The Ethiopian Muslim Civil Rights Movement: Implications for Democracy in Ethiopia Part 2.

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Mar 10th, 2013

Alemu Tafesse, Academic and Political Analyst

Part 1

2)    Introduced an alternative path towards democracy

The political culture of Ethiopia has been deeply beset by the politics of exclusion and the psychology of rebellion. On the one hand, the successive governments of Ethiopia have uncompromisingly held the belief that their political survival largely depends on the political death of those they see as their opponents. The exclusion of a significant portion of the voices from the mainstream political system has been at the hallmark of the governments’ power. The excluded might have been earmarked in ethnic, gender, religious, regional or personal terms. This has been an exclusion that bases itself on the self-identification and the political and economic interests of the ruling class, as well as on the personal idiosyncrasies of its members. Opposition, even more than difference, has needed to be “solved”, rather than incorporated and managed. Unflinching on their grip on the bar of certainty, they have never swallowed the virtue of plunging oneself into the unknown that inclusion brings with it. Bent on saving the regime from a lurking threat, exclusion has been the normal and first procedure that has been applied to disagreement.

Exclusion usually breeds rebellion, and persistent and absolute exclusion breeds persistent and absolute rebellion. This has been largely true throughout the political history of this country.  Different reformers might have started out to air their critical views in moderate terms, but many of the organized movements in much of modern Ethiopian history have been radical. They have been radical in the sense that they have been anti-system and mostly violent. This system that they have targeted has ranged from the existing political order with all its traces and affiliates to the very entity we call Ethiopia. In other words, while some have violently rebelled against the regime and everything associated with it, and demanded its complete displacement, others have fiercely demanded nothing short of the dismemberment of Ethiopia itself. In either case, the movements haven’t just looked for change, but a radical change supposedly wrought about in a radical way.

The politics of exclusion paradoxically married to the psychology of rebellion has had disastrous consequences for the democratic record of the country. Democracy both as a historical process and as a theory is about compromise, inclusion, diversity, and toleration. In a society, on the one hand, where the balance of power between the rulers and the ruled is highly skewed against the latter; where the rulers feel insecure to hear dissent from the ruled; where the usual mechanism of regime stability is not pulling up, but pushing out, as many voices as possible; and on the other hand, where the ruled do not aspire to bring about a culture of loyal opposition in the country but one of unbounded rebellion; where they refuse to see a possibility for change coming with the least cost, but with the excesses of violence; where being an anti-system is seen as the only way of making the system work better; where the anti-regime movement itself becomes exclusivist and narrow—in a society where these are the noted manifestations of its political culture, democratic culture will have really hard times to foster. Such has been the problem with the political culture of Ethiopia. I hasten to add here that I’m not necessarily and generally blaming the anti-government forces in Ethiopia or elsewhere for operating as rebellious folks, as radicalism may be justifiable in some senses and in certain cases. What I’m offering here is a general tool for understanding the elements of a political culture that is unfavorable to the flourishing of sustainable democracy. It can also help us to question the “natural-ness” of human endeavors (reactions to oppression, for example) by putting things in a cultural context. Finally, in the specific Ethiopian case, it can slightly account for the never-ending replacement of political exclusion by itself.

It is my belief that the current Muslim rights movement has gone an unprecedented distance in transcending this dichotomy. Under fire from a highly exclusivist regime much frequently and for so long, neither the leaders of the movement nor the major actors in it have (yet) developed a (n ultra) radical consciousness or behavior. It is simply surprising—but perhaps explicable– for any seasoned observer of Ethiopian politics that people in their millions, from so diverse backgrounds, consistently demonstrating so loudly every week  for over a year, and receiving all sorts of brutal reactions from government forces, would be so consistent in their demands and conduct. There has so far been no evidence of radicalism, disorganization, or confusion in the ranks of the protestors. The unflinching obedience they have showed to their leaders’ injunctions before the latter’s arrest, and the unwavering commitment to their last words after their arrest should appear as something baffling to those who have always witnessed the opposite in the political history of Ethiopia. The movement has been consistently demanding for the protection of democratic and constitutional rights and nothing more or less. It has couched its demands in the most legal and legitimate manner, and has staged perfectly non-violent rallies. It has never, on the one hand, asked for, or worked towards, the realization of religious interests beyond or independent of the constitutional framework, nor, on the other hand, has it demanded, or sought, the displacement of that framework by a new secular system. This is very significant for the development of an inclusive and non-violent democratic culture in the country, as I will further elaborate later.

The government, just like its predecessors would, has responded to the opposition in an exclusivist manner, trying to relegate the voices of dissent to the margins. The voices, however, refused to be marginalized. The barrage of formal and informal, overt and covert, physical  and verbal pressures that have been put on the protestors to keep them silent and endure all that comes from the government have been blatantly rejected. The movement has kept going—unabated—for so long despite the cravings of an otherwise highly repressive regime.

But the fact that it has rejected the call to be silenced is just the first instance of saying no to marginalization. The movement has also refused to be plunged into the margins by taking a radical turn. Radicalization is a gamble with very high stakes. It might succeed to bring on board many people, or end up alienating many. It is something uncontrollable especially during its early stages, and might not have the stability or the sustainability that proper mass recruitment requires. It is also liable to be defeated as government violence is usually more refined, more disciplined, and more brutal than that of its opponents. The Muslims’ movement in this sense refused to commit suicide by transforming itself into what the government wants it to become: a supra-constitutional “pariah”. It has been very critical of the government, but very respectful of the constitutional order at the same time. This doesn’t mean that it has been supportive of the ruling party or of its policies in other areas. It simply means that its aim has been the full realization of democratic and secular order with the minimum cost that may come along constructive change, but with the maximum effort that such a change requires. This is a very economic use of mass power against the state.

In echoing a loud and critical, but non-radical, voice, the movement has contributed a lot to the development of a new stream of culture in the politics of this country. First, it has helped us to assess the possibilities and potential outcomes of a non-violent democratic struggle for constructive change in Ethiopia. Bearing the brunt of a set of violent responses from the government, the Muslims’ movement has taught us that at least a strong public sphere that aspires to change the status quo can be established with or without the existence of a repressive state structure. Part of this contribution is that it has widened our horizons to, and raised our hopes in, finding solace in peaceful struggle against dictatorship. Yes, a very unique Ethiopian non-violent struggle is unfolding before our eyes, and we’re being forced to re-think some of our assumptions about the way we understand the mechanisms of effecting political change in Ethiopia.

Secondly, it has also helped us to understand the vulnerability of authoritarian rule. Apart from its vulnerability in the sense I mentioned towards the beginning of this paper (forced to shed its “democratic” face), the regime in Ethiopia has also failed in keeping under control the momentum of the opposition it has been facing for about fourteen months. Contradicting the academic assertions that accord undue historic value to state power against the people, the Muslim struggle has proven to us that state violence is not always effective in putting an end to opposition. This won’t really be congratulated as new information for those of us living in the age of the Arab Spring, but I think it is quite unique in Ethiopian land. Someone might pose the disagreement that counter-regime movements have succeeded in Ethioipia’s past, too. My rejoinder is that, yes, they have succeeded in ending regimes, but they have done so only by either carrying arms or getting the military on their side or both. Nothing of these things have been happening in Ethiopia for over a year now. There hasn’t been a violent Muslim– anti-regime or even rights’ –struggle in Ethiopia, nor has the security apparatus of the state showed any sign of siding with the civil rights movement. Be that as it may, the quest for freedom has been loud and rampant, frustrating the wishes of the government from coming into fruition.

The maintenance of a loud quest for freedom at the face of state repression also means something else. The Muslim activism, by demonstrating authoritarian vulnerability, has taught us that all marginalization is self-marginalization. Many structuralist accounts on this topic have contributed a lot to our understanding of the wider forces in play on our societies, but some of them have been unfairly neglectful of subjective and agential forces that are otherwise very important in explaining political outcomes. As already mentioned, the Ethiopian government has always required that no opposition “disturbs” its “proper” functioning, and its response to the Muslim demands has been underpinned by the same logic. But all the efforts at silencing people have failed to bear fruits. While the power of the state should indeed be considered in accounting for the muting of opposition, we need to consider as well the will of the receiving end of that power. Power resides not just in the state, but also in the subjectivities of the individuals whom the state targets. In other words, the locus of power is not to be sought just in the material, mundane objects of repression, but also in the minds and souls of the forces of anti-oppression. If an opposition (in this case, in the form of mass movement) to a state rule becomes silent, it may not only mean that it has been silenced by the government; it may also mean that it has silenced itself. The will power of individuals comes in between the repression of the state and the act of being silent. State-centric accounts of power mislead us from this very important fact.

The Muslim activism is therefore very significant in affecting the political culture of the country. It has brought about a strong, consistent and yet moderate opposition to dictatorship. Most importantly, it has relocated our focus of the paraphernalia for building a democratic state. We have been, in the past, fixated on changing exclusivist systems, but ended up bringing/witnessing other exclusivist ones. This time around, perhaps we need to be fixated on democracy itself—the idea, the culture, the way of life. When the ultimate and major goal of activism is changing regimes or changing territorial borders—however much democratically couched the discourses for those ends could be– there is no guarantee that the new regime or the new country will adopt a democratic system. But I think when the ultimate goal, and the way towards that goal, is democracy, equality, inclusion and freedom; and when the masses behind such a massive change are thoroughly democratized in mind and spirit; and when retaliation has no place in the minds of the wider public, I think we are a step closer to bringing about the system we have cherished for long. I think Ethiopian Muslims have offered us a lesson in this regard by democratizing their discourse and behavior, in remaining steadfast in both aspects for so long, and saying no to radicalization. At the same time, they have effectively morally defeated the Ethiopian regime by forcing it to become the darkest it can be. By volunteering to risk their precious lives, they have experimented (and are experimenting) the different alternative paths to democracy—alternatives we Ethiopians are not very much used to. Ethiopian Muslims have charted for all of us a new path towards a new Ethiopia.

1)    Became an the alternative location of democracy

I have already discussed the implications of the Muslim struggle in both exposing the nature of the Ethiopian government, and in showing an alternative way towards building a culture of democracy, or, more strictly, an alternative way towards setting up a democratic framework through the establishment of a culture of democracy. In the following lines, I will take the second point further, and argue that the Muslim rights movement has not just demonstrated a different way towards democracy, but it has itself become perhaps the most reliable venue for democratic outburst in Ethiopia. At this rather bleakest moment of the EPRDF’s era, the civil rights movement has remained to be the foremost locus of democracy.

Struggle for freedom and democracy has not been new for Ethiopians; many have been doing it at least since the second half of the 20th century. But the struggles, among other things, have felt short of developing a critical mass and sustainable Ethiopia-wide public that can act as dependable reservoir of democratic crucible in the society. They have been either non-pan-Ethiopian, or unsustainable and/or authoritarian, or any combination of those. Some freedom fighters have fought just to save their ethnic groups from government brutality; some Ethiopia-wide movements couldn’t succeed in their peaceful struggle, and hence have had to go underground, thereby (usually) developing clandestine non-transparent, centralized, structures that have rendered them authoritarian themselves. Or when they have escaped the establishment of a clandestine centralized rule, they have faded away from the public and couldn’t remain strong refuges of democracy. The fact that nothing of this sort has yet developed with regards to the Muslim activism is worth-noting. By its very nature, the Muslim activism has been trans-ethnic and trans-regional, and hence it has had a modicum of pan-Ethiopian trait (despite the obvious limitation of its being religion-based). But it has been not only pan-Ethiopian, but also “Ethiopia-centred” in the sense that its discourse-framing, its actors, its visions etc have been very Ethiopian, not international or regional. The government’s accusations notwithstanding (which are not to be taken seriously by any sober observer), there hasn’t been any trace of foreign involvement in the struggle.

The democratic activism has not only been Ethiopia-centred, but, as already mentioned elsewhere, also has been sustainable for so long. This is indeed an indication that in a country where NGO’s have been severely crippled, press freedom dying out, religious institutions tightly controlled, and professional associations effectively co-opted– in short, where civil society is in grave danger of extinction, there has been one starkly different arena of visible democracy: the arena of the protesting Muslims. They have been the last –but interestingly the most vibrant–bastion of democracy in the country. Their voice has been the only remaining dependable, independent and loud voice of liberation–uncontrolled and uncontrollable by the government. Their unsubduable behavior has created an immensely empowering political climate in the country. Their unshattarable unity has given many a good reason to imagine a post-divided Ethiopia. Their freedom-induced fury and chaos-phobic discipline are the very marrows of democracy. The Ethiopian Muslims are coming out of this year-long journey as a new brand of strong, assertive, post-violent, and unified locations of anti-authoritarian force.


Conclusion: A Plea

I have raised a few, but broad, points by way of showing the democratic implications of the fourteen-month old civil rights movement of Ethiopian Muslims. I have considered it to be of phenomenal significance in the socio-political history of Ethiopia. But I also believe that it will play its full potential only when two actors join it wholeheartedly: the rest of Ethiopians, and the international community. By the former, I specifically have in mind Ethiopian Christians in Ethiopia. It is true that many of them have disclosed their support for the Muslim rights movement, and have helped in sheltering, feeding and morally supporting the elements therein. But total democratic transformation requires more than this. The struggle for democracy in that country has gone through several stages, and has now reached one of its most promising ones. As such, I don’t see it wise at all to leave this struggle just to Muslims, and by doing so, deliberately limit the fruits of a potentially far-reaching and holistic transformative experience. Christians should join the movement bringing with them their own demands for freedom from government interference in religious matters (that they have a lot to complain about), and later on jointly escalate the democratic demands, chanting for those great ideals that all self-respecting humans have always called for throughout history. I think most of us who have supported the Muslim struggle should from now on expand on this proposal—the need for it, the challenges to it and the mechanisms of doing it.

Another proposal is to the big players on the world stage. My message here is deliberately short since I prefer to reserve the elaboration for another piece of mine and others’ to come. I’d now say, paraphrasing Condoleezza Rice, many of you have dreamt of and at times have sought to help (create) what you thought were forces of stability even at the expense of democracy, and as a result have failed on both accounts. One path towards realizing both valuables is to stand by and protect non-radical, massive, persistent and daring forces of unity and anti-authoritarianism from below. Start with the protesting Ethiopian Muslims!

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