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Will Ethiopian crackdown stir Islamist backlash?

Peaceful protests continue in Addis Ababa this week among Muslims angry over what they see as Ethiopian government interference. The government sees foreign extremist threat.

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"Islamic reformists in Ethiopia have been very little concerned with politics, and certainly not advocated ideas in the direction of an Islamic state," he says. "In my numerous conversations with Muslims in Ethiopia, I never came across anyone favoring such ideas."

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Other regional experts lean toward the official line that there are some externally-supported radicals that have hijacked the language of democratic rights to covertly pursue fundamentalism.

Protester demands

The committee's stated demands are for Islamic council elections to be held at mosques rather than at local government offices; for the government to stop its unconstitutional promotion of the moderate al-Ahbash sect popular in Lebanon; and for the Awalia Mosque in Addis Ababa to be returned to the community from a corrupted Islamic council.

The committee and its followers accuse Ethiopia's Islamic Affairs Supreme Council of being an undemocratic body packed with government stooges. Shiferaw, the Minister for Federal Affairs, denies any state meddling, saying there has been no promotion of al-Ahbash, and elections that begin on August 26 for two weeks are overseen solely by the Ulema Council of scholars, which he describes as Ethiopian Islam's highest authority.

On July 13, violence broke out for the first time in the capital since the nine month dispute began, after Muslims at the Awalia Mosque compound ignored warnings from the government to not hold a sadaqa (charity) gathering on the day that African heads of states were in town for an African Union meeting. The real purpose of the event, which was shut down before it began through a police raid, was to plot the Islamic takeover, Shiferaw claims, and the timing was "deliberately provocative." 

"It's about killing the image of the country and trying to destroy the trust of African leaders in their own capital," he says. "I don't think you quarrel with your wife when guests are at the door, if you're really genuine enough for your wife."

The government said 74 arrests were made, which was followed a week later by the detainment of the leadership committee based at Awalia. The crackdown, however, did not prevent a huge number of worshippers at Anwar Mosque in the Mercato area on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan a week later, showing solidarity with those arrested. Ahmedin Jebel, a now-detained spokesman for the 17-man committee, said the government's attitude betrayed its authoritarianism. "Even if Muslims come to the AU summit to protest, if it's peaceful, it shows Ethiopia is democratic," he says. "Preventing and attacking shows Ethiopia is undemocratic."

Unrest followed the next day, instigated by masked extremists penning in worshippers, according to the government. On a Saturday afternoon at one of Africa's largest markets, all shops were shuttered and riot police patrolled normally heaving streets.

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