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Egypt and Ethiopia

Smoke and mirrors

Yohannes Woldemariam draws a comparison between Egypt and the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia. Watch out for the army generals and the role of the US, Woldemariam cautions.

The dramatic upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Algeria, Libya and Yemen show what huge numbers of ordinary citizens can do when they rally bravely for democracy and human rights. In Egypt, we have witnessed the downfall of a seemingly invincible dictator, but as of yet the regime he erected is still functional. Are Egyptian generals stalling for time to frustrate meaningful change ? How should the US respond to the events in Egypt ?

In this brief article, I wish to consider what Ethiopian history can reveal about the future of Egypt. Egypt and Ethiopia, linked by the Nile, are also linked by their common struggles against dictatorships. With this in mind, I look back at the Ethiopian revolution of 1974 for some instructive lessons for Egypt. In Ethiopia the military dictator, Mengistu Hailemariam, rose to prominence and power on the backs of the country’s youth. In September 1974, students, workers and peasants rose up and helped depose Emperor Haile Selassie, who had ruled Ethiopia since 1916. The revolution began in the context of the Cold War, the 1973 oil crisis and Haile Selassie’s cover-up of a major famine in the north. In the political vacuum which followed the fall of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s military was actually a latecomer to the revolution that engulfed the country. In the summer of 1974, the so called ‘Provisional’ Military Advisory Council (PMAC), or Derg, assumed power and declared a policy of ‘Ethiopia Tikdem’, ‘Ethiopia First’.

In July 1974 the PMAC elected Mengistu Hailemariam as its chairman. When the PMAC was formally organised in September of that year, he was named first vice-chairman, a position he held until he took complete control in February 1977.

Throughout 1977 and 1978 the military government crushed a major challenge from radical students and bureaucrats in what was dubbed the period of the ‘Red Terror’. Hundreds of thousands of young Ethiopians and Eritreans were imprisoned, killed or exiled. The military had stolen the revolution and had no intention of handing power to any elected body.

Mengistu unleashed his terror. It lasted for another 17 years until 1991. He was overthrown by an armed insurrection. Sadly, even after the enormous sacrifice paid to get rid of Mengistu, the democratic enterprise in Ethiopia is to this day a victim of predatory politicians and military adventurists. Organised military resistance and a renewed struggle for democracy and democratisation are still underway.

During the 2005 elections, when the opposition made unexpected gains, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia said on state television that, ‘there is not going to be a “Rose Revolution” or a “Green Revolution” or any colour revolution in Ethiopia after the election.” Much as we are witnessing in Libya, his special forces shot and killed about 200 Ethiopian protestors. Thousands were sent to concentration camps.

But the ongoing resistance from the Ogaden (an area inhabited by ethnic Somalis in southeastern Ethiopia) and Oromia (an oppressed majority in the south and southwest) never abated. There are also indications that the contagion effect from the Middle East protests is reaching Ethiopia and neighboring Djibouti. Djibouti is a city-state with a population of 850,000 and home of the largest US military base in Africa. It is the only current port access for Ethiopia.

A recent Wikileaks release reveals the deep concern Ethiopia’s dictatorship feels with the raging Ogaden insurrection. The Ogaden insurrection is a mirror image of the way the Zenawi group came to power. They fought their way up and won militarily. Thus the Ogaden rebellion is bound to worry Ethiopia.

Ethiopia, like Egypt for most of its modern history, has survived on foreign aid. Ethiopian rulers like their Egyptian counterparts invariably played favourites when it came time to distribute the aid they received and the land they looted. The control of Ethiopia as in Egypt was maintained by cronyism, whereby tainted benefits were given to politically favoured groups and local strongmen. Instead of uniting the entire population under a state that the citizenry could legitimately consider their own, Ethiopian leaders used economic aid to divide and rule. There is fear that an uprising such as that taking place in the Middle East may result in the balkanisation of Ethiopia. Worse yet, Ethiopia may simply implode.

According to the CIA fact book, Ethiopia is listed as among the most unequal societies. With some 60 ethnic groups, the dominant elements in the current government come from the Tigray province in northern Ethiopia, which represents about 7 per cent of the population. The Tigreans are deeply resented by at least the Amara, the majority Oromo and ethnic Somalis from the Ogaden. Furthermore, the price of basic commodities has skyrocketed, exacerbating hunger. The conditions for an Egypt-like uprising are more than ripe.

It is instructive to examine the role US policy has and continues to occupy in Ethiopia. America continues to support dictators, as it also did when Ethiopia was ruled by Haile Selassie, because Haile Sellassie was a willing pawn in the US geopolitical worldview, which took precedence over supporting democratic struggles. Even when Mengistu opted to ally with the Soviet Union, the various armed struggles against Mengistu were disregarded by Washington.

It is viciously ironic that yesterday’s liberators from the Mengistu dictatorship have now ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist for over two decades, propped up by the United States in the name of partnership against ‘the war on terror’. Last year, Meles Zenawi passed two draconian laws that strengthen his grip on the country. A terrorism law criminalises many forms of dissent and a charities law restricts foreign funding for civic organisations. Zenawi, in power for 20 years, was re-elected last year by an outrageous 99.6 per cent of the votes, Mubarak, in Egypt’s last election, won by 99.9 per cent.

It is clear that US policy in both countries is conducted at the expense of the democratic aspirations of the peoples. There is this eerie similarity in that Egypt is also considered a ‘special’ geopolitical case, thereby justifying US support for the Mubarak dictatorship.

In what other ways does the situation in Egypt mirror the situation in Ethiopia ? The contexts between the Ethiopia of 1974 and that of Egypt in 2011 are obviously significantly different in some ways. For one thing, there is no Soviet Union competing with the US for patronage of bloody dictators and Egypt is more homogeneous and cohesive than the ethnically divided Ethiopia. Nevertheless, there are similarities.

Both Ethiopians and Egyptians wanted to remove a dictator, and their ultimate objective was instituting political and economic democracy. Similar to the PMAC in Ethiopia, the generals in Egypt posing as protectors of Egyptian stability are trying to postpone acceding to popular demand. As in Ethiopia in 1974, Egyptians now are in real danger of being hijacked by the high echelons of the military whose loyalties do not link them to the Egyptian masses. These generals owe their positions to Mubarak, having clearly enriched themselves as his cronies, serving in key positions while maintaining the police state. Mubarak is gone, but the regime that he created is still intact, and the US supports ‘managed continuity’ with perhaps some cosmetic makeover.

One possible scenario materialising in Egypt is that the military may allow enough political freedoms to gain some credit and legitimacy as reformers. Typically, this means holding regular elections and permitting the creation of a few opposition parties, a scattering of independent civic groups, and an independent newspaper or two. But they may maintain a strong enough hold on the levers of power to ensure that no serious threats to their rule emerge. Is post-Mubarak Egypt destined to be stymied by such semi-authoritarian arrangements ?

Governance in Egypt will be daunting, even for the most well intentioned government. Crony capitalism is pervasive, making Egypt one of the most unequal societies on the planet. According to the United Nations Development Program, a third of Egyptian children are malnourished and 40 per cent of Egyptians live under the poverty line, while members of the Egyptian military control key sectors of the economy and are the primary economic beneficiaries of cronyism. Under these circumstances, is it not possible for Egypt to regress slowly back to another corrupt and blatant dictatorship ?

The trump card in this whole scenario is the role the United States will choose to play. The history of US policy in Egypt is significantly similar to its policy in Ethiopia. Egypt is also considered a ‘special’ geopolitical case, whose stability and partnership is crucial in the ‘war on terror’ and for the peace treaty with Israel. This was used to support the Mubarak dictatorship for three decades. How will the US respond to the rebellion in Egypt ? So far, US policy in response to the current uprising is unclear, inconsistent, ad hoc, and full of knee-jerk reactions. Depending on the individual spokesman, US motives seem confusingly complicated, ranging from the erratic to the mostly instrumental. The cruel fact is that Egyptians know the many ways America subsidised and enabled the Mubarak regime to preside over a police state for three decades, while ignoring the desperate pleas of Egyptians for basic human and civil rights. Ultimately, democracy is sustained by the inner strength of a given society, but the role of outsiders at a revolutionary moment can also serve to enable or to hinder democracy.

What is to be done ?

There is a serious credibility problem for the United States among the aggrieved citizens of Egypt and indeed across the entire Middle East. For a meaningful departure from past policies, Obama must stay away from supporting dictators on geopolitical grounds. Even now, however the selective enthusiasm he shows for the protests in Iran, while giving hesitant ‘support’ for the Egyptian protest movement, is a business-as-usual approach. The crises in the Middle East and Egypt can provide the opportunity for a paradigm shift in the conduct of US foreign policy. It is time to redefine the policy of enlightened self-interest and to break loose from the rigid doctrines of another era with a radically different set of circumstances. Cold war tools are woefully inadequate for engaging the dynamic and fast changing Middle East.

A democratic Egypt will protect the rights of Egyptians and by extension those of the vulnerable and invisible guests/refugees seeking protection in the country. It will abide by the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That kind of Egypt will have a positive regional influence. It will help accelerate the democratic struggle.

Without democracy, it will be impossible to maintain peace in this whole region. In Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sudan, ethnic conflict is potentially explosive. The Egyptian uprising is having a contagion effect. Events are very fluid, and these are dangerous times for autocratic rulers around the region. 


Perhaps Obama can win back some credibility by showing that he is serious about actively supporting democracy as a matter of principle, not just as an expedient way to justify military action or the use of other tactics to effect regime change against unfriendly governments.

Promoting democracy as a matter of principle does not mean focusing on lofty ideals while ignoring hard national interests. To begin to recover from the historic damage done, Obama needs to acknowledge past mistakes with sincerity and to abandon the unfortunate pattern of supporting autocratic regimes in the name of economic and security interests. Repressive autocrats breed extremism and all too often evolve into anti-Western terrorism. One way to prevent or at least to minimise this possibility is by an enlightened policy of unwavering support for the democratic aspirations of all peoples in all countries. Perhaps then, the Egyptian generals might think twice before they try to swindle Egyptians and re-entrench themselves as a new form of military oligarchy.


Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.