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Ethiopia's Muslim Activists Pave a Path for Nonviolent Political Activism
By Terrence Lyons, on 21 Aug 2013, Briefing
Source: World Politics Review
A year after Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn came to power following the death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi in August 2012, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) remains firmly in control. It has continued to govern through a collective leadership that includes three deputy prime ministers from the Amhara, Tigray and Oromo wings of the coalition; Hailemariam hails from the Southern People’s Party. Party discipline and coherence has held, although the lead-up to elections in 2015 may reveal destabilizing fissures. But while older opposition parties and armed movements have been marginalized, a social movement of Ethiopian Muslims is an important new development.
Rapid economic growth has been key to Ethiopia’s stability. The economy grew by more than 10 percent annually over the past decade, and while growth has slowed down it remains higher than the African average. Recent data, however, suggest that earnings from coffee and gold, Ethiopia’s two largest sources of export revenues, have declined. The World Bank also raised concerns that Ethiopia’s boom has relied too heavily upon public investment and that sustained growth will require a significant increase in private investment.
The political opposition to the EPRDF—currently divided into camps based on whether they subscribe to ethno-national or pan-Ethiopian goals and whether they operate in exile or have remained in the country—has struggled to find channels to influence Ethiopian politics. After competitive elections in 2005 and the subsequent crisis that led to the arrest of much of the opposition leadership and the collapse of the main opposition coalitions, the regime effectively criminalized dissent. Restrictions on independent media and civil society limit the ability of Ethiopians to mobilize outside of the structures of the ruling party. The EPRDF’s dominance was evident in local elections this year, in which it and its affiliated parties won all but one seat nationwide.
As a result, opposition political parties that challenged the regime in 2005 now play virtually no role in national politics. The Semayawi, or Blue, party organized a notable demonstration in June and has some following among the youth, but its potential to challenge the regime is limited. Berhanu Nega, a politician who had considerable influence in 2005, is now operating in exile without a significant presence in the country. Repression and the use of anti-terrorism laws, as well as weak structures and leadership, limit the opposition’s ability to operate within Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, several groups, notably the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), remain engaged in protracted armed struggles, but Addis Ababa has effectively managed these military challenges. Oromo nationalism remains potent, but the OLF leadership is divided and discredited. Promising talks between the ONLF and Addis Ababa collapsed in October 2012, but there are officials on both sides that see advantages from a negotiated settlement. The government would like to end the war in order to concentrate on development of the region’s natural gas and other resources. Some Ogadenis recognize that they are unlikely to win the military contest and wish to end the ferocious counterinsurgency campaign in the region. But reaching a durable agreement, a recent International Crisis Group report accurately notes, will require “unprecedented concessions from both sides.”
Finally, the ongoing demonstrations by Ethiopian Muslims, who make up approximately 40 percent of the country, provide an important model of politics outside of the ruling party that relies upon neither armed struggle nor the strategies of electoral competition on a hopelessly lopsided playing field. The demonstrations began 18 months ago to protest government interference in Islamic affairs and the regime’s links to the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council. The movement has been extraordinarily disciplined and nonviolent and has succeeded in part by focusing on a specific set of issues. Demonstrations have been held after Friday prayers in Addis Ababa but also notably in other towns across Ethiopia.
Muslim activists emphasize that they are operating within the framework of the Ethiopian constitution and that they are not seeking to overthrow the regime. The Ethiopian government, in contrast, has consistently claimed that the protests were organized by extremists bankrolled from overseas and seeking to establish an Islamist state. More recently Addis Ababa has identified neighboring Eritrea as the source of this alleged external support. The movement’s leadership was arrested July 2012 and charged with terrorism in October.
Earlier this month there were clashes between Ethiopian security forces and Muslims reportedly following the arrests of three local imams in Kofele, a town in the Oromo region. A heavy police presence and arrests in Addis Ababa following the Eid al-Fitr ceremonies celebrating the end of Ramadan on Aug. 8 further raised the temperature and tensions. Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal alleged that the arrests were of “Salafist elements who tried to create disturbances.”
Despite the government’s arrests and condemnations, the Ethiopian Muslim demonstrators have shown that sustained, nonviolent political activism is possible in Ethiopia. What is not clear, however, is the movement’s future. Many leaders in the older ethno-nationalist movements, including those with large Muslim constituencies, such as the Oromo and Somali, view the multiethnic nature of the movement with trepidation. Others, including leaders in the Semayawi party, view it as a vehicle to advance pan-Ethiopian political ideas. Some Muslim activists propose a strategy of sustained low-level protest that avoids confrontation and recognize that a quick victory is impossible. To move more assertively would spark a military crackdown, and the movement’s leadership is likely to lose control if there is violence. The key dynamics to watch in the lead-up to elections in 2015 are therefore competition within the ruling party and the potential for the Ethiopian Muslim movement to create new space for political activism.
Terrence Lyons is associate professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution and co-director of the Center for Global Studies, George Mason University.
This is good news. I hope all the world has now seen how novel our Ethiopian Muslims are. The only force (evil) that is objecting to this change is the government at hand. I urge the government that for the sake of saving the nation and for the sake of our children and grand children that they should convert what they have been preaching and that is the full application of the Law, the Constitution. What we demand is for all citizens to be free. Especially as the government starts to open up Public investment to Private investment, there is no other way that it can block individual liberty and grant access to private investment. Simply it does not work that way. At any cost, we need full freedom like Americans do. No restriction whatsoever. We are civilized nation and it is hard to instigate Ethiopians to torture or beat each other on the streets of Addis for religion. Simply that is not possible. If at all may be some factions of Islam within will act against each others. Surprisingly Ethiopian Muslims are tolerant of their peer Christians on most level. They have no ill intentions however except some hate comments but that is no close to being really out of control. The same way I would say that Christian Ethiopians think the same way toward their Muslim peers than against each other. Again this is my personal take. Yes, there were discriminations but those discriminations come from the top down order than the people on the ground. More over, we are not holding responsible every individual for things they have not committed except their leaders who claim they stand for them. In addition, I urge all scholars to place the history of past leaders to be in their rightful place so we can move forward. This is the only way we can keep our land together. That is why I urge my Somalia and Oromo and Afar friends to join unity on condition that you will be a land where your identity, your culture and legacy will be included in you future Ethiopia.
Woyane is like an old termite infested house. Looks big, power full and intimidating from outside but rotten and fractured inside. through time and persistence internal opposition, one day it is bound to come crashing. Therefore this movement need to continue.
On another hand, No political party in exile thousands miles away will win democracy in Ethiopia. It has to have grass root movement in the country to succeed. That is something the Starbucks politicans in DC have not learned yet.
A Muslim protester had the nerve to burn Ethiopia’s flag at the protests in Addis Ababa. Becareful, my Muslim brothers, Ethiopia isn’t Europe or America - we know civil rights does not work in dealing with Extremism. You may just wake up the sleeping Christian extremists of Ethiopia. When that happens, God (Allah) help you, because you shall realize all the rights you enjoy in Ethiopia due to Mengistu and Meles !
you are going to die wishing, lol.
Wishful thinking is what you and Teddy have been doing all along. Keep doing that until you, some time in the near future hang yourself up due to inferiority complex. death to you and the likes
The writer could not distinguish the Wahhabi extremists from the rest Muslims. Mr. writer to tell you frankly,The whole 40% Muslim population is not demonstrating. please came and see wither the whole Ethiopian Muslims are protesting against the gov’t or not. I think most of the Muslim population is rather a victim of the Wahhabi extremist’s protest. They can not even able to prey in some masques peacefully. the extremists even began killing Muslim fathers because the only preach peaceful coexistence with their christian and other brothers and sisters.This is fact. an ABCD.. of a journalist is to cross check and find the truth before writing such an article.
Unfortunatly ,with all violent actions from the Northern Bandits
slaughtering inocent peoples .Soon
or Later Non Violent Actions shall
be NONSENS .Wonder what will be the reactions of those serving the evil bandits ,specially the Western Leaders bringing them all the supports ,when the peoples shall deal with the Agazi Bandits and their bandas with AK47 rifles and more .Afterall a minority group of only 40.000
members of the Agazi Bandits and Tigre Mafiosis shall not reign for ever against the wills of 80 Millions of peoples .
Yor are very ignorant because the composition of Muslims from the total number of the country people is not 40% but it is less than 30% they never become in the future the dominant but the domination of Christians it will going continually in the same postion in forever if you belive it or not !!!!!!!!!
God bless all Ethiopian people including Muslims.
After what happened to Mursi and his party in Egypt,Islamist parties need to reassess their Questions.Not only the west and secularists all over the glob,but also, Muslims every where are fed up with these movements.Ethiopian Muslims need to ask why Egyptians open war on their own brothers and sisters.Demanding democratic rights is one thing,endangering national security is another.
Gragn Ahmed, Although I do not like your nick name due to historical fact about Gragn, I am 100% agree with you regarding this situation. I am Christian and I love my fellow Ethiopian Muslim. I wish them the best of all. we Ethiopians do not have religious problem whatsoever. I grow up in Muslim dominated area and never alienated for the community for being Christian. we all enjoy the holiday together such us fasika, remadan, wedding ceremony, you name all, we share it. I know leaders have been trying to divide us according to our religion, ethnicity, region e.t.c for long time, but they have never achieved their objective. Having say that, I do not want to see extremist I see in Nigeria, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, and other place I did not mention in Ethiopia. those Extremists are distractive, dangerous, uncivilized, above all they will take us all to dark age. we need to fight them all if they are existing in Ethiopia. I hope you agree with that.
If my name offended you, then you should also be offended by people who call themselves Yohannes IV who destroyed our Muslims of Wollo. I will be ready to change that. But in Ethiopia we see Air ports named after Yohannes IV and not for Ahmed Gran. But I will leave that to historians.
I will glad to change my name. Also, be mindful that I really salute you for realizing that we are one as a people and our leaders are the problem. If we know this, we can find common solution. Ethiopia is better if it is like China where we never hear bomb exploding. Peaceful rise of Ethiopia is the best way.
@ Assta B. Gettu
Thank you for exposing the hidden evil agenda of the author of this article. He must have got good money from the breeders of extremists all over the world.The author is not credible anymore to Ethiopians christians and muslims alike. He is a jihadist himself who want to see jihadists bring down the gov’t down by 2015. Just dream as this will never happen in this blessed land where muslims and christians had been and still are living in peace and harmony. All we reject is jihadists. The whole world have seen their danger in Egypt,etc.
It is ironic when a typical western journalist who sympathized, encouraged and recommended Political Muslim activism for us, something that is clearly considered as a threat to civilization where he is coming from.
Clearly we need alternative political ideologies where monopoly of power can eventually be dismantled. But we don’t want this kind of suggestion or recommendation from an outsider who feels like he can write stuff mainly from indifference. When people make peaceful struggles for rights to beliefs of their choice and religious equality, which is understandably something all good citizens should stand for.
Terrence Lyons might wish “Ethiopian Muslim movement to create new space for political activism”. But the fact of the matter is Mr. Lyon’s pandering at least for those actively seeking this kind of opinion, is nothing more than a pat on the back. Mr. Lyon, why don’t you make the same recommendation for congress and see if you can escape being labeled as treasonous?
Yes the Ethiopian political landscape can entertain more diversity of political visions. But we certainly don’t need neither Muslim nor Christian nor atheist movement to shape up the political discourse. Politics must operate clear off religion. That should be the way forward. Mr. Lyon, thanks but NO thanks!
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PRIORITY TO ETHIOPIA?
1. GOOD GOVERNANCE
***** CHANGE OUR BAD NAME FROM ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANICA( ETHIOPIA= FAMINE)*****
THIS SHOULD BE OUR URGENT STRATEGIC GOAL
-IMPORTATION OF THE ARAB REVOLUTION TO ETHIOPIA IS A STANIC IDEA
- RELIGON AND GOVERNMENT SHOULD BE SEPARATED
- IT IS COMPLICATED BUT, STILL POSSIBLE TO MAKE PEACEFUL STRUGGLE IN ETHIOPIA
- WE HAVE LOST 30 YEARS WASTEING OUR MOST PRECIOUS GENERATION ,FINANCE FOR ETHIO-ERITREA WAR , FINALY WE BECOME THE POOREST OF THE POOR IN THE WORLD.
- WE CAN MAKE PEACEFUL TRANSITION
NO MATTER HOW LONG THE NIGHT, THE DAY WILL COME SOON.REMEBER MANDELA WAS INPRISON FOR 27 YEARS……
-WE CAN LEARN FROM THE SO CALLED ARAB REVOLUTION IN TUNISIA, EGYPT, LIBIYA, SIRIA….ETC THAT BROUGHT CAOS,MASSACRE,INSTABILITY(CIVIL WAR)
_ I WOULD LIKE TO REMIND YOU THAT,ETHIOPIA IS NOT AN ARAB COUNTRY, WHICH CAN RESIST SUCH MAGNITUD OF ECONOMICAL AND SOCIAL CRISIS (OUR ECONOMY IS BASED ON COFFE NO IN PETROLEIUM)
GOD BLESS ETHIOPIA AND ITS PEOPLE
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT FOR ETHIOPIA.
We should distinguish the Saudi King from Islam. Al Amoudin from Islam. Mursi from Islam. And Egypt Sissi from Islam.
As practiced today no Islamic country is led by a pious leader. I do not know about Erdgon of Turkey.
Today Islam is a tool for colonization of others like Christianity is. Simple as that. As I come to understand Arabs it is clear t me that they worry more about their personal ego and their interest. As it happens, the Ethiopian Muslims came up with a real sense of belongingness. However, Muslims of Ethiopia need the support of their country men Christians and atheists alike to fully back them before their frustrations leads them to seek outside help which naturally is unavoidable. We seek help from America as well not only Saudi. But Ethiopian Muslims should worry as much about Saudi King influence as they do for America’s influence.
My country me Muslims, find a solution within your own people. I have seen that there is no true religious leader today who for example judges an Ethiopian Muslim with same eye as an Arab Muslim or Turkey or Pakistani Muslims. This is reality. Yes, we have common interest wit our Muslim brothers of other Muslim countries but we have to know that other races look down upon other Muslims. An Arab in Somalia is more respected than a Somali in Arabia. This must stop.
Until they fix their discrimination we can not think like an Arab. They must show they value Muslims of Ethiopia as much as they do their Arabs.
It has been more than 1400 years since Ethiopia gave a safe haven for muslims that are running away from prosecution by their arab ancestors. It is my feeling that after they heard and watched in Al jazeera what is going on in their arab homeland they are getting home sick and want to they are missing out the burning of churches party in Iraq, syria and Egypt, so what will be their choice? simple, pave the way to burn Ethiopian churches, a country that gave them home when they had no home. I think they overstayed far too long and they should pack up and leave. and they will not be missed of course they will be greatly appreciated if they take with them Azeb Mesfin and her vulture cronies.
God bless Ethiopia and Ethiopians who loves and dies for their GREEN YELLOW and RED flag the symbolic flag of Pan-Africans.
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