In Yemen, Many Protests, One Villain

Jane Novak examines the current state of protests in Yemen and explains why they won’t easily be silenced.

It was only sheer chance or serendipity perhaps that southern Yemen’s “Day of Rage” was scheduled for Friday, earning the #Feb11 hashtag on Twitter. The Southern Uprising Facebook page drew nearly 2,000 members since its founding two weeks ago in a nation with 2 percent Internet penetration. The group’s goal is the liberation of southern Yemen from occupation — by the northern forces of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of southerners have been demonstrating nearly weekly since 2007, but Friday’s appears to be the first organized on Facebook.

However, in the capital Sana’a, it was precisely the victory of the Egyptian people over their dictator that brought Yemenis streaming into their own Tahrir Square in jubilation. And it didn’t take long for chants to change to, “Go, go Ali!” Equally predictable has been the state’s response to both sets of protests.

Human Rights Watch estimates that “hundreds of men armed with knives, sticks and assault rifles attacked anti-government protesters in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, as Yemeni security forces stood by.” The organization witnessed at least ten army trucks carrying men in civilian clothing to Tahrir Square where a crowd of around a thousand Yemenis had been demonstrating.

Around the south, there were mixed results from the state. Demonstrators in Dali’ chanted secessionist slogans and waved the flag of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which merged with the northern Yemeni Arab Republic in 1990. In Abyan protesters wore white shrouds to signify their willingness to die for democracy. The protest was led by former jihaddist and former regime ally, Tariq al Fadhli. Unlike in dozens of prior instances, the security forces did not assault the demonstrators.

The port city of Aden was another story. Days earlier, police used tear gas and live rounds to disburse a protest and wounded four, including one woman. Thursday saw the arrival of military reinforcements. Friday’s protest saw many injuries and arrests and figures remain inexact. One wounded man was seized in hospital by police. At midnight, reports continued that crowds of youths were burning tires and blocking roads, inflamed by the earlier injuries, as police shot live rounds over their head.

Since 2007 when the movement began, absent Western media, police in the southern provinces have used tear gas, batons, water cannons, arbitrary arrests and live fire to put down hundreds of peaceful protests. Well over one hundred citizens were killed, many hundreds injured and thousands arrested including children, journalists and political party leaders. Women, lawyers, professors and former ambassadors “disappeared” and teenage protesters shot dead on the street. A state imposed media blackout means that many outside the affected area have no real sense of the scale of the atrocities. When calls for equal rights were met by bullets and tanks, positions hardened and now nearly 70 percent of southerners support dissolving 1990’s unity agreement with northern Yemen.

The southern movement’s leaders uniformly advocate an internationally supervised referendum on secession as recently occurred in the Sudan. But that’s about all they agree on. As in the north, the southern movement’s political leadership is fragmented, jealous, aged and not computer literate. Historical figures dominate the political landscape along with tribal leaders whose revered status is based on lineage not accomplishment. Activists, journalists and bloggers in both the north and south carry the weight of a scattered, youthful and largely illiterate and poverty stricken populace But if anyone can find a common ground among disparate demands on the state, it would be the younger generation.

The Pink Protest in Sana’a

The unprecedented abdication of Tunisian President Ben Ali in January sent a shockwave across the Middle East. Masses in Egypt took to the street challenging the legitimacy of one of the Unites States’ most trusted allies, and one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

For a day, attention focused on Yemen and its “Day of Rage,” which was tagged #Feb3 on Twitter. When the protest and counter protests in the capital Sana’a passed without violence, Western attention shifted back to Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Even Yemenis were slightly bored. Pre-protest maneuvers by both the opposition parties and President Saleh unfolded like a chess game, neutralizing the impact of the day. Online activists and youth groups accused Yemen’s political opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) of hijacking their movement.[ii]

The opposition parties include the Yemeni Socialist Party, which formerly ruled south Yemen, as well as the Islah party, an Islamist reform platform that ranges from hardline Islamists to hardliner democrats and a strong tribal wing. Others in the grouping include a small Zaidi (Shiite) party, Ba’athists and a Nasserite party, explaining the otherwise bewildering small protest where marchers held pictures of Gamal Nasser aloft. Individually their ideologies are stale but the JMP’s unified platform since its inception in 2002 calls for social reform, corruption controls and the establishment of a proportional voting as well as a parliamentary system.

With momentum building and scenes of state violence in Egypt broadcast to the world, the Yemeni opposition announced that the purpose of the planned February 3 rally was not to demand the ouster of long ruling President Saleh. Instead they demanded electoral reforms which were agreed to in 2006. Another demand was the withdrawal of constitutional amendments unilaterally advanced by the ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), that revoked term limits on the presidency. As Faisel bin Shamlan the JMP’s candidate for president in 2006 had said after the election, “The Mountain was in labor and brought forth a mouse.”

It’s not just the United States and Western nations that choose stability over progress and stagnation over reform — even in the face of deplorable governance and widespread public discontent. In Yemen, many are fearful of change including the Joint Meeting Parties who have a vested stake in the continuation of the status quo. The JMP’s failure to reach out to disenfranchised southerners and their willingness to engage the regime before the people was considered a sellout and defined the grouping as not fully within the opposition. With the high incidence of arms in Yemen, and the Saleh’s regimes history of brutal violence against it citizen, the JMP chose pink as the protest’s color to signify their nonviolence intent.

Yemen’s opposition parties failed to capitalize on political opportunities before. The 2005 fuel riots began as spontaneous public protests at a hike in fuel costs and, leaderless, spiraled out of control. The JMP condemned the protesters and wholly failed to address the underlying national issues of corruption, poverty and mismanagement. Following the 2006 election, opposition voters were poised to take to the streets to protest fraudulent votes counts, but the JMP accepted the vote totals in exchange for the electoral reforms they were promised again last week. The 2009 parliamentary elections were postponed to 2011, not only because the state reneged on the reform agreement, but also because of the laziness of the JMP to put in the required work.

Promises, promises

The every wily President Saleh preempted the momentum of the #Feb3 protest by agreeing to all the JMP’s demands, leaving them little to chant about. And he went further and pledged a raise in military salaries of around $30 a month. There are an approximate 600,000 on the military payroll, and an average of ten dependents each, meaning about a quarter of Yemenis will directly or indirectly benefit from the raise, if it is in fact implemented. Other civil servants were granted raises as well. And promising pay raises is a tactic that has worked before in Yemen to defuse social tension.

In response to the 2005 fuel riots, President Saleh enacted the revised Wages Strategy which purported to offset higher fuel costs with salary increases for civil servants. Designed with a multistaged rollout, the failure to fully implement the second phase of the strategy later triggered strikes, notably by the teachers union. In negotiations, the union demanded the salary increases should be retroactive to the date they became law.

Saleh’s current promise to increase wages is being framed by the regime, correctly, as implementation of the third phase of the 2005 Wages Strategy. In the weeks prior to the 2006 presidential election, Saleh promised a bonus to civil servants, payable after the election. However, here in 2011, Yemen is teetering on bankruptcy and there is little to no cash in the state’s coffers.

Another regular tactic in response to anti-government protests is the counter pro-regime protest, and like clockwork, Saleh bussed in loyalist tribesmen to camp out in Yemen’s Tahrir Square, forcing the JMP to move the February 3 rally to the campus of Sana’a University.

Arrests, arbitrary violence and suppression of the media are other characteristic tactics of the regime, deployed against southern protesters and civilians in areas of the northern Houthi rebellion. These tactics invariably swelled the ranks of the southern and Houthi opposition movements, and if implemented again in Sana’a, they will have the same effect on the newborn northern protest movement.

To run or not to run

In advance of the #Feb3 rally, Saleh made what for Westerners was a grand concession. Saleh announced he would not run for reelection in 2013. It was promise he has made before. “The door of candidacy is open not for Ali Abdullah Saleh but for everyone who likes to run for president’s position,” Saleh said on July 5, 1999. “I’m not a candidate, and I don’t accept candidacy because I know what the power is,” he added. Four days later, the ruling party announced Saleh as its candidate. The opposition Islah party also nominated Saleh and he won handily in September’s election. Yemenis say he made the same announcement, only to renege, several times since 1985.

On July 17, 2005, Saleh announced that he wouldn’t run in the 2006 election, saying, “We want to establish a model for peaceful handover of power.” Saleh urged political parties to, “nominate for this post young leaders capable of bearing responsibility based on clear programs to manage the country.” However, as the fuel riots were raging against the regime, on July 21st adoring GPC crowds had convinced him to change his mind and the formal announcement came in November at the party conference.

Despite a history of broken promises, Saleh’s announcement in February 2011 was hailed by authorities in the Unites States and the United Kingdom and others around the world. Few can imagine he’ll stay. Yemenis can’t imagine he’ll go.