Eritrea: ‘Freedom Friday’ Movement Challenges ‘North Korea of Africa’
By Gianlucca Mezzofiore
A new grassroots movement in Eritrea that draws inspiration from the Arab revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia is poised to challenge the one-party authoritarian rule of president Isaias Afewerki, who has been in power for twenty years.
The Freedom Friday (Arbi Harnet) movement, started in November 2011 by the Eritrean diaspora, is finally gaining momentum inside the country according to Meron Estefanos, a human rights activist and presenter with the Sweden-based Radio Erena, which broadcasts in Eritrea and around the world.
In tandem with Eritrean Youth for Change (EYC) and the Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change (EYSC), Estefanos has set up a new campaign to reverse the Arab-style call to take to the streets every Friday. Instead, it urges Eritreans to empty the streets.
“We made phone calls from diaspora to Eritrea,” Estefanos told IBTimes UK. “We have a phone catalogue and called random numbers every Friday, telling them to stay at home and think about problems in our country.”
Freedom Friday’s coordinator in the UK Selam Kidane, also director of Release Eritrea rights group, explained that asking Eritreans to stay at home “give them an opportunity to protest without risking too much”.
“”Eritreans have been denied many rights and are very afraid of the government and its informants,” she said. “We want to build trust among people who carry out joint protest actions.”
‘Go out and demonstrate’
After two years, the Freedom Friday movement has established solid roots inside Eritrea. “Now they trust us inside the country, we have our team in Eritrea that puts out posters and leaflets late at night,” Estefanos said.
“The plan now that we have their trust is asking them to go out and demonstrate.”
Kidane confirmed that support is rising inside the secretive Africa country. “The small team initially based in the diaspora is now an established project inside the country and everyone knows about it,” she said.
What started as a call to Eritreans in the capital, Asmara, to vacate the streets every Friday may soon become a widespread youth protest akin to the April 6 movement in Egypt, which eventually helped topple president Hosni Mubarak.
“In our country we cannot have a revolution because every youth bitter about life is fleeing the country,” she said. “In my radio programme I’m discussing that people shouldn’t leave because it is not a solution. I believe the youths should fight in their country. The Egyptian revolution showed that anything was possible because there was an unhappy youth.”
Dubbed the North Korea of Africa, Eritrea is considered one of the continent’s most opaque countries. National elections have not been held in the Horn of Africa country since it gained independence in 1993. Torture, arbitrary detention and severe restrictions on freedom of expression remain routine.
“We have a dictatorial regime, that’s why people are fleeing every month,” said Estefanos. “Around 3,000 people flee to Sudan every month and 1,000 to Ethiopia. We are losing the whole generation because all the youth is fleeing the country.”
The mandatory military service that forces citizens to serve, on average, between the ages of 18 and 55 is one of the main causes of fleeing from the country. Advocacy group Reporters without Borders has ranked Eritrea 179th among 179 countries on freedom of expression. Access to the country for international humanitarian and human rights organizations is almost impossible and the country has no independent media.
“Unless there is a regime change in Eritrea, things will continue like that,” Estefanos said. “[Our] only target is to keep in contact with people inside the country. Now nobody doubts us anymore.”