Ethiopia: The Long-term cost of minority dominated dictatorship and the prospect for transition to democracy

By Jawar Mohammed


(NB: This essay was drafted before Meles Zenawi fell ill and was put on hold until things clear up. Attempt has been made to update it with the new developments)

Following the popular uprisings throughout North Africa and the Middle East, both democracy activists as well as those working to preserve the status quo are closely watching this incredible moment. While Tunisia and Egypt experienced a quick and orderly downfall of dictatorships, the uprisings in Libya and Syria turned bloody. Yemen falls somewhere in between. One of the factors that differentiate the orderly fall of a strongman from the bloody and protracted civil war is the level of sectarian concentration of power.

Three themes will be addressed in this essay. Why do certain authoritarian regimes exercise blatant discrimination when distributing rent – i.e. political power and wealth? How could such regimes concentrate power and wealth in the hands of small sectarian groups and remain in power for so long? Finally, what kind of transition is likely to take place in such situations?

Let us start with a brief look at how each of the three regimes evolved.In Syria and Libya, the status quo is characterized by extensive concentration of economic privilege and political power in the hands of a single ethnic/religious group, with the vast majority excluded. Under such conditions, transitions could only be achieved after the old regime is completely obliterated, including its support base and institutions. A cursory look at how these two countries got into their respective situations shows a remarkable similarity to the developments in Ethiopia in the last two decades.

Libya: The tragedy of the Qadhadhfa tribe; from have it all to lose it all

When 27-year-old Moammar Gaddafi staged a coup d’etat in 1969, his small Qadhadhfa tribe was a little known marginal group located in the northwestern Libyan desert. By the time the popular uprising against his rule erupted in 2011, his once insignificant tribe became so powerful that Gaddafi offered their once nonexistent village of Sirte as a seat for the the African Union.

Under the cover of Nasserist Pan-Arab rhetoric, the core of Gaddafi’s coup coconspirators were officers of the Qadhadhfa. Hence although initially he promised a collective leadership made up of mid-rank officers, Gadaffi eventually resorted to clan loyalty. Writing for Think Africa Press, Jan De Haansta

“despite Gaddafi’s rhetoric of Arab socialism and a post-tribal Libya, he always remained strongly aware of the potential threat to his power posed by other tribes and, in the process, ending up exacerbating tribal tensions.”

Having survived the first coup attempt a few months after taking power, he began surrounding himself by officers from his tribe. When these aroused opposition from officers who belonged to other tribes, he purged them and filled their place by recruiting more soldiers from Qadhadhfa. Gaddafi faced multiple coups, the most serious ones in 1975 and 1979 by officers and bureaucrats that despised his increasingly dictatorial and discriminatory policies. Once he “cleansed” the military of troublemakers and replaced them with his tribal kinsmen, the opposition took on the form of Islamic insurgency – which, thanks to the open desert, he was able to easily quash.

The more threats he faced the more blatant his favoritism towards his tribe became. Cognizant of the fact that in such an open desert country conditions are unfavorable for insurgency, therefore the only internal threat would come from the military, he gradually and systematically weakened the army through purges and defunding. Gaddafi understood his tiny tribe was numerically too small to fill up a real army. So, he disabled the army and strengthened the revolutionary guard of a few brigades filled with soldiers from his tribe and mercenaries from neighboring countries, and commanded either by his sons or close relatives. In this way he neutralized the army while increasing his own security.

Besides concentration of power, the Qadhadhfa tribesmen accumulated enormous wealth and dominated the economy. In addition to disproportionate distribution of oil revenue to his tribe and the region, Gaddafi ensured Qadhadhfa business elites benefited from skewed competition and government subsidy. Gaddafi’s immediate family sat at the top of the business class owning or running most of the major corporations.

In explaining why the Libyan revolution was not as quick as that of Tunisia and Egypt, John Hamilton wrote:

“[Gaddafi] stuffed the lists of regional military governors, Republican Guard leaders and Revolutionary Committee members with members of his own tribe, the Qadhadhfa. Because of its relatively lowly status in the hierarchy, it is unlikely that the majority of the population would accept another of its members wielding power in Gaddafi’s place: that means the entire regime has its back to the wall, not just its leader.”

Inevitably, the struggle against Gaddafi practically became a struggle against the interest and security of Qadhadhfa tribe, who owed their power and privilege to Gaddafi, and stood to lose it all if he was toppled. They fought to the last minute, and went from having it all to losing it all when Sirte fell on the death of Gaddafi. Having suffered debilitating casualties during the war, and guilt-stricken for the mass atrocities they committed, the Qadhadhfa have little if any role in the power politics of the new Libya.

Syria: The Making and unmaking of the Alawite Monopoly

In an article published in 1989 Daniel Pipes, an expert on Middle Eastern politics, wrote

“For many centuries, the ‘Alawis[ who make up 13% of the population] were the weakest, poorest, most rural, most despised, and most backward people of Syria. In recent years, however, they have transformed themselves into the ruling elite of Damascus. Today, ‘Alawis dominate the government, hold key military positions, enjoy a disproportionate share of the educational resources, and are becoming wealthy.”

Four decades after Alawites took state power, and twenty three years since Pipes penned this observation, what is the consequence of such Alawite domination for the contemporary politics of Syria?

During the first two decades of its independence, Syria experienced extreme political instability, marked by numerous coups and counter-coups. Stability was restored only after Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970. Having watched that neither military rank nor ideological support insulated his numerous predecessors from coups, Assad believed that only a patronage system based on primordial identity could help him create a reliable and loyal support base. Thus, as a politically ambitious young military officer, he created a clandestine group of Alawites within the military and the Ba’th party. A prominent member of the military committee that staged the 1963 and 1966 coups, by the time he officially took power in 1970 through another coup, Assad had already built a strong Alawite block within the Baath party, and this block immediately dominated his government. Assad also forged alliances with the Alawite and Druze business classes. The two minority groups who long complained about discrimination by the Sunni majority have had strong reasons to help him consolidate power.

Although Syrian and foreign observers alike were alarmed by such concentration of power in the hands of the minority, they rationalized it as an acceptable price for ending the immediate political crisis. Basically, if Alawites could usher a new era of stability in the country, went their thinking, let them do it. However, the increasing domination began to stir resentment among the Sunni majority. The regime responded by purging Sunnis from the military and security. Alawites were recruited to the military en masse to replace the purged Sunnis. In a recent essay on the roots of the Alawite-Sunni rivalry, AyseTekdalFildis notes that

“after the [November 1970] coup, the gaps in the army resulting from purges of political opponents were filled by Alawites…the representation of Alawites among the newly appointed officers was as high as 90 percent.”

This was followed by development of a skewed economic scheme in which Sunni businesses considered to be disloyal were systematically pushed out, giving Alawites economic control.

In the 1980s, the tension rose to armed confrontation, as Sunni rebels targeted Alawite elites for assassination. In return, Assad responded by ordering the bombing of Hama – resulting in a massacre of 40,000 civilians. Having soaked its hand in blood, the regime had lost any chance of reconciling with the Sunnis; its only option for remaining in power was to strengthen and further secure the loyalty of the Alawites. In addition to continuous favouritism, fear-mongering propaganda was employed in which, theSunnis were portrayed as savages who will turn back the clock to the old days of domination and destroy the Alawites if Assad was to lose power. Four decades later, the regime and Alawites have become two sides of the same coin welded together with blood and privilege. For the Alawites, defending the regime became a necessity for defending the future existence of their people. For the opposition, fighting dictatorship meant fighting the Alawites who are at defensive line.

Therefore, close observers of the country’s politics were not surprised when the popular uprising that began in March 2011 quickly turned into a sectarian civil war. A recent report by the Associated Press notes that

“Sectarian slayings between Syria’s Sunni majority and the Alawite minority have been a brutal reality of Syria’s 17-month-old conflict, and they have only accelerated as the country falls into outright civil war. Sunnis have largely backed the uprising against Assad’s rule, while the Alawites — members of an offshoot of Shiism — have firmly stood behind the regime, where they fill the leadership ranks.”

The regime’s brutal attack on civilian protesters during the early stages of the conflict resulted in a defection of low-ranking Sunni members of the military, followed by the purging and execution of officers suspected of being disloyal. Assad’s paranoia reached its peak when the most senior security personnel of the regime were blown up at the intelligence headquarters. Soon after, the highest-ranking Sunni member of the cabinet, the Prime Minister, had to defect in order to save himself from the anger, fear and suspicion that gripped the Alawite elites.

As the above-mentioned report by the AP indicates, as “tit-for-tat killings have increased, so has the segregation of the two communities”. Yet such segregation does not seem to be a result of communal violence alone, but part of an exit strategy by a regime whose hold on much of the country is rapidly depleting. As Franck Salameh argues,

” The grisly massacres running riot through the Syrian countryside are not mere sectarian outbursts or bouts of senseless killings and retaliatory counter killings… what they entail in terms of displacements, deportations and population movements—are nothing if not the groundwork of a future Alawite entity; the grafting of new facts on the ground and the drafting of new frontiers. No longer able to rule in the name of Arab unity (and in the process preserve their own ethnic and sectarian autonomy), the Alawites may retreat into the Levantine highlands overlooking the Mediterranean.”

Therefore, just like Gaddafi, Assad seems to be preparing to flee to his home and try to form a separate state that he can rule and protect his and his group’s interests. Only time will tell whether this strategy will help avoid Gaddafi’s fate – because by the time Assad gives up on Damascus, the military and security apparatus tirelessly built by his father would be severely damaged and unlikely to provide him a safe-haven in a new breakaway state.

In that 1989 piece quoted above, Daniel Pipes prophesied:

“It appears inevitable that the ‘Alawis – still a small and despised minority, for all their present power – will eventually lose their control over Syria. When this happens, it is likely that conflicts along communal lines will bring them down, with the critical battle taking place between the ‘Alawi rulers and the Sunni majority. In this sense, the ‘Alawis’ fall – be it through assassinations of top figures, a palace coup, or a regional revolt – is likely to resemble their rise.”

Sadly, this prediction has been realized with the ongoing popular armed uprising. Not only the hegemony of the Alawite elites is rapidly crumbling, but also the social fabric, economic and military foundation of the Syrian state and society is being destroyed. Whether to protect themselves from internal threat or to justify their domination by earning nationalist credentials, the Alawite elites built strong military, intelligence institution that had made Syria one of the most powerful regional players. Unfortunately by excluding the rest of the population from genuinely taking part in such national project and denying them equitable share, they made the current civil war inevitable. The elites’ quest for eternal domination resulted in more marginalization of their Alawite community and left the Syrian state weaker than ever before.

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