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 nonviolently 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.