not their designated official representatives. Too often we forget this and behave like we are their saviors. If this is not another version of elitism what else is it? Our primary responsibility, both as civic and political activists, is to help empower the people not to usurp their right to make all fundamental national decisions.

The overarching vision, simply put, is to get rid of the present tyrant and empower the people to build a nation where rule of law and justice is established. The rest, even when it is important, at this juncture is tangential or even secondary. To me this is far more important than the protracted process of building democracy. The exhaustion and stagnation comes from the constant desire to usurp the sovereignty of the people and make lasting decision on behalf of them from Diaspora. Unless this deep rooted tendency is not addressed with open frankness our efforts will only lead to more muddling through without measurable progress.

Another challenge is the ongoing familiar tendency to invest, at the minimum, 50% percent of the intellect and time of Eritrean opposition (in the broadest sense of the word) on the negative effort of trying to outmaneuver and undercut one another. At a certain point it becomes second nature making fresh thinking impossible. A classic example of the hamster in the wheel: The hamster in a wheel can cover many miles without getting anywhere. With these kinds of shortcomings it is very unlikely the people will take the opposition seriously and rally around it. They will stay dejected by the cruelty and downright treachery of the regime while still keeping their aloofness from the opposition. 

 Q: Ideas are more powerful than bullets. What are the two or three key factors or principles people should be focused on in the current democratic struggle?

A: Ideas have always been more powerful than bullets. This is universal.  We have been witnessing that neither a Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China nor a digital firewall can stop ideas.  In the context of our particular challenge the two critical ideas or universal principles that should be central to our struggle are the liberation of the individual and the supremacy of the rule of law. I am not into group thinking even when I am in a modest way participating in a noble effort like trying to take part in peaceful democratizations. Working together, as a result of voluntary association and networking, is different than functioning as a mere clog in a militarized or semi-militarized vertically controlled “Central Committee” culture. The very concept of “Do what you are told to do then ask a question later” is repulsive to me.  The regime in Asmara is the concrete result of this kind of lunacy. God forbid if we were to make the mistake of inadvertently reinforcing this dehumanizing culture by justifying undemocratic behaviors and tendencies within the alternative camp on the basis of expediency.

The rule of law in combination with a Bill of Rights is the underpinning of the right and freedom of the individual. It is the most potent antidote to the tyranny of the majority or minority in all its forms and shades. This principle is the central motivation for my opting to take the civic activist route. Of all humankind’s innovation and creativity the idea of the supremacy of law and the idea of individual freedom are its most spectacular achievement from my point of view. Generations of Eritreans knew this and practiced it within their community for centuries. The cultural respect imbued within Eritreans for respecting the various local laws that were drafted by their ancestors was legendary until the reactionary tyrants imposed on them their version of vanguard party (PFDJ) control poisoning everything indigenous and ancestral.

The strongest Bill of Rights is more important to me than the bigger issue of democracy. A nation with Rule of Law, Bill of Rights, Independent Court, Independent Press, Independent Civic Society, Religious Freedom, and Freedom of Culture, Independent Election Committee, and a decentralized administration with more power vested in regional governance is the image I carry in my mind. The struggle in the final analysis - no matter how you slice it or package it - is a contest of ideas. What better ideas than the ones I just listed above? No individual leader, no political organization or political agenda can guarantee or be a substitute for the ideas I listed. The individual citizen has to value, protect and defend these noble ideas and the institutions that are organized to implement them.

Isaias and his clique represent a decaying morbid idea. The manic tendency to practice a total control over the lives of the Eritrean people is not a sign of confidence; on the contrary it is a sign of failure – utter failure at that. The North Korea styled Independence Day Celebration was not so much about the 20th independence but about covering up the systemic and structural failure of the PFDJ regime through drum beating ad nauseam. The regime has run out of ideas. There is no fresh idea in Asmara - none whatsoever.  A tyrant that produces massive refugees, more government controlled musicians (as source of revenue) than PHD and MD’s, spends more money in training regional insurrectionists than  producing Eritrean nurses and is proud for being the most  isolated regime in the world is a  failed regime. It is bankrupt regime, at all levels, and by any reasonable civilized standard. Machination, defamation, maneuvering, deceit, propaganda and firewall can only take a bankrupt regime so far and in the end if you have no fresh vision you are a walking dead. The Asmara regime is a walking dead regime unable to make correction, adjustments or even the most minimum compassionate behavior.

The poverty of ideas is a debilitating curse and it is the source of all other material, political and moral poverty. Look at the tyrants who are using tanks to kill their people just to keep their power. Their legitimacy has evaporated. They have no fresh vision or idea that can rally the people behind them. Bullets are what you deploy when you cannot have the support and loyalty of your people based on great ideas.  Bullets are bankrupt regimes’ vocabulary just before they bite the dust.  

Q: We quite often see political leaders and activists or website editors and independent writers becoming too cynical and dismissive of each other’s views without caring or showing goodwill for the other side. Is selfless compassion a subject for the cleric to discuss  at a mosque or a church or should we all hold it as a vital element for success in the current revolutionary campaign.

A: I feel that in spite of some of the growing pains, a necessary part of the overall process in developing a nascent democratic culture, we are making strides. The proliferation of various new media outlets is a very healthy development. The content and style of our discussion will improve as we proceed forward. But at this stage of our struggle, building the means of  independent  communication is intertwined with trying to do our share in exposing and finally deposing the most virulent and unenlightened tyrant in Africa. This is a huge responsibility.  

Selfless compassion - leave alone for the Eritrean politics even for the so-called advanced democracies it is a difficult science to practice. For now, let us hope that this regime has not destroyed this deep spiritual value from our churches, mosques and the hearts of our people. The wholesale assault waged by the proponents of the Eritrean regime against everything inherited by the Eritrean people from their rich past includes the imposition of rude behavior and disrespectful utterance that makes the individual  person a target of ridicule and sarcasm as a matter of political culture is a calculated political decision. No one can tell me a situation where the president of Eritrea has ever given a compassionately effusive recognition to any other Eritrean: former colleague, fighter, writer, intellectual, Eritrean historical figure. My point is the poisonous culture that speaks in terms of “the masses” while destroying the cultural and moral values that have held the People of Eritrea together for centuries is worse than all the enemies that have invaded or controlled Eritrea before.

We are not merely struggling to get rid of a heartless clique. To me that is maybe 20% of the agenda. Our agenda is not merely a transfer of power: It is more profound than that.  Some politicians, even within the opposition, might be focused on the power matrix exclusively. If that is what they want to do, more power to them. They will find that that kind of approach is about to be catalogued with ideas that were once useful. Individual Eritrean citizens and dissidents in the Diaspora, I hope, are slowly practicing and nurturing the very idea of transformative politics: politics beyond politics, beyond election, beyond settling account and becoming a winner. Compassionate approach to politics is more conducive to the win-win conflict transformation principle.  It is a political perspective focused more on the sin than the sinner, per se. There is a strong spiritual dimension to it. Cultivating this will only help heal the Eritrean society. With the religious and spiritual leaders and activists starting to openly speak in defense of their faith, I see a bright future.  

Respecting the individual while exercising your right to challenge his or her idea at times even stringently is part of the new politics that we need to build and nurture. Understanding our politics in a regional context and protecting our nascent sovereignty without being condescending and non-neighborly has to be part of the new approach. Given the total absence of some form of natural reaction by the regime to the death of close to 500 Eritreans in the Mediterranean Sea, you can see that we have a long way to go to reconfigure some form of spiritual value including compassion at the highest echelon of the nation’s leadership, now as well as in the future.

Website mangers and opposition activists are ordinary human beings like the rest of us. We should cut them a slack and give them space to slowly transition to a more comfortable political environment where there is space for all kinds of divers perspectives - that includes the right to support, defend the regime and its polices.  Even the most farfetched interpretation has to have a space but should not necessarily go unchallenged. You cannot become a seasoned advocate of democracy, justice and freedom without recognizing the right of those who hold the most repulsive ideas and challenge your deeply established beliefs and values. This is the bitter pill that comes with democracy. There is no short cut around it. The grace and compassion will follow inevitably.

Q: The Eritrean youth and women are worst hit by the repressive rule and yet their participation in leading the struggle is not that big. What is your take on this? What was their level of participation, for example,  in the recent Wash. D.C. protest marches where your civil society movement, EGS, was said to have played a significant role?

A: For the record EGS i.e. the Eritrean Global Solidarity, played a minor role in the DC demonstration of May 27, 2011. The DC Demonstration Organizing Committee deserves the full credit. They did an excellent job. That said, in the general sense, the number of women and youth at the forefront of the struggle is not as large as it can be. That said, there is a shift in the making. For both groups, the number is increasing. In the DC demonstration, the new thing was the youth outnumbered the older generation.

For the sake of the Eritrean people and the State of Eritrea this emerging trend will accelerate. Leadership is not inherited like ancestral land or a rich father’s bank account.  The youth and women have to deliberately struggle for it and assume it. Youth without a vision and a fresh idea is no better than an old generation with lots of experience but no vision and idea.  I feel the nucleus of the youth movement is coalescing slowly. They have to wage a knowledge based modern struggle and make sure they do not get sucked in trappings of the old style politics. They need to take time and carefully study the magnificent role played by the youth of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen.

Q: What vision or message do you have for those young and old Diaspora Eritreans still supporting the dictatorial regime?

A: It is the responsibility of those who are struggling to help contribute to the democratization of Eritrea to adjust their campaign and communication skills to find the right message and tone to reach the supporters of the regime in Diasporas and at home. The bullhorn approach, the condemnation or the disparaging has not worked and it is unlikely it will work moving forward. Let me start by saying that the individual supporter of the regime has the right to support, worship and even die for the regime if he chooses so. It will surely offend our better sense and even be repugnant, but we cannot stand for democracy if we do not recognize the right of our adversaries to hold and uphold their own political perspective. Unfortunately in our infested politics most of the supporters of the regime have not evolved politically or are not sophisticated enough to recognize our fundamental right to oppose the regime and its misguided policies. I do not expect the few die-hard “Believers” to have any commonsense or understand this. Each tyrant and for that matter organization will have few “Believers” where neither common senses nor new fact will make a difference. Eritrean politics cannot be the exception. The rest of the supporters of the regime are not our enemies.  Nor are they homogenous. We cannot win them over by painting them all with one color. We have to tailor the message to the niche. To do this, we have to understand the art of producing a well organized campaign. Crafting the right kind of campaign and implementing it in a sustained manner has not been our established habit. We have yet to acquire, in a broader sense, the skill for organizing campaigns and executing them with passion.

Our effort is not to turn everyone into a firebrand opposition, giving up his/her daily life to die for the cause. If we can get the conversation to where the majority of the Eritreans have come to the conclusion of, including most of the supporters of the regime, that things are not working and there is a need for change, we can build on this and expand the conversation. On the bigger scale, the key question is how do we reach those working within PFDJ institutions and convince them the cost of supporting the regime at this stage has done irreversible damage to the national interest and appeal to them on a continuous basis to support the need for change.

We need well structured campaigns to convince the people to support the need for a change - mind you I did not say the agenda for change. The agenda for change drafted exclusively by the Diaspora will never work.  The so-called National Charter written by the PFDJ did not work. The chance that a Diaspora drafted Charter will have practical applicability and acceptance by the majority of the citizens is very unlikely. Every citizen both at home and in the Diaspora have to agree the status quo is not working and the time has come for change. Without this broad consensus, as a foundation, no matter how heroic, intensive and genuine, a one sided political prescription will not work. 

Q: How do you view the ongoing dispute between the Isaias regime and the UK?

A: Well this crash course brings the British government in particular and the English people in general to the tragic Eritrean reality. If they thought they were dealing with a civil let alone civilized regime, here is their crude awakening. For over 5 months the Eritrean regime has failed to follow the international protocol by not allowing the British consular to have access to their “arrested” citizens. Like the Swedish government, the British government has now learned how cruel the Eritrean regime is. We have been telling the world that the concept of rule law does not exist in Eritrea.  This gives the British public a window to our hell. Eritrean civic activists in England hopefully will take this opportunity and build massive awareness by using this issue as leverage. Each European country will get its chance to come to grip with the dark Eritrean reality. How they process their experience and how they adjust their policy is the key point.

I saw a clip of the “esteemed” President of Eritrea lecturing his ministers on this subject. I observed lots of exhausted and depleted faces - blank faces making it through the monologue - lots of doodling I am sure. No one is heard asking questions or offering an opinion.  The ministers have no voices or their microphones must be permanently muted. He pontificates and they listen, at least they pretend to listen.  It is so symbolic and so revealing about the whole picture of the present Eritrean Society. It is indeed a one man show.

Q: How do you think is the Arab Spring Revolution progressing?

A: Since I am going to go in detail about this in my ongoing article,  on the  “Relevant Lessons from Strategic Non-violent People's Uprisings”, in the near future, I would like to answer it by saying the cat is out of the bag. In the strategic sense, there is nothing most of the Arab regimes can do to destroy this momentum for democracy. They have been deploying all their arsenals: cash, water hose, sharpshooters, hooligans, rape and even aerial bombardment. In the face of this assault the people have stood firm.  Whatever violence was undertaken was perpetrated by the regimes on the people. The source of violence has been the regime. Each act of violence ended up in enraging more of the people and narrowing the support base of the regimes. I am hopeful that before the end of this month, the people of Yemen and Libya will be entering the transitional process to democratic governance.  It will be a very difficult transition but it will be the first phase of the transition with its own particularities. We Eritreans have to benefit from these experiences. The Arab Spring has helped Eritreans by depleting the number of North African tyrants that were financing the Eritrean regime. That much we should be thankful to the people of Egypt and Libya.

Q: What is the main challenge faced by the independent civic society at this juncture in its growth?

A: The civil societies - as the “Third Space” - are passing through an interesting phase. By definition I believe next to Rule of Law, Bill of Rights  the only other institutions that can have strategic significance in the formation of a free Eritrea are going to be the civic societies. Without vibrant and independent civic societies if everything is left for political societies and old style power brokers the Eritrean politics will even after Isaias be no different from the usual sub-Sahara polity. The guardians of the constitution and Rule of Law have to be the independent institutions that make up the Third Space. Civic societies focus is not on who wins the power game but about the rule of the game. Making sure the rule of the game is fair and just, protecting the agreed upon rule of the game and demanding that the political societies abide by this rule is the fundamental responsibility of the independent civic societies. I have tried in many occasions to stress the fact that the civic society opposes the absence of the Rule of Law in Eritrea but it is not the opposition. Amazingly this fundamental difference is not grasped even by many who have devoted years for the struggle to create free Eritrea. Some of it is intentional but most of it is also part of the old paradigm still holding sway in the minds of many activists

At this stage there are two ways where the subtle and underhanded effort to negatively influence the civic societies is manifesting. The regular one is through the misuse of the right to dual membership. This is in line with the old culture of controlling or nudging the so-called mass association to your political agenda though political cadres and members.  In other words, the dual loyalty of the individuals who belong to given political organizations and join civic societies is used to manipulate the civic societies into the middle of all political disagreements and force them to take side in favor of or against the burning issue within the camp of the opposition. The hybrid nature of the civic societies is indirectly helping the maneuvering of the opposition political actors.  

The second myopic approach, without delving into the motivation of the actors, is a classic example of the ingrained fear that permeates most of our political culture towards independent institutions. Since for a long time the political societies have been dominating and controlling the political space the emergence of the civic societies has created a deep insecurity within them. This is the continuation of the misguided, so-called “Meda Eritrea can only handle one organization” philosophy. Leaving aside all such rhetoric, the Third Space is not understood or welcomed in many quarters.

The scenario goes like this: who organized these intellectuals, why are so many civic organizations emerging at this time? Why are individuals abandoning established political organizations and opting for the civil route? Who is behind this?  Who is financing it? What is the need for civic organizations since we are all opposition? etc. The underground campaign is alive and well.  But this will only strengthen those of us who are determined to go on expanding, clarifying, rallying and consolidating the Third Space. ‘The die is cast’. Leaving the Eritrean political space to politicians and self-appointed power brokers will be committing political treachery on the Eritrean people. This will be leaving the people of Eritrea exposed to whatever deal is worked out by political elites, brokers and possibly facilitated by external actors. Civic activists must stand firm and identify the process whereby their right and legitimacy to exist and function independently is not corrupted. They have to start thinking on how to move into the next phase of organizing the civic space - a formidable but surmountable task.

Q: Is there anything by a way of final statement you want to make?

A: Let me thank you for the opportunity to answer these questions. While I am at it I am glad you have resumed your journalistic contribution in the ongoing effort to strengthen the independent media and independent voices. I am from the school of thought - Jeffersonian school of thought - if I have to choose between a country without government or Free Press I will choose a country with Free Press over a government. The strongest anti-dot to tyranny, fanaticism of all kinds and forms of repression is an Independent, Free Press. Your journalistic expertise and experience will be badly needed as we move into the critical phase of our struggle and beyond.  As a civic activist I appreciate and treasure our journalists’ contributions to the process of building and consolidation of freedom, justice and democracy. Stay strong and stay engaged. Thanks.

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