Exit Eritrea: How Could it all End for Isaias Afewerki?
Afewerki's grip on power in Eritirea is showing signs of weakness. But will we see a coup, cosmetic reforms or even an uprising?
Article | 14 March 2013 By Andy Ryan
Ever since 1993, when Eritrea gained independence and the national assembly elected him president, Isaias Afewerki has ruled over the small East African nation. In these two decades, Afewerki has largely disregarded civil and political rights, jailing dissidents, neglecting to hold elections, banning opposition parties, and restricting freedom of movement. Regionally, Eritrea became diplomatically isolated after disputes with Ethiopia over access to ports erupted into bloody conflict between 1998 and 2000. Many Eritreans have had to rely on food aid, and thousands of ordinary Eritreans have fled, with many finding themselves at the mercy of human traffickers.
According to the likes of Human Rights Watch, Afewerki has turned Eritrea into one of the world’s most repressive and isolated states. But after 20 years in power, recent events suggest the president may be losing his grip on power. The possibility that Afewerki will remain a president for life is starting to weaken, and speculation has begun on what end his regime will eventually face. Below are three possibilities for how it could all end.
Countdown to a coup?
A coup might be the regime's most likely end. Recent high-profile emigrations suggest that President Afewerki is losing the trust and respect of former loyalists. These include his Information Minister, two air force officers (making their escape on the president’s private jet), a leading eye surgeon, and a significant portion of the national football team.
Though details remain hard to verify, there also seems to have been a failed coup, mutiny or military protest on 21 January from within the armed forces, laying bare Afewerki’s possibly weakening control of the military. Afewerki responded with a series of arrests, and will no doubt hope any further potential critics have now been imprisoned or been strongly dissuaded from taking action. However, it is possible that the 21 January events will act as a catalyst for attempts on power, with potential rebels now viewing the regime as vulnerable.
Realistically, a coup led by genuine democratic reformers is difficult to imagine. Instead, the leaders would likely be long-standing members of the regime – probably from the pervasive military or security services. Few individuals are likely to expose themselves to the considerable risks involved in a coup attempt, only to then contest power at the ballot box. Yet even a new dictatorship would likely show greater pragmatism than the Afewerki regime. Considering the country's perilous economic situation, there would probably be some attempt to end the country's current international isolation.
Implementing reform? The 16-year constitutional itch
After 16 years of waiting, it is evident that President Afewerki has no desire to ever implement the 1997 constitution. He has consistently shown himself unwilling to tolerate any form of opposition, and it is almost inconceivable that he would permit the existence of legitimate opposition parties.
The possibility of more limited reform rests on whether the mutiny and high-profile emigrations have had any psychological impact on the president. Following the lead of other dictators throughout history, he could seek to make limited democratic concessions in a bid to gain legitimacy. Yet his record overwhelming depicts him as a man who prefers to tighten his grip through force rather than cunning. His response is much more likely to be increased repression than pragmatic reform.
Popular uprising: an Eritrean Spring?
The probability of this scenario is the hardest to judge. Eritreans have long seen the Afewerki’s People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) exercise power with little restraint, and will be aware of the danger of engaging in open protest. Opposition groups within the country have been so harshly repressed that it is even hard to see where the necessary spark and organisation might come from.
Yet the Arab Spring spectacularly displayed that well-entrenched regimes can be overwhelmed by popular uprisings. In recent weeks, posters have appeared in the capital of Asmara calling for street protests. This is an indication of an increasing willingness amongst some Eritreans to defy the regime, and suggests a belief that they may hold the power to end the country's woes.
The most intriguing question is whether Afewerki would be able to rely on his security forces if confronted by a mass uprising. The loyalty of young conscripts could certainly not be relied upon so, ultimately, much would rest on the decisions of senior officials. They would be forced to judge whether they were protecting a healthy or dying regime – and act accordingly.