Eritrean opposition takes its politics online

Opposition leader Mohammed Ali Ibrahim disappeared this week, and opposition-run websites wasted little time in disseminating information in multiple languages.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, www.sahelblog.wordpress.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Eritrea, which gained official independence from Ethiopia in 1993, is infamous for the tight control President Isaias Afewerki's regime 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.

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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.)

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, however, is 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, already posted a story 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, or are already 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 cassettes). 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, then it may indicate that the Eritrean opposition, confined to exile and the internet though its partly is, still worries the president.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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