Democracy: Liberty, Security, & Prosperity

Tunisia vs. Ethiopia: Could the Northern wave reach East?

Posted by Jawar on January 29, 2011

After a sweeping nonviolent uprising forced Tunisia’s despotic ruler out of office, Ethiopian activists and pundits are speculating a renewed possibility of a similar revolution in Ethiopia. Factors that triggered the Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution”—hike in food price and costs of living, can also be observed in Ethiopia, and are fueling the optimism.  As citizens pray for the Tunis wave to reach Finfinne, the Ethiopian regime is scrambling to erect a levy against it.  Meles Zenawi’s fear of not becoming the next Ben Ali is not without reason. But what are the odds of his nightmare becoming a reality?

The Demise of Ben Ali

A year ago, after listening to my presentation on strategic nonviolent resistance, a Tunisian activist told me that although theoretically sound, it’s impractical to implement a nonviolent resistance in countries such as Tunisia. He gave a laundry list of reasons for his beliefs;

1) The regime will use excessive force to prematurely crush organized resistance,

2) The military and security forces are very loyal to the regime,

3) The regime has co-opted all religious and community leaders,

4) The opposition is too divided, and lacks a charismatic leader

5) The regime has the full backing of the West, which would not stand by and watch its ally collapse

6) The ruling party has an extensive network of over two million members (20% of the total population) that would enable it to sniff out any possible threat.


Does it sound familiar? What a difference a year can make! Civil insurrection has toppled the once invincible Ben Ali, and the cynical activist I met in Washington, D.C. is now among the youth that engineered the revolution.
A ruler remains in power only as long as he has the consent of the people. In democratic countries, such consent is secured through periodic elections. In authoritarian systems, people consent due to fear, hopelessness, and identification with the ruler etc. The citizens’ consent indirectly translates into cooperating with and enabling the system that oppresses them. The objective of a civil resistance, therefore, is to eliminate factors that force citizens to consent to brutal and corrupt rulers. When people refuse to submit to the wishes and demands of their oppressor, the legitimacy of the ruler becomes questionable. The withdrawal of people’s cooperation increases the cost of making citizens conform. With reduced legitimacy and increased cost of control, the regime’s endurance begins to wane. When endurance is shaking, enforcers start feeling doubtful, so away goes their loyalty, and forcing the pillars that hold the power of a dictator to collapse.

The efficiency of a nonviolent movement depends on the choice and sequencing tactics. Gene Sharp identified some 200 methods that are categorized under three main tactics: protest (persuasion), noncooperation, and intervention. Protests serve as a means of raising awareness and creating unity among victims of the system. Noncooperation weakens the system’s ability to enforce its will, while intervention is obstructing the normal activities of the system and eventually crippling it.

What happened in Tunisia is a classic case of successfully executed nonviolent insurrections. Over the last several years, Tunisian citizens used social networks to expose corruption, human rights violations, unemployment, and repression. By the end of 2010, Tunisians have found one unifying issue – the economy, particularly the towering unemployment. The self- immolation of Mohammed Bouaziz—an unemployed young college graduate—protesting confiscation of his produce by police served as a trigger for a revolution ready to engulf the nation.

A heavy-handed attempt to suppress a rally in Bouaziz’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid was exposed by social media and soon enough other towns joined in solidarity. The movement gained momentum as labor activists and lawyers came onboard. The regime’s attack on those professionals backfired – elites from all sectors condemned the act and the middle class joined the movement. The activists employed brilliantly sequenced tactics completely disorienting the system through unpredictable and dispersed eruption of rallies all over the country. This served two purposes: first, although the number of direct participants was relatively small (less than 100,000 on its final days), the sporadic nature of the protests glorified the magnitude of the resistance. Second, the unpredictability of the events made the regime’s coordinated repressive response difficult.

Seeing the futility of repression, Ben Ali attempted appeasement by promising sweeping reforms. He reshuffled his cabinets, vowed to create 300,000 jobs, and grant full freedom of expression. The activists responded by increasing the pressure, calling on him to step down. When everything failed, Ben Ali resorted back to repression and ordered the military to use every means necessary to quash the revolt. However, the chief of army, Gen. Rachid Ammar, refused to order his soldiers to use live ammunition against unarmed protesters. His replacement followed the same suit. Ben Ali realized too late that everyone was sensing a rapid decline of the system’s endurance and his once loyal subordinates began positioning themselves to the new reality. The military leaders and reformist ministers took sides with the protesters forcing Ben Ali to run for his life.

The Danger of a Dominant Party System

Ben Ali failed to detect the looming troubles due in part to the perceived strength of his ruling party. His ruling party had over two million members who wore shirts with the president’s face on it, and swore to die for their beloved leader. His members proved their loyalty by helping Ben Ali win last year’s election with a staggering 89% percent. Interestingly enough, Meles Zenawi’s party boasts over five million members, whom he credits for winning him 99.6% of the parliamentary seats last May. Following the election, Meles attributed his overwhelming ‘victory’ to the dominant party system he had setup. Tunisia exemplifies the unreliability and even danger of grandiose dominant parties. How long a minority dominated ethnic coalition like the EPRDF would last, if met with a powerful strategic civil insurrection like Tunisia remains to be seen.

Opposition Politics: Leadership and a Unifying Agenda Syndrome

Opposition parties both in Ethiopia and Tunisia are highly fragmented and lack a unifying agenda or leader. With a low credibility rating, most citizens have a pessimistic view of the opposition. However, despite ever-growing harassment and repression, as well as the gloomy prospect of capturing state power, Tunisian opposition remained in the country and continued to participate in elections—even when they had no chance of winning. This proved to be important.

While Tunisian opposition political parties did not initiate or plan the civil insurrection, their presence on the ground was indispensable. By publicly defending the revolution, opposition leaders legitimized the youth movement against the regime’s attempt to dismiss it as extremism and hooliganism. When the resistance grew larger, opposition leaders jumped on the opportunity, directing and guiding the movement to achieve a full political change. They also facilitated communication between protesters and reformists within the government. Their role proved instrumental in reducing causality and preventing prolonged instability that could have resulted in the military seizing power to restore order. Quite startling, Islamic parties that were supposed to have the strongest support and thought to pose the main threat to Ben Ali, had a very small role in this revolution and its aftermath. The leaders of those parties were outside the country, and were out of touch with the reality on the ground—least aware, unprepared, and too far to make a direct impact on the political outcome.

The Role of the Military

Behind the success of the Tunisian revolution lies a constructive role played by the military. With no endurance left in Ben Ali, the military had multiple options: to stage a coup d’état and seize power, or to help civilians form a transitional government. They chose the latter. By defying the president’s order to crack down on the resistance, the military helped speed up the collapse of the old regime. Some went as far as setting up a telephone hotline system in order to protect the protesters against attack by Ben Ali’s loyal militias. Furthermore, by cracking down on the old security apparatus, the military prevented a likely coup against the new regime. In the words of General Rachid Ammar, the Tunisian army was acting as the “guarantor of the revolution.”

The odds of the military playing a similar role in Ethiopia are very small. The composition of the military is starkly different with all key command positions held by Meles Zenawi’s ardent loyalists from one ethnic group. In addition, Meles has been successful in instilling fear and insecurity among Tigrean elites (military, political and economic). They widely believe that the downfall of Meles and TPLF would result in a severe retribution against the Tigrean community and businesses. Therefore, Tigrean officers are unlikely to remain neutral or support a revolution against TPLF. In the event that a well-planned and strategically-guided resistance forces Meles to lose control, two possible scenarios may emerge:

a)     The Tigrean generals will stand with Meles and crack down on resistance. At that likely event, given the discontent within the military, officers from other nations may side with the resistance resulting in an unpredictable and very violent episode.


b)    Tigrean officers will stage a coup and replace Meles with another TPLF leader, hence leadership transition without a regime change. This could result in temporary relief; however, once wounded, authoritarian systems plunge into chronic crisis and do not last long.

Foreign Support

Another interesting lesson from the Jasmine Revolution is the limit of foreign guardianship for authoritarian rulers. Both Ben Ali and Meles Zenawi top the list of Western allies in the war on terror. The despotic rulers and their opponents believe the West will do everything to protect their “Yes Men” from any trouble. Tunisia’s revolutionaries proved the myth wrong. In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama recognized the Tunisian people’s desire to be free. In Tunisia he said, “…the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.” It is not that the West (especially France) would have refused to help Ben Ali; it is rather the intensity of the resistance that took them off guard. By the time they woke in Paris and Washington, it was too late. Therefore, the United States and France had no option but to stand with the people of Tunisia. They even denied asylum request for their departing buddy.

The fate of Meles Zenawi might not be any different. Argument can be made that the geopolitical importance of Ethiopia is higher than that of Tunisia. Due to the volatile regional situation (Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, Kenya, and Sudan), the West does not want to see instability in Ethiopia as it could pose grave danger to global security. Yet, past and recent history shows once a dictator loses internal control it is unlikely to be saved by external allies. In fact, my observation of the Obama administration is that while it lacks the stamina to provide practical support for democratic change, it does not stand in the way.

The Economy: Politics of Inflation and Price Caps

Ethiopia is facing more severe economic instability than Tunisia. During the early years of Ben Ali’s rule, Tunisia enjoyed a relatively stable economic growth. But in the last decade, Ben Ali began manipulating the numbers to show a rapid growth in order to hide his authoritarianism (Meles calls this a developmental state). However, as Ben Ali’s extended families and connected friends dominated the economy, little was trickling down for the rest of the country. In the last two years, economic growth plummeted, unemployment rose, and cost of living skyrocketed.

Zenawi gambled even higher. A decade and half experiment with the so called Agricultural Development Led Industrialization (ADLI) with hope of building power base in rural area failed to increase agricultural productivity and reduce food insecurity. During the experiment, urban development and small businesses were completely ignored. When the 2005 election revealed a looming danger coming from urban population and civil servants, the regime began devising economic policies to appease them.  Thus, the current market crisis is the result of a number of decisions made to overcome the impact of the 2005 political crisis.

  • To win back the support of the bureaucracy, Meles made a significant salary increase. For instance, a district administrator who once received 800 birr got a raise to 2000 or more. The number of state employees also increased, as kebele level administrators and cadres began receiving salary. Since printing the birr is the only logical source of such staggering increase, inflation became unavoidable.


  • The sudden explosion of real estate and the construction sector was meant to bring temporary relief to urban unemployment, as well as to showcase rapid economic growth. State owned banks were shelling out loans. Real estate and construction sectors boomed causing the demand for construction materials to spike, hence leading to an acute shortage. The government had to subsidize imports of these materials resulting in a huge trade deficit and shortage of foreign currency. Companies are not able to service their bank loans, nor could they pay state taxes. The speculated fueled demand for real state is nowhere to be seen. The CEO’s are either on the run or have joined the hundreds of political prisoners.
  • To compensate for foreign currency shortage, two steps were taken: devaluating the birr and inviting multinational corporations to grab as much arable land as possible.   The logic is that revenues gained from export of the cash crop would help balance the deficit. The practicality of the land lease policy in reducing trade deficit is yet to be tested. Nevertheless, the market crisis is not waiting for revenue yet to be earned. Prices of basic goods are out of control, as there is also a severe shortage. (Report shows as much as 33% decline in the supply of bulls).  The regime’s intervention by means of placing price caps is not working.. See Dr. Said’s recent analysis.)

The cumulative effects of these policy blunders are prepping Meles Zenawi’s regime for one of the most dangerous crises it has ever faced. So far, every step taken in stabilizing the market has backfired. The regime is in a state of panic as can be seen from its recent amateur policy decisions. Devaluating the birr  by 17% has resulted in 14.5% inflation. The attempt to make merchants take the blame for the price hikes failed to materialize. Then, the regime turned to increasing pensions by 84% and salary by 35%. These measures are likely to exacerbate the situation than stabilize it.

Therefore, had there been an organized movement, Ethiopia’s current economic woes provide a great recipe to kick the 20 year old dictatorship in the groin. Even at the absence of exogenous pressure, given the self-isolating decisions Meles has been taking within his party, internal explosion cannot be ruled out.

Conclusion: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

The hike in the global food price presents a grave danger for dictators and a golden opportunity for their oppressed subjects yearning for freedom. Ben Ali is the first causality of the will of the people and Tunisia has shown the way forward. Algerians, Egyptians, and Yeminis have picked up the torch. We will see the results in the coming weeks. Their victory is the result of extensive and careful planning. Activists of those regions spent the last several years preparing for this moment—they built their capacity very well that, when the opportunity presented itself, they grabbed it.  Ethiopians, who have fallen into deeper pessimism over the last years, seem to be waking up as well. I hope Ethiopians at home and abroad are watching and learning a thing or two from Tunisia and the fast-spreading revolution fever up north.

*The writer can be reached via To access more his articles, please visit


12 Responses to “Tunisia vs. Ethiopia: Could the Northern wave reach East?”

  1. tewbel said

    Very nice article.
    Thank you

  2. I do not the wave will reach out to Ethiopia will be another Tunisia. Read my reasons on my own blog and I would love to have an argument regarding this issue.By the way I like your perspective.

  3. Sorry dear after I have post my comment I have seen there is a serious mistake in the language and I should put my point again. I do not think the wave of the Tunisian revolution will reach out Ethiopia soon. I will post my perspective on my own blog.I would love to have a serious argument on the issue.

  4. Gifti said

    Superb analysis! This was the kind of scholarly analysis of current events I was waiting for from Ethiopian intellectuals. I agree in most of the points you raised. One point where I do not agree with you is in the following statement:
    “ observation of the Obama administration is that while it lacks the stamina to provide practical support for democratic change, it does not stand in the way.”
    I beg to differ. Not only the Obama administration, but also previous U.S. administration “stood in the way” when it comes to democratic change in certain region/countries. The reason is democracy complicates pursuit of American national interest. Democracy movements are attractive to Washington when they target a regime such as Iran’s, but in allied autocracies, they [pose] problems as one Time opinion article recently stated.
    1. Democracy has empowering nature. A leader who is democratically elected can decline politely American request or call American pressure bluff.
    Here are some examples from the same Time article:
    Turkey, once it became a democracy (no longer under the Military hegegemonic rule) and its electorate was given a voice in matters of state, denied the U.S. the right to use its territory to invade Iraq. It has become more assertive in challenging both Israel and the U.S. strategy on Iran.
    The democratically elected Iraqi government, for example, despite its dependence on U.S. support, has stated its refusal to normalize relations with Israel. A democratic Egypt, whether led by the Muslim Brotherhood or any other opposition party, is unlikely to go to war with Israel given the vast imbalance in military capability, but they’re even less likely to accept normal ties given the present condition of the Palestinians. And the most secular liberal activists in Egypt reject with contempt the argument that regional stability can come at the expense of their right to choose their government.
    2. Democracy can bring about Islamic-oriented governments unacceptable for pursuit of American national interest . To quote once again the article:
    “..There’s no way for Egypt to be democratic and exclude the Islamists from political participation. The same is true for most other parts of the Arab world – a lesson the U.S. ought to have learned in Iraq, where Islamists have dominated all the democratically elected governments that followed Saddam Hussein’s ouster. But when the Islamists of Hamas won the last Palestinian elections in 2006, held under pressure from Washington, the Bush Administration literally did a 180-degree turn on the question of Palestinian democracy. Meanwhile, much of the commentary on Ben Ali’s ouster in Tunisia has hailed the apparent absence of Islamists from the protest movement, but that may be premature. After the repression they suffered under the dictatorship, Tunisia’s Islamists have yet to emerge, as does the character of a new regime. Islamists may not dominate or even seek to, but don’t bet against them becoming an integral part of Tunisian democracy. ..
    There are many different models of Islamist politics competing with U.S. allies and with each other for support in the Middle East, ranging from the violent extremism of al-Qaeda to the modernizing, business-friendly democrats of Turkey’s ruling AK Party. But they tend to share a hostility toward U.S. intervention in the region, and toward Israel.”

    In Ethiopian case, I do not suspect #2 would be the reason why successive U.S. administration “stood in the way” of democracy. It has to do with what was stated as reason #1, simply put.

  5. Tesfu said

    Thank you Obo Jawar,
    Young’s like you should work hard as activist to overthrow Ethiopian Dictator.

  6. Anwar said

    A very great analysis:

    I agree that the regime in Finfinnee is in a panic state and it will soon make one of those band aid policy decisions in desperation. If he is wise, which I doubt, Meles will immediately resign and let the citizens elect a government that will represent them. Or, soon or later, he will meet similar fates that his predecessors and Ben Ali met. There is no safe haven for dictators any longer.

  7. steventhomas said

    I really liked your piece for a number of reasons. I have been wondering why Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt all happened at the same time. And I think your post suggests some economic causes– inflation and unemployment. Especially the price of food. To make an analogy, it was the price of oil in the early 70s and the economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 that precipitated the two revolutions in Ethiopia. But I also suspect that there are some other rhizomatic causes that aren’t being reported in the media (something else that links all three places… I don’t know enough about it, but follow the money!!!), and this leads me to a criticism of your post. At the beginning you attribute the success of the Jasmine Revolution to the “social networks” but you never identity what those social networks are. Later, you shift away from social networks and instead talk about the military and opposition parties. So, when you talk about social networks are you talking about institutionalized civil society or religious organizations or informal business associations or what? This seems a crucial part of your thesis that I suspect I agree with but that I also think needs ellaboration.

    I also think you’re right that the success in Egypt and Tunisia (Yemen seems different to me, but I’m not sure why I think that) is in part because the uprising took Washington DC by surprise. We all know that the United States has been suppressing democratic movements around the world for decades (e.g., Guatemala, Chile, Columbia, Venezuela, Vietnam, Congo… the list goes on and on), so it’s stupid for anyone to now look to the U.S. government for support of democratic movements. But I like your point that since the uprising took the West by surprise, they had to publicly support the uprising even though we know the Pentagon and Wall Stret don’t really want to for strategic and economic reasons. However, what a politician says and does are two different things, so who knows how this will fall out, right?

  8. nuru said

    This is a good opportunity for Ethiopian people. but revolution needs a leader. a leader that can compromise and unify the interest and the emotion of the people. but i don.t think we have such kind of leader. there is no elite consensus in this country. if things happen like Tunisia, our “politicians ” may hijack the revolution to their own narrow agenda. this may cause a lote of damage in a country which have few arrogant politicians who are self interested and over 80 ethnic groups told to hate each other by their respective elites( ethnic Enterprineur). even most of our analysis like jawar, who are tring to teach us about social revolution, democracy and justice are the same with meles, lencho, bereket and others. They can’t believe with the established system (even the name ADDIS ABABA). They are hate mongers. We need revolution. A real revolution that lead the people to belive in individual right ,humanity and want to protect the country from global threat. People who belive in a number of smaller countries that does.t exist ( the amhara land,oromo land….) hove no moral capacity to lead this kind of historic revolution.

  9. Kidist Shifawu said

    Look! So long there are opportunists like you… and so long there are fanatic Amharas are around, there will be a desire to search for an opportunist and there will be few opportunist who are willing to be Amharas Trojan Horses. This reality alone is enough to divide the Oromo and the Amhara, providing great opportunity for the Tigreans to stay in power indefinitely. That means, the removal of the Tigre power requires Amharas fanaticism to go away.In the process, Oromo opportunists will go away as well. This equation is needed desperately. If not, we will stay where we are! Meelkaam Iddil

  10. Abdi said

    Meles has three cards to play up to now: Economic growth, fighting terrorism, and the ethnic card (divide and rule). observing the current situation I think he is left with the last card. Egypt economic growth is so fast that it is expected to take over South Africa to become the largest economy in Africa. Economic growth doesn’t help Mubarak to continue his grip on power. His power base is shaking. The dictators present themselves to the West as angels and put the West in a catch 22 situation to choose between them and the government that will follow them but as you pointed out “Yet, past and recent history shows once a dictator loses internal control it is unlikely to be saved by external allies”. If there is any similar movement in Ethiopia the role of the military which is ethnically polarized in its power control determine the result of the regime change. The military know that when the Drerge regime was overthrown the solders become disbanded and become street beggars. They don’t want this happen to them. They might fight/kill demonstrators not only to keep Melees in power but to keep their job-keep the bread on the table and after all to keep their ethnic in power. I don’t know how the can be granted that they will remain being part of Ethiopian Military force though the regime is replaced. Unless they have this guarantee they will fight to death. They don’t willingly be thrown out on the street.

  11. Doostanger said

    Hey Jawar,

    This a great analysis. Good work my friend. You did a superb job in analyzing the Tunisian revolution. However, I think it is premature to connect the phenomenon in North Africa to that of Ethiopia. At best it is a gross generalization or just another disconnected diaspora tirade. You correctly point out the similarities the regims have but forgot to compare the countries. Tunisia & Egypt are very different from Ethiopia in key soft and hard infrastructures that that have fueled and nurtured the revolution. To mention a few:

    1. Urbanization: Tunisia has 67% Urban Population, Egypt is 43%, and Ethiopia is 17%
    2. Mobile penetration: Tunisia has 89.68% penetration and Four major telecoms, Egypt has over 50% or (58M phones or 14% of African mobile subscriber), Ethopia has 1.45% and one government owned operator
    3. Literacy: Tunisia 77.7%, Egypt 66.4%, Ethiopia 35.9% (this number is even lower for latin based alphabet)

    Thus, even if we are optimistic about a potential silent revolution, we need the soft and hard infrastructures that can propel and sustain such a revolution. May be in 10 years. I think there is a lot to be said about the power of the mobile phone and Twitter as much as the foresight of opposition leaders.

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