As the last utterances of Friday prayers faded from the loudspeakers of the Al-Anawar Mosque, more than a thousand Muslim men and women rose to their feet and marched through the Mercato open market in the Ethiopian capital.
“Let our voices be heard,” shouted the protesters, as they waved yellow flags fashioned out of bits of paper and plastic, “Free our leaders… There can be no election with threats.”
This Sunday, Muslim community will vote for leadership of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council but the protesters are threatening to boycott it as they fear it will be skewed by the government to install a set of pliable leaders; an allegation denied by the Ethiopian government.
Muslims account for 34 per cent of the population, according to a 2007 census. The predominantly Orthodox Christian country has allied itself closely with the United States and has twice sent troops to battle the Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliated insurgent group in Somalia.
“The government views us with suspicion,” said a Muslim activist seeking anonymity, “but we do not support the extremists like al-Qaeda, we are protesting for our rights.”
Friday’s protests occurred in the backdrop of increasing unrest among Muslims who feel that the constitutionally secular Federal Government is interfering in matters of prayers and religion and is promoting a particular sufi sect of Islam, known as Al Ahbash, whose tenets include strictures that the Muslim community refrain from the sphere of politics.
The conflict reached a head this summer when the police entered the Awoliya Mosque in Addis Ababa and arrested several people including those spearheading the protests. At the time, police officers said those leading the protests were religious extremists. In court, the prosecution has accused those arrested of links with international extremist groups.
“The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council is trying forcefully to impose a sect called Al Ahbash,” said a young Muslim activist who has attended many of the protests, “The aim of this is said to be to control extremism but the reality is to weaken Islam in Ethiopia both economically and socially.”
The protesters on Friday also alleged that the government was forcing people to vote on Sunday to lend legitimacy to the election. “The city administration is telling people they will be kicked out of government housing if they don’t vote,” a protester said.
The government has categorically denied these charges. “This is a strictly religious affair. Under our Constitution, the government is prohibited from entering religious affairs,” said Shimelis Kemal, State Minister for Communication Affairs, describing allegations regarding Al Ahbash as “wide propaganda.”
“A handful of people belonging to extremist Islamist groups tried to instigate people after the completion of Friday prayers,” said Mr. Shimelis, adding that the majority of the Muslim population “didn’t heed the calls by these extremist groups,” and that people had voted in large numbers last week to select office bearers for the Sunday elections.