Egypt's and General Tsadkan's lesson to Ethiopian Generals

By Eskinder Nega / February 4, 2011
What the world did not see was how hard Mubarak fought Egypt’s youthful protesters before they attained critical mass last Friday. Arrayed against them in the first few days of the protests were a remarkably huge and mostly invisible complex of police and security agencies; 1.4 million strong, according to Wikileaks’ leaked US diplomatic cables. Clad partly in civilian clothes, partly in the official uniform of the despised police, they were Mubarak’s measure of first resort to quell the protests. Veterans of the fierce Islamic revolt of the 1990s, where the origin of their famed brutality lies, Mubarak had every reason to believe in their infallibility.

But it is exactly their feted brutality, long the perfect deterrent to mass dissent, which was to undo them in the space of less than a week. The sight of uniformed police or their civilian counterparts became magnets for hysterically fearless protesters brandishing rocks and sticks. Naturally, the police and security agencies fought back. But with the momentum on the side of the protesters, they rarely prevailed; promoting, not on few occasions, some of the rank and file to switch sides in the midst of pitched battles.

In some battles, however, the police did prevail. And when that happened, the reaction of the protesters has intrigued the world. “Where is the army?” cried one protester to foreign journalists. “Come and see what the police are doing to us. We want the army. We want the army.” Hardly the sentiment one would expect from citizens of a bona fide police-state.

Now imagine a hypothetical scenario in Ethiopia where protesters and the Federal Police (Ethiopia’s riot police) clash, and protesters, overwhelmed by the police’s superior fire-power, intuitively turn to the army for protection.

Plausible?....Of course not!

But in the event that protests erupt in Ethiopia, too( (Sudan is teetering on the verge of an explosion), here is a perfect opportunity for the Ethiopian military to endear itself to the public the way the Egyptian military has endeared itself to the Egyptian people.

The Egyptian military staged a coup and overthrew the monarchy in 1952. In the person of the leader of the coup, Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian military inadvertently produced not only a populist in the mode of Argentina’s Peron, but even better, one with wide pan-Arabic appeal. And swiftly, many throughout the Arab world dared to dream about the possibility of a resurrected Caliphate; one that would stretch from the Atlantic in the West to the Indian Ocean in the East. Since then, the Egyptian military has thrived on the windfalls of its association with Nasser; hero and champion of not only Egyptians but of all Arabs. Both subsequent leaders of Egypt after Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, the former a captain in the army, the latter a General in the Air Force, inevitably came from the institution with the most prestige in the country.

Buttressed by billions of dollars of aid, first from the Soviet Union and then the US, the Egyptian military has over the decades grown in to a state within a state. But this is not the Egyptian example that Ethiopian Generals should be fancying. On the contrary, it is a cautionary tale of what should be avoided. Rather, it is the sensitivity of the Egyptian military to its place in the people’s heart that should inspire Ethiopian Generals “to be more than they could be,” as the American Marines would put it.

By Monday, February 1, 2010, Mubarak’s ruling party, NDF, had tired to insignificance; the hated police had collapsed; but, predictably, the military was still standing tall and intact. With some effort, perhaps akin to something like an Egyptian version of Tiananmen Square, it could have put an end to the protests. But neither the possibility of saving one of its sons, Mubarak, nor the unsettling prospect of losing its privileged economic and political status if the protesters prevail compelled it to turn against the public.

Its first statement, issued as the crisis escalated to new heights at the beginning of the week, clearly placed it on the side of the public: “The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people. Your armed forces, which are aware of the legitimacy of your demands, are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens; and affirm that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to every body.” And thus, at the expense of its short term interest, it has opted for its historical integrity; a record untainted by the blood of the very people it is supposed to protect.

Is the Ethiopian Military capable of such heroism? Is it capable of overcoming its debased moral standing; stained by the needless blood it shed of the young and old, of women and men, the very people it is sworn to protect, in the post election riots of 2005?

Well, partially it is. Nothing it could do will bring back the dead; their blood will remain a permanent blemish. But a determination not to repeat this fatal error of judgment could reconcile it with the favor of the public; placing it squarely at the center of a forgiving public’s heart.

The EPRDF army which marched into Addis twenty years ago could paradoxically be said to exist and not exist at the same time. Estimated by experts to have been no more 80,000 at its peak, it was more than tripled during the Ethio-Eritrean war of the early 2000s. It now stands somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000. Between the ranks of Private and Captain, significant numbers of ex-EPRDF fighters exist only amongst NCOs. The rest have more or less been fully replaced by new recruits. In this sense, the old EPRDF army has either been phased out or overwhelmed by new recruits.

But above the rank of Captain, the dominance of EPRDF fighters-cum-professional soldiers is evident. At the rank of Colonel and above their presence is virtually absolute. In this sense, the old guard, the veteran leadership which defeated the Derg remains intact. EPRDF leaders assume their loyalty as a given; a certainty that will categorically not fail.

But is that certainty warranted?

To a large extent, it is. But consider that General Tsadkan Gebre-Tesane, chief-of-staff of the armed forces between 1991 and 2001, and General Abebe Tekle-Haimanot, Commander of the Air-Force for the same period, were once ultimate prototypes of this genre, who chose to part ways with the EPRDF over questions of principle, and the possibility of new surprises is palpable.

What undid the two Generals and multitude of lesser officers was their resolve, as is the case with Egyptian Generals now, to maintain strict neutrality when the core EPRDF leadership was ruptured by an unprecedented internal split. But to Meles Zenawi, anyone who was not with him was against him. This was an implicit ultimatum to the military brass to which the alternative was possible civil war. Horrified by the rapidly unfolding specter, most of them gave in reluctantly. This is the real story. Needless to say, the popular impression of what had happened has been heavily prejudiced by the winning side.

Perhaps it is too early to expect a radical shift of attitudes and loyalties in Ethiopia right now. But if the protests do spread to Ethiopia, as the EPRDF fears, the least that history demands from Ethiopian Generals, particularly with the examples of Tunisia and Egypt in the picture, is a no repeat of the wanton, random, excessive shootings to the head and heart of unarmed protesters---even stone throwing ones!!---as in 2005.

Ethiopian Generals: history is watching; the people are watching; and the world is watching.
Most of all: Don’t fight your conscience!