Civic Urban Revolt in Contemporary Ethiopia

The very objective of this short piece is to explore the politically ‘visible’, but academically overlooked issue of urban civic revolt in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government is curious and cautious about this and the same is true to those who think and propagate orchestrating an urban civic revolt is a possibility. For the purpose of this paper the term civic urban revolt is used instead of color revolution. For the simple reason that the so-called color revolutions does not include the defining characteristics of revolutions i.e. radical change of the system. What is usually observed, in the exemplars of color revolutions, is regime change and in worst cases alteration of leadership.

What is and is not a revolution?

Though there is no conventional definition on what a revolution mean, the usual reference is to a situation where one system of political, social, economic and cultural organization is replaced by a new form of establishment. A simple regime change or alteration of a leadership following a crisis does not constitute a revolution. It is precisely due to this reason that what are considered, as Color Revolutions are not revolutions in the proper sense of the term.

The variation between revolutions (usually termed as social revolutions) and those termed as colored ones began in their foundation. Skocpol argues that there are structural forces that create a revolutionary situation, which is largely missed by the rational choice explanation of revolutions. It was due to this fact that Skocpol prefers to study revolutions from a structural perspective. According to Skocpol two variables must exist to create a revolutionary situation. These two variables are jointly sufficient for a “social revolution” to occur.

First, there must be a “crisis of state,” often provoked by international factors, such as increasing economic or security competition from abroad. It is a crisis, not merely a challenge, because this is a challenge that the state cannot meet given its current institutional constraints. As a result, elites (and usually the army) become divided over what to do and loyalty to the regime weakens. This crisis of state creates the revolutionary situation.

Screen shot - Police and protestors in Addis Ababa - April 2015
Screen shot – Police and protestors in Addis Ababa – April 2015

Second, patterns of class dominance determine which group will rise-up to exploit the revolutionary situation. The result is a social revolution; the patterns of class dominance merely determine who will lead it. The second element is a question of leadership. Gurr (1968:1015) demonstrates that levels of civil strife across 114 countries are positively related to the presence of economic, political, short-term, and long-term deprivation. His analysis also explains that this relationship holds for roughly 65 per cent of the countries.

The harshest critic against the French Revolution comes from the English conservative Edmund Burke. For him it was wrong because the primary good of a given society is political order and politics for him is the art of patience and prudence. Thomas Paine in contrast claim that Monarchies are by their very nature wrong and revolting is an inherent right of the governed, especially when the highest form of tyranny is prevalent in the society. For Paine, the highest form tyranny is governance by non-elected hereditary elite.

According to Paine revolution is the only solution if the situation is election-less and hereditary monarchical system. John Locke is not in favor of revolutions but he argued that insofar as the state is formed by the consent of the governed and if the action of the power holders goes against the very interest of the people then revolting becomes the option. This is the classical debate on the right to revolt if there is no mechanism to form a government by election or if the government is abusing power.

Colored ‘Revolutions’

It is said that the term color revolution began to be used by journalist and politicians in the aftermath of post-communist revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine since 2003. In his 2005 publication Michael McFaul used the term to describe the above mentioned countries political phenomenon. In addition to the nomenclature what distinguishes the current phenomenon is the way they progress and their possible outcomes.

Unlike previous variants of violent or ‘conventional’ forms of social revolutions most ‘contemporary revolutions are compact urban uprisings that articulate demands for civil and political freedoms… since 1980 there have been approximately 42 revolutions worldwide …that successfully displaced incumbent rulers; two-thirds (28) of these were urban civic revolts’ (Beissinger, 2013: 1).

The minimalist definition of a color revolution is that ‘it is a change of a regime without a change in socio-economic system of the polity’. The common denominator along many cases is the huge involvement of ‘civil society’ organizations and powerful foreign states, and multinational companies. The primary focus of the urban revolts, as claimed by the elite, was basically the quest for civil and political rights in general and democratic election in particular. This is the very reason why the main actors are labeled as democratic forces.

Unlike the ‘conventional’ forms of revolutions the debate about the causes of Color Revolutions varies from those who stress the significance of local dynamics to those who claim that a Color Revolution is the result of calculated intervention of foreign powers with the support of local but comprador intellectuals, NGOs and international organizations.

Communication, coordination and financial position of the opposition are among the key factors regularly mentioned as a determining factor of urban civic revolts. The level of communication between the society and the opposition and their capacity to galvanize mass support to their cause is considered as pertinent as their financial condition. The capacity of earning international support from interested parties is also a key factor to the initiation and success of a civic urban revolt.

Apart from the factors that are internal to the opposition there are factors, which are actually beyond their scope of influence- the coercive capacity of the regime and its degree of legitimacy. The level of legitimacy that the regime holds is very critical both to the initiation and possible success of a revolution.

Consequentially speaking, the democratic outcome of the civic urban revolts that has been tried so far was not satisfactory at large. In this regard the research by Beissinger conclude that ‘”Most | civic urban revolts | did in fact result in some degree of fairer electoral competition and broader civil and political freedoms in their immediate wake, though in many cases these achievements subsequently eroded’ (Ibid: 1).

The fundamental reason for the democratic failure rests on the very nature of the actors involved in the political process and the way they structure their demand. In other words, the very nature of the actors and their construct determines the final outcome of the dynamics. The participants ‘relied primarily on the disruption generated by massing hundreds of thousands of civilians in central urban spaces (the crisis factor) in a concentrated period of time so as to generate pressure on an incumbent regime and induce key members of the ruling coalition to defect (Thompson 2004 as cited by Beissinger). This was quite evident by the Tahrir Square phenomenon.

The concept of Negative Coalition best describes the overall character of the ‘revolutionaries’. Negative Coalition is “a coalition displaying highly diverse preferences on most major politically salient issues but united primarily by their common rejection of a particular outcome” (ibid: 3). The answer for why most (3/4) of the revolutions fail to create a stable democracy rests here. This coalition is established not by possessing a unity of purpose but the principle of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

As it has been exhibited by the recent events in the Middle East and Ukraine the chances of elite unity in the aftermath of a civic urban revolt is becoming an impossible thing. Rather extreme polarization, factional fighting and collapse of the state itself have become the norm of the day. Libya, Ukraine, Egypt and Syria are revealing examples of this fact.

The ‘participants in the Orange Revolution were mobilized primarily against the incumbent regime rather than for a common set of values or policies, | and | not by their commitment to democratic value’. This is what Beissinger labeled as ‘semblance of democratic revolution’ i.e. even though the elites framed the uprising as a demand for democratic change ‘the majority of those who participate are propelled not by a commitment to democracy, but by motivations unrelated to democratic change’.

According to the above mentioned author “In a significant number of cases, urban civic revolutions like the Orange Revolution have led to unstable democratic results, providing a temporary increase in civil and political freedoms, followed by authoritarian backtracking.” Looking in to post Mubarek and Muammar Gadhafi Egypt and Libya respectively is enough to examine the sad outcome of the civic urban revolt that was once labeled as democratic uproars of the democratic forces. The negative impact does not stop here; the question of sovereignty is as well at stake.

In the Libyan context, the revolution that was meant to democratize the state ultimately destroyed it. “Libya’s most fundamental problem is that it lacks a state—that is, a central authority that can exercise a monopoly of legitimate force over its territory to keep the peace and enforce the law” (Fukuyama, 2014). Fukuyama who ones declared that the fate of all societies would be market based liberal establishment has now turned to argue for a political order and strength of states to maintain law and order, of course after viewing the last developments associated with political instability, state fragility and terrorism.

The poor security situation and absence of political order will have many consequences for the sovereign existence of the polity. If we examine the current situation of Ukraine we would understand how the misery of the Ukrainian people is viewed from the perspective of Russian and Western interest. As a matter of fact the people of Ukraine seems irrelevant in terms of deciding their own fate as they have already lost the foundation of their independence.

The major media outlets, political analysts and ‘the international community’ intentionally or by negligence try to see the Ukrainian issue from the interest of the major participants involved in the conflict. The fundamental reasons for the failure of the popular civic revolts “are likely built into the processes underlying urban civic revolution: its reliance on a rapidly convened negative coalition of hundreds of thousands, distinguished in particular by fractured elites, lack of consensus over fundamental policy issues, and weak commitment to democratic ends. ( Beissenger: 2)”.

The Ethiopian Situation

In addition to the absence of objective and subjective conditions for a revolution, and the negative result of those that had been tried so far, the existential circumstance in contemporary Ethiopia makes the possibility of initiating and experiencing urban civic revolt unthinkable. This does not mean that there are people who will not try to do so, but I am arguing from a grounded perspective that the context does not allow so. What we have to answer first is the motivations of those who think that replicating the experience of the Arab Spring is still a possibility in Ethiopia. I will try to explain why few individuals and certain political parties are resorting to mechanism similar to urban civic revolt.

The first explanation would be the relative cost of the engagement. The democratic path is naturally costly in terms of participation and lengthy in terms of getting in to the saddle of power. In our context to be an opposition means to face a huge party with mass peasant base that have the advantage of incumbency. It does not need a genius to understand how hard and challenging it may be to compete with organizationally strong and historically entrenched party that has a comparative advantage in many respects relative to the Addis centered opposition groups.

Therefore, the oppositions’ urgent quest for power may not be quenched by the existing formal democratic procedures and they may finally decide to choose what they think is the shortest path to power i.e. urban civic revolt. This choice is the result of preferring the less costly option, which simultaneously need neither patience nor possession of long-term political strategy. The strategy to this effect would be igniting a post election violence to create a state of crisis. As part of this conducting a pre-election opinion poll that made the desired contender as a winner is the main method to set the ground for future refusal of the electoral result. De-legitimatizing the electoral institutions is the common approach opted by the would be ‘revolutionaries’.

In many occasions the financial dominance of the diaspora is determining the political choice of the opposition camp. They say ‘the one who pays for the singer determines the song’. Due to the visible and direct link between the source of finance and the chosen possible course of action the irrational and excessively emotional demand of the diaspora is forcing the local recipients to abhor to the demand of the financer. The loyalty of some opposition parties has shifted from the local preference to the urges of ‘long distance nationalists’.

The legacy/relic of violent politics is still an important explanatory factor. The historical legacy violence is still evident in the way elites and their constituency interacts at the political and social level, sadly even exhibited within those who claim to be young and new generation of politicians.

The Federal Arrangement of the state by itself is a structural impeding factor for the possibility of urban civic revolt. In unitary Egypt the one who controls Cairo controls Egypt. This is simply because the sovereign resides and functions only in the capital. The fact is totally different in countries that follow a federal setup. Ethiopia is not Egypt and by the same logic Addis Ababa is not Cairo too. The centers of power and even sovereignty are many insofar as the state is a federal one. So which level of government is going to be controlled by those who think civic urban revolt is still a possibility?

The cohesive nature of the executive and the coercive apparatus of the state is also another structural obstacle for civic urban revolt in Ethiopia. The party in power is able to establish not only a highly disciplined military and efficient security apparatus but also a cohesive one. This is due to the fact that the leading members were together through all the hardships of the gorilla phase. The possibility of elite defection in current Ethiopia is quite low, if not impossible. This is because the unity of purpose between the political and coercive apparatus is so strong that erodes the foundation of defect.

Civic urban unrest manipulates a democratic process to their end. Election and its process is used as a stepping stone to launch their revolt and precisely it is for this reason that I am arguing civic urban revolts are anti-democratic not only by their outcome but also by their very nature. They begin by twisting a democratic process and they end up with devastating results, as it has been witnessed in many occasions.

Apart from the structural impediments that made urban civic revolt impossible there are also subjective and empirical arguments against any kind of violent politics. Our history of the last century is a bold exemplar. The general population is well aware of what violence and political disorder may bring about. Moreover, everyone is watching what is happening in the Arab world. Therefore, the possibility of having a collective action is immensely dark, in addition to the fact that our middle class is so insignificant. Finally the right to Peace is an emerging Human Right and should not be compromised for the elite’s political expediency.

So what is the possible, if Urban Civic Revolt is not the one?

The simple answer is: playing according to the established ‘rules of the game’ and enhance ones capacity to influence the dynamics. There is no perfect democracy and the challenges of an infant democracy are obviously multi-dimensional. It has to be noted, however, that violence can only bred another wave of violence.

There is a saying in Amharic ‘Mignot Ayikelekel’ meaning you can’t stop someone from wishing and I claim wishing for a civic urban revolt is the one and only possibility for those who consider the formal democratic path as tiresome and impossible to go with. I will claim, with a higher degree of certainty, that those who are thinking to organize and mount an urban civic revolt can only succeed in committing a political suicide and temporal instability, which will ultimately retards the infant democratic trail we are experiencing now.

The temporal instability might cost the country to loss its precious human capital and the scarcely available resources. In general it can be said nothing good would be earned out of violence except the entrenchment of the vicious circle of violence that characterize our history.

Considering the empirically proven negative consequences of urban civic revolts; the absence of structural conditions for it in the Ethiopian context including the federal nature of the state; The very undemocratic nature of the so called color revolutions; The cohesive nature of the executive and the coercive apparatus of the state and the challenge of collective action problem among the opposition makes initiating urban civic revolt not only impossible but also undesirable at all. The suggestion for every political actor is therefore to stick to the hard but the possible and relevant political path available i.e. the formal democratic way!



* Beissinger Mark R., 2013 The Semblance of Democratic Revolution: Coalitions in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. American Political Science Review August 2013.

* Edmund Burke. (1790) Reflections on The Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event
in a Letter Intended to have been sent to a Gentleman in Paris.

* Francis Fukuyuma, 2014. Political Order and Political Decay: From The Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. Farrar, Straus and Girouk: New York.

* Gurr, T.R. (1968) ‘A Causal Model of Civil Strife’, American Political Science Review, 62: 1104–1124.

* John Locke (1689) Two Treatises of Government

* Michael McFaul, 2005. Transition from Post Communism. In Journal of Democracy, Volume 16, Number 3.

* Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

* Thomas Paine (1791) Rights of Man.


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