There are many different strands to the protest under way in Yemen, including old and new grievances, and signs that some of them are coming together.
Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh has famously likened governing Yemen to “dancing on the heads of snakes”. Recent protests in Yemen, resignations from his General People’s Congress and parliament and tribal and religious leaders’ rift with the beleaguered President, seems to point to the final act in Saleh’s near-33 year dance.
In addition to rapidly depleting oil reserves and revenues, decreasing farmland and water resources due to Qat plantations, and deep socio-economic challenges, Saleh has by hook or by crook, had to broker and safeguard a shaky yet profitable union with the south, fight six wars in Sa’dah against the Houthis, and face the arguably milder threat posed by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with much assistance from the US and Saudi Arabia.
But, it is the young protestors, emboldened by the recent Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, who seem to pose the largest threat to his regime. Youth, students, political parties, and even tribes and religious leaders such as Abdul-Majeed Al-Zanadani who have once been co-opted by Saleh, have recently broken with him and joined the ranks of the protestors in the “Change square” in Sana’a and other provinces. Women participants in the demonstrations should also be noted.
Despite a violent crackdown on Yemeni protestors in recent weeks claiming the lives of nearly 30, with up to eight more killed last week, and the series of concessions Saleh has announced, the protestors seem set to continue, all the while chanting the same chant; “the people want to overthrow the regime” and intermittently reciting the Tunisian poem, “If the people one day desired life, destiny shall surely respond, night shall come to light, and chains shall be broken”.
In a recent article published in the Pan-Arab left-leaning As-Safir newspaper, Lebanese historian and political scientist Fawwaz Traboulsi recalled Saleh’s advice to other Arab dictators in the 2002 Arab League Summit held in Beirut. “When the razor approaches your necks, you had better take it and shave it yourself”, he said. Indeed the series of concessions Saleh has recently promised are his frantic and belated attempt to do just that.
Last month, Saleh announced that he shall not seek reelection when his seven-year term ends in 2013. He also proclaimed he will not hand power to his son Ahmed Saleh, who currently heads an elite unit of the Yemeni army. Last Thursday, Saleh promised further concessions such as expediting plans to decentralize as well as holding a referendum on a new constitution, which would change Yemen into a parliamentary system. The opposition has immediately rejected Saleh’s belated promises of political reforms, deeming them inadequate.
Saleh has often promised reforms, made cosmetic changes and allowed narrow alleys of freedom but these have proved to be mere lip-service to allay the concerns of international donors and allies. Yemen is described by a recent report issued by the International Partnership for Yemen, a coalition of free expression and human rights organizations, as a “twilight world for press freedom”, where journalists and activists are often imprisoned, intimidated and assaulted. Women journalists and activists have also often been slandered in Yemen’s yellow press, which is reportedly closely linked to the security apparatus.
In addition to calls for political reform, there is a general disgruntlement with the country’s rife corruption and nepotism. Yemen ranks 146 out of 178 in Transparency International’s corruption index and many key governmental and military posts are occupied by family members including Saleh’s sons and brothers. A recent cable released by Wikileaks where Saleh expresses a preference for “infrastructure and equipment over cash” indicates little interest in curtailing this phenomenon. As Political Scientist Fawwaz Gerges once put it, the motto of the Yemeni elite is “grab as much as possible, before the ship capsizes”.
In addition, there are high rates of unemployment and underemployment, and despite a decline in poverty from 1998 according to the World Bank, nearly 35 percent of the population remains below the poverty line. Saleh has failed in building a state in both the Weberian and more lenient sense of the word: in monopolizing violence, enforcing respect for rule of law, and providing basic services to its citizens. The sovereignty of this strategically located country has also been compromised, with Saudi Arabia and the United States interfering in the battles against the Houthis in Sa’dah and AQAP respectively.
A 2009 US cable recently released by Wikileaks speaks of Saleh and Prime Minister Alimi allowing drones to attack AQAP as long a they remain out of sight. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh said, before Alimi spoke of how he “lied” to parliament claiming that Yemeni’s army deployed bombs. AQAP has been linked to a series of foiled attacks on the USA and was accused by the Yemeni government for allegedly attacking a military convoy in Mukallah last week and killing four security personnel.
But disgruntlement with the Saleh regime is not new. Saleh’s near 33-year reign began with the execution of a group of Nasserist youths who attempted to retrieve the position of Ibrahim Al-Hamdi. Unlike Saleh, the highly revered Al-Hamdi, whose name has been chanted in recent protests, had a tangible plan to build a modern state and restrict tribal influence, thereby earning him enemies locally, regionally and internationally. Al-Hamdi, who had good relations with the USSR and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the socialist state in South Yemen, was assassinated in 1977.
Following years of tension between the two Yemens a profitable but uneasy union was forged in 1990. Soon after, the united Yemen faced a series of problem such as the economically devastating return of nearly a million Yemeni workers from Saudi Arabia as punishment for their support of Iraq in the Gulf war. Rigged parliamentary elections in 1993, as well as the assassination of many socialist leaders led to the 1994 “war of seventy days” which saw the triumph of the North over what they called the “apostate and secessionist” South.
Since the 1994 war, Southerners have faced discrimination and job loss. The Southern Movement initially protested on both counts, but as a result of the violent crackdown against these protests in the late 2000s, the movement became radicalised and has recently been calling once more for secession. These calls however seem to have been temporarily suspended, while it is reported that in recent weeks Southerners like their Northern counterparts, have been calling for an end to Saleh’s reign.
Meanwhile in the northern governorate of Sa’dah, Yemen has also faced recurring wars against the Houthis, members of the Zeidi Shi’a sect to which Saleh also belongs. When these came to a close in February 2010, media coverage of the insurrection in the North had been stifled and award-winning journalist Abdul-Kareem Al-Khaiwani, who we visited in jail in Sana’a, had been repeatedly imprisoned before being pardoned for allegedly conspiring with the Houthis. All these factors have turned a once Arabia felix to anything but, fuelling the defiant ongoing protests despite a violent crackdown including the reported use of banned nerve gas against anti-government protestors.
Satirist and singer Fahed Al-Qarni who has been repeatedly charged with insulting the president, likens the Yemeni President to a taxi driver who drives a car owned by the passengers, but who does not share any of the profits, ousts passengers for voicing their views and fixes the rusting vehicle by taking loans. Towards the end of his satire, Al-Qarni asks his fellow passengers to shed their fear and find someone else who can fix the car up and drive it. Coming weeks may see that the search for a new driver is on.