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Eritrea: Is political change really on the horizon?

By Valerie Frank

For many years now, the rituals that surround Eritrea’s Independence and Martyrs’ Days have revealed a government trapped in its own history and unable to articulate a vision for the future. This year, however, the hypocrisy of President Isaias Afwerki’s statements was even greater than usual, magnified by the impacts (or lack thereof) of last year’s peace deal with Ethiopia.

For almost two decades, the regime in Eritrea used the threat of war with Ethiopia to justify its repressive policies. When peace was struck in 2018 therefore, there was much optimism that change may be coming. The economy also received a welcome boost from the opening of the border. Yet a year on, those hopes have been dashed and the border has re-closed. While the president may say Eritrea’s future relies on the “quality, expertise and experience” of its population, thousands of energetic young people continue to leave each month.

According to some commentators, however, not everything is the same. Some argue that the stark reality of life in Eritrea has become even harder to bear for many following this past year’s disappointment and that desire for change is growing among Eritreans both inside the country and in the diaspora.

These observers and activists suggest that the opposition to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) government is gaining momentum. But is it?

Eritrea’s rising tide of opposition?

Those who claim that Eritrea is seeing a rising tide of opposition look to various trends.

Outside the country, for example, the anti-regime #yiakl (“enough”) campaign of has grown, amplified by the youth. Anti-government protests outside embassies and UN offices continue to swell. Furthermore, in anticipation of imminent regime change, diaspora groups are preparing transition plans, while journalists and academics have collectively implored the regime to make political reforms in the belief this is a rare moment of opportunity and openness.

Inside Eritrea meanwhile, reports similarly suggest that dissatisfaction is becoming more public. New graffiti has emerged calling for the end of indefinite national service and pamphlets that echo the sentiments of the #yiakl movement are being distributed. Some government officials have been disassociating themselves from the PFDJ in response to popular frustrations, and ordinary citizens are said to be becoming more vocal about their patience reaching breaking point. This has led The Economist, among others, to conclude that “Eritrea’s gulag state is crumbling”.

It is perhaps in the PFDJ’s own behavior, however, that we see the strongest evidence that it is under threat. In recent months, the government has severely limited internet access and, by extension, news of neighboring Sudan’s popular uprising. It has maintained its closure of Catholic health clinics, arguably to contain the influence and reach of one of Eritrea’s only semi-autonomous and outspoken institutions. Meanwhile, President Isaias is said to be further consolidating his inner circle of loyal cadres, with the attempted assassination of General Sebhat Ephrem read as a sign of an ever more fractured political elite.

All these developments, the argument goes, are clear signs of a spooked regime.

More of the same?

The above suggests that the writing is on the wall for Eritrea’s regime, but this expectation might be misguided for several reasons.

To begin with, it should be noted that commentators have heralded the impending end of Isaias’ regime several times over the years. When scores of soldiers in Asmara seized the headquarters of the state broadcaster in January 2013, for instance, many – though by no means all – claimed it was an attempted coup attempt, though it ultimately catalyzed no broader insurrection.

Similarly, many have read into previous protests or criticism of the regime a tidal shift that never materialized. Anti-government sentiment spiked after its relative silence following the deaths of hundreds of Eritreans off the coast of Lampedusa in 2013. Eritrea’s Catholic Church has called for political reform intermittently since 2014 and escalated in recent weeks following the government’s closure of its medical clinics. In late-2017, unprecedented numbers took to Asmara’s streets to protest against government interference in an Islamic school. In many of these instances, observers have seen the beginning of the end of the regime that is still yet to come.

This also highlights the fact that condemnation of the government is not new in Eritrea. We have not seen a repeat of the open criticism the group of 15 high-ranking officials (who became known as the G-15) expressed in 2001, but Isaias and the PFDJ have been the butt of jokes and graffiti throughout the 2010s. In Asmara, the ineptitude of the regime is a regular theme of conversation, to the point of boredom for many, while genuine government supporters are hard to come by.

Eritreans’ long-standing levels of frustration are perhaps best captured by the numbers fleeing the country. People have sought asylum from the PFDJ for decades, but numbers peaked in 2014 when an estimated 5,000 people left each month. These flows are one reason that opposition numbers in the diaspora continue to grow.

Isaias consolidating control?

This context makes it harder to conclude that today’s dissent against the regime is uniquely large, even though it might be uniquely loud, amplified by new technologies. However, the argument could go even further. Some new developments suggest that Isaias may even be consolidating his position.

For example, the government has recently struck some business deals in the mining sector and accepted development finance, including from the African Development Bank. Though unlikely to change ordinary Eritreans’ lives, this could alleviate some pressures on the government’s budget.

At the same time, shifting international dynamics could also strengthen Isaias’ hand. The peace deal with Ethiopia changed little for most Eritreans, but it did validate the PFDJ’s insistence that Eritrea has been illegally occupied all along. Moreover, it led to the cancellation of the UN Security Council’s sanctions against Eritrea and opened new opportunities for investment and engagement.

Off the back of this, Isaias is looking outwards and continuing to court allies. Eritrea’s membership of the Human Rights Council and Chairmanship of the Khartoum Initiative this year signals its re-insertion into international diplomacy. Asmara continues to project itself as a regional mediator, most recently through its engagement with the Transitional Military Council in Sudan. And senior Eritrean diplomats still shuttle back and forth from Gulf States in search of allies and investment, though shifts in Red Sea regional interests over the past year may have made these partners somewhat less desirable.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back

So is the PFDJ under threat? The simple answer to this question appears to be: Yes, in different ways, but not necessarily more so than in the past.

The regime may have lost the excuse of Ethiopian hostility and UN sanctions to defend its actions, but it has seamlessly inserted new reasons to justify its repression and the population’s ongoing hardship. Chief among these is that it will take Eritrea time to recover from a period of great adversity and re-establish itself on a sustainable path of its own determination.

As we have seen, many citizens in the country are unconvinced, though exit rather than domestic opposition remains the preference for now, as before. By contrast, foreign governments seem somewhat more persuaded by Isaias and have, amid the Horn of Africa’s changing geopolitics, appeared sufficiently reassured to gently re-engage.

In this context, in which the government is hemorrhaging support domestically but gaining some strength internationally, it is hard to see what will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It is difficult to work out which actors could gain enough leverage to either transform the PFDJ or to oust it altogether. Change may well be afoot in Eritrea, but it is by no means clear that it is going in the direction the regime’s critics would hope.

Ed.’s Note: Valerie Frank is an academic researcher exploring political trends in Eritrea and their relationship to broader Red Sea dynamics. The article first appeared on African Arguments. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.