“Beka!” (“Gaye”) – Will Ethiopia Catch the Arab Spring Fever?

By René Lefort, 25 May 2011

Meles Zenawi has been protecting himself from any Arab-spring copy-cat movements in Ethiopia. On balance, it is unlikely that the opposition is strong enough to mount the kind of challenge seen in Egypt and Tunisia. Conditions are not seen to be as brutally unjust in Ethiopia, and no one doubts that the army would be loyal to the Tigray-dominated regime. But there may be surprises yet.

“Beka!” “Enough!” In the wake of the Arab uprisings, this is the watchword of mysterious opponents to the ruling regime circulating on internet sites hosted outside Ethiopia and in a few tracts being handed out inside the country. They are calling on the people to take to the streets on 28 May. Exactly twenty years earlier, a coalition of armed ethnic movements, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, overthrew Major Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist military junta. The TPLF is hanging onto power more tenaciously than ever.

“We are not worried that there will be a north Africa-type revolution in Ethiopia, it’s simply not possible”, said the irremovable Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, on 12 March, with his customary assurance. “The circumstances for it do not exist”.

But wait a minute… If Meles thought was not “not possible” that this kind of revolution could spread to his country, why did his actions contradict his words? Why did he suddenly implement a raft of heavy-handed measures, adding censorship to intimidation and repression – in his usual style – as well as State economic intervention and call for patriotism?

Censorship: Ethiopian television – state-run and the only official station – hardly mentioned the Arab uprisings. Meanwhile, the screws have been tightened on the “independent” media, obliging them to censor themselves even further. International radio stations broadcasting in local languages, like Voice of America and Deutsche Welle, were jammed. But it was a wasted effort – this “Spring” triggered an effervescence, leading to the most open and heated debates since the electoral campaign of 2005.

The great majority of these potential protesters say they have made the same choice, either out of conviction or of vested interest – to keep quiet. Some of the more optimistic even say it has some distinct advantages. They hope that, with the passage of time, the enlargement of the middle class might lessen ethnic divisions. But most of them  are much more pessimistic. Time would have the opposite effect  – of deepening the divisions even further, until the inevitable day the worn-out regime finally fails, making this fall even more brutal and chaotic.

Intimidation and repression: “The government is not blind and deaf”, Meles declared in Parliament on 5 April. Anyone who takes part in what he called “the plot being hatched to incite protests and terror” would “pay a price.” “Intimidation and demonization” retorted one of the leaders of the main opposition party, to whom this warning was specifically addressed, and all the more so, given that the government had already taken measures. Over two hundred militants were arrested in March, more than a hundred of them accused of “terrorism” linked to the Oromo Liberation Front, an illegal movement waging an armed struggle on behalf of the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. There have been sporadic shows of strength by the security forces as a reminder, if one were needed, of how the regime will react to demonstrations.

Will this inaction ensure the regime stays in power indefinitely? Both optimists and pessimists put forward an alternative and very different hypothesis. This time it would be the “common people” of Addis-Ababa who enter the arena. What starts as a banal altercation would turn into a popular riot, totally spontaneous and unpredictable. It would spread like a trail of gunpowder, and, by degenerating into ethnic clashes, would sweep everything up in its wake. Under this hypothesis, the life expectancy of the regime would be a matter of days rather than decades.

But prudence – and modesty – are the word. No one had predicted either the eruption or the course of the “Arab Spring”. Ethiopia may still surprise.

Full Story (“Beka!” (“enough”). Will Ethiopia be next? – OpenDemocracy)

*René Lefort has been writing about sub-saharan Africa since the 1970s and has reported on the region for Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur.  He is the author of “Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?” (1982, Zed books). His email is renelefort@wanadoo.fr



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