The Arab Rage: should we worry?

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With several regimes in Northern Africa facing popular revolts and neighboring countries’ leaders such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak decades long strong grip on power crimpling down by public protests, Ethiopia’s rival political camps are reacting to surrounding changes; the opposition says a similar scenario is likely to be seen here due to dire political and economic conditions while the ruling front touts its economic and political policies that they say have been bearing fruits, giving the public hope and preempting  such happenings.
State of affairs in Ethiopia
The states of socioeconomic and political affairs is where the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its rivals, for example the main opposition group Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), first differ on assessments.
UDJ says the economic hardship and absence of a democratic system that has led to popular rebellions across North African and Arab countries is also exhibited here in Ethiopia.
“When we see continued uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and in other places, we find dictators who stayed in power for long with the so called dominant party state. The second character they all have is their governments don’t respect basic human and democratic rights while they intimidate arrest and kill those who protest their unjust systems. On the economic front, unemployment, hyper inflation and unaffordable living conditions are characteristics these places all have. All these hardships, socioeconomic and political conditions are also a reality here and they exist in Ethiopia even in worst degree,” says UDJ’s first vice chair Negasso Gidada (PhD).
The ruling EPRDF however paints a very different picture of Ethiopia. EPRDF says let alone resembling the hopelessness seen in Arab countries, Ethiopia today has become a benchmark, success story envied by others.
“There you see countries that have reached a middle income stage, but no longer are able to continue to grow. They have reached middle income status but have failed to maintain growth and now they have a high unemployment rate and inequitable distribution of wealth,” says Bereket Simon, EPRDF’s senior official and Government Communication Affairs Minister.
“Here we are embracing a growth era. The government is working to sustain uninterrupted economic growth and transformation from one chapter to another and more than ever, we have a public that has seen a glimmer of hope. We are succeeding both in creation of wealth and distributing it equitably across the public,” Bereket adds.
Former Defense Minister Siye Abraha, who is now among the leading opposition figures and a vice chair at UDJ, doesn’t accept the argument of economic growth.  “It was also said that Tunisia is registering economic growth and Egypt’s economy as well was recognized as a strong one. However, economic growth without a democratic system is unhealthy. Growth without democracy is anemic and corrupt development from which very few, the ones that are close to the regime, benefit from while the majority youth even with a university degree sits at home without a job and that’s exactly what we have in Ethiopia,” Siye argues.
Could similar protests happen here?
The 18 day old protest at Cairo Tharir [Liberation] Square, which successfully pushed Hosni Mubarak out of office, inspired many across Africa even opposition groups in ongoing Ugandan elections are vowing to emulate it; will Ethiopian youth be similarly inspired, will we see a revolt here?  
“I don’t think the changes we desire, change to a democratic system, can be attained via revolution,” says the opposition Ethiopian Democratic Party president Lidetu Ayalew.
“We can attain what we desire through elections, with which we can assure a more certain outcome. Often revolution driven changes are uncertain and even those who started it go to a different path than they had planned. As we are seeing the future is in an uncertain path for Egypt, for example. Revolution is not something I desire for my country,” Lidetu adds.
Lidetu also downplays recent calls for an Egyptian style revolt posted on opposition websites: “In Egypt and Tunisia, the political parties there didn’t organize the revolutions as it was mainly spearheaded by the youth and the wider public. I have seen lately that some groups and individuals, mainly those living abroad, are trying to incite such actions from abroad via the Internet which would lead to nowhere.”
Lidetu argues Ethiopia is different from Egypt and Tunisia and it is highly unlikely that similar public revolts would surface anytime soon: “Ethiopia is different from Egypt in so many ways; if you noticed, those demonstrating there were in suits and wearing jeans; people  you may call middle income earners and they were not the poor that can’t get bread- you don’t have that here. There you have 3 million Internet users and a country where more than 90 percent embrace the same religion, and language which is very different from ethnic and language diversities we have; which altogether creates a very different socioeconomic and political situation. They have also a very warm, good relationship between the army and the public, which isn’t the case here.”
“If we say there is a similarity it can be the character of the regime, but that does not mean the means to change the regime should be similar,” Lidetu however stresses also cautioning that though undesired, popular revolt could happen and EPRDF should take lessons from what happened in other countries and reform vital areas such as strengthening public institutions and enforcing the full extent of laws that embrace human and democratic rights and civil liberties.
For UDJ’s Siye Ethiopia’s situation is bleaker: “The first question shouldn’t be whether we need a revolt or not rather it should be will there be a revolt or not. Wherever there is oppression, wherever there is injustice, there will be protest and, there will be struggle. In Ethiopia too there is a deep discontent and suffering among the public and it is inevitable that it will lead to protest through time.”
Siye, the former EPRDF front man himself who led a 17 year old armed struggle as the nation unseated a brutal communist regime, says public uprising in Ethiopia however inevitable it may be [unless EPRDF reforms], doesn’t mean that it will come immediately just because it happened recently in Egypt or Tunisia.
“Egyptians have come over their fear; they said ‘enough, enough.’ They said ‘no matter what happens, whether they kill or arrest us, we will not budge’ and they flocked to the streets from every direction to demand change. There will be a time Ethiopians too will overcome their fear and rise; no matter what they [the government] do, they will not stop this from happening. Egyptian authorities have tried to preempt it but they chose a forceful way that was unable to stop the uprising.”
Siye says there is no need for public rebellion: “to bring about change there shouldn’t be always bloodshed or destruction of properties. Ethiopia’s regime as wise governments do can draw a lesson from what has been happening and can prepare itself to bring about change. Understanding that such an uprising is inevitable, rather than preparing police, the approach should be to open doors for change and to allow the public to express its distress. The government should allow the public to express its opinion and listen to it and in accordance to delivering corrective measures; if they are able to do that we can witnesses change without any unnecessary tension, destruction of property or loss of life. So the ball is now in the court of our rulers; what will they choose? Will they chose peace, tolerance and dialogue or will they choose force to respond; that will be their decision to make.”
EPRDF’s outlook
EPRDF, which has led Ethiopia since 1991, wining all successive four elections, the latest one by collecting more than 90% of the votes, says popular revolts in Ethiopia will not be seen.
“No, we don’t,” firmly replied the senior cabinet minister Bereket Simon when asked if his government expects public rebellions like the ones seen in Egypt.
According to EPRDF’s assessment, there is no chance for a public uprising in Ethiopia as the predominately factor for such uprising in Egypt and Tunisia were middle income states that  no longer could drive through economic growth, and failed to provide enough jobs and equitable wealth distribution creating desperation among the public hardly resembles Ethiopia.
“There [where popular revolts happen] are desperate people, people who have nowhere to turn to. Our people are not desperate, here we have a public that has seen hope, a public that enjoys a glimmer of hope more than ever due to the recent years’ economic growth and transformation,” Bereket says.
According to the minister, for a country like Ethiopia that currently enjoys a higher economic growth and brighter future that is transferring lives of the public, uprisings that happen where there is dire situation are not a cause for concern.
“We have embraced democracy, freedom of expression is widely exercised and the public can put in power whomever it wants through elections,” Bereket elaborates explaining that without a need to go to the streets, Ethiopians enjoy freedom and rights to express themselves and bring about changes they desire.
EPRDF says, the assessment of opposition that says Ethiopian public is a desperate one comes from their inability to look into what is really happening; “they are impaired from reading the actual picture of our country and that has been the source of the mistakes they commit,” said Bereket.
Bereket says as the Ethiopian opposition remains unable to appreciate democratic and constitutional exercises the nation has embraced, they are often lured in whenever any violence or street clashes are observed elsewhere: “Whenever riots happen; be it the so called orange or any other fruit revolution or jasmine; whatever  happens, if it is it violence and street clashes that costs life, they are lured to it and they want to take lesson from it and emulate it here.”
Bereket insists it isn’t a concern for EPRDF whatever the opposition imagines will happen. “It is not only that EPRDF isn’t concerned with this, let alone now, even in 2005 where there hasn’t been an economic growth of the current scale, there wasn’t an uprising. There was violence because the opposition incited it and there was desperation to some extent, but now there is a higher rate of growth and the public is fully aware of it.”  Source ( Capital)