The Ethiopian Civil Rights Movement: Promising Developments
by Alemu Tafesse
The Ethiopian Muslims’ movement, an activism that took too many an observer by surprise when it started, is getting even more promising day by day. It has kept amazing some for its unmatched persistence, size, and visibility. It has startled others for forcefully injecting into the otherwise dormant Ethiopian politics an aura of democratic culture and oppositional dynamism despite authoritarian brutality.
As I once argued, it has also become perhaps the only massive and persistent location of democracy in current Ethiopia. Needless to say, it has, finally, inaugurated in the country a new era of non-violent anti-dictatorial struggle. Simply put, the civil rights movement has already left an indelible mark in Ethiopia’s present and future politics.
The most recent developments have been conspicuously remarkable, and are demonstrating the starker successes this movement is registering, and also its constructive transformations. The first and most obvious development is that it has generally gotten sturdier over time (despite some fluctuations now and then). However much the government wished it to fade away with the passage of time, the movement has gone increasing in size and the protesters have gone betraying stronger dedication to the cause. Starting from the few weeks leading up to the Holy Month of Ramadan, and right into the third week of the month, the Merkato and Piassa streets of Addis Ababa have aired perhaps the loudest ever public outcry and accommodated the largest ever gatherings.
The government indeed realized/anticipated the amount of opposition building against it, and has taken measures to deflect it. This time around, it has refined, magnified, and expanded on the murder of a Sheikh in Dessie. The incident has been given phenomenal attention to the extent that the ruling party issued an official statement on it, brought out people condemning it, and endlessly propagandized about it on the state media.
The immediate extraction of multiple cards from the murder alone requires close attention in order to understand the government’s reactions to the growing opposition. But we can even go further to seriously doubt the government’s claim that the Sheikh was killed by “networked terrorists”. It is by now a matter of consensus among the huge Muslim crowd protesting every Friday as well as many other Ethiopians of diverse backgrounds that the murder was a work of the government itself that aimed at stepping up the crackdown on Muslim activists and limiting the expected contagious effects of the movement by mobilizing the “Sufis” against a so-called “wahhabi” threat. Given a number of factors that deal with the circumstances of the killing and the track record of the ruling party, this is an argument not at all difficult to wholeheartedly accept as valid. But the important point here is the one that deals with the way, and the end to which, the killing was put to use by the government, which we have already seen.
Whether such a strategy succeeds remains to be seen as both the anti-government and government projects are now strongly underway, but it is getting clear that the Muslims movement is now been taken to a whole new level with the introduction of yet advanced forms of protest.
Two are worth-mentioning. The first is graffiti. In a dozen of places in Addis and the regions, walls have been found covered with writings that depict some of the demands of the protesters. Through these writings, the demands of the Muslim activists are carried on to days other than Friday; are given an alternative visual form of expression; and are singled out individually and magnified—all for ensuring deep public re-consideration.
The other—and more– significant development is the internationally held shows of protest and solidarity with the cause. Ethiopian Muslims in the diaspora have been quite active in showing their solidarity with the struggle inside the country.
But on the last days of July, the remarkable coordination among activists in different countries over various continents has given the movement a more solid, more organized and truly global face. It has, more than other things, proved to the world the potent organizational capacity of and the strong unity of purpose that resides in, this civil rights movement. It demonstrated not only the great potential of the movement in effectively challenging the EPRDF dictatorship but also the consistent rise in the maturity of the Ethiopian Muslim activism. The protest in Addis Ababa was especially extraordinary. It was simply so huge, so loud and so visible that even the state media was forced not to ignore it, but give it a “meaning” in accordance with its “terror” rhetoric. July 26 is yet another unforgettable day in the history of indefatigable and free expression of anti-EPRDF public fury.
The last, but the politically most important, development is the contribution of this struggle to the revivalism of a serious oppositional politics in the country. This point, I believe, is so significant that the ultimate measurement of the success of this movement is the degree to which it helps bring about serious and sustainable political dynamism that has the potential to eventually create a democratic political environment at the state level. The movement has already played a prominent role in this regard, which I want to touch upon in the following lines.
Two opposition political parties have successfully organized public rallies in different regions of Ethiopia. These rallies have been recorded as the first of their kind since the 2005 elections. While there could be multiple reasons that were behind the decisions on the part of the parties to take such a bold step, the fact that the Muslim movement was of phenomenal significance is absolutely undeniable. The movement might have contributed to the revitalization of the will of the opposition parties to call for protests in three major ways: first, it might have sparked in the minds of party leaders the very imagination of the display of opposition outside the realm of press conference and press release.
Such an imagination had been virtually extinguished among many anti-EPRDF politicians after the 2005 debacle. Secondly, for some other politicians, it was not actually imagining public protest that was lacking but the daring will put to use this form of opposition for political purpose. They had been waiting for a precedent that would mitigate the perceived costs of organizing protests. In this regard, the Muslim movement, not because of government leniency, but because of the protesters astounding flexibility and persistence in waging the non-violent struggle, posited this latter option as a feasible, and not necessarily so costly, form of resistance. This was a very important lesson for opposition parties that had once lost vitality having put between a rock and a hard place–forced to choose between submissiveness and armed struggle. A third path, peaceful protest, was gradually getting its admirers in some circles, but the still fresh obnoxious memory of the 2005 incidents couldn’t let the opposition transcend the dilemma it was facing. The Muslim movement paved the way for re-gaining confidence and re-empowering pro-liberation and anti-government spirits.
Thirdly, the Muslim movement boosted the confidence of the parties in yet another way: the immensely disgruntled Muslim population gave an assurance to the parties that if they touch the right cord, an enormous crowd can positively respond to their call for attending rallies. Echoing the demands of the Muslims can be a sufficient reason to get thousands of people on the streets, let alone invoking, in addition, other sources of frustration in the society like the ethnically motivated dislocations, economic downturn and the detention of journalists and politicians. The parties were adept enough to mobilize people based on all of these causes—and, expectedly, with notable success.
Thus, the Muslim struggle not only bred emancipatory sparks of thoughts, but also generated a good deal of will power among opposition circles. It, too, offered dependable promise that such thoughts and will at the level of party leadership would be positively received by significant sections of the population that could also be characterized as disgruntled and audacious. In short, the Ethiopian Muslim civil rights movement gave guidance and also revitalized the rather confused, gloomy, and defeatist oppositional politics in the country.
The new political dynamism that was kicked off to a large extent by the Muslim activism is now gaining momentum. Parties have gotten back their lives and the population has started to vent out its deep and multifarious frustrations. Such a show of people’s power needs to go unabated—actually increasing forcefully—until the core of the state gets disciplined. This is a long way forward, and certainly too many obstacles are ahead of us. But the path to democracy is not cushy, and all who push for it are bound to know this fact very well.
Finally, I would like to pause on one challenge that the Muslim activism has been facing in recent times. Some Ethiopians tended to mistake the movement for some individuals that support it and, based on this false conclusion, dared to question the very motive of it. This, as Maru Zeleke rightly notes, is a dangerous move—for Ethiopian politics, above all. It is tantamount to willfully attempting to derail a historic and exemplary struggle against authoritarianism. As a social movement that hinges on religious freedom and secularism, people from diverse walks of life and political thought, but who share some of the basic liberationist principles the Muslim struggle stands on, have supported it.
Many of the ardent supporters had been well-known for their political positions well before the emergence of the movement, and they have happened to stand by it without necessarily jettisoning those positions of theirs. While they decided to do so, they knew, as all the Muslim activists back home did, that they had no representational role whatsoever in the movement. The only representatives of this civil rights movement, as has been widely and consistently agreed upon, are its incarcerated leaders and those endorsed by them and by the Muslim activists back home. It is, hence, an egregious mistake to associate their non-political struggle with the political position or line of thought of any supporter in the diaspora.
It is immensely important that we realize the great potential of this struggle, attentively learn from it, and selflessly build on it in order to bring it to an all-satisfactory conclusion for all freedom-wishing Ethiopians. And the first step to do this is to keep our ideological fights far from it while still fully reaping its wide-ranging benefits towards the betterment of our politics. We should shun all unfounded suspicions about it, and let it rise above all political fault lines but still gain the unreserved support of all our political groupings