New media cracks Eritrea’s iron curtain

Isolated in exile, young Eritreans have developed new forms of resistance.

Young Eritreans, who have fled abroad to escape their government’s stifling repression and years of compulsory military service, have turned to new media to attack the regime. Over the last year they have used chat-rooms, phone messaging and flash-mobs to get their message across.

In the last decade, tens of thousands of Eritreans slipped across their country’s heavily guarded borders. After surviving shipwreck in the Mediterranean or banditry, torture and extortion in the Sinai, they are building new lives in Europe, the US and Israel. Many are deeply angry that they have had to flee from their homeland, and looking for a means of attacking President Isaias Afwerki grip on power. But Eritrea is – after North Korea – probably the most inaccessible of regimes.  It accepts almost no foreign aid, has expelled most United Nations agencies and forbids foreign ambassadors from travelling outside the capital, Asmara.

Since the early 1990s, all independent media have been silenced, critics jailed and the university closed. Isolated in exile, young Eritreans have developed new forms of resistance through a campaign group, Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change.

They began with phone numbers smuggled out of the country. Eritrean towns and villages were targeted for phone calls at random. "We wanted to show Eritreans that they were not isolated," explained Selam Kidane, one of the London organisers. "At first people were very frightened, but gradually that has faded," Selam told me. "Now, when I get through I get passed from person to person."

Next the group turned to robocalls to spread their message.  Automated messages recorded by a priest for use on 29 November, the feast of Saint Mary.  Five thousand calls were made, urging people to go to St Mary’s church in Asmara, to commemorate the disappearance in 2005 of the Patriach of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Patriach Abune Antonios. The organisers claim that around 5,000 of the 6,800 calls got through. Some were followed up by one to one conversations.

Since then there have been a series of concerted campaigns, focussing on smaller towns. The organising group, called Arbi Harnet or ‘Freedom Friday’, asks Eritreans to remain off the streets, as a mark of solidarity. "The main objective is to penetrate the government’s iron curtain, to reach our people and encourage them to take communal action and link the resistance," says Ahmed Abdelrahim from Melbourne, a singer and song writer who co-founded Arbi Harnet.

Other calls have been used to mark particular events. This month, the ninth anniversary of the detention of Astern Yohannes, a guerrilla fighter was marked with 10,000 calls. She is also the wife of one of Eritrea’s best known imprisoned politician and first minister of defence, Petros Solomon. A video has been produced, explaining how she returned home in December 2003, after studying for three years at University of Phoenix in Arizona, to be with her children. Posters have been sent over the internet, describing the plight of young Eritreans who become held to ransom in the Sinai by people smugglers. Some have been secretly put up in Asmara and covertly filmed on mobile phones.

But perhaps the most powerful weapon has been through chat-rooms like Paltalk. This has enabled young exiles, the majority of whom have few foreign languages and no experience of the outside world, to escape their isolation. Together they have become what they call "the team that never sleeps." Living across the globe, with members in Australia, Europe and California, they plan and co-ordinate their operations. Flash mobs from Switzerland to Scotland have broken up meetings organised by government supporters, and the Eritrean ambassadors now have few opportunities to openly push the official line.

Unlike the first generation of exiled Eritreans, who concentrated on formal organisational structures, the youth are keen to act rather than plot and plan. With no formal structure and no borders, these young men and women are challenging a regime that has been described by Human Rights Watch as one of the most repressive in the world.

Martin Plaut is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies

An Eritrean demonstrator waves his national flag whist taking part in a demonstration on Whitehall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Following Donald Trump in New Hampshire

It would be easy to dismiss the 69-year-old property mogul - but Trump is impossible to ignore.

Donald Trump doesn’t miss a beat. When a man in the front row of a packed school auditorium shouted, “We don’t want a scripted president,” he bellowed straight back, “No you don’t! And you don’t want a politically correct president,” a comment that sent the thousand-strong audience into a raucous standing ovation.

It was classic Trump: a move aimed at underlining his credentials as a populist, anti-politics insurgent. For bemused outsiders, his stump speech on 14 August at Winnacunnet High School in the tidy New Hampshire town of Hampton offered fresh insights into the methods by which Donald Trump has successfully hijacked the Republican race for the White House.

It would be easy to dismiss the 69-year-old property mogul. Trump’s campaign is powered by little more than personality and wealth. His pitch features few policies beyond building a giant wall along the Mexican border and putting his business associates in positions where they can strike better deals than the current administration. His campaign shtick resembles nothing so much as a stand-up comedy show. On Iraq: “It isn’t even a country. It’s a bunch of corrupt people.” On oil: “Iran, Isis, everybody has it but us.” And on China: “You hear that sucking sound? You know what that means . . . jobs, money.”

And yet he is impossible to ignore. Trump has led the polls for the Republican nomination since declaring his intention to run on 16 June – in a speech that accused Mexico of sending both rapists and murderers to the US. In New Hampshire he has a double-digit lead over Jeb Bush, who remains the favourite to win the nod, given his record as governor of Florida and his party connections – not least his father, George, and brother George W. This makes Trump the people’s choice.

Something similar is happening among Democrats. Although Hillary Clinton has a monopoly on donors and party grandees, Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist senator from Vermont, is making a move in the polls. The US version of Jeremy Corbyn – the unreconstructed lefty selected to balance the debate – offers a different way of doing things from Clinton, who comes from a tired elite, or so runs the familiar argument.

And this is Trump’s main message: the rich are running politics for their advantage, donating money to the establishment in return for favours when they return to office. “Who knows it better than me?” he boasted to more whoops from the audience. “I’ve contributed to everyone.”

Trump acts like a heckler on stage. It’s his brash honesty that appeals to the likes of Bob Pennell, an orthopaedic surgeon who had travelled from neighbouring Massachusetts to see him speak. “He is shining the light on the rich and how they use the government,” Pennell said. “I always suspected it. But now I know.”

The result of such poor leadership, Trump argues, is that the US has lost its place as the dominant global economy – hence that sucking sound from China. It’s a message that strikes a chord with an audience that feels squeezed financially at home and sees its country adrift in the world.

Trump’s larger-than-life persona – and frequent, unverifiable boasts that his net worth stands at $10bn – felt like a throwback to days gone by, when “the American dream still meant something”, according to Jimmy Riordan, a diesel engine parts engineer. “It’s a cut-throat world and he’s the best businessman,” he said.

Quite what a Trump administration would look like, however, is anyone’s guess. In a rapid-fire question-and-answer session, he committed to federal investigations into the treatment of army veterans and the Environmental Protection Agency. An audience member asked if he would send astronauts to Mars. Trump smiled, saying he would first fix the US’s crumbling roads and airports. “Who’s better at infrastructure than Trump?” he asked, to more laughter.

Even a string of glaring gaffes has failed to dent his lead. Most recently he tried to undermine Megyn Kelly of Fox News after she probed his attitude towards women. Her dogged questioning, Trump said, was down to “blood coming out of her wherever”.

Yet to his supporters in the school auditorium, this kind of comment is not a misstep but a breath of fresh air. They say it shows he is his own man, that his personal fortune frees him from the need for spin doctors, lobbyists or donors who would seek favours should he reach office. Even his opponents can sense the appeal. “He doesn’t have to have their influence,” said Kerri Ruggiero, who is campaigning in the state for George Pataki, the Republican former New York governor, who is failing to gain traction. “It’s just him.”

Not everyone at the stump speech was a supporter. In New Hampshire, people take their responsibility as an early primary state seriously. A good showing here in February can make or break a candidate’s campaign. In the 1968 Democratic primaries, Eugene McCarthy came within 7 per cent of Lyndon B Johnson, a close enough result to force the sitting president to announce he would not run for re-election. Some showed up last Friday to gauge whether Trump was a credible figure. Others came to make a point. Noah Thompson, an 18-year-old student, wore a giant golden sombrero to protest against Trump’s comments about Mexicans.

“I probably would have voted for him,” Thompson confessed as the crowd headed for the exits, “if he hadn’t opened his mouth for two months.”

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars