For the past few weeks, headlines all over the world have been dominated by the so-called Arab Revolution, a wave of anti-government protests across the Middle East. I’m living in the Ethiopian Muslim community of Harar and locals here are absorbed in the events. Sitting in living rooms or cafes to escape the heat of the day, all eyes are glued to the satellite channels and conversation revolves around the rapidly changing events.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive tempered by caution. They’re happy to see a strong pro-democracy movement in Egypt but say that since the army is the real power, democracy is still in danger. While the West worries about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over, one recent university graduate told me, “They only use Islam for political gain. Deal with them in economic terms and there will be no problem.”
The main talk right now, of course, is about Libya. Descriptions of Gaddafi range from “crazy” to “stupid” to “evil”. Some Hararis even say Gaddafi is a heroin addict. “He has an injured back and started taking it for the pain. He has a Russian nurse who follows him everywhere and gives him injections,” one friend told me. I’ve never heard that before, but it would explain the bizarre interviews and why he wears sunglasses indoors. Everyone thinks he’ll go down fighting rather than give up control.
Most people here watch Al-Jazeera. That station has taken definite sides in the Libyan revolution. When Gaddafi’s government blocked the Internet, Al Jazeera started running the addresses for proxy sites to access Gmail and Twitter.
Mazzika 1, an Egyptian music video station, is now running a video about the uprising, showing the protests in Tahrir Square, the faces of some of the dead, and the final joyous victory, all set to inspiring music. It makes an interesting contrast to their usual fare of Arab starlets gyrating in front of the camera.Ethiopians have no love of dictators. When the Derg regime under Colonel Mengistu Haile Miriam assassinated Haile Selassie in 1974, it started a brutal repression across the country that killed 500,000 people in its first year. Nobody knows the total number of victims. A bloody civil war finally toppled the regime and Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe, where he still lives in comfort. Ethiopia now enjoys a democracy. It isn’t perfect, but mechanisms are in place to perfect it. Ethiopians want to see the same for the Arab world. “They need it,” one Harari said, “or they’ll never be free.”
One friend put it in Marxist terms. “The French had the first bourgeois revolution in 1780. We had ours starting in 1966 and now finally the Arabs are having theirs.” He feels it’s the next step to creating an egalitarian state.
The Hararis I spoke with are surprised and cautiously optimistic by the protests in Saudi Arabia. That nation has a huge influence in Ethiopia because of its sponsorship of Wahhabi mosques and madrasas. Wahhabism is a strict form of Islam that in strong contrast to the tolerant, easygoing Islam practiced by most Ethiopians. It encourages Ethiopian women to wear the niqab and denouces the Harari reverence for Muslim saints as unislamic. The face veil is alien to Ethiopian culture, and Harar’s many Islamic saints are a cornerstone of their religious practice. One Harari friend called the Wahhabis “poisonous snakes.”
I won’t be like many journalists and pretend the dozen or so people I spoke to are representative of the feelings of the entire population, only a huge opinion poll could claim that, but the daily conversations I’ve been having about the Arab Revolution provide a viewpoint I couldn’t get anywhere else.
And that’s one of the best things travel can give us.
Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.
Coming up next: Homestays in Harar!