In the four-plus years since May 2005, the government in Addis has remained in firm control. The opposition is fragmented, demoralized, and hemmed in by new regulations that interfere with their preparations for the 2010 elections. Journalists,  also arrested in 2005, carefully censor themselves. The wild cards in Iran turned out to be the internet, particularly Twitter and YouTube.  Neither existed in Ethiopia in 2005, although texting did exist and was shut down.  Addis Ababa is watching Teheran very carefully.  The government has already been coached by China in blocking unwanted websites.

These similarities shouldn’t mislead: Ethiopia and Iran are quite different.  The Islamic Republic would have carried on with little more than embarrassment even if its favored candidate had lost last week.  A more moderate Republic might have emerged, but the nuclear program and a bent for foreign meddling wouldn’t have changed.

In Ethiopia, power has always been personal, not institutional.  Officials look over their shoulders and know the limits of their authority.  The ‘big man’ is above the law, though he also has to watch his back.  Had the opposition won, leadership would have gone to a fragile, inexperienced coalition that lacked a clear structure and policy consensus. How would such a coalition have coped with 80 million Ethiopians struggling with so many simultaneous crises, from HIV/AIDS to severe food shortages, from an armed standoff with Eritrea to the Islamists in Somalia, and more?

The Meles government has too easily evaded the criticism it deserves for its failings in human rights, corruption and ethnic bias, but it hasn’t gotten enough credit for managing a difficult economy with more competence than any previous regime, even if that comparison is an easy one to make.

The real issue — the tragedy, really — is that both the government and the opposition threw away a rare chance in 2005 to use the most successful election in Ethiopia’s history to make a decisive break with the past.  Genuine power sharing, even with the upper hand remaining with the Meles regime but with the opposition holding enough seats to demand debate and compromise, could have transformed the political landscape.  Sadly, both sides succumbed to the usual lust for absolute power.  Ethiopia lost the chance to demonstrate genuine democratic practices, however uncomfortable for all sides, to a newly politicized population.  Still to be learned are the art of parliamentary compromise, the difference between cafe rhetoric and actual governance, and most important of all, how to live with, and become, a loyal opposition.

The parallels between Ethiopia and Iran can be overstated, but they are not insignificant if you believe as I do that surface changes often mask deep and enduring habits.

Both countries only recently dismantled ancient empires. Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974. The Shah fell in 1979. Each has a dominant religion — Orthodox Christianity and Islam — but both have a history of relative tolerance toward other faiths.  Each considers itself uniquely distinct from its neighbors.  Both claim ultimate submission to the rule of law — the Koran or a written constitution — but in both it is still understood that the rule of the powerful usually trumps the rule of law.

Iran, a petro-state, is far wealthier and more modern than Ethiopia.  Twitter and YouTube will not play a decisive role in Ethiopia’s 2010 election, not only because the government will undoubtedly suspend them as it did texting in 2005.  A much broader public is already politically engaged in Iran, though the experience in 2005 politicized many Ethiopians, particularly the youth and the rapidly growing populations in the fast-growing urban areas throughout the country.

A few statistics (US State Dept) are worth noting even though they don’t lead to any obvious conclusions.  Ethiopia has a per capita GDP of $800. Iran’s is over $12,000.  Ethiopia’s literacy rate is barely over 40% (age 15 and above).  Iran’s is around 80%.  Ethiopia has serious ethnic tensions, Iran does not.  Ethiopia is nearly equally split between Christians and Muslims.  Iran has a Muslim majority, mostly Shi’a but with a sizable Sunni minority.

Ethiopia’s 2010 election will get much more attention than the last one. The memory of Iran will still be fresh, and Ethiopia’s government as well as outside observers will soon have its unknown outcome to consider.