Addis Abeba, May 12, 2017 – The author wrote the book during his time in prison, where he remains for over four and a half years at the time this review is published. While it is interesting to read about how he had to write the book despite his imprisonment, despite his torturous experience in prison, and despite prison guards trying to prevent him from writing and searching him regularly to confiscate his work, what is even more interesting is that the book actually owes its existence to the author’s imprisonment and torture.
The epiphany, the initial spark, which eventually led to the writing of an entire book, arose during the initial phase of his detention when he was being tortured. He writes that he was taken to solitary confinement between torture sessions where he would read the Quran to comfort his soul. In this process, and to his surprise, he found the story of Pharaoh and Moses to be freshly insightful and relevant to his condition. At times, his insights were so novel that he felt he had never read the relevant verses before. Thus, as much as the book is a commentary on the story of Pharaoh and Moses, and its theological, ethical, and political implications, it is also a compelling story of a religious intellectual who is forced by a set of shocking experiences to re-read familiar religious texts in a wholly new way. With this book, the author redeploys the story of Pharaoh and Moses and meticulously sets out his views on the contemporary applicability of its lessons.
He begins his discussion with a detailed account of Pharaoh’s government which he concludes is an archetypal dictatorial regime. One of the interesting facets of how he does this is that, while being extremely critical of what he describes as pharaonic political systems, the author is also ever cognizant of the fact that the book itself is being written in a pharaonic state. The author chooses to write in a style typical of Ethiopian political conversation – one that is full of innuendo and allusion, leaving just enough room for deniability while at the same time allowing the reader to grasp the intended meaning. Without directly mentioning Ethiopia, and even specifically stating that his work is not meant to refer to any specific country or regime, the author alludes to clear imageries of his own country as a pharaonic state. He alludes to the length of time Pharaoh has been in power, how he changed with the times, and how he used developmentalist discourse to justify power in ways that are reminiscent of Ethiopia. In addition to discussing how Pharaoh transgressed the boundaries of ethics, morality and natural law through his rampant violations of human rights, he describes how Pharaoh’s larger than life images and statues were put up all over the country while the images and statues of previous rulers were removed and their images denigrated; how Pharaoh relied on a propaganda empire to keep power and to defame his detractors; and how an entire generation grew up knowing only one ruler in a way that any Ethiopian of the author’s generation would recognize. Throughout the book, the author uses “Pharaoh” to describe the historical Pharaoh as well as skilfully allowing the word to stand for dictatorship in general and to the Ethiopian regime in particular.
After describing what pharaonic regimes are, and closely following the story of Moses and Pharaoh, the author then describes how and why pharaonic regimes persist and how they can be successfully resisted. The author describes in great detail how Pharaohs use intricate means of co-option, propaganda and coercion to stay in power and, and in an interesting move, lays most of the responsibility for the existence of pharaonic dictatorships at the feet of their subjects. Pharaohs become what they are primarily because their subjects let them. Every time the people let a dictatorial move go unpunished, the dictator’s behavior is reinforced and the dictatorship only gets stronger and harsher. He thus concludes that dictatorships are joint ventures between Pharaohs and their subjects, and it is the responsibility of the people to stop rewarding bad behavior if they want to take back the power that is originally theirs.
In this narrative, Moses becomes a figure who realizes this problem and takes the first steps to start a struggle to take back the people’s power. After going through the familiar motions of how Moses called for monotheism, he reintroduces Moses as a human rights activist and a leader of a liberation movement. Moses, the protagonist, is portrayed an activist who fought for human rights and especially the freedom of religion, a right which is so fundamental that even God does not violate it. Similar to many human rights and liberation activists, Moses was accused of being an enemy of peace and order and had to overcome the propaganda and coercive machineries of Pharaoh’s Egypt. Moses also embodies the characteristics of what a great liberation leader should be like – he was patient and persistent, he was polite and honest, and while he was brave in the face of threats he was also a humble man who understood his weaknesses. Jumping in and out of scripture the author draws a picture, which at points looks like a blueprint, of how dictatorship is to be resisted, how dictators will react to such resistance, and what needs to be done to ensure success for the eventual realization of freedom, justice, and rights.
A conclusion that underpins the entire book is its unflinching dislike for dictatorship and its support for liberty and rights. One liberty that gets specific treatment is religious liberty which the author concludes requires a separation of religion and state for its proper protection. He emphasizes that the separation of religion and state is critical for a multi-religious society such as Ethiopia and that no one group should use state power to oppress or discriminate against others. As the Pharaoh-Moses story shows, it is better to keep state power away from religion as it is in the nature of the powerful to hijack religion and use it to achieve their own political ends. Yet, he does not want to banish religion from the hearts and minds of political actors. In fact, he encourages political actors to learn from the moral teachings of the Bible and the Quran which, among other things, teach the perils of mixing religion and state power. As far as the author is concerned, emulating Moses’ example as an advocate of freedom and justice is itself a religious undertaking that may be rewarded by God both in this life and in the hereafter.
The book is a pioneering work of Ethiopian literature for two reasons. It is one of the first original book-sized works of Islamic literature authored in Amharic. The book crystallizes a moment in Ethiopian Islamic discourse by making sense of the country’s contemporary political context from the point of view of the author and his coreligionists. The second ground-breaking aspect of the book is that it may also be the first attempt at cross-religious discourse in Ethiopia. The author uses the Old Testament, which is also recognized as a religious text in Islam, in a bid to build a communal spiritual terrain on which Muslims and Christians can have a joint ethical conversation. He regularly alludes not just to the need for Christians and Muslims to focus on commonalities but calls for unity in many specific respects. He sees such communality as his personal ethical obligation ordained by the Quran in addition to being a necessary step which, if not taken, may lead to the disintegration of Ethiopian civil society and state. Although one cannot say with confidence that the author has succeeded in building a common discursive terrain on which both Christians and Muslims would be equally comfortable, he has no doubt started laying strong foundations. Ethiopians, both Christians and Muslims, should consider this book as a call for action and take steps to collaborate with him, and amongst each other, in order to complete building this common ground (or common grounds) by picking up where he left off.