As Eritrea faces further isolation because of sanctions, some opposition parties are going through mergers while others try to consolidate existing alliances. This is seen by experts as a positive movement toward a more unified national resistance. Bashir Ishaq is Foreign Affairs Head of the 13-member Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA). Bashir is also head of the Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement which is part of a four member, mainly Moslem political grouping known as a the Solidarity Front.

Michael Abraha interviewed Bashir and first asked him what his reaction was to the UN sanctions against Eritrea – its impact on the Asmara regime and how it may affect the Eritrean people?

BASHIR ISHAK: First, as an Eritrean citizen, I had a mixed feeling of dejection and dread; dejection, because my beloved country has become a renegade among nations, and dread because the UN Security Council sanctions might perhaps worsen the economic situation for my people, who are already under callous sanctions by their own government. As an official stand of the EDA, we issued a press release welcoming the UNSC sanctions emphasizing and appealing to target the regime only. We have also contacted some concerned party and sent letters to others with the same content of our press release.

We are of the opinion that the sanction would impede the regime to intrude in the region with less effect on its internal behavior. However, its impact on the people depends on how it is going to be implemented.

Q: How do you think it is going to be implemented?

A: UN sanctions have always been more of an expression of disapproval to the sanctioned behavior rather than deterrent or punishment. Sanctions on South Africa, Iraq, Zimbabwe, and others were not so effective. Countries who have some interests with the sanctioned seldom abide by it. There is no mechanism in UN that questions on countries that help the sanctioned to escape the sanctions. In the case of Eritrea, how much the Sudan, Libya or Qatar would stand for it is uncertain!!

So far we don’t exactly know how the sanctions would be implemented. I don’t exactly know what the mechanisms to make it effective are. In essence it is meant to be “smart” and should not affect the livelihood of the poor Eritreans. However, its intensity depends in the future behavior of the regime.

Q: I gather you recently visited Washington. Were you satisfied with your mission?

A: Yes, indeed I am. Given the short time and limited resources, I am satisfied.

Q: What were you hoping to achieve?

A: It had two main objectives. To inform, encourage and revitalize public support for the resistance against the regime and to lobby governmental institutions for political and diplomatic support for our cause. I am quiet satisfied with what was attained for both objectives.

Q: What foreign policy should EDA adopt in view of Eritrea’s further isolation from the rest of the world because of the UN sanctions?

A: The sanctions created a wide international interest in Eritrea and opened a wide opportunity for the opposition to win more friends and gain listening ears for its cause. EDA foreign policy will use this opportunity to expose the regime and win more supporters to the cause of the Eritrean people.

Q: Your own party, the Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement (EFDM), is a member of EDA and is also member of the Eritrean Solidarity Front consisting of your own party and three other Islamist organizations. Could you first talk about your party’s objectives?

First, depicting all Solidarity Front organizations as “Islamists” is a mistake you have to correct. I think it is just a simple unintentional mistake.

Q: Alright, could you please clarify who is Islamist and who isn’t within the Eritrean Solidarity Front?

A: The ELF and EFDM had never conferred to any Islamic programs or rhetoric. They are secular organizations. The two others have the adjective “Islamic” attached to their organizational names. However, they have been going through basic changes of programs since their inception. They do no more call for the implementation of “Shari’a Laws” in their programs. They stand for parliamentarian democracy and the ballet boxes. They joined the EDA and are signatories to its secular and democratic charter. By definition of their programs and their approval of the EDA charter they are secular organizations.

Q: Thank you, and what are the objectives of your party - the Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement.

A: EFDM is a national, liberal democratic, secular organization with a federal democratic program. It believes in unity and sovereignty of Eritrea, land and people. We believe a popular majority democracy alone cannot achieve stability or justice. A hundred years ago the US and Europe were democratic countries although at the same time slaves were sold in open markets. Majoritarian democracy without functional justice is meaningless.

EFDM believes that nation building process consists of three main steps: A geographical entity where people identify to, the will to live together within this defined entity, and a definition of how to live together. The two steps have already been achieved in Eritrea. Thanks to the Italian colonialists Eritrea as a geographical entity was defined. The second step has also been achieved by the Eritrean revolution for independence where all Eritreans with no exception fought and died together for Eritrea. The result of the referendum was another testimony for the will of Eritreans to live together. There is no turning back from these steps. The unity of Eritrea, land and people, is sacred. Nevertheless, EFDM believes that the last step of how to live together has to be defined yet. People can live together as a slave and master, they can also live together as the dominant and the dominated, and they can live together as equals with mutual respect. Socio-political covenant between all Eritreans must be reached.

Q: How can Eritreans attain this covenant in a country with diverse communities and cultures?

A: We have a rich cultural heritage of coexistence and respect for our diversity. We have a huge wealth of local laws, Higi Legechewa, Feteh Mehari of Mansaa, Feteh Kili Maria and so on - there are actually 14 of them. These laws are rich with details of how law and order can be held within the communities. Not only was that, but the relations between one community with its neighbors was well defined. It was indigenous Eritrean federal system where our ancestors coexisted peacefully side by side in their respective communities. These local community laws are good references for a socio-political covenant enshrined in an all embracing modern constitution for the state of Eritrea. EFDM stands for a home made federal system of governance in Eritrea.

Q: You seem very optimistic about federalism as a means of achieving social justice.

A: Yes, we are optimistic. Eritrean diversity could be blessing rather than a source of discord, only when justice is done among its social components. Federal system (regardless of the name) is part of our heritage and must be part of our present and future for peace, social and political stability. Federalism is a system for conflict resolution. It is also the paradigm in the modern world. It is the most advanced democratic system to achieve and grantee sustainable justice, unity and stability. We think federal system is necessary and achievable in Eritrea. Justice for our minorities and marginalized is the litmus paper for our democracy.

Q: Can you give me some examples of functional federal systems?

A: We are of the opinion that Ethiopia would have disintegrated if the ruling EPRDF had failed to forge a functional federal system for its regions and nationalities after the demise of Mingistu Dictatorial Military Regime. The Northern Sudanese who have dominated the others in the South, West and East Sudan since independence have now settled for federal governance. If they had had accepted the federal system in Juba Conference of 1955 the Sudan wouldn’t have had endured the destructive wars and agonies since its independence. Federalism was a good solution for Djibouti with its national dichotomy of Afars and Somalis. Sooner or later Somalis will accept and respect each other under a federal system. Why federal system shouldn’t be a good solution for the diversity of Eritrea?

Q: I understand your party also believes in ideas of possible confederation with Ethiopia and other neighboring states. How would that work?

A: The second phase of our objective is a larger confederation with Ethiopia, the Sudan and probably Djibouti. Neighboring countries with similar political systems tend to sustain peace among them. They also have a propensity to go into economic cooperation and common development. Ethiopia is a huge federal state with ample natural resources and it needs Eritrea, at least for its Sea Ports. Eritrea needs Ethiopia for many economic benefits and for peace and good neighborly hood. The Sudan is a huge country with enormous resources that needs both Eritrea and Ethiopia to preserve its unity and security, for labor force and investment. Eritrea is a Christian country with historical, cultural and linguistic links to Ethiopia (at least to the Northern part of it). Eritrea is a Moslem country with its historical, cultural and linguistic links to the Sudan (at least to the Eastern part of it). In a confederation Eritrea is qualified to be a bridge between the Abyssinian Ethiopian culture and state, and the Afro-Arab Sudanese Culture and state. Eritrea has both Sudanese and Abyssinian similarities. Eritrea is condemned to have a similar political system as Ethiopia and the Sudan. It should not be an exception. Eritrea should adopt the federal system of governance and use its similarities across the borders for peace and economic development for the best of its people and for its neighbors. EFDM stands for a confederation in our region including Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Sudan and probably Djibouti and Somalia.

Q: Could you summarize your party’s constituency and political platform?

A: EFDM constituency is the mosaic of the Eritrean diversity. Its platform is Eritrean nationalism and democracy. The concept of federal system is national and not confined to a certain region or a group of people. It is a recipe for peace and stability and hence it is a national agenda that needs the consent of all Eritreans to be implemented. It should benefit all without exception.

EFDM is not a regional or religious organization. It never contemplates a theocratic state ruled by or manipulated by a religious institution claiming to be the spokesman of the divine on Earth. EFDM is secular, in a sense that the state is positively neutral to religions. Positively neutral means to us, that the state does not prefer a certain religion or religions at the cost of the others. It provides security and due respect to the believers and their institutions whatsoever they are, and refrain from manipulating their internal affairs. Religious institutions are non-governmental, free civil society entities that never interfere in state decision making. They are the guardians of our morals, ethics and values and should be confined to that noble mission. If secularism means antagonizing, disrespecting and persecuting religions and faiths of our choice or heritage, then we do not subscribe to such type of fundamental secularism.

Q: What common ideas and principles bring Solidarity members together?

A: Democracy, Federation or confederations are future agendas and programs for Eritrea. However, there is an immediate task for the Eritrean people. The existence of Eritrea as a nation and people is threatened. The Eritrean people are under the yoke of the most ruthless dictator. We must join hands and save our country and people. We might differ on how the country should be governed; we might belong to different schools of thoughts, but first let us have the country and people where we can express our different opinions. That is why the EFDM joined EDA and that is why it joined the Solidarity Front. EFDM believes in joining hands against PFDJ, embrace, influence and transform as struggle strategies. Exclusion and antagonism take us nowhere. Exclusion and antagonism push the other to extremism. Inclusion and embracing create an atmosphere of mutual appreciation, respect and common conception. The Solidarity Front is a platform for joining hands and stands. It is a platform for collective transformation, common conceptions, organizational names, structures and political rhetoric. Readiness to embark in collective transformation was enough reason for EFDM to join the Solidarity Front. Cultural affinity, though important, could be a minor factor for mutual understanding, respect, interaction and trust. However, trust building, mutual influence and common conception require common action. That is what the Solidarity Front (Tadamon) is about.

Q: Do the four Solidarity member parties plan to merge like the other four EDA members (EPP, EDP, EPM and the Gash Setit Front) that have formed a new party named Eritrean People’s Democratic Party?

A: Yes they will, God willing. The Solidarity Front is a child of four years of trust building, discussions, exchange of ideas and negotiations. Last May a common vision was set in black and white: “One National Front with one program, one leadership, one budget and one action. However, a Front not a party, that does not only permit but grantees different opinions, ideologies, schools of thoughts, faiths, ethnic and cultural affiliations, initiated by the four organizations and in later phases including other willing parties and individuals, has to be established as soon as possible”.

This vision was reached based on profound studies of the past and present Eritrean political realities. Rabita Al Eslamya, was established by Moslem clerics, Ibrahim Sultan and Abdulgadir Kabere. It was comprised of nationalists, islamists, and leftists of all breeds (Naserists, Baathists, communists etc..). Its name and most of its constituency was Islamic. Yet, its program and its political rhetoric were purely nationalistic. Later on it was joined by the Liberal Party lead by Weldab Welde Mariam, Ras Tesema and his son to form the Independence Block. Eritrean nationalism originated from these early heroic nationalists of Eritrea.

ELM (Eritrean Liberation Movement- Known also as Mahber Shewa’ate) was founded in Port Sudan by few leftist Moslems soon to be embraced by all Eritreans. ELF was founded in Cairo, by few Moslem individual veterans of different political and ideological convictions, with a national program. Later it grew to an all embracing National Democratic Front. The EPLF was not an exception since it was an offshoot of ELF. On its later stages the ELF leadership contravened the National Democratic Front by excluding all but the adherents of LP (Labor Party). People of different opinions were labeled as Falul, Yemanawyan, Qabelawian, Huluf Tsegamawian, Islamists, Baathists and some other labels, and were persecuted and alienated from the front. The leadership failed to manage the NDF. It became no more a NDF. The misconception and mismanagement of the NDF led into the emergence of many organizations (among them Islamists and National groups) with various ideological convictions and political rhetoric. The situation in the EPLF was not better, if not worse, since it has fallen under a bloody domination of a small cult known as PFDJ. The mentality of exclusion and domination, from the ELF or EPLF, has done a lot of damage to our political, social and cultural unity. Unfortunately, this mentality might still be alive in the minds of some quarters. Some has not yet learned the lessons from our past. Eritrea has enough space for all its citizens, with their various ideologies and preferences, as long as they sit together and manage their differences.

We in the Solidarity Front came to a conclusion that a single strong party in Eritrea dominated by a certain component of our people, or by one ideological group, how democratic and how benevolent it could be, is a ready recipe for dictatorship, exclusion and hence a failed state. However, the natural question that has come forward as a result of these studies was: could we reproduce a reformed modern “National Democratic Front” with all embracing national constituency? The answer was: it is difficult but definitely, YES we can, provided we work for it carefully, decisively and diligently. That is how and why the Solidarity Front has come to be. The unity of the Solidarity Front will not be an event in one conference signing few papers and at the end shaking hands and smiling in front of the clicking cameras. It will be a well studied process of taking a solid step at a time, consolidate it, evaluate it and move to the next.

Q: Given the new Eritrean political rearrangements and alliances, what in your opinion should be EDA’s future role?

A: EDA is an umbrella of national unity. It is a forum where different competing political organizations with different programs and aspirations come together for united common action. It is the highest and the best platform Eritrean resistance organizational mind could come to. It is yet far from perfect but it is the best we ever had, taking into consideration our level of political development and maturity as a people, and our political culture of less tolerance, divisions, feud, exclusions and wars. Since we are a nation in the making, grouping and regrouping of political entities will continue. It is the pain of labor that would definitely give birth to democratic Eritrea. It would be a catastrophe if we end up with only one strong party while the others diminish. This would lead to another thirty years of instability, hate politics, exclusion and no doubt dictatorship. I hope at the end of the day a few mature strong parties or fronts would emerge from these regroupings. Meanwhile, EDA should be a forum for learning and teaching political pluralism, a place to rehearse democracy and tolerance. I don’t think EDA is a forum to unite organizations but absolutely is to efficiently and democratically manage conflicts between its diverse members and channel and lead their efforts towards the national goal of democratic change. However, the main task of EDA is to create conducive atmosphere for rallying the Eritrean people for the demise of PFDJ and bringing about democratic change.

Q: What kind of relationship do you think Solidarity should have with the new EPDP?

A: I think Solidarity and EPDP are two main tributaries of the EDA and the resistance camp in general. They are condemned to work together for democratic change. They, together in harmony can do a lot and better. Antagonizing and demonizing each other would take us back to the mentality of the civil war in the seventies of the last century. It would polarize the already polarized society across regional and religious lines. How bad the other side might look to you, respect their choice. Sit on the ground as an equal between equals and talk to manage differences, if any, is the theme of the day. The empty claim of I have it all, I know it all, I can do it alone; and the unwarranted political power competitions, the election mode of behavior, belittling the other and pamper in self glorifying commercials should be disrespected and shunned. At this time of agony where our people are enduring the worst of life, only the common ground should be emphasized. Eritrea should have peace with itself and with its environs, the Eritrean people should be freed from fear, dictatorship and hunger, then and then we have the time, the space and energy to compete for political power and wear the mode of election. The Solidarity Front anticipates, with open mind and brotherly sprit, good relations of working together with EPDP and all the others within EDA.

Reporter Michael Abraha is also media and human rights advocate –

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Abraha’s next interview is with Woldeyesus Ammar, Head of Eritrea’s largest national political party, the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party.