The prospect of a popular uprising in Ethiopia and the hurdles

By Ayal-Sew Dessye / February 26, 2011
A few months ago a relative of mine and I were discussing the power, significance, importance and impact of the word 'no'; both in the individual and societal context. This simple sounding word with otherwise negative connotations is also a powerful expressive signifier of a definitive personal decision that is firmly grounded in determination and resolve the source of which is an immeasurable internal strength. With that simple yet profoundly powerful word expressing a person's determination grounded in personal convictions and resolve, individuals enable themselves to get rid of bad and damaging personal habits and behaviors. Far beyond the personal, events generally are influenced by such simple yet selfless acts of determined individuals who have a demonstrable will power, courage and resolve to say No! The fate of societies is shaped when that individual resolve is collectively expressed by societies or groups of people.

Throughout human history we find individuals with strong internal convictions who have exceptional courage and determination not to bow to injustices and accept humiliation at the hands of other fellow humans or oppressive systems. This courage is manifested in different ways; by peacefully defying oppressive laws and norms and at times by responding to brutally suppressive systems with means other than peaceful.

Individuals from Mahatma Gandhi to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi to Birtukhan Midekssa, etc., showed exceptional resolve and exhibited personal courage to say 'NO' to different forms of injustices and oppressive laws. By gathering their internal strengths and deciding to say no, they refused to be intimidated.

Where people get that inner strength to say 'NO' to either bad personal habits or, to a higher degree, to any form of injustice and oppression may vary on prevailing circumstances. But it all starts with the ability and resolve to remove the veil of fear and to totally free oneself from it. No one gripped by fear of the known or the unknown can ever be able to say 'NO' with absolute conviction. What differentiates saying 'NO' out of absolute conviction from the common 'no' in any of our daily conversations is the degree and magnitude of the consequences. The former requires a definitive resolve and total readiness to pay the price for it and face and accept whatever consequence comes along, including losing one's life, because of that decision to say 'NO'. .

People are pushed to the brink and get to a point where life has no meaningful meaning and the difference between living in shame and degrading destitution and death becomes indistinguishable. When people, either individually or collectively, are definitively convinced that a life in shame, destitution and without human dignity is worse than death itself, have no hope in the status quo, and would not want their children to live like them, they make the determination not to accept what is and decide to fight for what should be. They opt to die for their freedoms and a better future. It takes time for that individual determination to mature and become a popular expression. But, once that determination is made by the people, there is no turning back; no amount of cosmetic reforms or repression could totally extinguish the collective desire of the people. Evidently, the decision to say 'NO' to such conditions does not come easy as it means putting one's life on the line. What makes the decision to say 'NO' to injustices really admirable is that it is the highest form of selflessness as it is aimed more at and for the benefit of others future generations than for self.

Triggered by a horrific act of a young Tunisian college graduate and street vendor named Mohamed Bou'azizi who doused himself with flammable liquid and burned himself in front of Sidi Bouzid City Hall on December 17, 2010 to protest the unbearable conditions and general corruption in the country, the world is witnessing with delight and amazement the resolve of the dignified people of the Middle-East and North Africa. What is unfolding before our eyes in the Middle-East and North Africa epitomizes courage, determination, aspirations and hopes of the masses led by enlightened and dedicated youth. This popular movement of historic proportions has profound effects and impacts not only in the region but also globally. As a People Power Revolution, this unique theme of Arab unity, unlike previous times, energized and galvanized people of the region, continues to startle and amaze many, tantalize and confound others, inspires people of the region and far beyond who have been and continue to be victimized by despots. The winner here is none other than peaceful resistance and people power, and the main losers, beside deposed dictators and their cohorts, are hardliners who had been counting on people's misery and discontent to be harbinger of the only alternative to existing oppressive systems.

Despite some misperceptions, what gave birth to a new generation of a Pan-Arab Youth Movement is the continued and systematic brainstorming by the youth over several years on the need for fundamental change in their societies and the use of technology to achieve their aspirations. Although this brainstorming by Arab youth evolved over a span of several years to materialize and become a real force, dictators did not see it coming, and when it did, they did not know how to handle and respond to it. This new force of young Arabs is determined to change the status quo and is dedicated to seeing a democratic order take root in their respective countries and the region that is generally ruled by archaic monarchies and despotic autocratic where no cosmetic reforms could satisfy the proponents of these movements.

Like the 1848 European revolution where the advent of a newly introduced technology, the telegraph, helped to spread the news of revolts of the people faster and wider to other places, the Arab youth made proper and effective use of contemporary social networks like Facebook and Twitter to circulate and coordinate calls to rally the people to rise up and express their dismay, show their determination to achieve what they demand and their readiness to sacrifice for their demands. According to one report, the new generation of Arabs in the region and in the Diaspora that is mostly college educated and technology savvy and conscious of realities and possibilities, used the new technology, through a period of a couple of years, to educate themselves and spread the word on the techniques of "evading surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades". To achieve their goals, this generation of Arab youths combined classic non-violent methods with a remarkable discipline and courage reminiscent of the left-leaning and Marxist-oriented student movements of the sixties.

What the world has been witnessing is the maturity and sophistication of a generation of Young Arab Revolutionaries with astounding courage and determination to end the status quo. With this glorious revolution of the twenty-first century, the people of the region, especially the youths, are showing their determination to write a new chapter in their history and a remarkable new beginning for a better future is set. What is absent is any of the usually seen anti-Israel, anti-west (usually the US), and other traditional leaders' rhetorical expressions that otherwise were considered to be the whole marks and the rallying cries of the Arab masses, especially the youth.

Although the somewhat uniform sense of common Arab identity bonds societies across the region, it is the burning desire for a decent and dignified life and a better future in which they would have a say that is unifying the people and energizing the movement. The total rejection of the continuation of the status quo where only a few got obscenely rich while the overwhelming majority got increasingly poorer and the earnest desire for a better life devoid of humiliation and joblessness are what unite and drive the Arab youth to rise up and say 'NO' in unison. This People Power led by Pan-Arab Youth Revolutionaries has dispelled stereotypical notions and perceptions by many, and has irreversibly changed societies in the region. Democracy has triumphed in corners of the world not few thought would be possible. This revolution of the 21st century of epic proportions has to be given a chance to flourish. This Revolutionary Movement is challenging not only archaically despotic rulers but also oppressive and undemocratic systems. It is also a direct threat to extremism. Additionally, it is a challenge to the world that considers itself democratic. Western democracies are being equally challenged, as their principles of human rights and democracy are being put to test. More than the deposed and the ones to be removed despotic rulers, the biggest losers to this Revolutionary Movement, no doubt, are hard line groups; especially religion based ones like Al Qaida. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the region and the world especially for western democracies to encourage and assist in building civil society and democratic institutions and engage the young revolutionaries in constructive dialogues.

What are the prospects for a similar popular uprising in Ethiopia?

As part of societies under successive undemocratic rules that currently are being brutalized by a divisive and deviously ruthless rulers aspiring and struggling to be free, Ethiopians of all walks of life have been joyfully and enviously following the transformation of the region. Many are fired up, energized and reinvigorated and are contemplating the specter of emulating the phenomenon in our country. There is no question that multitudes are aspiring and fighting to be free and are looking for ways and means of undoing tyranny in our country. Ethiopians everywhere in their large numbers have been asking themselves if and whether their time has come to say 'NO' to ongoing injustices. But what should be clear is that, whether existing political organizations or EPRDF rulers or others like it or not, Ethiopians will have no choice but to rise up in unison at the time of their choosing.

Individual Ethiopians like Abraha Deboch, Zer'Ay Dres, Moges Asgedhom Tessema Sahlu and countless others symbolize and exemplify resolve, courage and the will power to endure the consequences of saying 'NO' to humiliation, oppression and subjugation.

Ethiopians are no strangers to popular movements of the type we currently are admiringly witnessing what the proud people of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, etc., led by its selfless and determined youth, are showing the world. Those of us who are old enough are witnesses to the exceptional personal courage and determination exhibited by the Ethiopian youth of the late sixties and early seventies of the last century. Determined to see a new, freer and better Ethiopia, those gallant young Ethiopians from all corners of the country, in unison and as Ethiopians, and transcending class, ethnicity, gender and religion said 'NO" to a system of inequality, poverty and backwardness, faced the consequences with unparalleled courage and determination and paid the ultimate sacrifice for what they truly believed in.

Although Ethiopian youth in the last thirty years could not muster that kind of unified national movement galvanizing the nation as a whole - mainly because of systematically applied ethno-centric divisive policies of the current rulers that denied our youth the psychological bond and the critical factor of sense of unity and oneness, and partly because of the traumatic experiences of the preceding generation - that proud tradition of militancy did not totally vanish. It was manifested during TPLF/EPRDF "Transitional" period when Addis Abeba University students expressed their displeasure and utter disgust at and in opposition to the new rulers' illegal, illegitimate and unacceptable decision and facilitation of Eritrean secession. The same was true following the rigging by the regime of the 2005 general elections.

The prospects for popular uprising in Ethiopia are as real as they are inevitable. Additionally, there is no weaker and more vulnerable government to a unified popular uprising than that of the Meles regime. They, the rulers themselves know that fact much better than most in the opposition. But the question every responsible Ethiopian should ask and give satisfactory answers to are these: In the absence of a unifying national alternative and given the nature of the regime coupled with the proliferation of armed anti-Ethiopian forces and given the internal and regional dangerously fragile conditions, how do we envisage the consequences of a popular uprising in Ethiopia to be? What are the mechanisms and the ways and means of coordinating a sustainable and successful popular movement? What is the main objective? As an individual Ethiopian, what is my responsibility and how ready am I to put myself on the line? What are the consequences and how ready am I to shoulder those consequences?

Ethiopians may be both trepid and euphorically hopeful at the specter of a popular uprising against the regime of Meles Zenawi. The desire and eagerness of almost all of Ethiopians to get rid of the regime notwithstanding, the reasons for the skittishness and timorousness of many on one hand, and the eagerness to quickly emulate this new phenomenon in their country on the other, may vary. The more cautious and soberly hesitating group, although equally determined and eager to see Meles go, seems to be concerned about the "how" and the "what next" aspects. Their worry, more than and beyond the inevitable brutal response by the regime, is the possible chaos and vacuum that could ensue, especially given the rulers' known and declared intent to make that a reality as a desperate act of last resort, and the glaring absence of a real and credible national alternative or civil society or any other countrywide organizational capacity to coordinate a sustainable, unified and successful popular movement that would be capable of working at minimizing chaos and mustering and guaranteeing nationwide peace, stability and the country's unity. Added to their worry about that ugly prospect is the prevalence of armed anti-unity and secessionist forces that are ready to exploit that kind of environment.

(Part II),(Part II))