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Protesters Absent as Ethiopia Marks Anniversary of Meles Rule

Meles Zenawi gestures to Ethiopians gathering at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Saturday, May 28, 2011

Meles Zenawi gestures to Ethiopians gathering at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have turned out in Addis Ababa’s main square to mark Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s 20th anniversary in power. A “day of rage” counterdemonstration planned by democracy activists failed to materialize.

The turnout at Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square was a fraction of the one million predicted. And with thunder clouds hanging overhead, a scheduled four-hour event was cut in half.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s nationally televised anniversary address lasted little more than five minutes. It was largely a patriotic appeal for support of construction of a massive dam that is challenging Egypt’s long-standing monopoly over the Nile River waters.

The controversial $5 billion hydropower project is being financed almost entirely with domestic funds in the absence of support from international lending institutions. Meles called the dam an example of Ethiopia’s fighting spirit.

He said “This dam has on it the fingerprints of every Ethiopian. It is not only a producer of energy, it is a certificate that shows the whole world we are the owners.”

Small bands of youths ran through the crowd chanting “We will not let Egypt stop us from using our water.”

Local physician Berhanu Gebremariam said he had come out to show support for the social progress of the past two decades. He said Ethiopia’s determination to go it alone on the Nile dam project was a great source of national pride.

"Nile is the origin in our country. We haven’t used it for decades, but now we woke up. We should use it, but that doesn’t mean we are going to punish Egypt. Egypt is our neighbor. We share," he said.

Democracy activists had been using social networking websites such as Facebook to call for a North African-style “Day of Rage” against the government. But in a tightly controlled society where Internet penetration is less than 1 percent, there was no sign of any protests.

Government officials said the online campaign was mostly the work of dissident groups abroad, and has little domestic support.

A random sampling of public opinion on the streets of Addis Ababa Saturday found most people going about their regular business, staying clear of the demonstration. The capital is known as a hotbed of anti-government sentiment, but residents expressed little enthusiasm for public protests.

The last major demonstrations in the streets of Addis ended in bloodshed following the disputed 2005 elections. Nearly 200 opposition activists died when government forces opened fire on the demonstrators.