By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Creeping Youthbellion and Youthvolution in Africa and the Middle East
“When the sun rises, it rises for everyone,” goes the old saying. The sun that rose over tyranny in North Africa will not set at the edge of the Sahel; it will shine southward on the African savannah and rainforest. The wind of change blowing across the Middle East will soon cut a wide swath clear to the Atlantic Coast of West Africa from the Red Sea. The sun that lifted the darkness that had enveloped Tunisia, Egypt and Libya for decades can now be seen rising just over the Ethiopian horizon. The sun rises to greet a new generation of Ethiopians.
Today we are witnessing a second African independence, an independence from thugtatorship no less dramatic or volcanic than the upheavals of oppressed peoples that overthrew the yoke of colonialism one-half century ago. In 1960, British PM Harold McMillan warned his fraternity of European imperial powers: “The wind of change is blowing through this [African] continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”
The wind of change that has kicked up a sandstorm of youth rebellion and revolt in North Africa has laid bare the ghastly facts of oppression and youth despair to global consciousness. Arab and African youths are crying out for freedom, democracy, human rights and equal economic opportunity. The vast majority of the uneducated, under-educated and mis-educated African youths have no hope for the future. Legions of Arab youths with college degrees, advanced professional and technical training waste away the best years of their lives because they have few economic opportunities. They too see a void in their future. African and Arab youths have had enough, and they are rising up like the sun to liberate themselves and their societies from the clutches of thugs. The outcome of the youth uprisings is foreordained. As Sam Cooke, the great pioneer of soul music sang, “It’s been a long, a long time coming/ But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will…”
But there are some who cynically argue that the type of volcanic popular uprisings sweeping North Africa cannot happen in Ethiopia. They offer many reasons. They say the thugtators in Ethiopia have used every means at their disposal to keep the people benighted, divided and antagonized. They point to the primitive state of information technology in Ethiopia as proof of a deliberate official strategy to prevent Ethiopian youth from accessing the Internet freely to learn new ideas and create cyber civic societies. (Ethiopia has the second lowest (after Sierra Leone) internet penetration rate in Africa.) They say Zenawi has bought off the best and the brightest of Ethiopia’s youth with cash, jobs, special educational opportunities and privileges just to keep them off the streets and happy as a clam. (It seems Ethiopia’s youth are a pressurized powder keg.) They say Ethiopia’s young people (who comprise the majority of the population) have no frame of historical reference and that Zenawi has brainwashed them into believing that he is their demi-god and savior. (It is possible to fool some of the youths all of the time, but it is impossible to fool all of the youths all of the time.) They say Zenawi’s vast security network of informants, spies and thugs will suppress any youth or other uprising before it could gather momentum. They say Zenawi has permeated the society with so much fear and loathing that it is nearly impossible for individuals or groups to come together, build consensus and articulate a unified demand for change. They say Zenawi has created so much ethnic antagonism in the society that he can cling to power indefinitely by playing his divide-and-rule game and raising the specter of genocide and civil war. Regardless of what anyone says, Zenawi has made it crystal clear what he will do to cling to power. He will “crush with full force” anyone who opposes him electorally or otherwise.
The Survival Principle of Thugtatorships
African thugtators will do anything to cling to power. Hosni Mubarak used a state of emergency decree to cling to power for three decades. When he was deposed from his Pharaonic throne, there were 30,000 political prisoners rotting in his dungeons. Ben Ali in Tunisia did as he pleased for nearly a quarter of a century. Gadhafi’s actions in Libya today offer a hard object lesson on what thugtators will do to cling to power. He continues to use helicopter gunships and MiG fighter planes to bomb and strafe civilians. He is using his private army of thugs and mercenaries to commit unspeakable violence on Libyan citizens. He has offered to buy off Libyans for $400 per household and pledged a 150 percent increase in government workers’ wages if they stop the uprising. They told him “to immerse it in water and drink it” (or “to stuff it…” in the English vernacular.) Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, has threatened to dismember Libya and plunge it into a civil war and “fight to the last minute, until the last bullet, until the last drop of my blood.” Gadhafi is doing everything in his power to cling to power. The only unanswered question is whether he will resort to the “chemical option”. On March 16, 1988, toward the end of the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam Hussien used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja killing thousands. Will Gadhafi use chemical weapons against Libyans in March 2011 as his regime comes to its long overdue end? Whether Zenawi will follow Gadhafi’s scorched earth policy to cling to power remains to be seen, but careful analysis of his actions, public statements, interviews, speeches, writings, ideological perspective and the irrepressible and self-consuming hatred he has publicly displayed against those who have opposed him over the past 20 years suggests that he will likely follow the tragic wisdom of the old aphorism, “Apre moi, le deluge” (After me, the flood).
But thugtators, trapped in their bubbles and echo chambers, often overestimate their prowess and abilities. “Brotherly Leader” Gadhafi thought he was so powerful and the Libyan people so cowardly that he did not expect in his wildest imagination they would dare rise up and challenge him. He was proven wrong when Libyans broke the chains of crippling fear Gadhafi had put on them for 42 years. Gadhafi thought he could prevent Libyan youths from communicating and coordinating with each other by shutting down social media such as Facebook. Libya’s young revolutionaries proved to be more creative; they used Muslim dating websites to coordinate their activities. Now Gadhafi has completely shut down Internet service in the country believing he can control and distort the flow of information coming out of Libya. Gadhafi’s murderous thugs and mercenaries have been repelled time and again by a ragtag army of Libyan shopkeepers, waiters, welders, engineers, students and the unemployed. Despite Gadhafi’s talk of tribal war, Libyans have closed ranks to wage war on thugtatorship. After 42 years of ignorant ramblings in the Green Book, Gadhafi and his Jamahiriya (“republic ruled by the masses”) are in their death throes.
The Bouzazi Factor
Mohamed Bouzazi was the young Tunisian who burned himself to protest Ben Ali’s thugtatorship. Bouzazi’s desperate act became the spark that created the critical mass of popular uprising which has caused a chain reaction throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The tipping point for change in any country cannot be predicted with certainty. In Tunisia, Bouzazi was literally the “fissile material” that catalyzed the popular uprising. In Egypt, a number of factors worked together to get rid of Mubarak’s thugtatorship. The young Egyptians who led the revolt were well educated and tech savvy and used their knowledge to organize effectively. The Egyptian military maintained neutrality and opposition elements were able to build consensus on the need to remove Mubarak and his henchmen from power after three decades. In Libya, the people just had enough of a raving lunatic running their lives.
Change is a universal imperative and it will come to Ethiopia as it has for its northern neighbors. The coming change in Ethiopia may not necessarily follow any existing template. It will originate from an unexpected source and spread in unexpected ways. The tipping point in Ethiopia will likely revolve around three factors: 1) the clarity, truthfulness and persuasiveness of the message of change delivered to the people, 2) the unity in the voices of the messengers who deliver the message, and 3) the context in which the message of change is communicated to the people. Simply stated, a convergence of democratic forces and a consensus on a clear message of change is necessary to create a critical mass for change in Ethiopia.
Overcoming the Fear Factor
The one common thread in all of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East is that the people overcame their fears. The thugtators waged decades long campaigns of psychological warfare to instill fear and loathing in the hearts and minds of their peoples. For decades, the people believed the thugtators to be strong and invincible, untouchable and unaccountable. Recent evidence shows that all thugtatorships have feet of clay. The moment the Libyan people unshackled themselves from 42 years of crippling fear — the kind of fear President Roosevelt described as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance ” — they were able to see Gadhafi for what he truly is — a thug. Ditto for Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. Change came to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya not because the thugtators had changed but because the people had changed. They were no longer afraid! They found out the true meaning of the old saying, “Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.”
The Hubris of Thugtators
Thugtators believe they can cling to power by eliminating their opposition, and particularly those who helped them get into power. They ward off potential challengers by keeping their military weak and appointing their cronies and henchmen to leadership positions. They believe they are loved, respected and admired by their people. Gadhafi said, “All my people love me!” They don’t. They hate him. Gadhafi convinced himself that all Libyans are happy under his rule.” They are not. Libya has a Sovereign Wealth Fund of $70 billion and nearly as much has been frozen by the American, British and Swiss governments. Yet the vast majority of the 6 million Libyans have difficulty making ends meet. Gadhafi has squandered much of the oil money buying arms, financing terrorists, seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction, giving it away to other countries to increase his prestige and paying blood money for acts of terrorism he personally ordered. He paid $3 billion to the survivors of the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in which 270 people died. Zenawi said he won the last election by 99.6 percent because the people love his party. They “consider themselves and the EPRDF as two sides of a coin” and “nothing can ever shake their unwavering support for our organization,” he said in his victory speech last May. He congratulated the people for “giv[ing] us the mandate through your votes” and patronized them for their “high sense of judgment and fairness” in voting for his party.
Regardless of what thugtators say or do, they will always remain weak and anxiety-ridden because they are in it for the money and not to serve the people. State power is the means by which they pick clean the economic bones of their countries. Thugtators are incapable of anticipating or understanding the need for change. Because they lack a vision for the future and the courage to do what needs to be done in the present, they are always swept away in a flash flood of popular uprising as Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gadhafi have found out lately.
Foolishly Riding the Tiger
President Obama needs to realize that it is not enough to talk about being “on the right side of history”. The U.S. must first do the right thing. For the Obama Administration to talk about “regime alteration” instead of regime change in the Middle East and North Africa today is not being on the right side of history. It is just being plain wrong! President John F. Kennedy said that being on the right side of history is being on the side of the “people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery and helping them help themselves.” In his inaugural speech President Kennedy said:
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom– and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required–not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
The lesson of the spreading uprisings for African and Middle Eastern thugtators is a simple one best paraphrased in Gandhi’s immortal words: “There have been thugtators and murderers who have foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger. But in the end, they found themselves inside the tiger’s belly. Think of it, always.”
The weekly commentaries of the author are available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/
2 thoughts on “Ethiopia: The Sun Also Rises”
Even Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born billionaire who pioneered the cell phone, has stood tall when it comes to doing right by Africa… [Annals of Communication: The Dictator Index]. Just how depraved Zenawi and Quaddafi could have been growing up to absolutely reign as evil? Quadafi & Son are the reincanation of Meles & Azeb and vice versa: wild, weird, scraecrow, scrary….
ዓባይን ለሙሾ ማን አደረገው:
በመስኖ ይታያል አመሻሹ ላይ:: -ል/ኢ
What I Don’t See at the Revolution
As someone who has witnessed many stages of upheaval, whether in Eastern Europe, Asia, or South Africa, the author puts forth a wary prognosis for the brave Egyptians who thronged Tahrir Square: they likely haven’t got the resources to break the chains of tyranny.
By Christopher Hitchens April 2011 VanityFair
When anatomizing revolutions, it always pays to consult the whiskered old veterans. Those trying to master a new language, wrote Karl Marx about the turmoil in France in the 19th century, invariably begin haltingly, by translating it back into the familiar tongue they already know. And with his colleague Friedrich Engels he defined a revolution as the midwife by whom the new society is born from the body of the old. Surveying the seismic-looking events in Tunis and Cairo in January and February of this year, various observers immediately began by comparing them to discrepant precedents. Was this the fall of the Arab world’s Berlin Wall? Or was it, perhaps, more like the “people power” movements in Asia in the mid-1980s? The example of Latin America, with its overdue but rapid escape from military rule in the past decades, was also mentioned. Those with longer memories had fond recollections of the bloodless “red carnation” revolution in Portugal, in 1974: a beautiful fiesta of democracy which also helped to inaugurate Spain’s emancipation from four decades in the shadow of General Franco. I was a small-time eyewitness to those “bliss was it in that dawn” episodes, having been in Lisbon in 1974, South Korea in 1985, Czechoslovakia in 1988, Hungary and Romania in 1989, and Chile and Poland and Spain at various points along the transition. I also watched some of the early stages of the historic eruption in South Africa. And in Egypt, alas—except for the common factor of human spontaneity and irrepressible dignity, what Saul Bellow called the “universal eligibility to be noble”—I can’t find any parallels, models, or precedents at all. (Mubarak asked to be thought of as a “father,” and found that “his” people wanted to be orphans.) This really is a new language: the language of civil society, in which the Arab world is almost completely unlettered and unversed. Moreover, while the old body may be racked with pangs, and even attended by quite a few would-be midwives, it’s very difficult to find the pulse of the embryo. In Eastern Europe by the end of the 1980s, one knew not only what the people wanted but also how they would get it. Not to diminish the grandeur of those revolutions, the citizens essentially desired to live in Western European conditions, of greater prosperity and greater liberty. It took one concerted shove to “the Wall” and they were living in Western Europe, or anyway Central Europe. The arms of the European Community and NATO were already more or less open, and everybody from East Berlin to Warsaw was already relatively literate and qualified, and I don’t remember even a fingernail being lost by way of casualties (except in Romania, where a real Caligula had to be dealt with). Men such as Václav Havel and Lech Walesa, furthermore, had already proved that they were ready to assume the responsibility of government. Voilà tout! In Portugal in April 1974, before the liberals in the army turned on the oldest Fascist dictatorship in Europe and broke open all the literal and metaphorical prison gates, there had been only one legal party. On May Day of that year, the Socialist and Communist Parties were able to fill the streets of the capital city. Within days, a conservative and a liberal party had been announced, and within a very short time Portugal was, so to say, a “normal” European country. Those parties, with their very seasoned leaders, had been there all along. All that was required was for the brittle carapace of the ancien régime to be shattered. The same happened in Athens a few months later: before my delighted eyes the torturers and despots of the military junta went to jail and the veteran civilian politicians came home from exile, or emerged from prison, and by the end of the year had held an election, in which the supporters of the former system of dark glasses and steel helmets were allowed to run and got about 1 percent. Perhaps the most stirring single event of South African history was the aesthetically perfect moment in February 1985 when his jailers came to Nelson Mandela and told him he was free to leave. And he loftily declined! He would quit the prison when he was ready, and when the whole country had been released, and not a moment before. At that instant, the morons who had confined him became slowly aware that he was already the president of the republic and had in fact been in moral command of the office for some considerable time. Nor was it just a matter of his charisma. A well-rooted and experienced non-racial party, the African National Congress, had for years been saying to the apartheid authorities, with complete confidence: When you are finished running this country into the ground, we are absolutely prepared to replace you. In utero, and well into its third trimester, the new South Africa already existed. In the Philippines in 1986, the lizard-faced goon Ferdinand Marcos was deposed by massive civil disobedience following a fixed “snap election” and replaced by Corazon Aquino, the widow of a man—Benigno Aquino—who had been murdered for threatening to win the previous one. A short while before that, I went on a plane to South Korea with the forcibly exiled Kim Dae Jung, who had narrowly escaped assassination after coming in second in a rigged poll some time earlier. We were all arrested and roughed up at the airport, and one of the largest welcoming crowds I have ever seen was broken up by rubber bullets and tear gas (some things never change), but Kim Dae Jung was leader of the opposition within a few years, and was elected president not long after that. Not a single one of these pregnant conditions, or preconditions, exists in Egypt. Neither in exile nor in the country itself is there anybody who even faintly resembles a genuine opposition leader. With the partial exception of the obsessively cited Muslim Brotherhood, the vestigial political parties are emaciated hulks. The strongest single force in the state and the society—the army—is a bloated institution heavily invested in the status quo. As was once said of Prussia, Egypt is not a country that has an army, but an army that has a country. More depressing still, even if there existed a competent alternative government, it is near impossible to imagine what its program might be. The population of Egypt contains millions of poorly educated graduates who cannot find useful employment, and tens of millions of laborers and peasants whose life is a subsistence one. I shall never forget, on my first visit to Cairo, seeing “the City of the Dead”: that large population of the homeless and indigent which lives among the graves in one of the city’s sprawling cemeteries. For centuries, Egypt’s rulers have been able to depend on the sheer crushing weight of torpor and inertia to maintain “stability.” I am writing this in the first week of February, and I won’t be surprised if the machine—with or without Mubarak—is able to rely again on this dead hand while the exemplary courage and initiative of the citizens of Tahrir Square slowly ebb away. Still, and for many of the same reasons, it is unlikely in the highest degree that the tremors will produce a ghastly negation: a Khomeini or a Mugabe who turns the initial revolution into a vicious counterrevolution. Egypt’s tenuous economy is hugely dependent on hospitality to Western tourists. Perhaps one in 10 Egyptians is a Christian. To the nation’s immediate south, in Sudan, millions of Africans have just voted to secede from a state that imposes Shari’a, and have taken most of the country’s oil fields along with them. Even if the peace agreement with Israel is abrogated, Egypt will never be able to fight another war with the Jewish state, or not without guaranteeing catastrophe. No wonder the voice of the Muslim Brotherhood turned out to sound so tinny. Does it seriously expect to take on any of the problems I have just mentioned, with its feeble, simplistic slogan, “Islam Is the Solution”? The mullahs in Iran were able to hijack the 1979 revolution because in the Ayatollah Khomeini they had a figure of almost Lenin-like authority, and because (with the covert consent of the smirking Baptist Jimmy Carter) Saddam Hussein did them the immense favor of invading one of their western provinces and cementing a hysterical national unity. The mullahs also were, and remain, partly insulated from the consequences of their economic folly by the possession of huge reserves of oil, barely a drop of which is to be found in the vicinity of the Nile Delta. As we sadly remember, the Ahmadinejad crew in Iran was also able to retain power in the face of popular (mainly urban) democratic insurrection. It, too, was ruthless in the use of force and able to rely on the passivity of a large and fairly pious rural population, itself dependent in turn on state subsidy. Heroism breaks its heart, and idealism its back, on the intransigence of the credulous and the mediocre, manipulated by the cynical and the corrupt. The same day on which I write was to have been a “Day of Rage” in Damascus, but that was an abject fizzle which left the hereditary Assad government where it was, while having regained much of what it had lost in Lebanon after the wretchedly brief “Cedar Revolution” of 2005. In Yemen there are perhaps five separate and distinct causes of grievance, from a north-south split to a Shiite tribal rebellion to the increasingly sophisticated tactics of al-Qaeda’s local surrogate. This doesn’t mean that the Arab world is doomed indefinitely to remain immune from the sort of democratic wave that has washed other regions clean of despotism. Germinal seeds have surely been sown. But the shudder of conception is some considerable way off from the drama of birth, and this wouldn’t be the first revolution in history to be partially aborted.