A substantial discontent among the Ethiopian Muslims could bring a very different threat to the regime. The Muslims are about one third of the population; to challenge this group could have far-reaching consequences.
The Muslim protest movement is not only some angry young men. They are young and old, women and men. They can spread the word and have access to information from others in a way that had been hitherto unknown in authoritarian Ethiopia.
The heavy-handedness and insensitivity of the government risk radicalizing the movement and open up for consequences that could threaten the cohesion of the country.
There has not been much news from Ethiopia in the Swedish media after the release of two jailed Swedish journalists in September. But they are not the only ones accused of terrorism in the country.
Most of the opposition in Ethiopia disappeared after the 2005 elections – many have gone into exile, others are in jail. But lately, the Muslims in the country have begun to protest. They are 30 per cent of the total population of Ethiopia, and they rarely belong to the highlands elite. The regime is afraid of extremism and has tried to control who is elected to what position in the Muslim congregations.
This has led to protests with people killed and jailed. Many Muslims feel persecuted and fear being seen as suspects. Recently, 29 Ethiopian Muslim leaders were charged with terrorism under the same law used to convict the Swedish journalists.
Ethiopia has an extensive and thorough system for control of the population. There is a famous account by Ryszcard Kapucinski about how the various security services of Emperor Haile Selassie were monitoring each other.
The military dictatorship in power between 1974 and 1991 refined the control of the population through an administrative division of all inhabitants in so-called kebeles, which allowed no one to slip through the net. This division was introduced to manage the land reform, but it also served other purposes.
The current regime has maintained this structure. It contributes to making Ethiopia a more secure country than its neighbours since it provides a social control of criminality. Kebeles have a socio-economic function benefitting poor people. But they can also check oppositional ideas and activities.
Ever since the 2005 election with its success for the opposition, the regime has taken a hard line with increasingly harsh oppression. The official opposition has largely been crushed; its activists are either in exile or in jail. The country’s anti-terrorism laws have facilitated repression of everything that is seen as a threat.
There are armed rebel groups in the Somali region and among the Oromo – the largest ethno-linguistic group in Ethiopia – and the Afar near the border with Eritrea, but they are divided and marginal.
However, a substantial discontent among the Ethiopian Muslims could bring a very different threat to the regime. The Muslims are about one third of the population; to challenge this group could have far-reaching consequences.
It started a year ago. The government asserted that religious extremists were trying to take control of the Muslim congregations in the country and, by extension, to overthrow the secular state. The authorities demanded that the elections to the Muslim high council should be managed by the kebeles and not by the mosques. Some 50 teachers at the principal Muslim school Awoliyah were dismissed and the school was accused of being a breeding ground for radical Islam.
The government tried in various ways to promote the introduction of Al Ahbash, a pluralistic and moderate version of Islam that is common in Lebanon, but alien for most Ethiopian Muslims who are adherents of Sufi Islam. Ethiopia’s constitution guarantees religious freedom.
In the last year, Muslim group have held protest meetings across the country against the government’s interference in religious matters. The government accuses the dissidents of being led by extremists and has several times responded with arrests and deadly violence against peaceful demonstrators; and as stated above, 29 Muslims are now in court accused of terrorism.
As it were, one of the accused is married to a government minister, who was dismissed the other day for having critiqued the indictment.
Ethiopia has a crucial role in the conflict-ridden Horn of Africa. Addis Ababa is the seat of the African Union and thus the capital of Africa. Ethiopia with its 85 million inhabitants is the regional big power and closely allied with the United States in the war against terror. Ethiopia’s military are fighting the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab in Somalia. There is obviously a fear of radical Islam.
However, the Muslim protests have been peaceful. It could be that the government is fighting a bogey, creating a security problem where there was none, and being guided by an irrational suspicion of Muslims.
The Muslim leaders now on trial assert that they want a dialogue with the government. But they also state that the protests will continue until the interference in their religious affairs stops.
Virtually all people I asked during a recent visit to Addis Ababa, from oppositional bloggers to taxi drivers, stress that the Muslim protests have been peaceful. They want to be left alone with their religion, in full accordance with the Ethiopian constitution.
I heard only a few voices expressing support of the government’s actions to keep an eye on the Muslims because they wanted to introduce Sharia laws and had so many children that they would soon become the majority.
Such voices are the exception. There is a strong sense of pride in Ethiopia over the fact that different ethnic groups have since long co-existed peacefully with each other.
The editor of a magazine affirmed that there were two things you could not write about: corruption in high quarters and the Muslim protests. But on the social media the discussion is vivid. It is hard for the authorities to keep up – Facebook pages are being blocked at a rapid pace but new ones keep popping up. Furtively taken photos are spread around. There is growing anger.
The Muslim protest movement is not only some angry young men. They are young and old, women and men. They can spread the word and have access to information from others in a way that had been hitherto unknown in authoritarian Ethiopia. The heavy-handedness and insensitivity of the government risk radicalizing the movement and open up for consequences that could threaten the cohesion of the country.