From San‘a: Developing the Grassroots Movement

Through a mutual friend, I recently got into contact with someone who is in Yemen right now and who has spoken with an off-shoot student activist group of the pro-democracy movement in San‘a. For obvious reasons, all involved want to remain anonymous, but this person kindly wrote up his/her reflections for us. The recollections below cannot be verified, as journalists say, but this person has provided a fascinating account of how young people are working to organize themselves. I thank the contributor for taking the time to share this on our blog. Another day of protests are planned for tomorrow, Feb. 10th. We will be sure to update you on what we find out. Very interesting -- check it out! Yemeni Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Mujawar and Foreign Minister Dr Abu Bakr al-Qirbi are correct, Yemen is neither Tunisia nor Egypt.  By this we mean its social composition and structures, although everyone will agree the 20-year old Republic of Yemen has been part and parcel of the 60-year old Arab nationalist project.  Yet what we saw in Tunisia and now witness first hand day by day throughout Egypt would be difficult to replicate in Yemen.  A number of socio-political obstacles stand in the way of similar popular uprisings, although economic conditions throughout the Republic are indeed much dismal than drivers behind the Jasmine Revolution and now al-Thawra as-Shab.

Activism of the type we’ve witnessed since 14 January remains problematic here due to institutional monopolies on mobilization and tribal resources at government’s disposal which act as deterrents, as we witnessed on 3 February.  Such are the challenges new youth activists face in organizing a truly non-institution based grassroots movement for tangible change.  Today we begin to learn of a youth movement that began with one young university student, AJ, who--after watching media reports of events in Egypt--took it upon himself to upload images on his Facebook wall and to tag his friends, something he admitted was otherwise never his practice.

We first learned about this new group of 100 Yemenis through asSharah (The Street) newspaper on 5 February, which reported on a group of young Yemenis who ‘spontaneously’ began to clean al-Dayri street following the JMP organized protests of 3 February. AJ filled me in on his first reaction to organize his friends on Wednesday before the "Day of Rage." He promised that Feb. 3rd would become a turbulent event after President Ali Abdullah Saleh warned the population during his address to Parliament the morning of 2 February of potential violence organized by protesters.  AJ mentioned the initial response came from 100 of his Facebook friends, some of whom met later on Wednesday at a local café (about 30 of them) for a preparatory meeting, which was followed the same evening by a meeting at a friend’s house. In this meeting they all agreed to contribute YR200 (less than one US dollar) in order to purchase trash bags and plastic gloves.  Another friend, not on Facebook, offered to print flyers for the group.  This is the account of what may become Yemen’s grassroots movement toward credible change in the months to come.

I asked AJ to describe the ambitions and expectations of this small group of young university students, he began by commenting on the t-shirts worn by the 20 group members who participated in the 3 February protests, the slogan was ‘Peaceful Change’ written under a Yemeni flag.  While the protesters were told to wear Pink during the protests, the Facebook Youth chose white to symbolize their priority, a peaceful expression of their ambitions.  AJ commented on his personal hopes for the group as he perceived the motivation of others in the group.  The priority is to contribute to a new “culture of change”, which they intend to manifest by advancing a civil movement that cares first and foremost about Yemen’s future.  He believes the president’s initiatives were part of a political game, but granted Saleh a great deal of credit for preventing chaos similar to the Tunisian or Egyptian events.  Yet, the initiatives are not enough, and AJ and the ten groups now joining the Facebook Youth look for expanding freedom of speech and progress in democratization of the political process.  Yemeni youth want improved education and health care, as well as a stronger fight against corruption.  His most striking comment came when he mentioned that most important for the movement is a “revolution of mind”, a change in the mentality of people who are blinded by the rhetoric of security over development toward a brighter future for the country. [bolded for emphasis]

AJ believes that change will come, whether at the hands of conservative forces or under the current regime, but may be not within the next six months.  He spoke to me about the limitations for the groups who are mainly found in urban centers.  Also, he spoke of the limited connectivity via social media, which only a very small percentage of young Yemenis engage with on a daily basis.  Technology is one instrument of many to utilize in order to reach a wider sector of Yemeni society, said AJ. In the coming months it will become vital for group members to reach beyond their local environment, but this may still depend on traditional methods that involve more personal contact than technology’s global reach.  Another major obstacle remains the uncertainty of people’s participation. He indicated many youth are still hesitant to take part in any activities due to fear of reaction by the government and the opposition, who may fear an end to their monopoly, or even portions of the population who do not understand their activities. AJ hopes that Thursday’s (10 Feb.) peaceful demonstrations will not only bring the movement to the surface but also allow the youth to network in order to expand awareness.

More to come after what appears to be a successful and peaceful demonstration Thursday.

From Sana’a…