MOHAMMED ADEMO - When Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s leader for more than two decades, died this week, he was mourned by many as a “stable” force in a chaotic region. South African President Jacob Zuma praised him for “lifting millions of Ethiopians out of poverty” while British Prime Minister David Cameron remembered him “as an inspirational spokesman for Africa on global issues”, who had “provided leadership and vision on Somalia and Sudan.” Microsoft founder Bill Gates even praised him as “a visionary leader who brought real benefits to Ethiopia’s poor.”

Ethiopians themselves have more complicated feelings about the late prime minister. Yes, the country emerged as a regional power and one of Africa’s most dynamic economies under his rule, but Ethiopians also saw Meles crush political opponents, surround himself with yes-men, muzzle the free press, and purge dissenters even from his own party.

His death has been as controversial as his tenure. Meles, 57, had been missing since June 26, the last time he was seen in public before his demise. Officials dismissed earlier reports that he had died, insisting instead he was vacationing or on doctor-prescribed sick leave. The state of his health and an ensuing power struggle within the ruling party has been a subject of online speculation for the last two months.

Meles’s death also comes at a moment when Ethiopia is witnessing an unexpected and hitherto unknown phenomenon: popular protests. For the last eight months, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been non-violently protesting a series of religious decisions by the government and a quasi-independent religious council. How the government handles the protests could affect the fragile transition.

Ethiopian Muslims, who make up a third of the country’s 94 million people, began demonstrating in the capital in January, after students at the country’s only Islamic university, the Awolia Institute, walked out of classes to protest a proposed curriculum change mandated by the government and the removal of some teachers. The students accused Ethiopia’s government of imposing the teachings of Al-Ahbash, a foreign sect with Ethiopian roots but better known in Lebanon.

Al-Ahbash is a supposedly moderate Sunni sect founded in Lebanon in 1930 as a philanthropic project and reorganized into a religious movement in 1980s by followers of exiled Ethiopian Muslim scholar Abdullah ibn al-Habashi, who was forced out by Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime. Ahbash has followers throughout the Middle East, who have often clashed with Salfi Islamist groups, but until recently has remained fairly obscure in Habashi’s home country. The protesters claim the government is forcing them to accept Ahbash’s teachings as a way of containing what it sees as a growing radicalization of Ethiopian Muslims.

The government denies any effort to promote Ahbash and claims the university reorganization was the work of the nation’s main Islamic authority, known as the Majlis. Though officially independent, the Majlis, formally the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Council, is widely seen as a quasi-governmental agency.

Contrary to Ethiopia’s firm denial, a US State Department terrorism report released last month acknowledged that Ethiopia’s Ministry of Federal Affairs had indeed launched a controversial nationwide training program to counter violent extremism by promoting Ahbash. The Ethiopian government quietly launched the training in July 2011 at Haramaya University, in the eastern Oromia region. The catechism, billed as “Training Religious Tolerance” and attended by some 600 religious leaders from around the country, was given by clerics invited from Beirut, Ubah Abdusalam Seid, a researcher on Islam in Ethiopia, wrote earlier this year. Unpublicised training courses, aimed at reorienting all mosque leaders and Majlis representatives around the country to the Ahbash teachings, took place in major cities like Addis Ababa, Harar, and Bahir Dar later that year, according to Seid.

In January, shortly after the protests broke out at Awolia, Muslims in Dessie, a town 150 miles northeast of Addis Ababa, held a huge impromptu demonstration after Majlis leaders tried to take over the regional mosque and an Islamic school there. Fearing a backlash, the Majlis pulled back.

As the protests in the capital continued and intensified over the last seven months, demonstrators’ demands have grown beyond the issue of school curriculum to larger grievances over the Christian-dominated government’s policies toward Muslims. In particular, demonstrators are now demanding that the Majlis leaders be elected in mosques rather than at government centres.

The decentralized movement has now grown into a nationwide resistance against the unelected Majlis leaders. On August 17, hundreds of thousands turned out in the capital Addis Ababa demanding the release of their jailed leaders. The government crackdown has backfired, prompting Muslims across the country to join in the protests. The largely youth-led movement is now emulating the weekly Friday prayer protests that started in Addis Ababa.

Meles addressed the growing discontent on April 17, during his final appearance before Ethiopia’s one-party parliament. The prime minister denied allegations of state interference in religious affairs but acknowledged that senior government officials had held meetings to discuss plans to educate the populace about the rule of law. Meles blamed the protests on radical Salafist and accused them of preaching intolerance and calling for an Islamic state. He also announced that al Qaeda cells had been uncovered in Ethiopia’s Oromia region and warned that without an aggressive response, the country experience the kind of instability seen in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria. “This has to be stopped before it’s too late,” he said.

The warning was a typically canny move from the late prime minister. Throughout his rule, Western powers were reluctant to criticize domestic repression in Ethiopia as long as Meles continued to provide support in the fight against Islamist militants in East Africa, including sending troops into neighbouring Somalia in several US.-supported operations.

There are also increasing signs that the discontent is spreading beyond the Muslim community. An exile group affiliated with Ethiopia’s oldest Orthodox Church, which has led similar protests last April against the proposed demolition of a fifth century monastery in Northern Ethiopia, has called for all-Ethiopian solidarity with Muslim protesters. Earlier this month the chairman of the opposition All-Ethiopian Unity Party, Hailu Shawel, backed the protesters, saying their demands are not illegal. At a recent rally held in front of the US State Department, Ethiopian Christians held signs that read, “We support the peaceful struggle of Ethiopian Muslims.”

The leadership vacuum created by Meles’s death may well embolden the movement to speed up calls for greater religious freedom. The national week of mourning, now in effect, also coincides with government’s attempt to push forward with the election of Majlis leaders. The protesters are calling on all Muslims to boycott the election and refuse the ballots being given out at regional administrative centers. It is not clear whether the protesters will call off their weekly demonstration to honor the mourning week this Friday.

The newly minted prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegne, is a relative newcomer to Ethiopia’s political scene and there is widespread talk of a succession struggle behind the scenes and rival factions emerging within the ruling party. In what appears like early signs of power struggle, the government abruptly canceled, with no explanation, plans to swear in Hailemariam in an emergency parliament session called for Aug. 23. How long he lasts in the job may well depend on how the government handles the growing discontent both inside and outside the government in coming weeks.    –Foreign Policy