Amid the standard heavy military presence and the regime’s ban of any associations and gatherings, Asmara experienced an unusual protest on October 31. As the widely shared video clips captured by mobile phones have shown, demonstrators in Eritrea’s capital city that day were met with gunshots and violence from government forces.
The Asmara regime rarely acknowledges such incidents unless they get out of control. Apparently realising it’s impossible to conceal what has been widely shared, Eritrean Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel instead chose to downplay the incident, tweeting “Small demonstration by one school in Asmara dispersed without any casualty, hardly breaking news”. On November 4, an opinion piece appeared on the official organs of the Ministry of Information claimed that the demonstrators were “a group of teenagers” chanting “Allahu Akbar”.
Citing an opposition leader based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, international media reported that at least 28 people had been killed in the attack in Asmara and more than 100 injured. Human Rights Watch stated, “There is no clear evidence that anyone was killed at this protest”.
So what really happened that day?
A school protest
As part of the continued centralisation of power and control, the Eritrean ministry of education recently sent an official letter to three schools in Asmara run by religious institutions. Stating that religious institutions should only do their spiritual duties and leave all public services to the state, the letter states that the schools run by the Coptic Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, and the Islamic school are officially transformed to the state schools as of the beginning of the academic year, and the schools should report directly to their respective school districts.
The letter also instructs the schools to comply with the state education system and follow similar guidelines. In the case of Al Diaa Islamic School, that holds about 3,000 students, the state education standard meant to ban the headscarf and halt religious education.
The order prompted a surge of disapproval from the respective schools.
In response to the state’s attempt to nationalise the Al Diaa Islamic School, Hajji Musa Mohammednur, respected senior citizen and president of the board of the school, gave an impassioned speech at a parents and teachers meeting, openly saying that the state should refrain from such interference.
On October 22, the state security arrested Mohammednur. Parents and teachers who demanded his release were similarly taken into custody.
Tension rose and on October 31, a substantial number of parents, teachers and community members gathered at the school premises and headed to the Office of the President to demand the release of Mohammednur and others. The demonstrators reportedly were dispersed by the anti-mob Special Forces of Office of the President.
Shocked by the protest, President Isaias Afwerki and his security apparatus responding brutally not only to crackdown on the protest, but if possible to permanently discourage others from undertaking demonstrations in the future.
As an immediate precaution, one of the military zonal operations, the Rapid Action Force, has been deployed in Asmara. Locals have observed heavy artillery deployed on the outskirts of Asmara. A directive has been passed to watch certain neighbourhoods in Asmara and other cities in Eritrea that are considered likely to see such eruptions.
A series of round-ups and arrests have been made in Asmara. As Radio Medrek– an opposition radio station based in Germany – reported on November 4, hundreds of people have been arrested in connection with the demonstration. The report adds young students taken from secondary schools have been subjected to extreme physical torture in Asmara’s infamous prison facilities. Most mosques in Asmara and other cities are observing unusual “new faces”.
With their youth population and relatively loose control, colleges have the biggest potential to spark such unrest, so as a result, their security has been doubled. Internet cafes, where the majority of Eritreans access the internet (which is intentionally kept at a very low speed), have been under continuous scrutiny.
Through its standard rumour mills, the regime is trying to paint the whole development as purely religion-driven and particularly linked to Islam. This is how they attempted to frame the January 2013 military mutiny. None of the two separate incidents have or had the slightest signs of fundamentalism or particular religious links.
The changing landscape
For years now, President Afwerki has been successfully crushing all forms of dissidence with his extensive military and security apparatuses. He has managed to either degrade and suppress his subordinates in order to scare them into loyalty, or pushed the rest into corrupt activities in order to wield the threat of potential blackmail.
The Asmara incident is triggering schizophrenic reactions from the state as well as ramped-up militarisation. This is an old story, having occurred in the past when the government has exploited any excuse to squeeze tight the vice of repression.
Yet, it also confirms that the power of the gun can only do so much to intimidate a population that has been pushed to the edge. The recent demonstration and similar earlier incidents also suggest that opposition has become decentralised, and that ordinary people are becoming emboldened in the face of armed repression.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.