Bullish Ethiopia reminiscent of another autocratic state: Mohammed Morsi’s Egypt

Tuesday November 8th 2016

By Zecharias Zelalem

Ethiopia’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, made global headlines in early October when some eleven months after the country became engulfed in an endless sea of political manifestations and protest movements, it declared that it would impose a six month state of emergency across the country. The immediate concerns, according to government press releases, would be restoring the safety and security of the country’s citizens and institutions, which had been compromised by various elements hostile to the Ethiopian state, including diaspora based social media activists and armed groups trained and funded by the governments of Egypt and Eritrea. Federal security forces would be deployed for this task and see to the state’s restoration of order.

Critics of the government however, were quick to point out that “operation to restore order” is oft the same description given to the government’s violent military crackdowns on protesters in the Amhara and Oromo regional states, as well as in the Konso zone of Ethiopia’s Southern Nations and Nationalities Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). At a press conference in Addis Ababa last week seated next to visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told reporters present that over 500 people may have been killed since November 2015 in government moves to counter protests. Just over a month ago at the annual Irecha cultural gathering in Bishoftu, hundreds were killed or fell to their deaths in nearby ditches after similar state action was taken against crowds of people chanting anti government slogans. With some figures putting the death toll over 600, that tragic Sunday, October 2nd saw what is believed to be the highest single day death toll since the eruption of the protests nearly a year ago.

Despite the Prime Minister’s concession, activists believe that the actual number of deaths caused by government retaliatory measures against protesters across Ethiopia may have surpassed a thousand. There are no estimates for the numbers of people incarcerated during this period, but most would guess that figure to be several times more than the estimated figures for fatalities.

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Screenshot from a Youtube video showing security forces swarming Dire Dawa’s Haramaya University and beating protesting students at will in November 2015

 

Exactly what are the members of the ruling EPRDF clique expecting to achieve with their latest move? Can we expect to see a halt in the cycle of bloodshed that has shockingly become a part of daily life in parts of the country? What do the country’s powerbrokers have planned for the masses, people who have clearly indicated their being at odds with the direction Ethiopia is heading in?  If anything, Ethiopia’s new status as a nation in a state of emergency is a sign that the ruling party recognizes the turning of the tide against its authoritarian grip on society. This belief can be further substantiated upon one’s realizing that the government in Ethiopia has resorted to tactics that another authoritarian African leadership that also strode into the capital riding the waves of popular revolution used in its eventually vain attempt to cling onto power; that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood party leader Mohammed Morsi.

Despite being ushered to power in what western observers described as a largely legitimate election process in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 Revolution, Mohammed Morsi’s rule of the country was short-lived. Barely a year after his June 2012 swearing-in as President of the Republic, months of nationwide riots and protests culminated in the military detaining him and ending the Muslim Brotherhood’s stint in power.

The Egyptian protest movements calling on Morsi’s government to step down were fueled by many factors. But most analysts will agree that catalyst to the massive uprising that expedited his own downfall was his issuing a Presidential decree in November of 2012, modifying sections of the Egyptian national constitution. His modifications effectively rendered him the supreme and absolute leader of Egypt, legally immune to any court challenges brought against him. Al Monitor, the American news portal with a focus on Middle East affairs declared at the time that the then Egyptian leader granted himself “the powers to issue any decision or law without any alternative authority in the country having the power to oppose or revoke it.” This provoked outrage across the country and brought millions of Egyptians back to the streets, a mere couple of years after having brought the Mubarak regime to its knees.

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Former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi at a rally celebrating his 2012 election triumph (Image: The Guardian)

If Mohammed Morsi’s “Pharaohnic proclamation” wasn’t enough inspiration to revolt, the subsequent crimes his leadership committed in an attempt to quash internal dissent would only serve to intensify the Egyptian people’s resolve to see their newly elected leader join their ex leader Hosni Mubarak in detention. In a manner that is similar to what has made press freedom organisations scornful of the Ethiopian government’s conduct, Morsi oversaw the arrests of political commentators, journalists, bloggers and anyone critical of his regime. Despite claiming to be addressing the concerns of those rioting in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, forces loyal to the regime used more than disproportionate force in the dealing with the manifestations. Unfortunately for the doomed autocrat, the protest movements would not quiver.

Morsi’s severely miscalculated the backlash against his rule that would follow his signing in of the controversial new national constitution. Protesters demonstrated throughout the country, and even outside Morsi’s residence in Cairo. Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, had organized brute squads of hardcore supporters willing to carry out extrajudicial retaliation deployed to terrorize opponents of his regime. These gangs kidnapped, raped, beat, tortured and killed protesters and known critics of the regime. Mainstream media in the west for the most part, failed to provide their audiences with an in-depth coverage with the violence that occurred immediately after the “Pharaohnic proclamation.” Perhaps to spare the blushes of leaders who had given gushing reviews to the post 2011 Egyptian electoral process, many were all too hesitant to report on crimes against humanity being committed by the new Egyptian “titans of democracy,” as one journalist dubbed them.

In the same way, the Ethiopian government’s year long military attempt at taming the protests received minimal coverage and the killings of student protesters at campuses in Dire Dawa for instance, got little to no coverage in November 2015. Only months after US President Barack Obama made a statement during a state visit to Addis Ababa praising Ethiopia’s “democratically elected government,” disturbing reports began to emerge of that government’s pulling no punches and sparing no triggers in an attempt to quell the unrest which was then in its infancy. Foreign governments and diplomats refrained from even recognizing the fact that there was an ongoing protest movement. But even after the news became no longer containable and a regular feature of news reports focused on Africa, they were very hesitant to criticize the very heavy-handed tactics employed by EPRDF decision makers.

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At a press conference in Addis Ababa last year, US President Barack Obama seemingly endorsed the Ethiopian government (Image: Reuters)

Mohammed Morsi saw the public outcry against his authoritarian practices, but instead of trying to reason with the demonstrators, his party maintained a very hostile stance towards them. Spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood described the protesters as “terrorists” and “armed gangsters.” Morsi himself threatened to retaliate, repeatedly telling parliament that “they would not escape punishment,” and that the protesters were morally bankrupt troublemakers funded by elements of the Mubarak regime. He did his best to portray his party’s efforts to pummel the growing anti government protests as necessary to safeguard the country’s interests and defend people from elements of “terrorism.”

In many ways, the manner that the second round of revolutionary protests took Egypt by storm resembles the resolute rise of the people movements in Ethiopia’s Amhara and Oromo regions. The government in Ethiopia’s stark refusal to recognize any legitimacy behind the protests led to its adopting of a hard-headed approach to dealing with them. Instead of initiating dialogue as would be customary of a government under increasing pressure from the population it claims to serve, national television and radio outlets were instructed to issue broadcasts brandishing the demonstrators as “terrorists” and “hooligans” with malicious intentions. Ethiopian regime spokespeople threatened to take serious action to quell what they were now describing as an insurgency hell-bent on reversing Ethiopia’s economic gains. And as everyone concerned knows by now, tragically they have stayed true to their word. Among the dead alleged terrorists are university, college and high school students, women, children and the elderly. Nobody has been spared the wrath of the crackdown. Thousands have been detained and aren’t scheduled for any due process. No credible media outlet has coverage which includes details of any sort of armed struggle initiated by protesters. Yet the heavily armed presence of federal troops in protest zones and the deadly counter protester action taken by the repressive state apparatus would suggest the presence of a foreign invading army in the country.

Mohammed Morsi was forced to make concessions, and later made a u-turn on his proclamation, editing out the modifications to the constitutions that would have rendered him a virtual deity in Egypt. But by now, the anti Morsi movement had garnered an unassailable fervour. The killings and beatings of protesters by Muslim Brotherhood elements pushed people beyond the brink. Popular movements led by groups like the Egyptian Popular Current, a leftist party espousing secularism saw their ranks swell as people’s rage would no longer cool over with a simple rewriting of legal legislation. Two members of the party were killed on the 5th of December 2012 by Brotherhood supporters hurling Molotov cocktails at them. Millions of people, harbouring grievances over everything from the way post 2011 Egypt was run, to those who opposed the conservative Islamic ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood decided they couldn’t stomach an Egypt with Mohammed Morsi holding the reins.

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Millions flooded the streets during the anti Morsi protests (Image: AFP)

Egyptian cyber security consultant and researcher Hosam W. El Dakhakhni remembers the chaotic mess his country was in as a result of the Muslim Brotherhood’s pledge to clamp down on opposition. A keen observer as well as an eyewitness of some of the then frequent violent clashes, he shared with me an example of the bloodshed that would occur at the anti Morsi rallies.

“Muslim Brotherhood leaders would incite the deliberate killings of opponents on media, including television. Armed brotherhood militias attacked both men and women who were demonstrating in front of the Etihadeya (presidential) palace. One massacre resulted in the death of about a dozen demonstrators and more than 800 were either brutally beaten or seriously injured.”

Last January, months into Ethiopia’s Oromo protest movement, the EPRDF party announced that it had scrapped plans to implement the widely unpopular Addis Ababa city “Master Plan” that would have seen the extension of the capital city and the displacement of impoverished Oromo farmers. But similar to Morsi’s desperate attempt at calming tensions with the annulment of his rewriting of the constitution, the scrapping of the Addis Ababa Master Plan has proven to have come way too late to make a difference. Outrage over EPRDF practices as a whole has simmered to levels never seen before in the last quarter of a century. The EPRDF’s state borders placing the Wolqaite Tegede region in Tigray state was always a controversial divisive issue that has left Ethiopia’s Amhara population rather perplexed. The increasing reports of Oromo protesters being killed in rallies served to kick-start the civil disobedience across the Amhara state. It has resulted in the region’s militarization and a merciless government crackdown.

Demonstrators show the Oromo protest gesture sign during Irreecha, the thanks giving festival of the Oromo people in Bishoftu town of Oromia region, Ethiopia
Bishoftu was swarmed by thousands of protesters during this year’s Oromo Irecha festival (Image: Reuters)

 

Mohammed Morsi saw his measures to counter the growing movement with designs on unseating him bear no fruit. State intimidation tactics backfired and instead served as the opposition’s propaganda outlet to turn more Egyptian youths into staunch anti Muslim Brotherhood activists. Feeling the heat, the Muslim Brotherhood pulled out a trump card that despots from all four corners of the globe have thrown into the fray since time immemorial when confronted with growing domestic tension. Mohammed Morsi tried to appeal to the Egyptian public’s sense of nationalism. It would have two purposes, one, Morsi’s portrayal as a no-nonsense Egyptian patriot would divert focus away from his Islamist beliefs, a source of tension between him and the generally secular Egyptian public. Two, if successful, Egyptians would now have a national threat which would occupy the focus of their crosshairs, and thus see the kicking in of a country’s instinctive self defense maneuver in which it unites in times of war to see the successful fending off of the enemy.

In May of 2013, Egyptian government spokesman Omar Amer had told a host of assembled Egyptian journalists at a press conference in Cairo that the Grand Renaissance Dam being built on the Nile River by the Ethiopia was not a threat to the Egyptian people’s share of the water. In what had seemed like a fresh start to bilateral relations between Ethiopia and Egypt, the Egyptian government’s tone appeared to have softened, and the country’s leaders were actively seeking joint cooperation in addressing areas for concern, as well as diplomatic understanding with their Ethiopian counterparts on the issue. This is in striking contrast with the robust stance on the topic that the country had during the Mubarak era.

But a mere couple of weeks later, The Egyptians suddenly turned hostile towards Ethiopia’s Nile River aspirations. At an emergency session of parliament called specifically to discuss the dam being built downstream, Mohammed Morsi scoffed at the idea of the dam being mutually beneficial to both Ethiopia and Egypt. He stated that a team of experts he had sent to Ethiopia to visit the construction site deduced that such a project could only be built upon Ethiopia harbouring sinister intentions for Egypt. “Egypt conducted parallel technical studies with the help of international experts; the studies showed the dam had potentially negative effects on Egypt if it was constructed according to the current Ethiopians model.”

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In his final days in office, Mohammed Morsi adopted a much more aggressive demeanor towards Ethiopia and her Nile River aspirations (Image: AP)

If the sudden u-turn didn’t raise eyebrows, Morsi’s upping the ante by beating the war drums, did. In a thinly veiled threat of war, Morsi was quoted as saying “If our share of Nile water decreases, our blood will be the alternative.” Trying to portray Ethiopia as the bogeyman that his millions of detractors in the streets of every major Egyptian city should instead beware of, Morsi appealed to the nation to put the domestic feud to the side and let bygones be bygones while the country’s well being was allegedly under threat. “I call for a comprehensive national reconciliation with the single goal of loyally serving our beloved Egypt,” said the Islamist political leader in an attempt to sell himself as a flag waving ardent patriot and father of the nation.

Just a month before his overthrow from power, Morsi and a group of Egyptian politicians from differing political circles, were caught on live television describing what course of action to take to prevent Ethiopia’s completion of the dam. The actions discussed by the group ranged from diplomatic solutions to outright hostile acts such as arming rebel groups with the hopes of instigating civil war. The group had believed they were in a secret meeting and didn’t immediately realize that their discussion was being broadcast live. In Ethiopia, the remarks were taken as nothing short of saber rattling. But some observers have stated their belief that the video release was actually done intentionally. Their beliefs were fueled by the fact that such carelessness is a rarity and quite incredible; and in the Egyptian public, the video would double as war propaganda or indoctrination of the public mindset. Ethiopia, America, Israel were all used as scarecrows in an attempt at scaring the populace into allying themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. It was seen as a desperate Morsi’s running out of options, weeks ahead of a planned massive June 30 rally that was expected to rock the establishment to the core. Evidently, it did so.

Likewise, in Ethiopia one can argue that the EPRDF is resorting to the same scare tactics. In recent weeks Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has done all he can to magnify the threat posed by the Egyptian government. The protests according to him, are in actuality a concoction of entities of national destabilization working in tandem with the Egyptian government.

“Countries displeased with our determination to build the great Renaissance Dam have for a long time conspired with diaspora extremists to destabilize our country,” Ethiopia’s PM told parliament clearly indicating the involvement of Cairo.

“We have ample evidence that trainings (sic) have happened, financing has happened in Egypt, the jury is still out whether the Egyptian government is going to claim responsibility for that,” said Ethiopia’s Communications Minister Getachew Reda.

State media outlet Fana Broadcasting Corporation (FBC) recently circulated a video of what appeared to be an Oromo diaspora meeting in Egypt with two Egyptians addressing a crowd of Oromos present, telling them they see a future autonomous Oromo state free from Ethiopia, to rapturous applause of those present. FBC described the men in the video as Egyptian government agents showing their determination to aid secessionist Oromo groups such as the banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in their struggle to create chaos and strife in Ethiopia. Social media users however, say that the video is nothing of the type. A man who claims he was in the video says that the video was actually filmed at an Oromo community gathering in Egypt back in 2014, and that the Arabic speakers in the video were simply human rights activists with no link whatsoever to the Egyptian leadership.

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Musician Teferi Mekonen (left) seen here in Bishoftu during the Irecha festivities, was mistakenly (or not) identified by several pro government outlets as an Egyptian government agent (Image: Facebook)

Other local media outlets that make no attempt to hide their EPRDF bias circulated an image of what they initially described as an Egyptian agent at the Irecha festival in Bishoftu. The man in the image making the crossed arm gesture was later identified as popular Oromo music star Teferi Mekonen. The ERPDF regime and affiliated media networks’ are going into overdrive in their attempts to highlight the alleged involvement of Egyptians in an international plot to dismantle the Ethiopian state. The scare tactics don’t seem to be working. Rallying Ethiopia’s dissident protesters into a standoff with Egypt would have given the government some much needed breathing space and a chance at regrouping while Ethiopians are staring up north at Cairo. But Egypt’s involvement appears to be meaningless to protesters when it still cannot justify the brutal killings used to punish people across Ethiopia’s zones of protest.

In a speech to members of his country’s armed forces a couple of weeks ago, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi denied his country’s involvement in the Ethiopian uprisings. “Egypt doesn’t conspire against anyone. I want to assure the brothers in Ethiopia that Egypt has never ever offered support to the opposition and will not carry out any conspiratorial action against Ethiopia.”

Appealing to Ethiopia’s nationalism by emphasizing a threat posed by the traditional arch foe in Egypt is most likely a sign of the EPRDF’s exasperation with their failure to quell the internal storm as well as the increasingly bad press the government is getting due to their provoking the ire of human rights groups condemning the state sponsored violence.

In 2013, facing the largest ever anti government protest movement in history, with an estimated thirty million Egyptians out in the streets calling on Morsi to stand down, the military gave the Muslim Brotherhood leader 48 hours to bring about a political solution that would prevent the country falling into total anarchy. With all the pressure on his shoulders to submit for the sake of the people he had solemnly swore to serve, Morsi appeared on national television and gave a statement that spoke of his delusion and nothing else. “If the price of protecting legitimacy is my blood, I’m willing to pay it. And it would be a cheap price for the sake of protecting this country,” the autocrat said in his last official remarks as President of the Egyptian republic. Despite facing what many journalists and historians described as the largest ever political rally in recorded history, Mohammed Morsi refused to adhere to the reality of his dire circumstances. He stubbornly clang onto the notion that despite his mere presence in power being the reason for Africa’s second most populous country being totally gridlocked, his rule was still legitimate and accepted by Egypt as a whole. Twenty four hours later, the military’s deadline expired, Mohammed Morsi was detained.

In the end, the Egyptian military being an institution independent from the Egyptian political establishment facilitated the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood. With one of the most powerful militaries in the world at their command, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that June 30th would have most likely seen the Muslim Brotherhood party use the armed forces to carry out massacres of demonstrators to maintain the “legitimacy” Morsi claimed he always had. If anything, Morsi will go down in history as being a man left in a perpetual state of denial.

In today’s Ethiopia however, the military is an open collaborator with the state establishment due to its total control by EPRDF elements. Safeguarding the EPRDF’s stranglehold on power is arguably prioritized even ahead of the safety of the country’s civilians. Hence despite the autocrats in Addis Ababa seeing the public seething against them increase in a manner similar to what we saw in Egypt three years ago, they are much more secure in power than their ill fated former counterparts who are now standing trial for crimes against the Egyptian people.

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The now outgoing Ethiopian Communications Affairs minister Getachew Reda vowed to clamp down on those he described as “terrorists” (Image: Diretube)

The move to implement the state of emergency in Ethiopia exhibits the EPRDF’s falling prey to the same state of denial that saw Morsi meet his end. With the public at large demanding national reforms and/or their ouster, the ruling Ethiopian clique is firm in its belief that it is the only legitimate authority and anyone saying otherwise is a threat to the nation’s security, growth and development. In other words, a terrorist. The Egyptian military moved quickly to prevent what could have been the unleashing of the Muslim Brotherhood in self defense mode, doing anything it could to maintain its rule. There is nothing preventing the EPRDF from entering instinctive survival mode. It has indicated its willingness to snuff out anything deemed a threat, as guidelines for the state of emergency reveal. The Ethiopian government had always denied accusations it was a jailer of journalists and muzzling dissent at home. But now it has openly suggested that the state of emergency gives them the legal carte blanche to infringe upon the most basic of democratic freedoms. Watching diaspora based television and radio networks can warrant an arrest now, as can criticizing the procedures on Facebook and Twitter. The Ethiopian government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the reality and face the music has led to the current predicament. The state of emergency will only further pit the government against the people of Ethiopia. It’s a statement from the regime that there is no room for compromise of any kind. Frankly it mirrors a declaration of war against a broad sector of the people of Ethiopia.

 

With the EPRDF government’s official portrayal of the crisis increasingly appearing to belong to that of an Ethiopia from a parallel dimension, a keen observer must be asking him/herself how much closer to the end of the cliff will the EPRDF developmental train push the peoples of this troubled sub-Saharan state?

Harrowing to say the least.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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