The Ethiopian Muslim civil rights movement: implications for democracy

In a country where NGO’s have been severely crippled, press freedom is dying out, religious institutions are tightly controlled, and professional associations effectively co-opted - in short, where civil society is in grave danger of extinction - there has been one arena of visible democracy, that of the protesting Muslims.

The fifteen-month old Muslim civil rights movement in Ethiopia has so far had some spectacular implications for the development of democracy and democratic political culture in the country. It has affected its culture as well as its institutional dynamics. I will examine three very inter-related, but broad, ways in which Muslim activism has impacted on the contours of the current and future democratic possibilities of Ethiopia. 

A deceptive government shows its true nature 

Many twentieth and twenty-first century dictators on the one hand style themselves as democratic and constitutional. They conduct elections, draft democratic constitutions, establish “human rights” institutions, and tirelessly speak of the need for and their commitment to democracy. On the other hand, they rig elections, embezzle public funds and intimidate, round up, torture and kill their opponents unconstrained by any notion of the rule of law.  Such governments strive to have it both ways at the same time: they wish to benefit from having two apparently opposite faces.

The EPRDF has been a master of this Janus-faced game (it isn’t a game for the victims, of course). With its “democratic” face, it has deafened us with its ranting on the need for the rule of law; enshrined a more or less democratic constitution; conducted several elections, and installed a parliamentary system. With its autocratic face, however, it has defiled the constitutional system and the rule of law by violating the basic political and natural rights of citizens with impunity. It alone has been the state and the law.

How have the two faces of the EPRDF combined? They have been meant to deliver certain political functions internal and external to the state - in principle, exploited in their proper places, times, and context, and hence not expected to be contradictory. But in practice, their relationship has usually been precarious, leading to great tensions at times. The democratic face has been used to garner “democratic” legitimacy from those who have had good reason to side with government. It has helped these same people to boost their moral status while engaging in a heated debate with the detractors of the regime.

But the most important function of the democratic face has had to do with the international community (to be precise, major international powers). For the sake of obtaining either diplomatic or economic or military assistance, building such an image has always been crucial for any regime in the world that has grabbed state power since 1991. The EPRDF has not been an exception to this rule, and in many cases it has succeeded in styling itself as a pioneer of democracy in this otherwise troubled region of the world we call the Horn of Africa.

But as a minority–based party, the EPRDF can’t afford to genuinely liberalize the country and still stay in power. Enter the need for the second face, which has been at the heart of the party’s reign since 1991 and well into the 2010s. It has to mortify the psyche, inflict fear in the mind, torment the body, and take life in order to ensure its survival. These mechanisms have been applied to deal with those who have refused to be socialized into the regime’s propaganda, or who trusted the regime’s propaganda and, taking it at its word, plunged themselves into public contestation with it – until, that is, they received the strong message, physical or otherwise, that they should back down.

The balancing between these two faces however is very delicate. Any major disturbance, may lead to either near regime collapse or full-blown regime brutality.  When the democratic side is allowed to thrive more than the autocratic one, the EPRDF regime is bound to lose power. However, if the autocratic tactics are put in place with more severity or longer duration, then the benefits of appearing to be democratic withers away. Hence, striking a balance between those two apparently contradictory aspects of the regime’s image has been a great challenge to ensuring its political longevity. At the international level, the EPRDF has managed to make an effective use of its “democratic” credentials: but the internal dimension has quite frequently oscillated from one extreme to another.

The challenge from the numerous oppositions has largely forced the regime to emerge as more brutal than democratic, although the trend has not been quite linear. At least in one occasion, the ruling party also oscillated in the opposite direction. In 2005, it opened up the political system, and wished to stage a more credible democracy-like contestation from which the new rulers could emerge. The results were rather disastrous to the political life of the EPRDF. It learned the lesson then that exposing too much of the democratic face might lead to the replacement of the very body of which the face is a part. As a result, the reversion to brutality came in the aftermath of these elections. 

But this brutality had to wait for yet another phenomenon to emerge to appear in its darkest, most unambiguous, form. The most significant challenge to the government to date is the Muslim civil rights movement that has been active since December 2011. This movement has laid bare its true, unbridled authoritarian nature. Not for the first time - from its first contentions with the Oromo Liberation Front, to the most recent threat from Ethiopian nationalist forces, many innocent people including journalists have been unfairly victimized by the government, according to plenty of independent sources.  But never so visibly as now.

Confronted by a simmering Muslim opposition to the government’s anti-secularist policies, the government initially tried to play it legal. It acknowledged that the Majlis (Ethiopian Islamic Supreme Council) problem was a legitimate concern and was willing to negotiate with the committee that was representing the angry crowd. It praised the demands of the representatives, and declared that an election would be held to form a new Majlis. However, it was soon announced that the Majlis election was to be held in an obviously highly controlled environment (the ulama council, a Majlis affiliate, in charge of the elections, which in turn was to be conducted in the government-controlled kebeles - both contrary to the demands of the protesting masses).

Since then the EPRDF has engaged in innovative means of brutality. Not only have some people in Harar and Asasa been shot and killed, and people in their thousands intimidated, detained and tortured while the whole movement is denigrated as terrorist and Islamist. But recent developments have included state-inspired night-time house break-ins and blatant robbery. Many Muslims have confirmed that masked thugs accompanied by security officers have broken into their houses without search warrants, intimidating them, searching for materials and taking away some of their valuables. Unconfirmed but numerous reports of highway robbery by government-sponsored thugs especially targeting Muslims with laptops have also been reported. Security officers have broken into places of worship with a scale of destruction not seen before: people were preparing food for a Sadaqa session when tons of security officers barged into the Awoliya compound one night in July 2012, and fired tear gas on the people who took refuge in the mosque. They rushed into the mosque shoe clad, deliberately wrecked the praying precinct and hurled the Holy scriptures to the floor. Similar incidents are reported to have occurred in other Addis Ababa mosques.

Security officers have also forcefully broken up other Sadaqa gatherings, gatherings that bring people together people from diverse backgrounds (and sometimes even faith groups) for sharing food and sending out a messages of peace, unity and the protection of citizens’ rights. On some occasions, police may confiscate the animal to be slaughtered, and the food ingredients to be used for cooking, or commercial cooks have been impeded from conducting their daily business of selling food items to the Sadaqa organizers.  In other instances, grand mosques have been unusually closed in the morning hours for fear that Sadaqa sessions might be conducted in them. Finally, and perhaps most outrageously, many intercity buses have been stopped and “Muslim-looking” people have been forced out of the buses by security officers. The reason given: they might be travelling to attend a Sadaqa session in another town!  

In short, although we have always known the ruling party to be brutal, the Muslim movement (its immediate causes as well as the government reactions to it) has helped us know what government brutality looks like, completely deprived of its “humane” cover.

An alternative path towards democracy 

The political culture of Ethiopia has long been beset by the politics of exclusion and the psychology of rebellion. On the one hand, successive governments of Ethiopia have uncompromisingly held the belief that their political survival largely depends on the political death of those they see as their opponents. The exclusion of a significant portion of the voices from the mainstream political system has been the hallmark of any governments’ power. The excluded might have been earmarked in ethnic, gender, religious, regional or personal terms. This has been an exclusion that bases itself on the self-identification and the political and economic interests of the ruling class, as well as on the personal idiosyncrasies of its members. Opposition, even more than difference, has needed to be “solved”, rather than incorporated and managed. Unflinching in their grip on the bar of certainty, they have never swallowed the virtue of plunging oneself into the unknown that inclusion brings with it. Bent on saving the regime from a lurking threat, exclusion has been the normal and first procedure that has been applied to disagreement.

Exclusion usually breeds rebellion, and persistent and absolute exclusion breeds persistent and absolute rebellion. This has been largely true throughout the political history of this country.  Different reformers might have started out to air their critical views in moderate terms, but many of the organized movements in much of modern Ethiopian history have been radical. They have been radical in the sense that they have been anti-system and mostly violent. While some have violently rebelled against the regime and everything associated with it, and demanded its complete displacement, others have fiercely demanded nothing short of the dismemberment of Ethiopia itself. In either case, the movements haven’t just looked for change, but a radical change using radical methods.

The politics of exclusion paradoxically married to the psychology of rebellion has had disastrous consequences for the democratic record of the country. Democracy both as a historical process and as a theory is about compromise, inclusion, diversity, and tolerance. In a society, on the one hand, where the balance of power between the rulers and the ruled is highly skewed against the latter; where the rulers feel insecure in hearing any dissent from the ruled; where the usual mechanism of regime stability is not pulling up, but pushing out, as many voices as possible; and on the other hand, where the ruled do not aspire to bring about a culture of loyal opposition in the country but one of unbounded rebellion; where they refuse to see a possibility for change coming without the excesses of violence; where being ‘anti-system’ is seen as the only way of making the system work better; where the anti-regime movement itself becomes exclusivist and narrow - in a society where these features constitute the political culture, democratic culture will have a really hard time surviving let alone flourishing.

Such has been the problem with the political culture of Ethiopia. I hasten to add here that I’m not necessarily blaming the anti-government forces in Ethiopia or elsewhere for operating as rebels. But in the Ethiopian case, I am trying to explain the never-ending replacement of political exclusion by itself.

It is my belief that the current Muslim rights movement has gone an unprecedented distance in transcending this dichotomy. Under frequent fire from a highly exclusivist regime and for so long, neither the leaders of the movement nor the major actors in it have yet developed an ultra radical consciousness or behaviour. Any seasoned observer of Ethiopian politics might be surprised that people in their millions, from so diverse backgrounds, consistently demonstrating so loudly every week for over a year, and in receipt of all sorts of brutal reactions from government forces, could ever be so consistent in their demands and conduct. The unflinching obedience they have showed to their leaders’ injunctions before the latters’ arrest, and the unwavering commitment to their last words after their arrest should appear baffling to those who have always witnessed the opposite in the political history of Ethiopia.

The movement has consistently demanded the protection of democratic and constitutional rights, nothing more or less. It has couched its demands in the most legitimate manner, and has staged perfectly non-violent rallies. It has never, on the one hand, asked for, or worked towards, the realization of religious interests beyond or independent of the constitutional framework, nor, on the other hand, has it demanded, or sought, the displacement of that framework by a new secular system. This is very significant for the development of an inclusive and non-violent democratic culture in Ethiopia.

The government, just like its predecessors, has responded by trying to relegate the voices of dissent to the margins. The voices, however, refuse to be marginalized. The barrage of formal and informal, overt and covert, physical and verbal pressures applied to the protestors to keep them silent has been blatantly rejected. The movement has kept going – unabated - for so long despite the highly repressive regime.

The movement has also refused to be plunged into the margins by taking a radical turn. Radicalization is liable to be defeated, as government violence is usually more refined, more disciplined, and more brutal than any its opponents could deploy. The Muslims’ movement has refused to commit suicide by transforming itself into what the government wants it to become: a supra-constitutional “pariah”. It has been very critical of the government, but very respectful of the constitutional order at the same time. This doesn’t mean that it has been supportive of the ruling party or of its policies in other areas. It simply means that its aim has been the full realization of democratic and secular order with the minimum cost that may come alongside constructive change, but with the maximum effort that such a change requires. This is a very economic use of mass power against the state.

In echoing a loud and critical, but non-radical, voice, the movement has contributed a lot to the development of a new stream of culture in the politics of this country, helping us to assess the possibilities and potential outcomes of a non-violent democratic struggle for constructive change in Ethiopia. Bearing the brunt of a set of violent responses from the government, the Muslims’ movement has taught us that at least a strong public sphere that aspires to change the status quo can be established with or without the existence of a repressive state structure. This has widened our horizons. Yes, a very unique Ethiopian non-violent struggle is unfolding before our eyes, and we’re being forced to re-think some of our assumptions about the way we understand the mechanisms of effecting political change in Ethiopia.

Secondly, it has helped us to understand the vulnerability of authoritarian rule. Contradicting the many academic assertions that accord undue historic value to state power against the people, the Muslim struggle has proven to us that state violence is not always effective in putting an end to opposition. This may come as no surprise in the era of the Arab Spring, but it is a quite unique discovery in Ethiopia.

Muslim activism, by demonstrating authoritarian vulnerability, has also taught us that all marginalization is self-marginalization. Many structuralist accounts of change have neglected the subjective forces that create the agency which is so important in explaining political outcomes. Power resides not just in the state, but also in the subjectivities of the individuals whom the state targets. We have been, in the past, fixated on changing exclusivist systems, but ended up bringing/witnessing other exclusivist ones to replace them. This time around, we need to be fixated on democracy itself - the idea, the culture, the way of life. When the ultimate and major goal of activism is changing regimes or changing territorial borders - however democratically couched the discourses calling for those ends might be - there is no guarantee that the new regime or the new country will adopt a democratic system. But I think when the ultimate goal, and the way towards that goal, is democracy, equality, inclusion and freedom; and when the masses behind such a massive change are thoroughly democratized in mind and spirit; and when retaliation has no place in the minds of the wider public, I think we are a step closer to bringing about the system we have cherished for so long. Ethiopian Muslims have charted for all of us a new path towards a new Ethiopia.

An alternative location of democracy

At this rather bleak moment in EPRDF rule, the civil rights movement shines out as the only true locus of democracy. Struggle for freedom and democracy is not new for Ethiopians; many have been involved in this struggle since at least since the second half of the twentieth century. But the struggles have fallen short of developing a critical mass and sustainable Ethiopia-wide public that can act as a democratic crucible in society – a dependable resevoir. They have been either non-pan-Ethiopian, or unsustainable and/or authoritarian, or any combination of those.

Some freedom fighters have fought just to save their ethnic groups from government brutality; some Ethiopia-wide movements couldn’t succeed in their peaceful struggle, and hence had to go underground, thereby (usually) developing clandestine non-transparent, centralized, structures that rendered them authoritarian themselves. Or when they finally escaped from their clandestine centralized rule, they had faded away out of touch with the public and could offer them little.

By its very nature, recent Muslim activism has been trans-ethnic and trans-regional, and hence it has offered a glimpse of a pan-Ethiopian trait (despite the obvious limitation of its being religion-based). But it has also been “Ethiopia-centred” in the sense that its discourse, its actors, its visions etc have been Ethiopian, not international or regional. The government’s accusations notwithstanding, there has not been any trace of foreign involvement in this struggle.

In a country where NGO’s have been severely crippled, press freedom is dying out, religious institutions are tightly controlled, and professional associations effectively co-opted - in short, where civil society is in grave danger of extinction - there has been one arena of visible democracy, that of the protesting Muslims. They have been the last - but interestingly the most vibrant - bastion of democracy in the country. Their voice has been the only remaining dependable, independent and loud voice of liberation, uncontrolled and uncontrollable by the government. The Ethiopian Muslims are coming out of this year-long journey as a new brand of strong, assertive, post-violent, and unified locations of anti-authoritarian struggle.

Conclusion: a plea

This civil rights movement of Ethiopian Muslims will play its full potential only when two actors join it wholeheartedly: the rest of the Ethiopians, and the international community. By the former, I specifically have in mind Ethiopian Christians in Ethiopia. It is true that many of them have disclosed their support for the Muslim rights movement, and have helped in sheltering, feeding and morally supporting them. But democratic transformation requires more than this. Christians should join the movement, bringing with them their own demands for freedom from government interference in religious matters (of which they have much to complain).

Another proposal is to the big players on the world stage. I’d now say, paraphrasing Condoleezza Rice, that many of you have dreamt of and at times have sought to create what you thought were forces of stability even at the expense of democracy, and as a result have failed on both accounts. One path towards realizing both valuables is to protect non-radical, mass, persistent and daring forces of unity and anti-authoritarianism from below. And start with the protesting Ethiopian Muslims!

About the author

Alemu Tafesse is an academic and independent political analyst.