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The far-right nationalist movement roiling Eritreans in Israel

The far-right Agazian movement seeks to establish a Tigrinyan Orthodox-Christian state in what is now Eritrea and part of Ethiopia. Its anti-Muslim, militant politics are deepening the divisions within the already fractious Eritrean opposition.

By Inbal Ben Yehuda

The Eritrean flag flies during a protest outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on January 08, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Eritrean flag flies during a protest outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on January 08, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

About two years ago, an extremist, far-right movement began operating on the Eritrean political scene. The movement, broadly called Agazian (speakers of the Ge’ez language) emerged from within the Tigrinyan, Orthodox-Christian opposition in the diaspora. The movement is active in several different locales — in Europe, Ethiopia and Israel — and particularly on social media, contributing to the radicalization and intensification of political discourse in the Eritrean community around the world.

The Agazian movement is still a minority within the Eritrean diaspora. Like many right-wing extremist movements elsewhere, their supporters may not be especially numerous, but their vocal and even violent nature makes them potentially influential.

As opposition activists, the Agazians reject the dictatorial Afwerki and PFDJ party regime that has ruled Eritrea since it became independent in 1993. However, the Agazian movement’s goal is the creation of a new, Agazian, Orthodox-Christian state. Part of the movement’s vision is to unify Eritrea with the Tigray region in Ethiopia (Eritrea’s longtime enemy), which is home to Tigrinya-speakers across the border. The Agazian nationalist movement’s terminology and modus operandi is enabling a racist and anti-Muslim public discussion, influenced by trends in the West and Israel, to take root in Eritrean politics.

The Agazian movement is comprised of several different groups, united largely by a set of shared characteristics. The nationalism propagated by movement activists is based on a belief in the ethnic and religious supremacy of Orthodox Christian Tigrinya-speakers. They find the basis for this identity in the ancient Ge’ez language, once spoken by the Habesha peoples of the Horn of Africa, which later split into Tigray-Tigrinya, Tigre, Amhara, and other, smaller ethno-linguistic groups found today in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The Tigrinyas are the largest ethnic group in Eritrea; the majority of them are Christians, mainly Orthodox, while a minority are Muslims. In Ethiopia, they are referred to as Tigrayans and are a relatively dominant political group, though they comprise only six percent of the general Ethiopian population.

The Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. (A.Davey / Creative Commons)

The Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. (A.Davey / Creative Commons)

The Agazian movement selectively draws on cultural, linguistic, and religious elements. The historical narrative it promotes offers a distorted interpretation of the demographic, political, and religious transformations that made the region of Ethiopia and Eritrea what it is today. For example, the movement erases the complex history of Islam in the region and ignores the fact that Muslims from all the different ethnic groups comprise roughly half of Eritrea’s population. According to the Agazian movement, the Tigrinya-speakers who are Orthodox-Christians are the region’s indigenous population; virtually all others are considered to be foreign migrants.

The Agazians are defined not only by the shared identity they claim, but also by a shared enemy — anyone who is not Tirginyan and Orthodox-Christian, and particularly all Muslims. The public statements made by members of the movement often include racist expressions and hate speech toward groups excluded from their nationalist vision. Additionally, Agazian nationalists often denounce the majority of Christian Tigrinya-speakers who oppose their politics and prefer unity above ethnic and religious division as “leftist traitors”.

The movement’s founding and subsequent momentum can be placed in a broader context. It is clear that the Agazian movement has found refuge and a political home in Western, right-wing anti-Muslim ideology and its rejection of values such as multiculturalism and universalism. As refugees who fled the dictatorial regime in Eritrea, the movement’s members claim to be aiming to establish a democratic state; however, the movement has clear fascist tendencies and promotes a range of anti-democratic measures.

The movement also devotes considerable attention to Jews, Zionism, and Israel. The Agazians emphasize the Jewish elements of their religion and stress the similarity between the Zionist vision of establishing the State of Israel and their own vision of establishing an Agazian (Tigrinya Orthodox Christian) state. They consider the establishment of an Agazian state as a historic right, denied to them by their enemies. The movement is also attempting to enlist help from Israel and Jewish groups to achieve their goals.

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The Agazian movement’s rise must also be situated against the ideological backdrop of the dictatorial Eritrean regime. Since the years of its prolonged struggle for independence from Ethiopia (1961-1991) and especially after independence, Eritrea’s ruling party, which emerged from the main rebel movement EPLF, has promoted a policy of separation of religion and ethnicity from matters of politics and the state. Strict state regulations allow the practice of four religions: Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, and Sunni Islam. The state also officially recognizes nine ethnic groups: the Tigrinya, Tigre, Bilen, Saho, Beja, Afar, Nara, Kunama, and Rashaida. Any deviation, real or perceived, from these regulations, and any attempt to harness religion or ethnicity for political goals, are considered threats to the regime and suppressed.

Eritrea’s official ideology is a kind of multiculturalism forcibly inculcated in the country’s populace by means of a propaganda apparatus, yet it is an important value among many Eritreans in Eritrea as well as in the diaspora — including among refugees and opposition movements. In practice, though, Tigrinya is the dominant language in Eritrea, and among the four authorized religious groups, the regime is more likely to suspect Muslims of opposition activities and to take action against them. In spite of this, the Agazian movement claims that the status of Tigrinyas is being eroded and that they are victims of ethnic cleansing in Eritrea.

Different groups have challenged the state’s ethnic and religious regulations since Eritrea’s independence. On the Christian side, these groups have included members of banned religious streams, such as Pentecostal Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are persecuted by the regime. On the Muslim side, the Tigrinya-speaking Muslims, known as the Jeberti, claim to be a separate ethnic group and are demanding official recognition. Members of these groups tend to oppose the regime, and many do so, mainly from the diaspora. However, unlike the Agazian movement, they do not oppose the idea of an Eritrean state, and are working for change within the existing territorial framework.

Agazian nationalists are distinct from other groups that combine ethnic or religious identity with opposition to the Eritrean regime. The Agazian movement sees the long-established Eritrean nationalism as fake and is working to undermine its existence and principles. With the stated goal of unifying with the Ethiopian Tigray region and its people, they stress that Eritrea’s existing territorial boundaries are a colonialist creation and argue they should be dismantled.

At the same time, however, the Agazian movement serves the regime. The movement’s activities on the internet and social media are deepening the internal divisions within the Eritrean opposition — already complex in nature — making it more difficult to form a joint front against the regime. By labeling its opponents “extreme leftists,” the Agazian movement is forcing Eritreans to deal with the question of this political identity; it is imposing an extremist right-wing political discourse into a space where left/right distinctions have been largely absent. If the movement grows and gains more support, it seems that Eritrean opposition activists will be compelled to choose for the first time which side of the global political map they belong to.

Inbal Ben Yehuda is a blogger for Local Call and a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, where this article originally appeared in Hebrew. Read it here

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    COMMENTS

    1. Yosef

      What a nonsense movement

      Reply to Comment
      • Waeee agazian is one ofe the best movemoent in africa agazian is majortiy party for eritran tegrinay and etho tegrinay viva agazian alle tegrina people must be to contact to agazian movemen n agazian keagto zekle zekon remues nay xegam gay or islambrotherhood ,qebilan endan,jebrti stupid etom dalyti fthi hadi nger alo zerskumo zekon nay injoy aykonen nay kalot jebrti feqdo mesgid keydom tegrina yexnitna alo iseyas christn u endblu zegesgueswoabqiu you bota yelon nay concpirety is end agazian one ofe the best of best movemoent

        Reply to Comment
      • mussie

        I have read an article by Inbal Ben Yehuda, published in May 7, 2018 in +972, titled “The Far-right nationalist movement roiling Eritreans in Israel”. The article is not well researched, and the writer didn’t even bother to read the movement’s website or approach the office of the movement in Tel Aviv. There is no insightful information, but hateful propaganda against Agaiazian. From reading the article, one can easily understand not only the ignorance and lack of understanding, but also the colonialist perspective of the writer.
        The Ge’ez are the only black homogeneous people who have their own written language or alphabets, with no tribal or clan structure and high level of social trust, indigenous or localized Orit/Torah religion, and over 400 years of old written laws. Oritism is a version of Judaism that is practiced today by the Ge’ez for the more than 3000 years. Judaism is an ancient religion and civilisation that stretched from Northern Israel to today’s Yemen and Eritrea.
        The Agaiazian movement or Agaiazianism is a national movement of Ge’ez people, Ge’ez culture and “Orit”-Torah religion. The objectives of Agaiazianism is to make Eritrea the nation-state of Ge’ez people, the only indigenous people of Eritrea that fully respects its minority rights. The Agaiazian respects the territorial integrity of the state of Eritrea. Eritrea, like many Middle Eastern and African states is a fake country created by colonialists.
        Under United Nation Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) (A/RES/61/295) that as an indigenous peoples the Ge’ez have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity including right to self-determination by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
        Contrary to what the writer claims “Agaiazian are Orthodox Christian Nationalist” we believe because of our Ge’ez Semitic identity and Orit religion we were massacred, invaded, enslaved, looted, colonized by Egyptian Orthodox Coptic’s, Amhara Orthodox Christians, Ottoman Turkey Islamic Caliphate, Muslim Egypt, Sudanese Jihadist Mahdi in order to force us convert to Christianity or Islam. We were fighting the Muslims and Orthodox Christians over 1000 years.
        It takes to be either arrogant or racist to claim the Agaiazian movement introduced the right and left political discourse in Eritrea. Always, there was Tigrigna nationalist movement in Eritrea. EPLF was radical Marxist-Leninist organization, PFDJ is far left organization it sole goal is to create new national cultural identity among the Tigrigna nation and the many Muslim tribes and clans using brutal social engineering. As a result, in the last 15 years, over a million Ge’ez youth escaped slavery in Eritrea to be refugees around the world, including Israel.
        Muslim brotherhood been active since 1940s in order to make Eritrea a Islamic and Arabic state, Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was founded to make Eritrea Islamic state, there are many Eritrean Jihadist organizations, there are many tribal and clan separatist organizations, there is left and right politics in Eritrea.
        Eritrea already a de-facto Ge’ez nation-state. The overwhelmed Eritrean Muslims are nomads who move to Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti etc. There is no Muslim territory in Eritrea. Arabic language never was a market language and Sheria law was never practised in Eritrea.
        But to break over 1400 years isolation and to be accepted by European and African Christian specially Amhara and Muslim world specially Arabs our left intellectuals wanted to assimilate by being universalist, multiculturalists and internationalist using brutal social engineering and brainwashing of false history.
        Contrary to the writer, the Aga’azian movement is everything against fascism. Fascism as is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and control of industry and commerce. As opposed to fascism, the Agaiazian movement seeks to establish a democratic state that respects the rights of its minorities, it has a clear agenda to open Eritrea to tens of millions law and high skilled immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the West. The movement seeks to open our civil services, private sector, media, and courts/justice system to earn investors and financial market trust and respect, develop liberal and direct democracy, establish rule of law, and market economy.
        The Ge’ez are the majority in Eritrea, but they are tiny minority in the Middle East and the Red Sea region and like the Jewish, the Ge’ez are isolated culturally, politically and economically in the region. Agaiazian seeks to create close strategic economic, cultural, military, religious, and intelligence relations with the Jewish and the state of Israel, to promote the Ge’ez people’s interests and that of Israel. And that is why the Agaiazian movement devotes considerable time and resource in Israel. They share common Judeo-Christian values, interests and threats. Moreover, Israeli is a very successful country, the Ge’ez people needs its technology, modern management and know how.
        The Agaiazian movement is not a violent militant movement, rather believes in changing the minds and hearts of people through education and campaign. The last two years social media campaign if anything proofs this. The Agaiazian movement is very popular in the social media because of its education and campaigning.
        The writer description of the movement and its members as fascist, anti-Muslim, violent Orthodox Christians inspired by Far-right movements in the West, which don’t respect the territorial integrity of Eritrea, that strengths the dictatorship regime in Eritrea by dividing the already very weak and fragile Eritrean oppositions in Diaspora, doesn’t’ represent the Aga’azian movement’s agenda or modus apparatus. It is not only factually false, but also intellectual dishonesty and unethical.
        The Agaiazian movement is the only Eritrean opposition movement that have a clear agenda that address cultural, political, and economic and foreign policy issues including promoting regional peace. The Agaizain movement and its members deserve apology from Inbal Ben Yehuda, the writer of the article.

        Reply to Comment
      • Abuki

        Anyway agazian some thing .those who want agazian or some else.first they have to know every one has his own territory.tigrina they have their own land ,others have their own land .why they mix every thing .those who dream of big tigrina.they go they take their own piece of land and enjoy their brothers .but they don’t have weight to disturb other ethnics ,so ID you enjoy unity with other ethnic you are welcome if you live you are well come .because no one care about you we have we have sea.even we well come for the big ethnics in Ethiopia ,like oromo and Amara .to open the sea root them to have mutual interest. Tigrinia interest is with the other Eritrea unless .u will not sea access.you have to know this .you are not better from any one

        Reply to Comment
    2. Dani

      Lie 78%of Eritrean is Christians don’t believe the Google search is not clear the government of Eritrean is hidden percentage of Christianity we know all Eritreans Muslim are small percentage

      Reply to Comment
    3. Agame

      The tigrayans are at odds with eachother the majority being in ethiopia with proud national history and feeling part of larger Ethiopia while minority 1.5 millions in eritrea with visible identity crisis who rejected Ethiopia identity tried to create thier own confused identity and failed miserably. The only solution to contain them is to let them continue on the confused road.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Israel and quatar are friends and they are trying to establish a Christian and Muslim fundamentalist groups in Eritrea respectively with the aim of igniting a religious tension and war just like they done in many other places around the world. So better be aware of the intent and reject the trolls and rifraf who are pushing this crooked ideology to save Eritrea.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Afewerki

      Khaled adam;

      stop your false propaganda of 75%. the Christian highland is 60% of the population. It is true as well your parents are nomadic immigrants and the Agazian advanced Civilization goes back to 5500. PFDJ is indirect contrast with the values, culture and history of the highlanders. the Agazians are dismissing a 60-years colonial history in fever of their ancestral 5500-years Civilization and wanted to restore their true Cultural and historical Identity which has been assaulted and betrayed by the Colonial Oriented PFDJ. The family of Agazians in Eritrea and Tigray must Merge and form a Unit. That is a must, if you feel threatened by the power of the Agazians then drive your herds towards Sudan!

      Reply to Comment
    6. @george

      Eritreans are not and will not want to be with Any part of Ethiopia. Stop trying to push. It will never work. We got nothing I mean nothing to do with Agazian. On thing that unite every Eritrean is our disdain for Tigray. I you want to insult an Eritrean call him Agamaiy, a deragotory word. Khalid adam pls leave as alone. Go to your ethiopia. Stop staying to put us in one box. Leba.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Megos

      The sad part of this publication is that the writer or publisher of this article doesn’t know this “ Agazian group” is an extension of the failed “ Abay Tigray” project executed by TPLF(Tigray People Liberation Front) . Agazian is run NOT by REAL ERITREANS but by hard liner TIGRYANS from Ethiopia. Their ultimate goal is to create Abay Tigray. That idea failed during the 1998-2000 border war ignited by TPLF.

      Real Eritreans , please be aware and be vigilant, in exposing the identities of individual Agazian leadership to the Eritrean public. Agazian leadership, the Tigrayans pretending to be Eritreans, are paid by TPLF.

      No matter what Eritreans have differences in political view , Eritreans are respectful of each other’s religion. Agazian smells like Tigrayans and stinks like TPLF.

      Reply to Comment
    8. berhane

      Many things you explained in this message is nonsense. first of all the agazian movment basically is not new in our country. We the tigrigna nation were one of the most sivilized in the world. During the Aksumite era we were ruled yemen the whole horn africa. We were the first people to infulence the rise of kemet (Egyptian civilization. Even all the symbols you used in your flag is basically it is ours you stolen from ours. Many words of your language and arabic language is basically ours. You borrowed from us. But because of the invantion of the Alexander the great and the invantion of the savege Islam we lost many things. We agazain people are the only indeginous people in Eritrea and tigrai. The land it self were called the land of AGazi before the colonizer. The tigrigna and tigre and the tigrean in ethiopia are the same people we want to be one nation. The agazian people is suffered because of the conspiracy of colonizers. They want to take our alphabets our lands. But thanks god are still there and we will be.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Michael

      Those who dream to divide the people of Eritrea along this crazy notion of religious zealotry, be it Christian or Moslem, are really enemy number one of the country & its people. They are promoting some foreign agenda in order to destabilize Eritrea. But their heinous agenda is not bad only for Eritrea but Ethiopia as well. Those who are funding this destructive agenda are overlooking a very serious reality, Ethiopian Muslims are not factored into the equation! Becareful what you wish for Agazian for you might get it!

      Reply to Comment

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