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Ethiopia : Free to protest, just a bit

Could political demonstrations in Ethiopia herald greater freedom?

"Let our People Out"  Source: AFP cited in The Economist
“Let our People Out”
Source: AFP cited in The Economist

The Economist
June 8, 2013

A RARE flicker of political protest graced the streets of Ethiopia’s otherwise regimented capital, Addis Ababa, on June 2nd. Demonstrators marched peacefully through the city, many carrying pictures of imprisoned loved ones. Later they gathered on Churchill Avenue, the capital’s main thoroughfare, where they were told that a new struggle had begun. Yilekal Getachew, chairman of the opposition Semayawi (Blue) party, demanded the release of political prisoners and railed against unemployment and corruption.

Campaigners claim that as many as 10,000 people attended; government officials say the number was nearer 4,000. Whatever the true figure, it was the biggest demonstration in Ethiopia since 2005, when protests amid claims of election rigging were violently suppressed, leaving nearly 200 unarmed protesters dead and thousands arrested.

Since then the political opposition has been eviscerated. Its leaders have been jailed or have gone into exile, the media have been muzzled and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has acquired millions of new members. At the last election, in 2010, the party managed to get 99% of the seats in parliament. By the time he died last year, Meles Zenawi, who had been prime minister since 1995, had created a single-party state in all but name. Little suggests that his system of “authoritarian development”, which got the economy to grow faster at the expense of individual freedom, is now about to unravel.

Opposition numbers at the recent protest were swollen by Ethiopian Muslims who accuse the government of meddling in religious affairs. But turnout was still modest compared with the million-strong crowds of eight years ago. That may explain the government’s muted reaction. It granted protesters permission to march, but with a week’s delay to ensure they did not embarrass the new prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, while he hosted the summit that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the African Union and its forerunner. The police chose not to harass the demonstrators.

Fears that the post-Meles transition would presage instability have so far not been borne out. Some of Ethiopia’s economic strains were evident in the protests, with complaints about joblessness and inflation. But the decision to allow the march to go ahead suggests confidence in the senior ranks of the ruling EPRDF rather than any concern that the regime will be swept away in a kind of “Ethiopian spring”. Suggestions that the protest marks a sea-change in the country’s politics may be premature.

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