A Glance at the Eritrean Opposition Online

Yesterday AFP broke the news that an Eritrean opposition figure has disappeared:

An Eritrean opposition party official has been missing for two days in eastern Sudan and there are fears he may have been kidnapped by Asmara’s security agents, the party alleged on Thursday.

Mohammed Ali Ibrahim, a member of the People’s Democratic Party central council, left his house in Kassala town at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) on Tuesday and has not been seen since, the party said in a statement emailed to AFP.

See a map of Kassala here.

Eritrea, which took official independence from Ethiopia in 1993, is infamous for the tight control that the regime of President Isaias Afewerki exercises over the country’s politics, media, and economy. Human Rights Watch has called Eritrea a “giant prison.” Eritrea is a pariah in the regional politics of the Horn, and its neighbors have accused it of supporting rebels, such as Somalia’s al Shabab.

The story about Mohammad Ali Ibrahim’s disappearance made me curious about the Eritrean opposition. Given everything that one hears about the political repression inside Eritrea, it is not surprising that a figure like Ibrahim had taken up residence outside the country. It is also not surprising that the Eritrean opposition has made substantial use of the internet for broadcasting their message. What did surprise me was the sophistication of their websites and the speed with which they are updated – by last night, the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), to which Ibrahim belongs, had already posted a story, in English, about the fears of a kidnapping.

The EPDP was established in 2009/2010. It is a union of three parties, the Eritrean People’s Party (EPP), the Eritrean Democratic Party (EDP), and the Eritrean People’s Movement (EPM). The EDP still has its own functioning website, and the EPM’s is online but apparently not functional. The EPDP emerged out of a pre-existing opposition umbrella group, the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA), which also has a website. This cluster of websites is impressive, but I imagine it is only the beginning, as far as Eritrean opposition activists’ online presence is concerned.

The websites of the EPDP, the EDP, and the EDA all have content in English, Arabic, and Tigrinya, one of the main languages of Eritrea. Clearly the proprietors have multiple audiences in mind, national, international, and diasporic.

That the EPDP seeks an international audience is even clearer in its Frequently Asked Questions, a document that emphasizes (in English) the party’s commitment to electoral democracy, nonviolence, secularism, media freedom, human rights, and capitalism. I believe that the party holds these values, and I do not want to sound overly cynical, but I also believe that these values are carefully presented with an eye toward winning Western governments’ sympathies.

Since at least the 1990s (see Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large), observers have been thinking about the powerful ways in which diasporic flows and new media might change/are changing local and global politics.

In some ways, nothing has changed. Opposition figures in exile have used the cutting-edge media of their time to distribute political messages for decades (think Khomeini and casettes). But the Eritrean opposition’s heavily diasporic character and strong online presence exemplify the new kinds of political strategies that are emerging. If nothing else, the movement of ideas and people is getting faster. And I think that the internet has brought ways of addressing multiple audiences at once that are new.

Controlling events on the ground, physically, has not lost its importance, and I do not believe the Eritrean opposition’s sophistication online means it is anywhere close to toppling Afewerki. But if one needs a sign of the importance of the internet, there is the fear it inspires in governments. For example, during periods of protest in Burkina Faso and Uganda last year, those governments attempted to block text-messaging. And if it turns out that the government in Asmara did kidnap Ibrahim – despite an imbalance of power that strongly favors Afewerki – then it may indicate that the Eritrean opposition, confined to exile and the internet though it partly is, still worries the president.

7 thoughts on “A Glance at the Eritrean Opposition Online

  1. Their emphasis on ‘western’ values might also come from a hope that the U.S and/or NATO will overthrow the current Eritrean government and help them come to power. I wonder what their resources are, U.S and European reporting tends to suggest that the Eritrean government has rather extensive control over the country. Maybe their focus on the West and expats is bringing in outside money.

  2. The Eritrean government makes other repressive governments look like girly men. This is a government that bullies diaspora Eritreans into paying a “tax” to the government back home. They do it in America, they do it in South Sudan, in London … you get my drift, it doesn’t matter.
    Why would the US or NATO overthrow the government? Western companies have very lucrative mining concessions in Eritrea and like it just as it is. The US used to have a military base in Eritrea and wanted to reopen it but was refused — hence the Africom camp in Djibouti. Otherwise, there really isn’t much there.

    • The U.S doesn’t exactly like the Eritrean government. Partially because the current regime is at least as bad as the Ethiopians and partially because of Somalia. Also the U.S has gotten much closer to Ethiopia over Somalia.

      As for overthrowing, I wasn’t arguing that NATO or the U.S were likely to do so, just that an Eritrean opposition with a poor understanding of the reasons behind the actions of the U.S and Western Europe might think that they would try for regime change.

  3. Pingback: Eritrean opposition takes its politics online | EthioSun

  4. Pingback: OA News: February 14-21, 2012 » oAfrica

    • Do you really think the security council is an objective observer. Do you really think a poor tiny african nation can fly over the red sea (litterd with american military bases) and djibouti without being detected. How about enforcing the Algiers agreement? Leave Eritrea alone. The UN has never been a friend of ours before or now. You don’t have to recieve our refugees either. It’s giving young people false hopes of a better life abroad. Let them stay back home and fight for their future in Eritrea and build it as they see fit.

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