July 31, 2011

Ethiopian fascination with the Arab Spring (Part I)

by Aklog Birara (Ph.D.) | 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 small Ethiopia middle class to see similar changes in their homeland.

While it is too early to draw parallels between the “ the Jasmine Revolution,” Tahrir Square and the popular “Arab Spring” middle class and youth led revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the rest of North Africa and the Middle East on the one hand and the situation in Ethiopia on the other, the social, economic and political triggers are identical. These are repressive governance, income inequality, endemic corruption, illicit outflow of resources, bulge in size and unemployment among youth, poverty, endemic corruption, dependency on external funding, food inflation and shortages 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 say that popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia benefitted hugely from unique internal conditions that are different from Ethiopia. They identify at least six important attributes as instrumental in both countries that differ from Ethiopia.

Homogeneity and ethnic divide

Fist is the common thread of homogeneity of their populations. Ethiopia’s population estimated today at 90 million is composed of 80 different ethnic groups. Second is the national character of their defense establishments. The Ethiopian defense establishment is led entirely by representatives of a minority ethnic group that dominates the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Most Ethiopians feel that the country’s predominantly minority ethnic command weakens its national character. Ethiopians appreciate the fact that the defense establishment in Egypt represents the country as a unified nation and is not bedeviled by ethnicity or ideology. Ethiopians admire the fact that Egyptians and Tunisians fight as nationals of their respective countries. Ethiopians are divided by ethnicity. They hope that this artificial division does not spread to religion. Muslims and Christians co-existed side by side peacefully for centuries, a tradition that is rare in the world. Third, populations in Egypt and Tunisia have enormous respect for their national institutions. Many are not sure if Ethiopians are uniformly patriotic and bound by the same national spirit and respect for their institutions and cultures.

Fourth, Egypt and Tunisia have larger middle and educated classes that are cohesive than Ethiopia’s. In terms of popular revolutions this distinction is among the most important. Petty jealousies and hatreds are minimal in these countries compared to Ethiopia. Fifth, Tunisians and Egyptians enjoy more access to information technology than Ethiopians; is another critical difference. Ethiopia is one of the least technology friendly countries in the world today; not by choice but buy government restrictions. The technological tools they needed–Internet, Mobile phones, Face Book, You Tube, Twitter and newspapers are more readily available to them than to Ethiopians. Sixth, the banners they use such as flags and songs are national. “We are Tunisians and Egyptians.” These themes resonate with Ethiopians who feel that the governing party uses ethnic divide and rule to govern the country. The general sentiment is that when people unite as one, no power can stop them. These are attributes Ethiopians admire about Egypt and Tunisia.

Egypt has a special appeal for Ethiopians because of the Nile and because Muslims and Christians live side by side in the two countries and relations goes back thousands of years. Ethiopians were glued to various media on February 1, 2011 when close to two million Egyptians from diverse backgrounds gathered and prayed and protested together for the same cause. Ethiopians with access to the media admired the civility, national pride and unity among Egyptians. The message that came across was Egyptians were not beset by ideological, political, religious, gender, demographic and social differences. They subordinated them to the greater quest of freedom, the rule of law and political pluralism. The Egyptian flag served as a symbol of national unity and identity. The vast majority of protestors showed levels of discipline and camaraderie unparalleled anywhere. In particular, Ethiopians admired the Egyptian defense establishment that refused to “kill” its own citizens. This contrasted with Ethiopia where hundreds were killed and close to 40,000 people jailed by security and police in the aftermath of the 2005 elections. The parallel that seems similar with Egypt is the grassroots 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, forums were held by the Ethiopian Diaspora on what is called “Ethiopian Awakening and the Arab Spring,” at which prominent Egyptians shared lessons of experience with people-led and grassroots revolutions.

The search for freedom, justice, the rule of law and people-anchored governance is the same in all three and in many Sub-Saharan African countries governed by authoritarian and dictatorial governments. At the same time, the differences between Ethiopia on the one hand and Tunisia and Egypt on the other are substantial. Tunisia has an expanding and highly educated youth; and a rising and urbanized middle class. This is the same for Egypt. Both countries more urbanized and integrated with developed economies than Ethiopia. Repression, oppression, concentration of wealth in a few hands, corruption, youth unemployment, food price inflation and income inequality are deep in all three countries. unmet expectations in employment and incomes, corruption and repression are deep. The outside world portrays all three countries as generally stable and growing. For example, “The IMF last Country Report on Egypt, published in April 2010” reported that “Sustained and wide-ranging reforms since 2004 had reduced fiscal, monetary and external vulnerabilities, and improved the investment climate.” The IMF Representative said practically the same thing about Ethiopia. Ethiopia is home to “one of the hungriest and unhealthiest populations” in the world. Sixty to seventy percent of Ethiopian youth is unemployed. There are 5 million orphans. Despite this, the IMF commends Ethiopia’s outstanding economic performance and improvements in standard of living. It seems that the script from outside is the same for all three countries. Ethiopian academics say that the IMF finds nothing wrong with chronic inflation and youth unemployment, endemic corruption and illicit outflow of billions of dollars from one the least developed and poorest countries to rich nations. In its previous report on Egypt, the IMF had said that “economic performance was better than expected, although headline inflation remains elevated.” Most Ethiopian elites feel that multilateral agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank do injustice to the poor and youth by presenting rosy pictures on countries in 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.”

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