Monday, June 27, 2011

Fighting words of peace Al-Ahram Weekly | Interview |

Fear and anxiety, realism and optimism, love for Africa and passion in its defence -- these were some of the sometimes conflicting emotions that surfaced in the course of the Al-Ahram Weekly interview with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki. Egypt was an object of that fear and anxiety, which triggered Afewerki's anger at the forces that were collaborating to destroy his country and his bitterness at the hypocrisy of the international community and the US, in particular. The emotions were mirrored in his face, which reflected at once the sensitivity of the applied artist and the pride and determination of the freedom fighter whose ardent patriotism drove him to leave the school of engineering in order to dedicate himself to the fight for his nation.







Click to view caption
Isaias Afewerki




What is your reading of the democratic revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world and North Africa?


I don't call them revolutions, but rather explosions. I have certain reasons for this, but first let's not generalise. Egypt isn't Tunisia, or Bahrain, or Libya or any other Arab country. Every Arab country has its own realities. What happened in Egypt was the culmination of decades of accumulated problems. It had a corrupt government. That is undeniable. However, we cannot ignore the regional and international dimensions that contributed to this reality, which eventually precipitated the explosion. Yes, the cumulative effects of increasingly dire economic straits generated what we might call a revolutionary condition. But it wasn't a revolution, because there was no explicit manifesto or programme, and there was no identifiable leadership. It was a spontaneous eruption of cumulative pressures in which many other countries played a part not only during the past 30 years, which is the life of the Mubarak regime, but during the past 40 or more years, in which Egypt had come under international crosshairs, faced numerous challenges, fought several wars and emerged as the pivotal power in the region. The attempt to destroy Egypt did not just come from within. If there's going to be apportioning of blame, then fingers should also point to all those regional and international powers that created this situation. If there were thieves in Egypt, they had regional and international parties to work with. In other words, the internal situation was important. But the external factor carried greater weight in Egypt than it did in other countries, such as Tunisia.


Please amplify on the part played by the external factor.


During my visit to Egypt, when we were having refreshments on the banks of the Nile, small fishing boats pulled up next to us and their owners begged for handouts. Nothing could more vividly reflect the unjust distribution of wealth. How is it that a small minority came to control everything in Egypt? What was their power based on? What kind of government created these conditions? What we have to do first is to study the causes of all these crises and that explosion and subsequent chaos. The regime had enjoyed the support of all the countries that are currently condemning its dictatorship and the theft of Egypt's wealth. Where were those governments, the US and European banks, and the investors in the so-called global private sector then, if not collaborating in all that plundering? It was not just certain domestic parties that were responsible for the privatisation and destruction of Egypt's economy and agriculture. All such factors need to be studied very carefully if the aim is really to make the concrete changes that will enable Egypt to progress and secure the international status it merits. Unfortunately, what we see now is creative chaos. The forces that were taken by surprise by the explosion are now fomenting chaos in order to buy to plan and rearrange things to suit their purposes. Everyone needs to be aware of this, because Egypt belongs not only to Egyptians, but to the whole region.


Are the forces you're speaking of the ones that are currently trying to ignite sectarian strife in Egypt?


That's as plain as day. It doesn't make sense to see discord between Muslims and Copts in Egypt. Everyone must be on guard against being lured into that kind of thing.


What do you expect from the "new" post-revolutionary Egypt with respect to its regional or international role?


What worries me is that this explosion occurred without any organisation, with no aim or strategy, and without a leadership. Ad hoc handling of explosions offers no solution. We have to wait and see whether order comes to the randomness and offers a vision of the contours of the future. Right now, it is impossible to predict what will happen in the next few months.


In your opinion, how will the revolution affect the bilateral relations between Egypt and Eritrea. You have long charged that Africa has declined in Egypt's scale of priorities.


Even Egyptians have acknowledged that Egypt's compass turned northward and that Egypt ignored the situations in Sudan, the Nile Basin and the Red Sea. Today, I believe that Egyptians are considering how to rectify the orientation of their compass. However, one can only judge by actions, not by hopes and intentions. We want to see changes on the ground. The old order has gone and a new order is coming. This is a transitional phase and it is still impossible to predict how all the regional and domestic equations will play out on the ground in Egypt.


How can Eritrea prepare for the winds of change sweeping the Middle East, of which it is a part?


We are in the heart of the Middle East geographically, but our capacities are limited. We want our environment to be safe and prosperous. We have domestic and regional resources. If the situation stabilises and the countries of this region can work together without foreign interventions and designs to divide us we will be able to realise our aspirations.


Tell us about political party plurality in Eritrea.


That's just a product that's intended to tear societies apart. This is not to say that we don't want democracy. We do. But we don't want strife, between Muslims and Christians, for example. During a transitional period we need democracy more than other countries. However, that product that they're marketing in Europe and US is for their benefit, not ours. It creates crises that serve them and divisions that they can exploit. We need societies that can develop economically, socially, culturally and politically. Domestic transformations are the concerns of the citizens of a particular country, not foreign powers who want to impose certain political choices or a certain type of government, pluralistic or otherwise.


What is your opinion of the international community's handling of the popular uprisings?


By international community do you mean the US and Europe? How about China, Brazil, Germany and India, the powers that are said to be leading the way to a new world order? Where's Africa, Latin America and Asia?


But you would agree that the international community's approach towards Libya is not the same as its approach towards Yemen and Bahrain?


First, we have to ask ourselves what the aim is in all this. There are many unanswered questions with regard to the nature of the criteria and the legitimacy of these interventions. Didn't all those countries once accept and respect the Libyan regime? But what they did was to pour oil on fire. Again, the purpose was to foment creative chaos so that it would spread throughout the region, instead of remaining confined to a single country.


You once said that Sudan must remain united and that secession only serves shop owners. How will you deal with the new government?


We are still convinced that what happened was a mistake. However, we've been dealing with the SPLF for more than 20 years and we sympathise with the right of self-determination for the people of the south. We had hoped that the marginalisation of the south would end. However, the fact is that the south will become independent and we hope that what is left of Sudan in the north will become stable and remain safe and united. Also, good relations between the south and north serves the interests of both sides and neighbouring countries. We in Eritrea must play a part. But Egypt's role is also very important, especially since Sudan is integral to Egyptian national security.


Does this mean that you foresee three-way cooperation between Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea in the near future?


Yes. Cooperation is not a luxury for any of us.


Some maintain that the secession of the south won't be the last, and that other secessions will follow. What is your opinion?


That is a lot of idle speculation. We need to think positively. It is foolish to claim that the whole of Africa is going to disintegrate.


What is your opinion on the elections crisis in Somalia? Do you have any suggestions to offer on that issue?


Somalia doesn't need to "change fabrics". Somalia has been torn for 20 years. But the Somali people need to solve their crisis by themselves, without outside interventions. Only then will they be able to create a political climate that will enable them to create a government representative of all shades of the political spectrum, even the most divergent.


What are the results of the Qatari mediation between Djibouti and Eritrea?


There is no Qatari mediation. The emir of Qatar had offered to mediate, but it wasn't necessary because the situation between Djibouti and Eritrea returned to normal. We hope we have put that problem behind us.


Since you raised the subject of a safe and stable environment, how is your relationship with your neighbour, Ethiopia, at present?


There's no problem. What happened was due to the borders and putting off the solution after arbitration. There is no justification for delay. There is no need for one country to occupy another's land and to depend on foreign powers to create problems. That is all part of the game of fragmenting this region and fomenting strife between peoples and nations. Only when other powers stop meddling in our affairs will our peoples and the region enjoy stability.


Does that mean you are prepared to negotiate?


If someone broke into your house, destroyed its contents and then asked you to negotiate, what would you do? What's there to negotiate over?


What is your opinion on the concept of the Egyptian people's diplomatic missions that have toured the Nile Basin countries, and on what they have accomplished so far?


Popular diplomacy cannot serve as a substitute for official diplomacy, even in the event of a breakdown in the institutions of state. Ultimately, they are no more than popular initiatives. It is governments that must represent and act on the issues that promote the welfare of their peoples and societies. Then comes the turn of popular initiatives to support governments.


What is your vision for a resolution to the Nile Basin question?


There are two options. The first is cooperation and economic integration, using the latest technologies. The Nile waters are sufficient not only for the present but for future generations. They could have been a font for a paradise on earth rather than a source of tension and dispute. The second option is to engage in polemics over the use of the water locally and regionally, opening the door to outside interventions. This is the negative route. It is not constructive, as we have already seen. It is pointless to embroil ourselves in senseless conflicts.


Twenty years after independence, how do you see the future of your country, especially in light of observers' predictions of an economic boom?


The future is bright. During the past 20 years we have laid the foundations for sustainable economic development in agriculture, infrastructure and basic services, and the distribution of wealth and opportunity among our the people. This is part of the assets for our economic future, along with the discovery of new resources that will bolster our accomplishments as long as we continue to manage them appropriately.


Eritrea has the longest coast on the Red Sea. Are the resources there being exploited optimally?


You have a point. Our marine wealth is around 120,000 tonnes of fish per year. However, it remains unexploited, in spite of its potential benefit to the entire region. We have tried over and over again to cooperate with Egypt in this domain. I don't want to go into detail on this matter, but our efforts have been futile. Still, I maintain that there has to be economic cooperation between Eritrea, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring countries.


How will you be able to do this given the UN economic sanctions against your country?


The sanctions are military, not economic, and they relate to the failures in the region with respect to the Ethiopian-Eritrean border problem which have driven some powers to take illegal, prejudicial, ineffective and unwarranted actions. In any case, Eritrea does not need arms. It needs building materials and equipment. It needs economic development.


What is your current position with respect to international organisations?


We don't need handouts. We need to rely on our own abilities. Economic dependency has promoted a condition in Africa that has worked to marginalise it in the international economy. The more international monetary organisations there are, the worse our economic and political crises become. Our policy is to cooperate initially and then to rely on our own capacities to build solid foundations for economic development.


Could African economic integration compensate for this?


It certainly could. This region does not need aid. The resources and potential are there. If all these governments worked together, we would be able to help others.


So you do not think that Africa's partnerships with Japan, Europe, China or other blocs are worthwhile.


Those are partnerships in name only. They are another word for humanitarian aid packages to a marginalised continent. A real partnership needs to be built on mutual trade and investment. It means that Africa buys and sells and has a trade surplus. It means an equal relationship. But what have all those other countries done for Africa since independence apart from weigh it down in debt, sow corruption and marginalise it?


What do you have to say about the WikiLeaks cable in which the US ambassador to Asmara described the Eritrean government as a dictatorship?


That is a product of stupidity and hatred. WikiLeaks speak for themselves. What can you say to a government that acts on the basis of reports of that nature?


How do you see the world after the death of Bin Laden?


Al-Qaeda has been built up into a global problem that is used to frighten and intimidate societies around the world and, particularly, in the Middle East, which possesses 60 per cent of the world's energy resources. Bin Laden's existence or non-existence is not a fundamental problem. People should look at the bigger issues.


In your latest speech, you mentioned a plot to destabilise your country and Eritrea's apprehension of a British ship carrying arms. Could you speak about this?


I have no intention of engaging in media polemics. I don't need to resort to propaganda tactics. It was an insignificant incident that had no effect on our stability or security.


However, a British official said that Eritrea refused to grant consular officials access to the prisoners.


If a group of armed Egyptians entered Uganda how would they be treated? This is the way they try to turn the tables. It only underscores the weak position of those governments that try to interfere in the affairs of others and then quote international law and the Geneva conventions in order to distract everyone with other issues. It's an old tactic.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Runners launch legal battle in bid to allow asylum seeker to race for Scotland - The Daily Record

AN asylum seeker who was deported despite being tipped as a top Commonwealth Games medal hope could be set for a return to Scotland.

Runner Robel Nagash caught the eye of national team coaches after smashing a 10k course record by more than a minute in his first race last summer in Glasgow.

The 26-year-old fled conscription in Eritrea and trekked for months across the deserts of Sudan and Libya before almost drowning in the Mediterranean during an epic journey to Britain.

Robel wanted to make Scotland his home and run for the country in the Commonwealth Games in 2014, but immigration officials deported him last July.

Now club mates at Bellahouston Harriers have launched a legal battle in a bid to get him back.

Team manager Iain Burke said: "We hope to hear in the next few days if it's been successful.

"We have had to fundraise to pay lawyer fees but we've put everything in place to give Robel the best chance "He has the potential to be a world class runner and his training times are getting better.

"Our hope is to get him back on a six-month visitor's visa initially to run in the Men's Health 10k in Bellahouston Park in a couple of weeks. Our lawyer reckons the chances are 50/50. The hope is that Robel would be given permission to stay here permanently."

After fleeing Eritrea, Robel was spotted jogging through the rain in Glasgow and he was invited along to Bellahouston Harriers.

In June 2010, he was first to cross the line in the Glasgow Men's Health 10k run with a time of 30 minutes 47 seconds - shaving one minute and three seconds off the record.

At the finish, he said: "It is my dream to represent Scotland."

If he was given asylum in Scotland, Robel could be eligible to run for the nation in three years.

Media Watch: UK’s Halfhearted Measures on Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki | Foreign Policy Journal

Ruthless Incommunicado Imprisonment

Over five months into their arrest in the Port of Massawa by the Eritrean navy, the four ex-marines have not been charged with any crime, and their condition and whereabouts remain unknown. The British Government has retaliated by imposing limited travel restrictions on Eritrean diplomats in London and by banning the collection of taxes imposed by the Asmara government on Eritreans residing in Britain.

The four Britons were captured on Dec 24, 2010 as they guarded a merchant vessel against armed Somali pirates operating in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. [Editor's Note: Accounts vary] President Isaias accused the four Britishsailors of carrying weapons including sniper rifles when they stopped in Massawa for refueling. The Eritrean complaint is that its maritime laws have been violated. We will not know what the violations are unless the accused can also tell their side of the story.

To this end, the British are asking for a trial. What a naïve request. One thinks the UK would by now know the Eritrean regime does not believe in trials. There are thousands of innocent Eritreans rotting in prisons for over a decade because of their beliefs or views. They never had their day in court. They are being tortured and many have died. And it is very sad the four British nationals also have to be subjected to Isaias’s whimsical decisions.

Britain’s retaliatory action is too weak to make a dent. Isaias is not interested in cooperating with Britain or the rest of the international community in attacking Somali pirates. He sure must have been pissed off when he first learned of thejob the ex-marines were engaged in. Isaias is already angry that Britain has failed to approve his military and financial support for the Al Qaeda linked Al Shabab in Somalia. Instead, Britain pushed for an African Union and UN backed resolutions in 2009 imposing sanctions on the Eritrean regime including arms embargo, travel restrictions on officials and freezing of their assets.

The incommunicado jailing of the ex-marines and Isaias’s subsequent dispute with Britain mean the UN sanctions are working to some degree. The feud may also be confirming Isaias’s anxiety that the sanctions could one day be made to apply to the country’s Western-run mining industry which is based on slave labor.

Commemorating Eritrea’s 20 Years of Independence

President Isaias’s Chief Propagandist, Ali Abdu (Information Minister), has been spouting his most boring, thoughtless Stalinist spin over the definition of democracy although Stalin and communism have long been dead. In a VOA interview, last week, Ali Abdu claimed Eritrean democracy was laying the groundwork for the people to enjoy political stability and live in harmony regardless of tribal or clan differences. Ali ridiculed the concept of balloting and elections of national leaders as inimical to Eritrea’s objective conditions. He lectured one of the ham-fisted Tigrinia language VOA reporters, Tewelde Weldegebriel, that no country in the world allowed free press while Eritreaenjoyed a superior, development oriented, people’s media. For heaven’s sake, why can’t VOA train its reporters how to put follow-up questions to interviewees?

While the state media have bizarrely been hailing the regime’s wretchedperformances of the past 20 years, exiled Eritreans in North America, Europe and Ethiopia have been staging demonstrations denouncing tyranny and urging the UN to tighten its sanctions against the regime. Opposition websites have also been crying out for an end to the endless suffering of the Eritrean people. In an editorial entitled “20 Years of Indignity,” Awate.com writes, “The last 20 years have been a chronicle of humiliation of the ordinary citizen: senseless wars fought over nothing only to follow in dishonorable surrender; land lost; people displaced; youth dispersed; old men and women humiliated; religious leaders disrespected; children separated from their parents to be raised by the State at conscription centers….”

Meanwhile, in a press release, the Eritrean Global Solidarity (EGS) urges citizens to observe the anniversary with defiance and contemplation in memory of the nearly 400 Eritrean refugees who lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea as they searched for freedom and peace in foreign lands.

Asmarino.com carries a lengthy review of the regime’s tragic failures. In a research paper, entitled “Eritrea’s 20th Anniversary Comprehensive Report Card”, (asmarino.com, May 16, 2011), the author, Berhan Hagos, underlines all the major areas of endeavor where the regime has failed the country miserably including on matters of human rights, governance, democracy, rule of law, the economy, social justice and foreign affairs.

Two thirds of the population is malnourished, according to the UN. Berhan reports that while Eritreans are suffering, President Isaias has concealed over 2-billion US dollars of illicit funds under his name and that of his son’s in Chinese banks. Berhan says of the 1-billion US dollars spent on development projects over the past two decades, over 70 percent of the funds were given by Western governments, the UN and NGOs.

Worsening Ethio-Eritrea Relations

Without offering an argument or discussion, Meskerem.net has a banner headline at the top of its front page: Eritrea to Ethiopia: Vacate from All Our Territory to Normalize Relations.” This is no doubt Eritrea’s wish although Ethiopia does not believe vacating from the flash point of Badme and marking its border with Eritrea would normalize relations. In an interview in March with assenna.com Editor Amanuel Iyasu, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi questioned whether President Isaias was interested in peace and normalization under any circumstance. So, the impasse continues. The scenario helps Isaias to try to remain in power indefinitely.

The most urgent question for Eritreans is how to swiftly end totalitarian rule in the country. Whether the border is demarcated or not, it is abundantly clear to opponents and supporters of the Eritrean regime that Isaias will never willingly allow freedom and democracy in the country.