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MohamedBrhan Hassen (1934-2022) An Eritrean Nationalist, Organizer, Freedom Fighter and Memorialist

The late 1950s and early 1960s was a momentous period in modern Eritrean History. It was defined by the aggressive final moves of the Ethiopian Imperial government to dismantle what was left of the federal arrangement between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It was also a period when the Eritrean nationalist movement gathered pace and charted new paths of resistance. In the span of three years, from 1958 to 1961, the political scene of Eritrea witnessed the emergence of two nationalist organizations – Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) and Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF)– as well as the launch of an armed struggle for independence. 

The founding of the Eritrean Liberation Movement in 1958 was a particularly trailblazing moment. The founders of the Movement were young Eritrean exiles in Port Sudan who were deeply influenced by the budding nationalist and leftist movements in the Sudan of the 1950s.  In their manifesto they declared that the objectives of ELM were to achieve national independence, augment national unity and establish a democratic state. The Movement’s vision must have resonated with the spirit of the times; despite its establishment outside the country and notwithstanding its decidedly secretive nature, ELM’s membership and, much more potently, its myth grew quickly inside Eritrea. Within a couple of years, several ELM cells were formed in many parts of the country. This success didn’t come easy for the Movement; it took the ingenuity and dedication of many activists and organizers inside the country of whom MohammedBrhan Hassen was a leading figure.   

MohammedBrhan was born in November of 1934 in Kudo-Felasi, a village 4 kms away from the town of Mendefera. He grew up first with his mother in Kudo-Felasi, then with his father’s family in a nearby paternal village. At the tender age of eleven, he moved to Asmara to live with his father’s relatives. In Asmara, MohammedBrhan completed his traditional Quranic schooling and tried his hand in his cousin’s family business. However, he quickly realized he was more interested in pursuing his education than working as a shopkeeper. His resolve was so firm that he immediately set out for a trip to Egypt and reached Cairo by the end of 1951. There he enrolled in Islamic courses at Al-Azhar, while attending secular school education part time. After two years of study, he managed to pass an Egyptian general examination that qualified him to get admitted to secondary education. 

Outside formal schooling, Cairo’s experience was formative in so many other ways. MohammedBrhan’s arrival in Cairo coincided with the dramatic social and political developments before and following the Egyptian revolution of 1952. He attended the then popular public lectures of Islamic groupings such as Muslim Brotherhood and read various publications of diverse ideological persuasions. Through these lectures and readings, he was introduced to different schools of Islamic theology and to major trends in modern Islamic thought. He later reflected on this experience and noted that reading the ideological, historical and social dimensions of Islamic thought taught him to read religious texts of any religion as sites of human knowledge where humanity strives to answer its own questions.  

Beyond religion, MohammedBrhan used his time in Egypt to read wide-ranging books including modern political texts on liberalism and historical materialism, contemporary Arabic literature and Russian classics. In his memoir, he wrote “The Nature of Despotism by Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi; Les Misérables by Victor Hugo; The Sufferers by Taha Hussien; Poor Folk by Dostoyevsky and Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru are some of the books that influenced my thinking on human condition, freedom and social Justice…. In addition, I read diaries of Vietnamese freedom fighters and novels of Maxim Gorky….” 

In the 1950s, Egypt was already a popular destination for Eritrean students who were flocking there attracted by the country’s open admission policy as well as its Arabic medium of instruction. In late 1952, they formed an Eritrean Student Club and MohammedBrahn was among the inaugural members. Many of these students had been enthused by the revolutionary fervent of Nasser’s Egypt and were increasingly resentful of Ethiopian domination back home. The association would later play a critical role in the founding of the Eritrean Liberation Front.

In 1955-56, MohammedBrhan had to suspend his studies due to ill health and went back to Asmara where he took a job as a clerk with a commercial firm. In Eritrea, the second half of the 1950s was a period of disenchantment in many respects. The economy was in bad shape and the Ethiopian government was brazenly working to undermine Eritrea’s autonomy. People, especially the young, were in a state of frustration. For MohammedBrahan and few of his likes this state of affairs was responsible for what they perceived as cultural degeneration among the youth. To remedy the problem, they formed a self-help welfare association named Native Youth Association without Ethnic or Religious Distinction. In addition to enforcing certain moral codes among its members, the Association was aimed at investing in commercial ventures for their benefit. As Indian thinker Partha Chatterjee reminds us, socio-cultural spaces are the first domain where anti-colonial nationalists declare their sovereignty in order to claim the moral soul of their nation. This often occurred long before they challenge the colonial domination of the state. Similar nationalist instinct drove MohammedBrhan and his associates into action. It therefore came as no surprise that the association and its members joined the ELM not long after the Movement reached Asmara.

MohammedBrhan was recruited to the ELM by Yasin Aqada, a co-founder of the Movement, in 1960. Both, together with four other recruits, formed the first secret cell in Asmara. Members of the cell took it upon themselves to expand the membership body inside the country and they succeeded in forming several cells within a period of one year. In late 1961, they formalized their role as leaders of the Movement inside the country and formed an expanded leadership body. The body included prominent activists such as Mahmud Ismael, Kahsay Bahlbi, Tku’e Yehdego among others and MohammedBrhan had served as its secretary. He actively participated in recruiting new members as well as in translating and distributing texts sent from the leadership in Port Sudan. He was also involved in facilitating two unsuccessful attempts to launch an armed struggle by members of ELM in the police force. 

MohammedBrhan was arrested twice due to his association with the Movement. The first came in 1962 and lasted for few months; he was again arrested in late 1963 and remained so for more than a year including in the notorious Alem Bekagn prison in Addis Ababa. During the period, particularly in late 1962 and early 1963, several leaders and rank-and-file members of the Movement were detained in a series of arrest campaigns throughout the country. The latter exposed several cells and effectively stalled the activities of the movement inside Eritrea. 

In a short memoir titled Eritrean Liberation Movement: A Chapter from Chapters of Our National Struggle, MohammedBrhan documented the history of ELM during its active years inside Eritrea. The memoir is also a rejoinder to a book written by Mohammed Seid Nawd, the leader and founder of ELM, under the title Eritrean Liberation Movement: Facts and History. The two books together with another noteworthy publication by Tahir Ibrahim Fedab, member of the ELM leadership, are the only published first-hand accounts of the short-lived Movement that has since become part of popular historical consciousness in Eritrea. 

MohammedBrhan’s involvement in national politics didn’t end with ELM. Freed from prison in January 1965, he headed to exile in Egypt and Iraq where he continued his education. In 1972, he eventually earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Baghdad University. While still studying, MohammedBrhan joined the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF); and two years after his graduation he once again went back to Eritrea as a freedom fighter and served in different capacities within ELF. In late 1980s he became an active member of EPLF’s mass organizations. 

I first and last met MohammedBrhan in November 2018 in his Asmara residence at north-western foot of Gezabanda Tlyan. Together with a senior colleague we went to conduct an interview with him. There I met a graceful and elegant man in his eighties. For almost two hours, we had a relaxed and unpretentious conversation. The soft-spoken old man had a powerful memory! He also impressed me with his to-the-point, well balanced description of his role and experience in ELM – no hypes, no exaggerations. Over lunch, we chatted about his family, children and life in Sweden – a country where he spent the later part of his life. That too was full of wisdom!

MohammedBrhan Hassen Passed away on 11th of December 2022 at the age of 88 and his funeral was held the same day in Asmara. He Survived by his wife and four children. 

“If one asks me about my belief in life” wrote MohammedBrhan “I would say it is a belief in progress and advancement that ensures human dignity as well as working and striving towards that goal.” By spending much of his productive years fighting for a cause he held dear, he clearly lived up to this ideal. A life well lived indeed!





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