A general view shows buildings in the central business district of Eritrea's capital Asmara, Feb. 16, 2016.
A general view shows buildings in the central business district of Eritrea's capital Asmara, Feb. 16, 2016.

Unusual acts of defiance against government demands led to protests last week in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, according to experts who study the region.

The rare protests were the culmination of nearly two years of back-and-forth between the Ministry of Education and leaders of the Diaa Islamic School of Asmara, who defied government orders aimed at removing religion from their curricula. An elderly school board member, Hajji Muasa Mohamed Nur, voiced the school’s resistance in a widely shared video posted on YouTube. “We are not going to change anything,” Nur said as the crowd applauded.
Nur was arrested, and the government threatened to take over the school, sending officials to collect the keys, several opposition groups said. That’s when a crowd descended on the school grounds and marched toward the Ministry of Education to protest the closing, according to state-owned media shabait.com.

Vacuum of information

Videos of frightened crowds dispersing as gunshots ring out have circulated on social media since last week. But the time and place of the videos have not been verified, and no injuries or deaths are depicted.

The government says reports of deaths and violence are part of a pattern of sensationalized stories that dominate news coverage of Eritrea.

“Scoop-oriented media outlets keep churning out false ‘casualty figures’ peddled by Eritrea’s detractors without minimum verification,” Yemane Gebremeskel, the minister of information, posted on Twitter. He said a small demonstration by one school in Asmara dispersed without any casualties.

But press freedom in Eritrea ranks among the lowest in the world, and non-governmental organizations can’t operate independently in the country.

Felix Horne, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on the Horn of Africa, said those restrictions prevent verification and block credible information. In this case, that information could support the government’s side of the story.

Instead, opposition groups have seized the moment to give their version of events, Horne said. “It’s a very self-defeating strategy in our view, if the government has nothing to hide.”

Social media has added to the confusion, but it’s also enabled some information to leak out, including the clip of Nur. “That the government can suppress, but not completely black out news, I think, emboldens people and encourages people to know that they’re not alone,” said Saleh Younis, the editor of Awate.com, an Eritrean news website that is opposed to the government and its policies.

Details of last week’s protests and the government reaction also remain murky because people are scared of reprisals, Younis said. “Even if you know information, you’re hesitant to disclose it because we have a police state in Eritrea,” he said.

Much of the government’s response happens out of the spotlight. According to Younis, police have rounded up hundreds of people at night, and entire areas have been cordoned off.

Years of pressure

The Diaa Islamic School of Asmara was founded in 1968. The school has taught students from kindergarten to high school, and according to Younis has been well regarded. Nearly 3,000 students attend Diaa.

But for nearly two years, the government has had a litany of requests: Girls in high school should not wear headscarves, the school should remain open on Fridays, secondary classes should no longer be segregated by gender and no classes should focus on Islamic teachings, according to an alum.

School leaders were willing to compromise on some points, for example, staying open on Fridays. The government pressed to implement all of the changes, but school leaders refused. “The whole core of the school is being undermined,” Younis said.

Other schools have changed their practices and curricula in the government drive to secularize education, and some have closed, but Diaa appears unique in its resistance.

The key difference, said Semhar Habtezion, a member of the Eritrean Diaspora, was Nur. “He was fearless, and he was, in effect, saying we cannot continue fearing this government. This is our school, and we will do whatever it takes to fight back.”

When the government attempted to take over the school it crossed a red line that caused people to rise up and say "No," Younis said.

From the government’s perspective, intervening in the school’s affairs was necessary to protect its secular national curriculum. Writing on the Ministry of Information’s website, Mella Ghebremedhin said, "Similar... actions have recently been taken with both Catholic and Orthodox schools."

Despite last week’s unrest, the Diaa school remains open. VOA’s stringer in Asmara visited the day after the protests and confirmed to VOA Tigrigna that classes had resumed and students were outside playing sports. He also said by phone on Friday that ninth and 11th-grade students at the Catholic Cathedral school had been ordered to begin attending public schools near their neighborhoods.