Al-Ahram Weekly: Meet Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki – Interview

News Opinions
President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea

Fighting words of peace

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.

Interviewed by Marwa Tawfiq

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.