Is Ethiopian fascination with Egypt, Tunisia uprising justified?

By Aklog Birara*

Part I of 111

I tend to think that, in Sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopian fascination with the Tunisian and Egyptian popular revolutions exceeds any other. This admiration emanates from wishes and aspirations among Ethiopia’s youth and the small middle class to see similar changes in their homeland. I admit that it is too early to draw conclusive parallels between the “Jasmine Revolution,” Tahrir Square and the popular “Arab Spring” youth and middle class-led revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the rest of North Africa and the Middle East on the one hand and aspirations in Ethiopia on the other. However, I contend that the core social, economic and political triggers are almost the same. These include repressive governance, growing income inequality, endemic corruption, illicit outflow of resources, bulge in the youthful population that sees no hope for the future, poverty, hunger, food price inflation and shortages, dependency on external funding, and a government that is completely out of touch from the needs of the population.

Most Ethiopians in the Diaspora appreciate the huge differences between Ethiopia on the one hand and Tunisia and Egypt on the other. At the same time, they feel that there are similarities. The Egyptian popular uprising has been in the making for at least three decades, Ethiopia’s for 20 years. Ethiopian intellectuals assert that popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia benefitted hugely from unique internal conditions that are not prevalent in Ethiopia. Some have difficulty recognizing differences that are likely to determine the fate of the country. Nevertheless, they identify at least six important attributes as instrumental in both countries that differ from Ethiopia. These unique country identities do not in any shape underestimate ideological and sectarian or class differences that exist. Over the past two months, we saw manifestations of sharp class and values differences among political leaders in one of the most mature democracies in the world, the United States.  Differences are thus a way of life. How they are resolved is the critical factor that determines political wisdom and maturity in any country. A successful uprising does not necessarily mean that normalcy follows soon after. The day after is as important as the day before an uprising. Lingering differences in class and ideology surfaced when former President Mubarak came to Cairo on August 4, 2011 and sat on a stretcher to face charges for crimes against humanity, embezzlement, and corruption and operation against the interests of the Egyptian people. Clearly, Mubarak has his supporters who benefitted enormously from his dictatorial regime. The fact that he is facing trial in his own country by his own people is one of the most extraordinary achievements of the Egyptian revolution. Some Ethiopians genuinely believe that a similar situation is tenable in Ethiopia. I am doubtful that all Ethiopians are willing and ready to work collaboratively for the good of the country and its diverse population for a similar situation to emerge. The fact that one of the most powerful and oppressive leaders in the Arab world had to face the humiliation of being caged in as if he is a common criminal is remarkable. This should embolden Ethiopians to close ranks and focus on one core principle that makes sense: organize and strive to achieve a people or citizen-led and centered change of freedom that will serve the interests of all of the Ethiopian people, and not elites. In my assessment, the culture of division among all sorts of opposition groups is the single most critical barrier to change than the regime itself. Division for all sorts of reasons prolongs the longevity of the regime.

With this backdrop, I shall discuss the key differences between Ethiopia on the one hand and Egypt and Tunisia on the other.

First and foremost is that the two Arab countries share a common thread of overall homogeneityof their population. Ethiopia’s population estimated at 90 million this year is composed of 80 different ethnic groups. Diversity is an asset as long as the socioeconomic and political system empowers each member and recognizes the fundamental right to engage and participate fully, freely, and peaceably.

Second, Tunisia and Egypt possess a critical national institution in the composition and role of their defense establishments. They are national and highly respected. In Ethiopia, a minority ethnic clique transformed a liberation movement into a defense establishment to protect the party and state by dismantling its national or Ethiopian characteristics. The lack of fair and balanced representation in the armed forces reinforces the dictatorial and exclusionary nature of the regime commanded by the Tigrean minority that dominates the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Most Ethiopians feel that the defense establishment’s predominantly minority ethnic-composition in the command structure weakens its national character and role. The regime expects that the defense establishment will come to its rescue In the event of an uprising. It did it in 2005 and there is no guarantee that it will not do it again. Ethiopians appreciate the fact that Egypt’s defense establishment represents the country as a unified whole. Despite sectarian, class and ideological differences, there is no indication that Egypt suffers from ethnicity or irreconcilable ideology. Ethiopians admire the fact Egyptians and Tunisians fight as nationals of their respective countries. Politically designed ethnic divide and rules undermine the Ethiopian body politic in that it pities one group against another. Elites fall into this trap almost all the time. They hope that this corrosive culture does not spread to religion. Muslims and Christians have an established tradition of peaceful co-existence that the governing party now manipulates to maintain permanent suspense.

Third, the populations in Tunisia and Egypt show enormous respect for their national institutions. Political elites do not revise their histories. Many are not so sure if Ethiopian elites are uniformly patriotic and bound by the same national spirit and respect for their national institutions, heritage, cultures, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. If there is no sense of commonness, the struggle forward will be much harder if not impossible.

Fourth, both Tunisia and Egypt have larger middle and highly educated classes that are cohesive than Ethiopia’s. This attribute is decisive in any uprising. Egyptians and Tunisians benefited enormously from representation of cross-sections of their populations: teachers, mechanics, doctors, street vendors, the poor, and the middle class were involved. This type of mobilization and determination makes a difference. In these countries, youth denied those used to petty jealousies, rivalry, and hatreds political space and embraced those who were inclusive and forward-looking. Can one say the same about Ethiopians? I am not so sure.  1/

Fifth, Tunisians and Egyptians enjoy more access to information technology than Ethiopians do. This is a critical difference. Ethiopia is among the least technology-friendly countries in the world. This is not by choice but by government design. In North Africa and the Middle East, the technological tools activists need—Internet, Mobile phones, Face Book, You Tube, Twitter, and newspapers are more readily available than to Ethiopians. In this century, it will be much harder to initiate popular uprisings without these tools.

Sixth, Tunisians and Egyptians used banners, flags, and symbols that mirror national identities. “We are Tunisians and Egyptians.” These themes resonate with the vast majority of Ethiopians who feel that the governing party uses ethic divide and rule to govern the country without the participation of the population. The general sentiment is that when people unite as one, no power can stop them. Ethiopians admire these attributes about Egypt and Tunisia. They just need to reflect on what it takes to translate lessons into tools.

Egypt has a special appeal for Ethiopians for two reasons: Ethiopia and Egypt share the Nile River and have a long history in terms of religious, cultural, and political interactions that go back thousands of years. The Ethiopian and Egyptian Coptic faiths have a great deal in common. Ethiopians watched attentively various media on February 1, 2011 when close to two million Egyptians from diverse backgrounds gathered at Tahrir Square to pray and protest together for a common purpose. Ethiopians with access to the media admired civility, national pride, and unity among Egyptians. The message that came across was this: Egyptians did not suffer from irreconcilable ideological, political, and tribal, gender, and demographic, religious, and social, differences. They subordinated differences to the greater quest of freedom, the rule of law, human rights, and political pluralism. The Egyptian flag served as a symbol of national identity and unity. The vast majority of protestors displayed levels of discipline and camaraderie unparalleled anywhere. In doing this, they took away the legitimacy and moral authority of the state that had kept them in chains. In particular, Ethiopians admired the Egyptian defense establishment that refused to “kill” its own citizens. This contrasts with Ethiopia where hundreds were killed and more than 40,000 people jailed by security and police forces in the aftermath of the 2005 elections. The defense establishment stood silent. Had the situation deteriorated, it would have taken sides. The parallel that seems similar to Egypt is the grassroots-based popular revolution in Ethiopia that brought down the Imperial regime in the 1970s, and the huge protests in support of democratization in 2005. In both instances, Ethiopians struggled and protested as one people. Differences and similarities aside, Ethiopians continue to feel that Egypt and Tunisia offer them tantalizing lessons in peaceful change. As recently as June 12, 2011, Ethiopians in the Diaspora held various forums on the “Ethiopian Awakening and the Arab Spring” at which prominent Egyptians shared lessons of experience from people-led and grassroots revolutions. Emphasis is “Be bold and resolute.”

The search for freedom, justice, the rule of law and people-centered governance is the same in all three countries and in many Sub-Saharan African countries governed b y dictatorial governments. These aspirations for hope and freedom should not at all mask substantial differences between multi-national Ethiopia and Egypt and Tunisia. Recognition of these differences will help anchor the quest for freedom anchored in Ethiopia within context. Tunisia has an expanding and highly educated youth, and a rising and urbanized middle class with a cadre of professionals within the country and a Diaspora that is politically connected. This is the same for Egypt. Both countries are more urbanized and integrated with developed nations than Ethiopia. Repression, oppression, concentration of wealth in a few hands, corruption, high youth unemployment, food price inflation, and income inequality are deep in all three countries. Unmet expectations in employment, income inequality, suffocating bureaucracy and corruption are hallmarks in all three. The outside world, including the aid and humanitarian factory businesses portray all three as generally stable and growing. For example, “The IMF’s last country report on Egypt published in April 2010” noted that “sustained and wide-ranging reforms since 2004 had reduced fiscal, monetary, and external vulnerabilities, and improved the investment climate.” I recall the IMF representative to Ethiopia said the same thing commending the Ethiopian government for improving the lives of the population. Hunger, famine, seven million orphans, the flight of talent out of the country, skyrocketing food prices, and restrictions on the private sector do not bother the IMF or other financial and aid institutions. Their role is to lend and to defend their activities by siding with governments, and not with the population.

Ethiopia is one of the “hungriest and unhealthiest countries” on this planet. Those with wealth and power do not suffer from these national ailments and live by defending a rotten system that keeps poor people poor and forces the middle class to join the poor. The governing party and its zealous, fanatic, and irrational supporters deny the existence of hunger, famine, and destitution in the country. Sixty to seventy percent of Ethiopian youth is unemployed. There are 7 million orphans. Today, more than 4.5 million Ethiopians face famine. Despite these facts, the IMF finds nothing wrong with chronic inflation stimulated through deficit financing and aid. It commends the regime for improving the standard of living of the population. Ethiopian academics say that the IMF finds nothing wrong with youth unemployment, endemic corruption, and illicit outflow of funds from one of the poorest countries on this planet. In its previous report on Egypt, the IMF had said that, “economic performance was better than expected, although headline inflation remains elevated.” I wonder if this commendation took account of the lives of ordinary Egyptians including youth. Most Ethiopian elites feel that multinational agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank do injustice to the poor and youth by presenting rosy pictures of countries that face social crisis. “There were imminent, overwhelming problems that either evaded the IMF’s attention or it chose not to report. The risk of a social explosion would have been obvious to observers, right. Not to the IMF.” 2/

High youth unemployment in all three countries is a common thread as are the sizes of their youth populations that need jobs, incomes, and homes. Almost 40 million Ethiopians were born after 1991 and the millions of orphans for which Ethiopia is famous are consequences of poverty. Youth have experiences only with one ruling party and one leader in their lifetime. The Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, rules with an iron-fist and has been in power for 20 years. The same is true for millions of Tunisian and Egyptian youth whose rebelled and overthrew theirs. Bloomberg estimates that Tunisia must create 1 million jobs per year to keep up with those entering the labor market each year. Ethiopia seems to have given up on the prospect of creating jobs for millions. The economy has stalled and the private sector is not expanding at a rate that corresponds to domestic demand. Thousands of youth immigrate to all corners of the world each month because they do not see their future in the country. If Ethiopia cannot meet the demands of food self-sufficiency and security today with 90 million people, most of them young, what economic and social miracle does the government expect to cope with 278 million by 2050? The social and economic situation in Ethiopia is direr than the situations in Tunisia and Egypt.

“The worsening economy, combined with repression and resentment of corruption around President Ben Ali, set Tunisia up for a fall. The protests started when a 26 year old fruit and vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set fire to himself on December 17, 2010.” Ethiopians were awed and moved by a death that led to the “Jasmine Revolution.” Ethiopians contend that the level oppression and repression by the one party state and the gross inequality brought by the system are far worse than anything is in North Africa and the Middle East. The Tunisian uprising and its ramifications seem moved the hearts and minds of a growingly restive, and youth population in Ethiopia. The country’s double-digit growth masks structural and policy distortions and imbalances in Ethiopia the same way as they did in Tunisia, Egypt, and the same way as they are manifesting in several countries in the Middle East. Similar to Ethiopia–non-oil producing economy–, growth in Tunisia disguised high unemployment, skyrocketing prices, and gross income inequality between the have and the have-nots. Ethiopia’s gaping inequality and stark life differences between those who control the state and the economy and the majority who find it difficult to eat two meals a day is a time bomb waiting to explode. This, I predict with confidence. No person accepts a verdict by someone in power who blurts out in a private setting in Addis Ababa, “let them eat dirt and stone; they did not vote for our party.” In Ethiopia, life and death are very dependent on ethnic and political loyalty. Increasingly, poverty is partial. 3/

What motivates youth to die for and change systems?

Ethiopia is poorer and less developed than Egypt and Tunisia. At the end of 2010, Bloomberg estimated that Tunisia had a per capita income of US9, 500 compared to Ethiopia at US$370, a staggering difference. Sixty-seven percent of the Tunisian population is urbanized. Eighty percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas. Tunisia has one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world and Ethiopia one of the lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa. High levels of literacy, an educated and rising middle class, urbanization, and technology savvy youth with easy access to television, the Internet, mobile phones, You Tube, Twitter, and newspapers eased communication during the uprising. Contrast these assets to Ethiopian youth with low incomes who rent newspapers to seek jobs. The communication tools that are abnormal in Ethiopia are standards in other parts of the world. Modern communication tools are prerequisites in strengthening social networking, and in stimulating change. I am not saying that peaceful change cannot take place without information technology (IT). It will be much harder though. Repression and fear did not deter Tunisia’s urban and integrated population from organizing and sharing information quickly and effectively.

In contrast, Ethiopia is one of the world’s least networked and urbanized countries in the world. The governing party designed this dysfunctional social architecture deliberately to keep the population disconnected from one another. High illiteracy among the rural population reinforces control, a sense of detachment and sheer isolation. The country’s young adults defined as those aged between 15 and 29 years exceed 50.3 percent, almost similar to Tunisia. This is why demographers call this age cluster a “bulge” that may explode anytime anywhere. This group demands and deserves unrestricted political rights, civil liberties and equitable access in education, health care, housing, information technology, employment and creation of enterprises. Just think of one simple example Ethiopia’s haves and have-nots face each day. A hard working Ethiopian who faces economic hurdles each day is unlikely to continue to watch his child starve while those with political and economic power feed their children with ease. No one will continue to tolerate a socioeconomic and political system in which a privileged few amass wealth and live well, and the majority work hard but cannot afford food to eat. The difference between those in powers and with ill-gotten wealth and those on the periphery are stark enough that officials and their supporters are widely accused of economic and social crimes. I suggest that anyone who denies the face of famine and starvation looks at the heart-wrenching faces of children and women in the Ogaden and the poorest of the poor in the streets of Addis Ababa and other major cities. Senior officials and their supporters in the Diaspora continue agonizing economic and social life as the new normal, as if the Ethiopian poor and most vulnerable are born to die poor. The Ethiopian government relies on continued exodus of the country’s youthful age group to foreign countries as a permanent solution to its poor and repressive governance and economic mismanagement. Like Tunisians and Egyptians, Ethiopians say that the government must open opportunities and allow unrestricted freedoms to harness information technology and to create small and medium size enterprises that would employ millions. 4/

In contrast to Tunisia, isolation is a way of life in rural Ethiopia. This sector of the society is practically shutout of the information revolution that has swept the rest of the world including the rural poor in countries such as Bangladesh and India. This, compounded by fear and regime reinforcement of ethnic and religious differences is a self-reinforcing closed system. Ethiopia’s poor has minimal or no education. Representation of females in schools and public positions is among the lowest in Africa. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Ethiopia’s poor have no time to reflect and to protest. They are largely isolated from one another and fragmented along ethnic and religious lines, and cannot share information with one another. Denial of access to information that is standard in the rest of the world allows the regime and ethnic elites to manipulate, divide, coerce, entice, and keep the poor and the disconnected under permanent fear and control. The regime knows that information is power; and it denies it because of its potency. Illiteracy, restrictive access to information and near total isolation of the rural poor from one another and from the world beyond makes them weak and vulnerable. This is why Ethiopians in the Ogaden or in Gambella suffer silently and in isolation from the rest. The regime’s draconian measures against the population in 2005 are still fresh in the minds of people. The regime perfected the instruments of command and control by placing a premium on ethnic and ideological loyalty over common and shared public interest. Ethiopians say that the regime uses ethnic fear to bolster divisions, mutual suspicion, and disempowerment, and to create an astrosphere of permanent suspense. The regime bribes the poor, educated alike, and forces them to its side. It uses humanitarian and other forms of aid as instruments of control and division.

Whether one believes it or or not, Ethiopia is the largest aid recipient in Africa and the third largest in the world after Afghanistan and Iraq. Donors know that the regime uses aid as a political instrument to punish opponents and to reward supporters. Donors know that, unlike youth in Tunisia and Egypt, Ethiopians do not enjoy unrestricted access to information. They know that fear permeates the society, and breeds more fear rather than bold and daring response to repression, oppression, and poverty. Accepting this fear culture is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy. If one wants freedom and choice, one must fight for it. The governing party boasts that this is how it arrived at state power. One does not need to accept its challenge. Tunisians and Egyptians teach us that change is inevitable as long as millions are ready to fight and die for political freedom and economic opportunity. Here is a huge hurdle Ethiopians need to cross if they want peaceful change. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, most talented intellectuals hide behind the mask of anonymity waiting for miracles to occur. They want freedom for the Ethiopian people and are ashamed to see recurring famine and chronic hunger. However, they think that someone should offer freedom to them on a silver platter. Egyptians and Tunisians showed the world that no power in the world could stop an outraged and angry population. Almost 1,000 Egyptians lost their lives fighting for freedom and dignity. Hundreds are dying for similar causes in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Senegalese are fighting for the same; and there will no doubt be more. Most highly educated Ethiopians say that the two North African nations teach us the cardinal lesson that those who wish to establish a people-centered society of freedom—political liberties and human rights—must set aside minor differences and struggle in unison.

Ethiopians remind one another that the country’s youth are not novices to uprisings. They are among the pacesetters of change in Africa. In the 1970s, they closed ranks and brought down the Imperial regime. Repression and brutality by the Socialist Dictatorship from 1974-1991 prompted all segments of society and especially youth to come together as Ethiopians. Popular opinion is that in the aftermath of the 2005 elections, the Ethiopian people sowed the whole world commitment to political liberties, human rights and the rule of law. This is generally true. Many say that this remarkable history of popular struggle against oppression for which thousands of innocent Ethiopians sacrificed their lives may serve as a gentle reminder of the potential that exists. Political leaders squandered a rare opportunity for political change because they were shortsighted and self absorbed with power. Well-informed international and domestic experts agree with the Ethiopian public sentiment that the Ethiopian government must respond to five major social and economic problems:

a)      Skyrocketing food prices and shortages in urban areas;

b)      Persistent hunger in rural areas that requires recurring international emergency food assistance that involves thousands of non-governmental agencies that have made it a source of their own livelihood;

c)       High and chronic youth unemployment and underemployment;

d)      Gaping income inequality, corruption, and illicit outflow of funds estimated at between US$8.345 to US$11 billion over the last 20 years of TPLF/EPRDF rule; and

e)      Closure of political, social, and economic spaces for the vast majority of the population.

These, they argue, constitute the objective social and economic conditions for peaceful revolution in Ethiopia similar to Egypt and Tunisia. The reader should seek no additional material evidence than the current economic turmoil in the country that afflicts ordinary people, and the famine in the Ogaden and other parts of Southern and Eastern Ethiopia. Behind these staggering economic and social facts are, however, substantial disagreements among Ethiopians on the end vision and alternative, method, organization, and leadership of the democratization process. One is obliged to admit that there is an enormous vacuum in alternative vision, political organization, and leadership. My own view is that social change is inevitable. People will not accept to live and die poor while a limited few with political power and connections enjoy opulent lives in one of the poorest countries in the world. Change can and should be stimulated and led by Ethiopia’s youth, the middle class, and poor resident within the country, with those in the Diaspora providing the requisite material, intellectual and diplomatic support.

Recent experience shows that, in any uprising, the governing party in Ethiopia will react mercilessly and cruelly against citizens irrespective of nationality or age configuration. TPLF and EPRDF supporters genuinely believe that the only way to maintain peace, stability, and security in the country is through brute force that will compel the defense establishment to take sides. This argument, they feel, appeals to Western backers of the regime. Unlike Egypt, my sense is that the politicized and ethnicized defense establishment will defend the regime and Constitution. If you are among those like me who receives some of the most asinine e-mails from hard-core defenders of the TPLF/EPRDF regime, you will appreciate the fact that the top leaders of the government do not believe in negotiation and compromise. They believe in continued dominance of the political and economic system indefinitely. While those who want peaceful change draw hope and inspiration from the Egyptian and Tunisian youth-led and people anchored revolutions, realists, me among them, say that the two countries are different from Ethiopia. They contend rightly that the TPLF/EPRDF regime headed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is much closer to Libya, Syria, and Yemen than Egypt or Tunisia. Just see continued assaults and atrocities on innocent civilians in these countries and deduct implications for Ethiopian society. The TPLF’s basic documents on the economic front reveal how far it has come in negating its own commitment to the Ethiopian people, reinforcing the contending view that its primary objective was not to serve the entire population but to capture political power and with it to assert dominance over the national economy and its natural resources. For example, a newly released document of the TPLF “meglecha” written in Yekatit 1968 Ethiopian calendar states the TPLF will pursue “land reform and bring all of the commanding heights of the economy under national or state control for the benefit of all of the Ethiopian people.” What did it do instead? It transferred national resources from the society to the party and to its core supporters. It invited foreign investors to take over the manufacturing sectors and the most arable lands of the society. It created a corrupt system that facilitates the transfer of billions of dollars out of the country.  IN short, political capture of the state led to economic capture of the commanding heights of the national economy. 5/

Accordingly, I would conclude that the objective conditions that trigger popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are similar to those that prevail in Ethiopia. At the same time, I appreciate substantial and substantive differences between Ethiopia on the one hand and Egypt and Tunisia. In Part two of this series, I will identify and diagnose North African and Middle Eastern popular uprisings that come closer to the Ethiopian reality.

*Aklog Birara, PhD is a former Senior Advisor with the World Bank Group. His forthcoming book, The Ethiopian Great Land Giveaway will shed light on yemeret neteka ena kirimit and its implications for the country. [email protected]