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Jan 22, 2013 | 14:37 GMT

4 mins read

The Eritrean Coup Attempt Comes to a Close

Eritrean Coup Attempt Comes to a Close
PETER BUSOMOKE/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

A coup attempt that began in the Eritrean capital of Asmara on Jan. 21 has failed as mutineering troops, who had laid seige to the Ministry of Information building, set hostages free and returned to their base in Qushet, outside the capital, overnight. Although the attempt appears to have been poorly organized and was dealt with swiftly by troops loyal to President Isayas Afewerki, the incident does highlight the increasing cracks within the regime's power base.

Around 10 a.m. on Jan. 21, a group of between 100 and 200 young soldiers and officers took control of the Ministry of Information building, which also houses the state television network. The assailants gathered employees, reportedly including President Afewerki's daughter, in a single room while a newsreader read out their demands on live television. The demands included the implementation of the 1997 constitution, which calls for a democratically elected government and the installation of a transitional government, among other things. As this took place, troops loyal to Afewerki encircled the building and a standoff ensued, lasting throughout the day, until the mutineers released the hostages and agreed to return to their base. There have not yet been any signs of reprisal against the troops who were involved, although a response could be in order now that the situation has been defused.

Locator Map - Eritrea

The coup was reportedly organized or led by one or more high-ranking generals, but these rumors are difficult to confirm due to Eritrea's firm grip on information as well as biased reporting by opposition activists in the diaspora. The latest reports have connected Gen. Saleh Osman to the coup. Osman is a hero of Eritrea's war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 who has previously engaged in negotiations for democratization with the president's office. Other reports mentioned Gen. Filipos Woldeyohannes, a former close confidant of Afewerki who was recently the commander of the Asmara district but fell from grace in 2012. Opposition channels have also claimed that as the siege took place at the ministry, the army chief and the chief of the air force were assassinated by loyalist troops. It is unclear whether these claims are true, but if so, they could mean that the army and air force chiefs were involved in the coup attempt.

The power of Afewerki, the former leader of a rebel army that fought Ethiopia for Eritrean independence, heavily depends on the military. While there are several opposition groups, most of them organized in exile, none have been able to present a credible threat to Afewerki's regime due to his use of the military as a tool of repression. However, the coup attempt does show that parts of the military are beginning to openly confront Afewerki's leadership. While these troops did not receive the support from other military commanders that they were apparently hoping for, they were able to cast doubt on the ability of the regime to protect itself and stay in full control of its armed forces. This event also comes after a number of high-profile defections last year. In one case, the minister of information fled the country, and in another, two high-ranking air force officers left in their aircraft, further signaling ruptures in circles surrounding Afewerki.

Despite the appearance of fractures, the handling of the coup attempt shows that Afewerki's regime is still capable of dealing with internal threats. The strict control of information remained in place and few details of events spread. As Eritrean forces loyal to the president were intervening in the capital, the city remained calm and the population itself did not become involved. This demonstrates that Afewerki, though weakening, is still strong enough to enforce his control when contested by elements within the military. Afewerki himself has been suffering with health issues, about which very little information is available, and has been seeking regular treatments abroad. He will not be in control forever, and a power transition in Eritrea will have to take place at some point. Military leaders have been struggling to get into a position to follow in Afewerki's footsteps when he steps down or dies. At this point, however, these struggles are unable to threaten the regime itself, even when they result in an overt contestation of Afewerki's position as ruler of the country.

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