Ethiopia: Protest and “danger of Military Government”

By Eskinder Nega / March 11, 2011
The announcement of Mubarak’s fall was greeted with the loudest cheer in Egyptian history. People power had come and triumphed in the Arab world’s most important country. There was every reason to celebrate. And with their live images broadcast around the world, celebrate they did for a whole night.

Only the next day, a Saturday, did people take time to reflect on the people who had succeeded him.

Public opinion immediately diverged sharply on whether Egypt’s new rulers bode well for the nation’s democratic aspiration. And no where were these differences more pointed than in Tahrir Square, where tens of thousands of youthful protesters had camped for eighteen days to bring democracy to their country.

“Time to go home,” thousands chanted passionately in compliance with the new regime’s appeal for protesters to decamp from the square in a symbolic gesture to a return to normalcy.

“No! The revolution has only begun,” roared back thousands of others. There is more to our cause than the departure of Mubarak, they argued.

To understand their wariness, meet Egypt’s new rulers: Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defense Minister; Lt. General Sami Hafez Enan, the military chief of staff; Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish, Commander of the navy; Air Marshal Rada Mahomed Hafez Mohame, Commander of the Air force; and Lt. General Abd El Aziziz Seif-Eideen, Commander of the Air Defense.

As Chairperson of the council, Field Marshal Tantawi is now head of state. Trained by the Soviets when Gamal Abdul Nasser was in power in the mid-'50s, Tantawi was commissioned as an officer in 1956, the year in which Egypt and Israel waged the second of the four wars they fought between the late '40s and early '70s.

Neither his role as a sub-lieutenant in this war, nor in the next two, in 1967 and 1973, have earned him the particular respect of peers. And that most probably is what had made him an ideal Defense Minister for two-thirds of Mubarak’s 30 years' reign.

A leaked Wikileaks 2008 US embassy cable described Tantawi as “focused on regime stability and maintenance of the status-quo, who simply does not have the energy, inclination (for change).”

Both Tantawi’s and the council’s establishment credentials were evident in their first post-revolution statement in which they praised Mubarak for “resigning in the interests of the nation.” ( In actual fact, it took a revolution to dislodge him.)

Not exactly the sentiment of the young revolutionaries who had made history in the streets of Egypt’s cities.

So does this mean that the celebrations were premature? Should we conclude that people power has , after all, been subverted as it once was in Ethiopia in the mid-70s? Or, perhaps, should we at least suspect that the outcome of the Egyptian revolution is hanging in the balance?

And most importantly, is the specter of a disingenuous military government the most likely outcome of a successful people power revolution in Ethiopia, as is privately, persistently and disparagingly predicted by senior EPRDF officials?

But consider that the Egyptian military council has already dissolved parliament, which is widely ridiculed as illegitimate; suspended the Constitution, which broadly restricts Presidential candidates; and promised to hold Egypt’s first real multi-party elections within six months, despite, to put it somewhat mildly, its less than revolutionary roots, and it becomes all to evident that the military brass are not dictating the pace or course of change.

By contrast, Ethiopia’s military council, the Derg, which assumed power in September 1974, had boldly outlawed all opposition to its policies, deeming it a capital punishment offense, on the very day it dethroned Haile-Sellasie.

Right or wrong, the Derg had moral clarity, a sense of mission. This afforded it with the critical will to rule, even if only by brute force.

Not so Egypt’s new military rulers. Unlike the Derg, they have to contend with an assertive Council of Trustees, a broad coalition of protest organizers, which has been entrusted with the defense of the revolution. The moral clarity lies with the youthful Trustees not the old men of the military. And with the absence of clarity of purpose, any chance of the military emerging as a coherent political force is at best minimal.

The Egyptian revolution is in no danger of being subverted, at least not yet. The military will not pose real danger as long as it is incapable of tendering a credible alternative to the broad tenets of the people power revolution. This would have been possible in the bipolar world of the past, but we now live in an age of diminished ideological ambiguities, where, in light of recent events in the Arab world, even Samuel Huntington’s well argued “clash of civilizations” is losing relevance. Democracy, as it is generally understood in the West, is really becoming the only way.

In the event that Ethiopian protests break out and eventuate in a temporary military takeover, as has happened in Egypt, the Ethiopian military will be in no different position than its Egyptian counterpart.

Unlike the Derg, whose suicidal exclusion of senior officers mostly explains its blunders and cataclysmic end, a new military government in Ethiopia will most probably be led by its most senior officers. This suggests that it will most probably be instinctively conservative not wildly radical, less prone to impulsiveness, and thus more predisposed to the sentiments and visions of the center.

Significantly, whether led by senior, middle or lower ranking officers, it will be in no position to offer a compelling raison d'être to explain a sustained presence in politics let alone a monopoly. Absent this crucial world-view, it will be devoid of the internal consensus and political momentum which had once made military governments possible not only in Africa, Latin America and Asia, but also in Europe -- Spain, Portugal and Greece. It will really be a transitional government.

No people power revolution has been possible without co-opting the military. Only the confidence that its welfare will not be damaged drastically will convince it to tip the balance of power in favor of change. This has been the dominant experience in other countries so far, and if things move in similar direction in Ethiopia, it is highly unlikely that a new precedent will be set at the expense of the military.

Nor is it desirable. In context of the dangerous neighborhood that the horn of Africa is, the carry-over of the military with its command structure largely intact is an imperative that the nation cannot do without, even if only briefly. The experience of the late 70s militates against it. And this time, the nation may not be able to return from the abyss.

The interests of the military coincides more with the public than it does with the EPRDF. Nothing, including the top brass’ thoroughly EPRDF origins, precludes the presence of a pragmatic leadership capable of recognizing where its real interests rest.

And this is exactly where hope for both the people and the military lie.


Memo to the Diaspora

Thanks to your relentless efforts social media is fast emerging as a potent political medium in Ethiopia. Posting of articles on your facebook pages is energizing thousands and demoralizing authoritarians.

Keep posting them. You are making a difference!

Fight tyranny from your PC !!!

The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: