IF this were Atlantic City, the residents might be placing bets on whether or not their head of state would survive until the end of the month. But Ethiopians seem too demoralized for such frivolous bravado. ``Whatever happens next, it must be better than this. We have had it up to here,'' says a businessman, tapping the bridge of his nose.
With Tigrean rebel forces that have vowed to overthrow President Mengistu Haile Mariam only 100 miles away, the capital of Addis Ababa has the air of a city under siege. Residents talk openly of a new government supplanting the once Soviet-backed rule of the Marxist politburo, but very few have laid in supplies of food and water to sit out the fighting that many expect to sweep through the streets. [An agreement to hold peace talks has been concluded between the government and the Tigreans, and may take place next year.]
Although the longstanding midnight curfew has not been brought forward, by 9 p.m. the pot-holed boulevards and dirt alleys are virtually deserted.
The Americans among the small expatriate community have been asked to report daily for a briefing on the security situation. Warned not to invite friends out or travel in the countryside, they have been urged to have a small suitcase packed and ready. The Western embassies have pooled resources to make possible rapid evacuation by air if law and order breaks down completely.
During the day, Westerners pursue their work, bridge parties, and duck shooting with a aplomb that is reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh's ``Scoop'' and ``Black Mischief.'' Mr. Waugh, a British foreign correspondent writing about the Italian invasion of Abyssinia under Emperor Hailie Selassie more than 50 years ago, used Addis Ababa as a backdrop for both these witty novels.
Just as in Waugh's day, the ferenji (Amharic for ``foreigner'') response to the crisis is varied. In the tall apartment block in the center of town that houses only expatriates, the Egyptians have stocked up with qat - a bush commonly chewed in the Horn of Africa as a narcotic.
The more pragmatic Russians have hauled in sacks of flour and zippered, plastic shopping bags bulging with groceries. The once sizable Soviet community has dwindled since Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew military support as protest against Mengistu's refusal to halt bloody fighting against anti-government rebel factions.
With a rich cultural heritage as a backdrop (Ethiopian civilization dates back before Christ), it is easy to see why Mengistu's African socialism - squeezed into the straitjacket of Marxist ideology - is resented. It has spelled hardship for Ethiopia's population of 49 million. The country's quality of life has deteriorated sharply in the 15 years since army officers abruptly ended a centuries-old tradition of imperial rule by overthrowing the aging Hailie Selassie.
Addis Ababa is cupped in hills that rise to above 7,000 feet. Clusters of cement-block buildings are webbed together by sprawling shantytowns of mud and wattle houses with corrugated tin roofs. There is no piped sanitation here; garbage festers in open drains. Few people own a car and even fewer have a telephone.
As the Mengistu regime becomes increasingly embattled, the trappings of Marxism have begun to fall away. Cadres of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia are no longer required to wear the blue or khaki suits that once denoted their station. Within weeks of the announcement, there was scarcely a cadre suit to be seen.
But the survival within an almost bankrupt economy provides daily challenges and constraints. Food, which is in short supply, is rationed. Obtaining the basic daily necessities is a full-time occupation. Offenders have their ration cards confiscated and are fined. Often they are imprisoned for indefinite periods. There are thousands and thousands of people indiscriminately incarcerated without benefit of trial or sentence in the city's police stations and jails, according to Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group.
``These are the saddest years in our history,'' lamented a businessman who was released recently after nine years of imprisonment.