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
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
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
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!