Ethiopia is like a rose - oh, so beautiful, but beware its thorns.

I found that out while accompanying a Healing the Children medical missions team that was there in March, performing pediatric surgeries and other services, mainly at Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa.

Talking to a variety of people, from university students to entrepreneurs to government officials, provided insight beyond the rather ubiquitous tranquillity of the typical Addis Ababa street.

I learned that the Ethiopian government is benevolent and repressive and that we in America should pay more attention to one of the oldest independent countries in the world.

Ethiopia is more than 2,000 years old. It is referenced in the Bible, including an account of what many consider the first Christian baptism of a non-Jew, an Ethiopian eunuch, by St. Philip. Today, 60 percent of Ethiopians are Christian.

But the country's significance to America has more to do with its geography. Its neighbors include Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Yemen - countries that would pop up on any quiz about the cultivation of terrorists.

That Ethiopia is not a member of that club is significant. Ethiopia's government, more quickly than Pakistan's, recognized the potential danger to it from jihadists and has fought to keep them at bay.

That has tightened Ethiopia's bond with the United States, which provides it military aid. But to remain Ethiopia's friend, the United States has tolerated its government's inclination to swat political opposition.

Knowing Ethiopia's modern history may make acceptance of its current repression more palatable. "Less than 20 years ago, Ethiopia was ruled by a brutal communist regime," a senior U.S. Embassy official explained to me.

He was referring to the Derg, a military junta also known as the Red Terror. Think of it as Ethiopia's version of the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot, infamous as lords of Cambodia's "Killing Fields" in the late 1970s.

It was the Derg that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, ending a monarchy that except for a brief Italian occupation from 1936 to '41 had ruled Ethiopia for centuries. Subsequent uprisings, drought, and refugee problems led to a 1991 revolution that toppled the Derg government.

It was replaced by a coalition of rebel groups, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which remains in control today. A constitution was adopted in 1994, and the country's first multiparty elections were held in 1995.

Ten years later, there was a strong political challenge to the EPRDF, with opposition parties greatly increasing their parliamentary representation. But that election ended with violent antigovernment protests, which led to a government crackdown resulting in massive arrests.

There was no violence in 2008's local elections, and none is predicted for parliamentary elections scheduled for May 23. The EPRDF is again expected to win a controlling number of seats, with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi retaining the post he has held since 1995.

Before you start smelling a dictatorship, consider that the Labor Party has led Britain's Parliament almost as long, since 1997, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who succeeded Tony Blair, could eke out another term in elections scheduled for May 6.

But Ethiopia is no England, especially when it comes to protecting civil liberties.

Just weeks ago, Human Rights Watch accused the EPRDF of repression. It said the government closed the leading opposition newspaper in December and in February began jamming broadcasts from Voice of America that the EPRDF said were aimed at destabilizing the country ahead of the forthcoming elections.

"Expressing dissent is very dangerous in Ethiopia," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director for Human Rights Watch. The New York agency has accused the EPRDF of creating a climate of fear through a "coordinated and sustained attack" on political opponents and journalists.

I can attest to the fear. Journalists I spoke to in Addis Ababa told me they had learned to censor themselves in order to continue their work. "There are spies everywhere. There are people who report on other people," one woman said.

University students told me that joining the party in power can be an unstated requisite to college admission. "We are encouraged to speak our minds, but if you do, you may lose your job, or you may not get a salary increase or promotion," a young teacher told me.

I got a different perspective from Addis Ababa University professor Abiyi Ford, whose parents emigrated to Ethiopia from the United States as part of Marcus Garvey's Back to Africa movement. Ford was born in Addis Ababa in 1935, but he has lived in both countries.

He contends that there is freedom of speech in Ethiopia, but it has limits analogous to America's free-speech boundary that would prohibit yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there was no fire.

"It depends on how and what you are saying in criticizing the government," Ford said. "The topography of Ethiopia's history is full of land mines, any one of which could go 'boom!' triggered by one or two words."

Ford gives the current government credit for being flexible, for encouraging entrepreneurship in a system where there is no private ownership of land, and for vastly improving educational opportunities.

Ethiopia's democracy is less than 20 years old; perhaps it will become more tolerant of dissent with age. Some of its pressures now are related to a federal system in which the country is politically subdivided into states according to its 80 ethnic groups.

People hold more allegiance to their ethnic group than to Ethiopia as a nation. It is a reminder of a time in America when people considered themselves Virginians or Pennsylvanians first. In fact, state vs. federal rights remains a divisive issue in this country.

Ethiopians are trying to figure out how to preserve the distinct culture and language of their particular ethnic groups while remaining loyal to a federal government that is dominated by a different ethnic group. Some believe that is impossible and are talking about secession, which their federal constitution actually allows.

Constitution or not, it's hard to believe the Zenawi government would permit any state to secede. It may crack down on dissent even more as the election nears. Meanwhile, Americans must hope this fledgling democracy surrounded by terrorist-infested threats will grow stronger and freer.

E-mail editorial page editor Harold Jackson at hjackson@phillynews.com.