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Cautionary lessons for Ethiopia from Egypt's short-lived revolution

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Cautionary lessons for Ethiopia from Egypt's short-lived revolution

Hassen Hussein

18 Apr 2018

6min min read
  • Democratization
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frica’s biggest rivals, Ethiopia and Egypt, recently held leadership contests. On 29 March, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt claimed 97% in his second uncontested presidential election. In Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, a former lieutenant-colonel in the military, assumed chairmanship of the long-ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and was sworn in as prime minister on 2 April. He replaces Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned in February after six tumultuous years in office. The two countries, regimes, and popular revolutions are as alike as they are different. A closer look at Egypt’s treacherous post-Arab Spring transition offers a cautionary tale for the prospects of reform in Ethiopia.

Siamese twins?

To begin with, both Egyptians and Ethiopians languish under martial law: Egypt since its aborted 2011 revolution which toppled Hosni Mubarak, and Ethiopia since February 2018 — its second in two years. Prime Minister Abiy’s ascension is meant to halt years of relentless anti-government protests. In Egypt, al-Sisi provoked civil war by deposing the country’s first popularly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, followed by a bloody crackdown on dissent. 

Second, both countries are characterised by a deep state within the governing structure whereby the top brass of the military, intelligence and security wield real power. Third, the two are client states of the United States and serve as its proxies in their troubled neighbourhood. Fourth, leaders of the shadowy deep state and their cronies own and operate huge business empires guarded at gunpoint. Finally, in both countries tyranny has historically enjoyed a measure of respectability: Egyptian Pharaohs and Ethiopian Atses mirror Russian Czars. 

Different societies, regimes

Home to over 80 ethnic groups, diversity is Ethiopia’s challenge. Conversely, Egypt’s Arab identity supersedes all others. While Ethiopia is still 80% rural,  43% of Egyptians are urban, with only two metropolises, Cairo and Alexandria, accounting for close to a fourth of the country’s population of 99 million. Egypt is said to be 90% Muslim, but Ethiopia is split by the two major Abrahamic religions with a smattering of indigenous holdovers. 

The two leaders are preoccupied with different priorities. Abiy, catapulted to power by popular protests and a rebellion by a previously marginal group within the governing EPRDF coalition, aims to overhaul the system without alienating entrenched Tigrean power (Tigray accounts for about 6 percent of the country’s 106 million population). Meanwhile, al-Sisi, the ultimate deep state persona, labours to make tyranny palatable after revolution-induced chaos while keeping his mortal enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, at bay. 

These differences inform how youth- and social media-driven revolutions in the two countries, both provoked by the deep state's excesses, panned out. Egypt’s was concentrated in a central public place, the iconic Tahrir Square, and lasted merely 15-18 days while Ethiopia’s slow-moving revolution has rolled out over the vast Oromo and Amhara territories since April 2014. These differences offer lessons for democracy advocates in Ethiopia.

Reforming Ethiopia

The substance of the reforms Ethiopians desire is familiar, even if details are not. Opening the political space —democratisation — is on everyone’s lips. Among the bottlenecks are three draconian legislations enacted in 2008/2009: media and civil society proclamations, and a sweeping anti-terrorism law, which together make treason out of routine exercises of constitutionally guaranteed rights. To the protesters, security sector reform — refocusing the deep state’s mandate and making its leadership reflect the country’s diversity — tops the agenda. None of this would matter unless and until the judiciary becomes independent. And no reform would be complete without meaningful dialogue with the opposition.   

The main problem is not the what of reform but the how. In Egypt, the deep state adopted a wait-and-see approach. First, it allowed the revolution and elections to take place. When the youth soured on a flawed transition leader, Mohamed Morsi, they launched a counter-revolution. Can Abiy escape Morsi’s fate? Although Abiy hails from within the EPRDF, he is resented by the establishment. As with Egypt, the youth protesters in Oromia, Abiy’s constituent state, who catapulted him to power, could as easily torpedo his train if reform falters.

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Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed delivers a speech during his rally in Ambo on 11 April 2018. (Image: Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images)

However, Abiy has an external advantage that Morsi lacked: Whereas both the Pentagon (US military) and Langley (the CIA) were suspicious of Morsi given his close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, his outreach to both Hamas and Iran and general misgivings by western powers towards Islamist groups in the aftermath of their combined victory against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1989, Abiy provokes no such contempt. As a Protestant in a predominantly Orthodox Christian and Muslim country, he could, in fact, count on their largesse.  

In fact, the US has extended its support to advocates of democratic freedoms in Ethiopia, which includes the new prime minister, in the form of a resolution by the House of Representatives that passed on 10 April. Among other things, Resolution 128 calls for lifting the state of emergency, initiating dialogue with the opposition and instituting badly needed reforms, all of which are central planks in the new prime minister’s agenda. 

Secondly, Egypt is a unitary state as opposed to Ethiopia, a multinational federation, albeit one choked by lack of democracy. The presence of layers of jurisdiction and parallel security organs with dual loyalty does not necessarily eliminate the threat of military takeovers in federations, but it does significantly diminish their chances of success.

Third, the Egyptian army is a revered national institution unlike Ethiopia’s, which is dominated by the Tigrean minority. Fourth, the increasing assertiveness of two of one-time docile EPRDF member parties — the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) —  and their warming alliance offer Abiy a buffer. He can still count, at least in the short term, on the support of young activists (Qeerroo), who drove the mass protests and strikes that ultimately resulted in Desalegn’s fall.

Fifth, with a hopeful and unifying inaugural speech and further outreach to the public, his appeal has transcended the EPRDF and his Oromo constituency, further insulating him against being dealt the same hand as Morsi by the country’s military, police and security services when they ousted him in 2013. 

Is reform inevitable?

Although reform is hazardous even under the best of circumstances, Ethiopia’s angry deep state, whose omnipotence is exaggerated, can only delay it. The key question is: how much time will the populace, especially the Oromo youth, give Abiy to deliver? In a clear and dire warning to the prime minister, a Qeerroo was quoted as saying: "It does not mean that we have now gained freedom, just because he is an Oromo. We young people want a fundamental change, and if that does not happen we Qeerroo will rise up again." 

Will Abiy’s OPDO maintain its newly gained public support against the resurgent Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), whose leaders, just released from prison, enjoy star-like adoration? Two things are certain: Ethiopia won’t be a Jeffersonian democracy anytime soon and a level playing field will develop rather slowly. A working agreement between the OPDO and the OFC could help avert a showdown. 

The EPRDF is both a dominant vanguard party and a liberation movement but it has never been universally loved except in Tigray, the home state of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, the founder and king-maker in the ruling coalition. Ethiopia holds its next elections in 2020. Although the EPRDF desires to rule indefinitely, it would struggle to hold on, even with reform. Can Abiy himself maintain his popular support if he leaves ill-gotten wealth in the hands of the nouveau riche and fails to hold perpetrators of gross human rights violations and other high crimes accountable? If he moves too fast, he risks an Egypt-like coup d’état. If he moves too slow? A sea of enraged youth on the streets could await.

A narrow path

Abiy’s only path to success remains reform. The path is steep, but Abiy has options to ease the way, such as rallying support from regional groups such as the ANDM and the OPDO as well as youth revolutionaries. Unlike the relatively centralised Egyptian revolution, Ethiopia’s Qeerroo-led movement is decentralised. By lifting the state of emergency, Abiy can allow anonymous Qeerroo leaders to emerge from the shadows. 

Whoever wins over this powerful bloc unaffiliated with any established political party is bound to shape Ethiopia’s future. And none is better placed than Abiy. To do so, he will have to rely on his main benefactor, Lemma Megersa, president of the Oromia Regional State, and Lemma’s counterpart in the Amhara state, Gedu Andargachew. He could prod them to initiate reforms of their own, and the Southern Peoples Democratic Movement to renew itself. 

The upcoming EPRDF congress in August provides Abiy with the perfect opportunity to wipe the slate clean. Finally, he has to insist that donor communities — especially the U.S. and Europe — make good on their statements of concern about Ethiopia by throwing their weight behind the new leader’s reform agenda. 

Clearly, Ethiopia’s path to reform is uncertain. Abiy faces enormous challenges. Will he pack his Cabinet with reformists or hardliners? Will the powerful heads of intelligence and defence forces stay or go? And who would replace them? These early moves will offer clues as to whether Abiy will be a "placeholder" like his predecessor or an assertive leader capable of moving Ethiopia forward. 

(Main image: People protest against the Ethiopian government during Irreecha, the annual Oromo festival to celebrates the end of the rainy season, in Bishoftu on 1 October 2017. An Ethiopian religious festival transformed into a rare moment of open defiance to the government one year after a stampede started by police killed dozens at the gathering.  Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images)