Unmuddling the Muddled

First, I would like to thank Mr. Yosef G. for his insightful discussion on the latest episode between Eritrea and the US.  Mr. Yosef’s contributions towards the opposition movement are commendable and are inspirations for many of us.  The purpose of this article is simply to engage Mr. Yosef and our readers in discussion over Mr. Yosef’s concerns.  As always, this is my private views and never have I ever claimed to possess ultimate wisdom.  This is simply my humble understanding of the general issues.  Discussions and debates can only enrich all us. 

In Mr. Yosef’s latest article titled “Eritrea and Terrorism: the Muddled Opposition”, Mr. Yosef expresses his disappointment over opposition camp’s muted and ‘defensive’ responses to US’ threat to place Eritrea on its blacklist.  We all share his pains over PIA’s repressive acts against the Eritrean people.  I also agree with many of his arguments.

However, it is in the moments of greatest pain that we should be able to maintain our reasoning faculties.  We have to be able to rise above our emotions and make rational analysis, decisions and actions that don’t react to PIA’s provocative acts.  If we allow PIA to make us dance to his tunes then we have already lost the struggle.  The opposition camp must react to PIA’s intentions rather than to his [PIA’s] provocative actions.

The problem in arguing against Mr. Yosef’s latest article is that I agree with many of his underlying premises, but disagree with his analysis.  Mr. Yosef’s central argument advocating for blacklisting is based on the following simplistic assumption,

          Blacklisted  à  Financial Woes à Collapse

Mr. Yosef’s article suffers three inconsistencies and logical gaps,

Logical Gap #1

By his own admission, Mr. Yosef stated that,

“There is a legitimate reason in the fear that economic sanctions won’t work; for in our era, there hasn’t been a single government that has been brought to an end as a result of its implementation.” [Emphasis added]

My bewilderment is how Mr. Yosef can advocate for a course of action that he himself admits has never been proven in history.  We should be wary of experimental politics that advocates for certain actions based on one’s supposed ‘rational’ arguments, especially when we are so far removed from the effects of the actions we are advocating.   

Mr. Yosef is scolding members of the opposition camp for not advocating for his experimental politics.  In fact, Mr. Yosef’s observation that ‘no single government has been brought to an end as a result of blacklisting’ is probably one of the main reasons why the opposition camp has been wary or remained quiet over US’ warnings.  Why stigmatize Eritrea for something that history has shown as ineffective.  Experimental politics can only be advocated by individuals.

Logical Gap #2

The critical question is, how does a regime collapse due to financial woe?  Mr. Yosef argues,

“If economic sanctions are not imposed on Eritrea, there are only two roads ahead of us, none of them preferable. One is for the regional problem to be resolved through conflict, one that will eventually pit Ethiopia against Eritrea in an all-encompassing war. The other is (if war is miraculously avoided) for the Isayas regime to die a natural death; that could mean a decade more of Highdefite rule.”

Mr. Yosef fails to tell us the dynamics that leads to a dictator’s collapse due to financial stress.  What happens to a regime in a financial stress?

Mr. Yosef states, “If these three outside sources of income are effectively cut off, there is no way this regime can last long, not even a year.”

A repressive regime isn’t like Enron (a private company) that declares bankruptcy after bleeding dry, closing shop and walking away.  In reality, there can only be two plausible dynamics that can bring about change, third one being simply Mother Nature.  The first dynamics assumes that PFDJ’s financial woes will put pressure on the starving public who will then have no choice but to riot precipitating a public uprising.  To put this differently, can the opposition camp advocate, even implicitly, for putting the Eritrean public in extreme economic hardship as a legitimate tool to effect (what it hopes) a regime change?  The whole idea that the general public must be subjected to excessive pressure to effect political change has been advocated by many, including Mr. Sayed Qutb in its extreme form.  The second dynamics is the outcome of a possible war with Ethiopia.

Mr. Yosef used certain countries as examples to support his case.  For instance, can we compare South Africa’s situation to Eritrea.  Just because economic sanctions worked against South Africa, can it work against Eritrea?  We are comparing apples and oranges.   Although South African whites were part of the apartheid regime, still the leaders of that country were answerable to 5 Million whites who were prospering economically.  The white population had a lot to lose from sanctions, and also has vested interest in avoiding unwanted and unplanned black uprising.  Moreover, it was the replacement of hawkish Mr. P. W. Botha by Mr. De Clerk that enabled change – not unlike the replacement of Mr. Brezhnev by Mr. Gorbachev.  In contrast, PIA is answerable to no one and is actively engaged in destroying Eritrea socially and economically.  Economic sanctions would only provide PIA with yet another excuse that it is a superpower that is the cause of Eritrea’s socio-economic hardship.  PIA needs to replace greedy private businessmen gouging the public with the Americans.

PIA isn’t concerned about economic hardship.  In fact, his deliberate policies have been designed to create economic hardships – then blaming it on businessmen, war and now hopefully that “bully superpower”.  PIA is keenly aware that throughout history, economic hardship or starving the public is the best way to subdue the population.  For instance, what Stalin did to the Ukrainians and other resulting in the death of over 25 Million of them.  Mao killed off some 38 Million Chinese.  Pol Pot did the same.  The Romans, the Greeks and many other powers throughout history used the same starvation policies to maintain their internal iron rules.  These brutal leaders apply State Terror against their own citizens hoping to maintain firm grip on power.

Logical Gap #3

Mr. Yosef argues that blacklisting is needed to precipitate the collapse of the regime by squeezing the regime financially.

“There are two reasons why I believe economic sanctions, in their stringiest form, would be effective in the case of Eritrea. …The three sources of “income” upon which it depends for almost everything come from outside: soft loans and aid from the donor community; remittances, 2% tax, and all sorts of donations from Diaspora Eritrea; and “tourism” – mainly Diaspora Eritreans. Besides, we have to take into account the fact that the country is already in the midst of severe economic meltdown. All that it needs is an “economic shove” in the form of sanctions for the government to crumble. If these three outside sources of income are effectively cut off, there is no way this regime can last long, not even a year.” 

Yet few lines later, Mr. Yosef concedes that the US sanction won’t have much effect because,

“The concern over remittances is quite overblown. As we all know, given the extortion exchange rate that the government-owned banks demand, no Eritrean in his mind sends remittances through the banks. All Eritreans – including the Higdefites – have found an informal way of reaching their families, one that avoids the greedy hands of the PFDJ. Even if the US targets remittances as part of its economic sanctions against Eritrea, there is no practical way of enforcing it. The Eritrean Diaspora is well spread throughout the world, and sending a few hundred dollars to one’s family through this intricate network of extended family is totally intractable. If so, to ignore the greater good that the sanctions would usher based on unfounded fear would be to miss the whole point.” [Emphasis added]

In Mr. Yosef’s third logical fallacy, he admits that blacklisting PIA won’t have significant financial impact on the regime, thus negating many of the arguments contained in his article.  Many analysts have already stated that US sanctions won’t have much impact on Eritrea because little trade takes place between the two countries. Instead, Mr. Yosef is now advocating for blacklisting for the “greater good” rather than the financial impact on the regime.  Mr. Yosef doesn’t elaborate on the “greater good” but based on his Iranian example that this prospective sanction would give a boost to the opposition inside Eritrea.  But this argument also fails the historical test, which he himself agrees.

So the question then becomes, why stigmatize Eritrea for generations to come when the stigma has little or no impact on the regime and, in fact, the regime is courting it?

It is true that we must advocate to isolate the regime financially, diplomatically and politically.  However, at a time when we are scolding the regime and its ‘kedemti’ for pursuing scorched earth policies to earn his Pyrrhic victory, we have to be equally cautious not to advocate scorched earth policies to win our victory.  This is not a race to the bottom.  At a time when the regime is trying its best to put Eritrea in a gigantic socio-economic, political and diplomatic hole, we have to play a smart game that will attempt to preserve many things we value and need in handing over power to the people.

We should also be cautious not to unwittingly dance to PIA’s political tunes.  The prospect of blacklisting didn’t materialize because of opposition camp’s efforts but due to PIA’s own doing.  Even this writer had predicted in my January 2007 article titled “Shocking” that if PIA pursues his belligerent policies in Somalia that Eritrea may find itself on the blacklist.  The road towards the prospect of blacklisting was surely well known to the PFDJ regime for months, yet the regime still chose to pursue that route.  Even after Ms. Frazer’s warning, PIA and his media have continued their belligerent propaganda towards the US Administration.  PFDJ’s belligerent acts will also continue in Somalia.  The question then becomes, if PIA is doing his darn best to be put on the blacklist, or if PIA doesn’t care about being put the list, why should the opposition camp accommodate PIA by advocating such a move to blacklist a nation?  Would we be accommodating his desires, or rather would we be dancing to PIA’s tunes? 

The burning question remains, why is PIA striving towards being put on the blacklist?  One reason might be that by taking antagonist approach towards the US, PIA may want to win back sympathy among Eritreans who may feel that Eritrea has always been disfavored by the Americans.  PIA is probably trying to find excuses for his utter political, diplomatic, social and economic failures.  PIA probably feels his fate is doomed and that he would rather be remembered for his valiant fight against a superpower than collapsing under the pressures of Eritrean political prisoners and the general Eritrean public. 

I ask my readers to react to PIA’s intentions rather than his acts.  Here is a dictator who has read all historical books on how to entrench dictatorship, and who has managed to solidly entrench himself.  Examining history, the odds of dictators being booted out due to internal dynamics are very slim.  The question then becomes, what is itching PIA so hard that he has no choice but to pursue scorched earth policies internally and externally thus endangering his power despite appearing to solidly entrench his dictatorial regime?  That is probably the 64,000 dollar question.  The fact that PIA is engaged in scorched earth policies may indicate the following,

  1. PIA suspects his colleagues aren’t with him, i.e. feeling of insecurity,
  2. The fact that his colleagues are challenging him might be eating away his ego.  Or worse, the fact that he is being outplayed by his protégé, PMMZ, may eat away PIA’s ego.
  3. PIA may need to create as much confusion and disaster to distract the Eritrean public from his unilateral and fatal errors of political and legal judgment in early May 1998 resulting in the sacrifice of thousands of innocent Eritrean youth.  Blacklisting may distract us from focusing on the fundamental issues.
  4. PIA may feel that he may not be able to exist next to the PMMZ regime,
  5. Etc…


Political Position

As individuals, we can advocate for any political positions.  More importantly, we can easily change our positions on any political issue without many consequences.  In contrast, political parties’ political positions are assumed to be formulated through extensive debates and discussions within the organizations and thus must (supposedly) reflect rational decision – rational decisions based on historical and current political realities, and not based on untried and unproven political experimentations. 

No Eritrean political organization can proudly promote itself as putting Eritrea on a blacklist.  They can’t put it on their lists of their accomplishments.  The race towards the bottom is the easiest route to take.  Moreover, if the opposition camp advocates for blacklisting, the regime would accuse the opposition of stigmatizing Eritrea.  For a regime that has put every effort into creating schism among the population, we would be dancing perfectly to his tune.  Although PIA is solely responsible for the prospect of putting Eritrea on the list, the opposition camp would be shouldering the blame for the blacklisting.  After that, the opposition would be blamed and stigmatized for an act that will yield no positive contributions towards our ultimate goal.

Future of Eritrea

For anyone examining PIA’s path towards self-destruction, the end can’t be too far off.  As the regime sinks deeper into the abyss, it wants to drag us into its hole hoping to ensure that Eritrea’s future after its demise remains bleak.

The opposition camp has a collective responsibility to take actions only enough to put pressure on the regime to collapse while striving to maintain some of the socio-economic, diplomatic and legal structures intact (i.e. whatever is left of it).  After all, the day after the regime collapses, the opposition has a daunting task of rebuilding the country.  If we burn all our bridges getting to our goal, we will be sucked into the same hole as PFDJ.  Good intentions and unproven ideas alone won’t build a country.  In inheriting a nation from a previous regime, one starts from a mess left behind – never from a clean slate.  The less mess left behind is less cleaning up needed afterwards.  PIA is aware of this and is working overtime to create as much mess for the next government and the people to clean up after him, and we would be naïve to accommodate him by creating our own mess.

Never underestimate the potential chaos that follows the collapse of dictatorships.  Former Yugoslavia, Somalia and Iraq come to mind but these are probably extreme examples.  But the lack of legal succession laws on political leadership in Eritrea will have its consequences – regardless of whether it is in the short or long term.  Although we shouldn’t be overly apprehensive about change, yet this doesn’t mean we should pursue reckless policies to win our Pyrrhic victory.  Instead, the opposition camp must strive towards bringing about regime change through soft landing.  This can only be commendable and is prudent policy for anyone who intends to succeed this brutal regime.             

Activists Role

Although we all have the right to express and to advocate our views, we should be cautious in propagating certain views that have severe adverse impacts.  This is especially true when our activism impacts others directly while we are largely immune from the effects of our advocacy. 

As individual activists, we have greater latitude in propagating our message.  I usually attempt to ascertain whether a message (i.e. an article, public speech, etc…) is propagandistic or analysis.  Propagandistic messages may use half-truths, inflammatory languages and other techniques to get one’s message across.  On the other hand, political analysis can only be based on supportable facts.  Each one has its own functions and is easily differentiable.  Propagandist messages tend to muddle facts and are usually aimed at one’s opposition or antagonists.  In contrast, analysis may or may not favor among different antagonists.  Thus when an opposition attacks PFDJ (or vice versa), one is most likely engaged in propagandistic message.  When an opposition is scolding another member of the same opposition, it can never be propagandistic (unless for destructive purpose) and should only be based on supportable factual analysis only.  Analysts must ensure that their analysis contains logical consistency.

Overall, we have to continually ask ourselves what our roles are as activists.  I believe my role within the opposition is twofold: first, to struggle for the rule-of-law and for the respect of human rights (both are linked to each other), and second, to debate my fellow members of the opposition camp in order to enhance and refine our views.  If we are able to refine our self-righteous views, we will have accomplished much towards helping Eritrea recover from its tragic history.  In the meantime, it is untenable and unproductive to passionately engage in remote control politics. 

The role of activist is more of vigilantism and advocacy rather than playing the role of politicians.  If we begin to own political processes, then we inadvertently tie our role to the success and failure of the outcome of the political processes.  When we own a process, we will put pressure on ourselves to achieve visible results.  But vigilantism is simply an ongoing activity which may have some milestones, but never an all consuming single destination; rather it is a never ending journey.  Many people around us ask what we have achieved through our activism.  Many expect tangible goals within a short period of time.  Unfortunately, success for an activist may NOT be visible and the satisfaction, or the victory, can ONLY be in knowing one is doing one’s part to achieve an ongoing, or rather never-ending, effort.  When we, as activists, have reached a level where we are engaging in the activity itself without getting consumed as to how far or close we are to our ultimate goals, we would have laid the foundations for great democracy, or anything else in life for that matter.

Peaceful Resistance

It is understandable some people’s frustrations over advocating “peaceful resistance”, as Mr. Yosef has expressed in his latest article.  No one has ever claimed that “peaceful resistance” is the easiest method to achieve our goals.  Rather, we advocate for it because it is consistent with our beliefs.  Especially for those of us who live in the comfort of our homes in Western countries, we can only advocate for methods of struggle that are consistent with our values here in the West.  Otherwise, we would be engaging in the same hypocrisy as “Stench of Asmara Rose” advocating for political acts six thousands miles away while she and we are immune from it here.

I sincerely believe that is probably our biggest struggle, which is to be able to control our emotions and then to advocate for rational courses of actions that are nearly devoid of self-righteousness.  Sometimes, self-doubt is good.  It is also good to mutter ‘Inshallah’ because none of us have the ultimate wisdom.  We can only engage in acts that are consistent with our humble beliefs.

Decision-making & Policies

Food for thought, but will discuss this in the future.

The circles represent our ultimate socio-economic and political goals.  The first drawing assumes that our path towards our goals is straight forward.  It assumes that we are able to predict the path.  The second drawing assumes that our path towards our goals is full of twists and turns but approaching closer every time.  The first path solely assumes wisdom, whereas the second is based on learning from experience.  The first path is advocated by dictators, the second path is the experiences of democratic and learning societies.  Which one is consistent with the laws of nature?  There are many more implications which this writer will address in the future.

On the day of the 46th Anniversary of the commencement of Eritrean Armed Struggle, We should all say in one voice,

Release All Political Hostages Immediately!  It is inhumane!

Berhan Hagos

August 31, 2007

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