Websites created and sustained by Eritreans in the diaspora over the past two decades stand as one of the most significant initiatives undertaken independently of the state. In fact, due to the Eritrean state’s pervasive domination of public life and orchestration of political expression and practice, the online public sphere created by the diaspora has no offline counterpart of free press or civil society within Eritrea. This essay argues that diaspora websites are an integral part of Eritrea’s national politics. Websites are used by Eritreans as an ambiguous and elastic space that can serve at times to extend the nation and state sovereignty across borders, and at other times can be used as an extraterritorial space that is safe for civil society and dissent because of its location outside Eritrea and beyond the reach of the state. This shows, among other things, that the internet is not singular or universal in its effects on politics, but can produce quite opposite results based upon the distinctive ways people engage with it. Websites like Dehai, Asmarino, and Awate are public spaces where a range of political activities can take place. Websites bring publics and counterpublics into being, mobilize opinions and actions, and allow for collective debates and collaboration. Cyberspatial activities extend beyond the realm of the virtual, yielding material consequences even as they transform people’s understanding of the nation and their places in it.
The Internet brings people into contact in a public agora, to voice their concerns and share their hopes. This is why people’s control of this public agora is perhaps the most fundamental political issue raised by the development of the Internet. (Castells 2001, 164)
Websites created and sustained by Eritreans in the diaspora stand out as one of the most significant political initiatives taken by Eritreans independently of the state. The Eritrean diaspora has long been engaged in Eritrean politics and its members are recognized as Eritreans by the state that seeks to retain their loyalty and maintain the flow of remittances to Eritrea (Bernal 2004; Hepner 2009; Conrad 2005; Fessehatzion 2005). The diaspora contributed to Eritrea in an unexpected way, however, by establishing cyberspace as a site for Eritrean politics. Beginning in the early 1990s, Eritreans living in the US created a transnational public sphere in cyberspace for debating, chronicling, analyzing, and influencing Eritrean politics. Due to the Eritrean state’s comprehensive orchestration of political expression and practice within Eritrea, the public sphere created online by the diaspora has no offline counterpart in Eritrea (Woldemikael 2008; Amnesty International 2004; Connell 1997). In creating Eritrean space online and an open forum for political participation, the diaspora achieved something not simply for themselves, but for the nation.
This essay contributes to an emerging body of literature on politics and new media as well as to the understanding of Eritrean politics since independence. I argue that websites can be seen as constituting a unique political space that can be both inside and outside of the nation at the same time. Diaspora websites are an integral part of Eritrea’s national politics and therefore the understanding of Eritrea is incomplete without the inclusion of Eritrean activities in cyberspace. This study reveals that websites are used by Eritreans as an ambiguous and elastic space that can serve at times to extend the nation and state sovereignty across borders, and at other times can be used as an extraterritorial space that is safe for civil society and dissent because of its location outside Eritrea and beyond the reach of the state. The use of websites as a space for Eritrean civil society has been particularly important since 2001 when the present era of government repression in Eritrea began with the imprisonment of journalists and high officials who had publicly expressed criticism of President Isaias Afewerki.
The online activities of Eritreans in the diaspora show that the internet offers much more politically than simply making information more accessible, providing a new means of fact-checking, and facilitating the creation of an informed citizenry that is so important to democracy. Websites like those established by Eritreans are public spaces where a range of political activities can take place. Dehai, Asmarino and Awate are products of Eritrean culture and history as much as they are products of digital technologies. The Eritrean diaspora has, moreover, engaged with these technologies in distinctive and evolving ways that relate to the changing conditions in Eritrea, including projects of nation-building, supporting the government’s war effort, and mobilizing for political change in Eritrea. Cyberspatial activities extend beyond the realm of the virtual, mobilizing public opinion and actions, and putting pressure on national authorities. This essay, based upon a long-term research project, analyzes Eritrean activities online focusing on three major websites, starting with the earliest, Dehai, and continuing up to the present with Asmarino and Awate.
An emerging body of scholarship is providing a range of insights about how the internet might be transformative of politics in ways that go beyond simple issues of providing information or greater transparency (Dean 2009; Bernal in press; Boler 2008; Sreberny and Khiabany 2010). Some research suggests that with the rise of new media “government is simply one of many competing sites, albeit a powerful one, in which values and ideals are adapted, debated, reshaped, or nourished” (Norton 2003, 23). In the Eritrean case this de-centering effect of new media is particularly meaningful because of the top-down method of governing by the Eritrean state. The regime of President Isaias Afewerki and the ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice controls media within Eritrea and mobilizes citizens in national projects but allows no space for independent organizing or expression by citizens on their own behalf (Hepner and O’Kane 2009; Kibreab 2009). As one scholar observes, “The Eritrean postliberation state is widely recognized to be strong, controlling, and mobilized” (Dorman 2005). Other observers, such as Human Rights Watch, put things in starker terms:
The Isaias government has granted no independent civil society institution authority to operate. All labor organizations and youth and women groups are appendages of the ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). All news media are owned and closely supervised by the government, relentlessly used as instruments of propaganda. (HRW 2011, 1).
This political context makes diaspora websites particularly important. In fact, the regime has forced civil society into the diaspora and into the alternative public spaces created online. Through debates and dialogue among diverse interlocutors and through the vicarious participation of “lurkers” who are known to include members of the government, the websites have played a role in defining Eritrean identity, mobilizing support and opposition to the government, and constructing Eritrea as a nation (Bernal 2010, 2006, 2005).
In a seminal article, Becher and Wehner (2001, 69) discuss the internet in relation to civil society in terms that are well-suited to the analysis of Eritrean websites.
By virtue of its interactive communication structure, the Internet may support the domain of public communication, which has been described as “civil society” in the context of theoretical discussion about modern democracy. The term “civil society” refers to a network of preinstitutional civil activities and assemblies as well as social movements and pressure groups. . . These movements form an alternative public sphere, which influences both political decisions and the public opinion established by mass media system [sic]. In this way civil society generates partial forms of public opinion which are relatively open, close to the needs of citizens and which are characterized by rather elaborate levels of discussion.
The way Becher and Wehner define civil society is worth noting because they see it as including an array of phenomena that are deeply entwined with the public sphere.
In the Middle East, Eikelman and Anderson (2003, 5) found that the accessibility of new media widens the base of producers/senders and “create(s) public space.” The notion of public space has serious implications because it allows us to see that websites, for example, allow for more than simply greater access to information or cheaper communication; they serve as spaces that bring people together. The public space offered by websites is all the more important under conditions like those in Eritrea where public space is under government control and surveillance (Bozzini 2011).
In the context of Eritrea’s authoritarian regime, what ordinary Eritreans in the diaspora have created through the establishment of a range of websites constitutes an increasingly vital dimension of Eritrean national politics. The websites serve as Eritrean public space not controlled by the government. No space for civil society to develop can be found within Eritrea’s borders, but it has been created online. Whereas small groups created the various websites, their success as an online public sphere rests on the content that is contributed by a larger pool of posters, some of whom are loyal and prolific and others whose contributions are intermittent or fleeting, and an even larger pool of readers who constitute the public or publics that posts address.
Dehai and the Eritrean Internet in 1990s
Dehai was the first computer-mediated network of Eritreans and is now the longest-running Eritrean website. It has been part of Eritrean politics since 1992, the year before Eritrea was officially recognized as a nation. Dehai was established by a group of Eritreans in the diaspora in the US and by design it was devoted to Eritrean politics and nation-building. Eritrean activity on the internet thus has unfolded in tandem with Eritrea’s postliberation development as a nation. Through participating in Dehai, Eritreans in the diaspora saw themselves as serving a larger national purpose and contributing ideas and expertise to the new nation. The Dehai charter, first posted on the website in 1995, defines the purpose of the site as follows: “The main objective is to provide a forum for interested Eritreans and non-Eritreans to engage in solving Eritrea’s problems by sharing information, discussing issues, publicizing and participating in existing projects and proposing ideas for future projects” (Dehai 1995). A poster gives a sense of what this meant in practice when he writes:
I recently joined Dehai believing I could freely, honestly, openly and responsibly discuss with my fellow Eritreans about issues that affect all of us. . . I specifically said ‘don’t email my private account’ And the reason is obvious. I wanted everybody to participate in the discussion. (Dehai post December 14, 1996)
Another post states:
Eritrea belongs to all Eritreans. We believe (we claim to) in diversity. Any Eritrean has got the right to air his opinion the way he sees fit without denying the right of others to air their opinion. (Dehai post June 9, 1997; parentheses original).
The website was not simply a forum for discussion, but a launching pad for action. One example is an annual fund-raising campaign for Eritrean war orphans run by Dehai. A 1996 post calling for contributions begins by praising the ties that bind Eritreans as “one people” and goes on to say:
This is why I believe that whatever we set our minds to do, we can do it with tremendous success. . .The same goes for this annual fundraising. . . Our hearts hum the same song when it comes to the love and passion, the desire and wishes that we nurture for Eritrea. (Dehai post December 16, 1996, ellipses added)
From the outset, the online public sphere was never primarily about the diaspora or longings for home, but was rooted in a commitment to the Eritrean nation and a sense of responsibility for, as well as a stake in, its welfare.
A distinctive characteristic of the engagement of Eritreans in the diaspora with their homeland is their intense focus on politics. Other transnational populations may send remittances and remain deeply connected to their homeland but are less directly engaged in with national concerns and a relationship with the state (Miller and Slater 2000; Abusharaf 2002; Panagakos and Horst 2006). It goes without saying that Eritreans’ transnational activities are not limited to the internet. In fact, Dehai built on what I have come to think of as a “world wide web of Eritrean nationalism” that preceded and extends beyond the internet (Al-Ali, Black, and Koser 2001; Hepner 2008; Bernal 2004; Fessehatzion 2005). However, most of the transnational linkages connecting Eritreans were organized by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) before independence from Ethiopia, and after independence by the state and the ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). In contrast, the development of Eritrean internet connections has been pioneered by ordinary Eritreans themselves acting on their own behalf. In fact, the PDFJ and Eritrea’s Ministry of Information did not establish their own websites until years after diaspora websites clearly had established the internet as a significant domain of Eritrean political activity. Dehai established Eritrean online culture, eventually spawning successful competitors, including Asmarino and Awate that drew posters and readers away from Dehai.
In the early 1990s when Dehai began, Eritreans were coming together in the heady days of nationalist victory to contribute to nation-building (Woldemikael 1991; Iyob 1995; Kibreab 2008). The earliest published mention of Dehai appears to be a 1996 essay that captures some of the exuberant optimism of that time:
Finally, in 1993, the sun burst forth with a new Eritrea—a country which now has safe streets, no guns, and competent leaders who work for virtually no pay because there is little money for salaries. As Eritreans around the world discovered each other on the Net, they became a Greek chorus for the unfolding drama of their nation’s birth. (Rude 1996, 19)
This representation is a bit misleading in its suggestion that Eritreans in the diaspora were mere bystanders, however, since the diaspora had been deeply engaged in supporting the fight for independence. All too soon, as we now know, Eritrea would become more like a Greek tragedy with the national pater familias (President Isaias) sacrificing his children (citizens). But, it seemed at the time that the wars against enemies internal and external were over, and the questions facing Eritreans were peacetime questions about development and institution-building. The information technologies revolution combined synergistically with the dream-come-true of national independence and the zeal of the diaspora. Ordinary citizens within Eritrea did not have access to the internet until cybercafes opened there in 2000, but people in government offices did. One effect of this is that posters had the sense of communicating not only to each other but to Eritrea’s leadership. Eritreans not only believed that Dehai was read by members of the government, but that, as several people have told me, they saw changes in government policy or practice in response to views expressed on Dehai. Throughout the 1990s Dehai worked in many ways as a transnational extension of the nation.
In the first decade of independence disappointments about progress toward democracy, moreover, could be dismissed as merely a question of time, rather than viewed as failures or betrayals on the part of President Isaias and the ruling PFDJ party. Until the new war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 devastated and nearly defeated Eritrea, Eritreans understood their nation to be in a period of transition toward a promising future that remained open-ended. A four and a half page post responding to criticism of the government reflects this perspective:
For those who are so determined to prove that the Eritrean Government’s policies are loaded with injustices, unfair and undemocratic principles, I have some questions to ask. 1) Is your expectation of post-independence Eritrea to have a fully swinging democratic principles? For example, did you expect on May 24, 1991 [the day victorious EPLF troops marched into the capital city, now celebrated as Eritrean Independence Day] multi-party systems should have been installed? Free elections should have followed the next year? 2) Are you upset that there aren’t jobs and jobs advertised where everyone is gainfully employed? . . . 4) Are you upset that there are not numerous newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations to allow people to say anything and everything they wish? . . . May 24, 1991 announced the end of our armed struggle and the dawn of freedom to Eritrea, but by all means, it didn’t announce the end of our evolution as a nation and people. . . Other nations, such as the U.S. have evolved over many hundred years. . . (Dehai post October 8, 1998, ellipses added)
Even though its aim was to help Eritrea, Dehai was controversial and essentially unprecedented in Eritrean politics because in principle anyone could post their ideas and opinions. In practice, self-censorship and harsh critiques created informal boundaries of what could openly be expressed. Nonetheless the degree of openness that Dehai offered was unusual. A post from 1998 on Dehai addresses the question of civil society and the role of Dehai in these terms:
The main purpose of any group or civil discussion among citizens is simply to suggest the right doing and criticize the wrong doing, if there is any, so that things can be corrected and implemented the right way. Discussion and criticism is the main weapon of any civilized society to defeat ignorance. The “Dehai” internet communication is one of the examples that I am trying to explain. (October 22, 1998, Dehai post)
Dehai made possible a more participatory and less top-down engagement with nationalist projects. It was also unique that on Dehai, Eritreans of different generations, ethnicities, and religions could be interlocutors. Such a forum had no offline counterpart. One poster says:
I would like to take this opportunity to compliment DEHAI for such a forum. Who would have thought that an online discussion between Eritreans and their political entities could be possible, and opposition political organizations banned by the current regime at that. (Dehai post February 8, 1997)
Through the 1990s, Dehai was the preeminent website for Eritreans around the globe. The website had an appeal for many Eritreans in the diaspora for multiple reasons. Dehai served as an Eritrean space where Eritrean concerns and current events were the focus, it connected Eritreans to each other collectively across borders and distances, and it allowed people to explore ideas and hopes for the kind of nation Eritrea could be, and to contribute to nation-building through sharing their ideas. At the end of the nineties, Eritreans in the diaspora rallied online and in other locales to insure Eritrea’s survival in the face of a new war with Ethiopia.
The potential for the virtual public sphere to have material effects for life on the ground in Eritrea was demonstrated dramatically when a border war with Ethiopia broke out in May 1998. Immediately, Dehai was largely given over to various war-related communications, and the website served, not simply as a source of breaking news, but as a site where activities could be publicized and actions mobilized. Posters in various locations shared the details of their fundraising and public relations efforts on behalf of Eritrea and urged other Eritreans everywhere to contribute to the war effort (Bernal 2004). Posters signed off with phrases like, “Lasting glory to our Martyrs,” “Victory to our Defense Forces,” “Demise to the Woyanes [derogatory term for Ethiopians],” “Proud to be Eritrean,” “Victory to the people of Eritrea,” and “Remember our Martyred Brothers and Sisters,” sometimes writing these slogans in transliterated Tigrinya. War-time posts expressed intense nationalism and posters asserted the obligation of Eritreans wherever they were to come to the aid of their country. Dehai was instrumental in promoting a range of activities to support Eritrea’s war effort, most notably fund-raising. In fact, Eritreans around the world sent hundreds of millions of dollars to the Eritrean government to help the country fight Ethiopia during the 1998–2000 border conflict.
The way in which Dehai mobilized and publicized activities in support of the war and served as a collective rallying point for dispersed Eritreans demonstrated the instrumentality of the internet to effect material outcomes. The most important of these was the financial support channeled from the diaspora for Eritrea’s war effort, but there were also public relations and citizen diplomacy efforts to get Eritrea’s side of the war story told, as well as demonstrations in Washington and UN headquarters among other places to call for international intervention on Eritrea’s behalf. Dehai’s founders stated that during the war, “our main aim was to saturate the web with Eritrean information because the lie machine in Addis was operating nonstop, so we thought it was our national duty” (Asmerom et al 2001). Dehai’s home page was redesigned to give prominence to the border conflict and to include a link entitled “Ethiopian lies” that focused on Ethiopia’s representations in the media. To this day, Dehai’s home page features a link titled “Demarcation Watch” that is continually updated with developments and negotiations over the designation of an official border between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Dehai reached its peak during the Border War. A new political era dawned in the aftermath of the war, however. Dissent which had remained muted during the crisis, broke out once the crisis had passed. As dissent and government repression within Eritrea intensified in the aftermath of the war, in cyberspace, where there was no central authority to clamp down on people, the common public sphere that Dehai had represented fragmented. An array of alternative websites emerged where dissent began to be made public. By that time the role of cyberspace as a significant sphere of Eritrean politics had been well established. After the war, rival websites, including Asmarino and Awate, rose to become particularly successful counterparts and competitors of Dehai. These websites responded to the lack of independent media within Eritrea, and the self-censorship that often characterized Dehai, offering an openness of expression not possible in any Eritrea-based medium. Particularly on the new websites, the internet began to serve less as an extension of national politics as defined by the leadership in Eritrea, and started to develop more into an alternative public sphere representing civil society perspectives, sometimes in opposition to the state. In 2000, moreover, a much wider range of Eritreans living in Eritrea first gained access to the internet in cybercafes and therefore could also join the ranks of readers and writers in Eritrean cyberspace.
Youth appeared to be the primary users of the few public and private cybercafes operating in Eritrea from my observations in 2001 shortly after they began operating. With greater access to the internet and the development of software for writing Ge’ez script (the script used for Tigrinya, Eritrea’s dominant language), as well as the expansion of English-language skills in Eritrea as a result of making English the language of instruction for secondary education, the possibility of posting from Eritrea has become ever more feasible.
At present, there are some citizen posters from inside Eritrea. However, the diaspora still produces most of the online content, with the government and Eritreans within Eritrea acting as important audiences. As the regime of President Isaias Afewerki and his ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) has grown more repressive and militarized, the online public sphere, like the diaspora’s relationship to Eritrea, has shifted. Dehai has remained largely a pro-government website and the ruling party even displays a link to Dehai on its home page as I write this in 2013. Among other things, this suggests that the government sees the diaspora websites as part of Eritrea’s political field. Since 2001, websites like Asmarino and Awate have become a counterpoint to state authority and the national media it controls so tightly.
Dissent and the Rise of Asmarino and Awate
At the end of the Border War, political rifts emerged within the ruling circles of Eritrea. The war and the government’s handling of it strained people’s loyalties. The government’s response to criticism was to crack down on any suspected critics. The diaspora was able to express themselves more freely and thus make the cracks in the façade of Eritrean unity more visible. What appeared to many observers to be a carelessness regarding the lives of its citizens in waging the Border War, contributed to the tidal shift in which Eritreans in the diaspora and their websites, particularly Asmarino and Awate, took on a new role as a counterpoint to the Eritrean state. Online, Eritreans could articulate independent views and openly question the legitimacy of Isais Afewerki and the PFDJ. Over the past decade expressions of dissent have multiplied and the websites have taken on the role of a civil society outside Eritrea’s borders, in sharp contrast to the absence of freedom of expression and civil society within Eritrea’s borders.
Like Dehai, the new websites were created by Eritreans living in the US. The founder of Asmarino, Tesfaledet, explains that he founded the website in 1997 after visiting independent Eritrea for the first time, 22 years after leaving home as refugee. Tesfaledet was working in the field of technology and was excited by the possibilities that new developments in information technology might hold for Eritrea. As he says, “my heart was still there.” In 1997, he traveled to Eritrea and met with government officials hoping to help Eritrea take advantage of digital communications. But authorities were resistant to his ideas. Failing to make headway in Eritrea, Tesfaledet established Asmarino.com on his own back in the US. At the time, he saw it as a way to help Eritrea (personal communication 2008). In the context of growing political discontent among Eritreans everywhere following the Border War, Asmarino began to attract posters and readers, taking some of the attention and talent away from Dehai where the atmosphere was less tolerant of dissent.
At this turning point in Eritrean politics, Awate.com was established and quickly became a significant website where information and analyses critical of the regime were posted. Awate’s motto on its home page is: “Inform. Inspire. Embolden.” The link “About us” on the website describes Awate’s purpose as follows: “to serve as an anti-dote to the stifling propaganda of the Eritrean State media and its tentacles in Europe and North America.” There it is stated that:
The purpose of the State media and its tentacles is to promote the sole ruling party in Eritrea, the People’s Front for Democracy & Justice (PFDJ) by exaggerating its meager “accomplishments” and by hiding its catastrophic mistakes and crimes against the people of Eritrea. In contrast, the mission of awate.com is to provide Eritreans and friends of Eritrea with information that is hidden by the Eritrean regime and its surrogates; to provide a platform for information dissemination and opinion sharing; to discuss issues truthfully no matter whose ox is being gored; to inspire Eritreans, to embolden them into taking action, and finally to lay the groundwork for reconciliation whose pillars are the truth.
A 2004 post on Dehai criticizes Awate and Asmarino for having posted the names of those killed in the Border War (information which the government had withheld from the public), calling Awate and Asmarino “lowlife websites” and “the #1 enemy websites of the Eritrean people” (Dehai post December 17, 2004). This shows, among other things, the way struggles are waged on and among the websites over the boundaries of national authority and public discourse.
A long post on Asmarino presenting a detailed, critical analysis of the government’s self-reliance policies included this observation:
[the government] confuses self reliance for a state’s monopoly of various aspects of the nation’s economy; not only does it try to free itself from foreign dependence but also, oddly enough, from internal dependence (that is, from dependence on its own population)—from its merchants, farmers, businessmen, fishermen, etc. (Asmarino August 29, 2005; parentheses original; material in brackets added)
This generated both praise and critiques, including a poster who disagreed with the analysis, asserting among other things that, “Eritrea is a country with potential to be more than she is now, although she is better than all the countries in our region” (Asmarino post August 30, 2008). Another poster responded along lines suggesting, as Eritrea’s leaders often claim, that any critique benefits Eritrea’s enemies and threatens Eritrea’s existence, saying “PIA [President Isaias Afewerki] will pass like any leader and the current GoE [Government of Eritrea] will change as well like any government. In the meantime, we will side with the GoE, not with our bloody and deadly enemies…NO NO NO!” (Asmarino post August 30, 2008; material in brackets added).
A post on Awate from a citizen writing from inside Eritrea decries various conditions in Eritrea that are so far from what liberation was expected to achieve, and adds: “Forgotten is the principle of Justice, equality, progress, peace and democracy. If you have written Democracy and justice on all the sign posts of PFDJ offices in all Asmara and the towns of Eritrea it is enough” (Awate post November 9, 2006). There is some subtle humor intended since the D and J in PFDJ stand for ‘Democracy’ and ‘Justice.’ A ten-page single-spaced post presents a scathing critique of the Eritrean government and conditions in Eritrea before making this recommendation near the end:
The forces of positive change opposing the regime in Eritrea should focus on articulating a convincing political agenda, organizing and leading the people whom they represent in peaceful disobedience, creating a culture of resistance and preparing opportunities for peace by opening a negotiated exit option for Mr. Isaias Afeworki for exile and exemption from local justice thereby paving the ground for democratic elelctions and majority rule that will safeguard individual rights as well as the interests of minority national groups. (Awate post January 6, 2009)
Many posts are several pages long and some posters even write long essays in installments. These excerpts from websites can only convey some of the form and content that are both vast and varied.
Paradoxically, the repression of dissent within Eritrea heightens the importance of the online public sphere, since it provides one of the only conduits through which Eritreans and the Eritrean leadership can gain insights from the critical opinions and analyses expressed by Eritreans themselves. Critics of the PFDJ and President Isaias remain obsessively committed to nationalist politics as they continue to post their views and seek to sway public opinion among Eritreans. Since there is no independent media or citizen’s public sphere within Eritrea, the websites created by Eritreans in the diaspora serve as a crucial public space where independent perspectives can be developed and circulated.
In late January 2013 rumors of an attempted coup in Eritrea circulated widely. The traffic to Awate.com as a result was so great the website could not handle it and was out of service for several days. Meanwhile a visit to the official website of Eritrea’s Ministry of Information, Shabait, found no mention of any kind about the political events. Instead beneath its motto, “Serving the Truth,” was the headline: “Preparation underway in the Eastern Escarpment in the Central Region to plant temperate fruits” (Shabait January 27, 2013). The diaspora websites serve the nation as an alternative public sphere and a space for civil society.
Eritreans in the diaspora have created in cyberspace a public sphere of citizenship and belonging more successful in achieving democratic form than any within Eritrea. In this way, the websites do not merely meet the diaspora’s needs for connection to Eritrea and to other Eritreans, but provide something for all Eritreans (whether in the diaspora or “at home”) that their government has refused to provide—an open public sphere and a space for citizens to engage autonomously in politics. Posters who write from within Eritrea’s borders are still a small minority compared to those in the diaspora who contribute most of the content, but readers in Eritrea, particularly urban and educated populations, circulate content to wider audiences in various ways including word of mouth. Dehai, Asmarino, Awate, and similar websites make new forms of political participation and expression possible.
Websites bring publics and counterpublics into being, mobilize opinions and actions, and allow for collective debates and collaboration. The websites are unique in that they allow Eritrean professionals and high school graduates, Muslims and Christians, women, and people of different generations, classes, and ethnicities to engage one another and be part of the same discursive community through shared reading and writing online. Even those who may feel too intimidated or not entitled to post have access to a wide range of others’ views which they would not otherwise have.
Online, Eritreans can practice the kinds of public debate and non-violent political conflict they would like to see take place in Eritrea’s public sphere but does not happen there due to government control. The repression in Eritrea under the Isaias regime, thus, has not only caused Eritreans to flee their country as an earlier generation once did in flight from Ethiopian oppression and war, but has forced civil society into the diaspora and into the alternative public spaces created online. Eritreans in the diaspora locate themselves within the broader context of Eritrean nationhood, rather than outside of it, and Eritreans in the diaspora continue to figure in the national imaginary of Eritrea on the part of Eritrea’s leaders.
Online activities extend beyond the realm of the virtual, blurring the boundaries between the diaspora and the nation, and exerting influence on political understandings and actions. Dehai, Awate and Asmarino have had material consequences—fundraising for development, aid, and war, and mobilizing political activities, and demonstrations. The way in which they foster new political analyses and subjectivities is no less vital. It seems that politics, like so many other domains of human life, is fundamentally about stories. Narratives make actions and policies meaningful and serve to legitimate political positions and goals or conversely to construct them as dangerous and wrong. Websites offer a site where such stories are not simply told, but constructed, contested, and collectively revised through the give and take of multiple interlocutors.
The websites, moreover, allow for communication from Eritreans to their leaders (who are known to read posts and even, it is rumored, to sometimes participate under assumed names or via individuals acting as their spokespeople). In some sense, however, this aspect of political communication from “the common man” to state authorities is the obvious one that scholars identify as political and on which much attention is focused. However, studies of the public sphere make clear that ordinary people discussing, producing analyses, and debating among themselves is itself a vital political activity (Habermas 1992; Fraser 1992; Warner 2005). Eritreans in the diaspora have created public, communal spaces in cyberspace so that instead of each individual relating to the state and grappling with Eritrea’s turbulent history and present privately or among a small local group of compatriots, these events and activities are valorized, discussed, and critiqued and thus made meaningful as social rather than individual experiences. Given the imprisonment of journalists within Eritrea, the shutting down of the short-lived independent press in September 2001, and the growing record of jailing anyone suspected of dissent, and practices of surveillance (Tronvoll 2009; Bozzini 2011), the analysis and criticism voiced by the diaspora in cyberspace is essentially without any counterpart in Eritrean political culture.
Eritrean nation-building remains an unfinished project as national independence in itself did not result in democracy. The Eritrean Constitution has yet to be implemented, opposition parties are not allowed to form, and there are no legitimate channels of dissent or independent civil society organizations within the country. Eritreans’ concern for the nation is also related to the fact that the nation and national institutions are still forming. It remains fragile, vulnerable. The nation could fragment along religious lines, for example, and it could be invaded by Ethiopia or attacked by other neighbors. The regime of President Isaias could fall to a military coup as apparently was attempted in January 2013. Eritrea’s stability and nationhood cannot be taken for granted. Its viability as a nation, economically and politically, remains in question in practice if not in principle.
Many questions remain unresolved because Eritrea is still a young state whose future continues to unfold in surprising ways, and whose present and future remain shrouded due to the lack of transparency about everything that happened in the nationalist struggle under the EPLF’s leadership as well as about government decision-making and the operation of the regime since independence. As a result, people continue to be drawn to the websites in search of answers, explanations, partial truths, information, opinions, and analyses, and even new questions about the future and the past of Eritrea and Eritreans. Eritrean diaspora websites are sites of creativity that continue to generate novel ideas and activities. The websites reveal the creative strategies of the less powerful to construct new spaces and strategies of political participation and to expand the boundaries of what can be publicly expressed.
Eritrea’s future is unpredictable but holds possibilities in new generations, new waves of the diaspora, and also new websites. In all of these lie the potential for new stories and perspective to emerge and new national narratives to be constructed. Future waves of Eritrean migrants and generations of Eritreans, in Eritrea and in the diaspora, will likely participate in and transform Eritrean cyberspace. Technological advances will also bring different possibilities for what can take place in online spaces. One day websites may be established by Eritreans in Eritrea that rival or complement those established by the diaspora. The challenges facing Eritreans at present are significant and, as the example of Egypt demonstrates so sadly, democracy does not arise simply, even once a dictator has been deposed. What can websites offer in the face of histories of war and the on-going potential for violent conflict? Perhaps something very valuable—the possibility to fight with words rather than guns, and not so much lasting peace, as perhaps what is even more important for democracy and development, the possibility of on-going dialogues among those with diverse and conflicting perspectives.
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