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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The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.