Yesterday was the fourth straight day of public protests against the regime of President Saleh, and the fourth straight day of state violence against protesters and journalists. There is no reason to think today will be any better. While I still pledge to refrain from making predictions about where all of this will lead, I think it's time to lay out a few possibilities, and challenge some of the assumptions that have dominated the story thus far. This post will be a bit scattered; hopefully our readers will find it useful none the less. First, a note on numbers: Al Jazeera reported that protests in San‘a on February 14 drew 3,000 or more people. No other source that I saw had a number this high, but that doesn't mean it was wrong. As has been the case throughout recent weeks, numbers in the city of Ta‘iz—south of San‘a in what is historically known as "Lower Yemen" (not to be confused with South Yemen)—were much higher. Still, these numbers are far too low to achieve the kind of critical mass needed for a real revolution. The students, activists, journalists, and lawyers who protested yesterday will have to draw far more support from other areas of society before they can challenge the state.
It's well worth focusing on one point in the above paragraph: Ta‘iz seems to be, at least in terms of popular support, the real center of this new movement for change. This is not surprising when considered in historical context. Ta‘iz has always been the intellectual center of Yemen (especially in the minds of Ta‘izis), and the heart of nearly every progressive or revolutionary movement in modern history. During the twin revolutions of the 1960s, when the South threw off the yoke of British imperialism and northern republicans overthrew a monarchy, Ta‘iz was a base for both movements and the conduit of fighters who flowed from one war to the other. In fact I would argue that if President Saleh were serious about Yemeni unity, he would move the capital to Ta‘iz, but that's a topic for another post.
Getting back to the topic at hand, I suppose the first possibility is that these protests fail to gain enough support to withstand government repression, and they fizzle out after a few weeks. Even with greater numbers, success is not assured. Iran's Green Summer of 2009 captured the world's attention, but failed to topple or reform that regime. Of course, yesterday the Green movement proved it could still mobilize huge numbers. And we should remember that before the Yemeni revolution of 1962, there were the failed coups of 1948 and 1955, each of which contributed to the growth of the revolutionary underground.
Brian O'Neill and Greg Johnsen have already noted that elements of the JMP opposition bloc seem to be hitching their carts to the popular movement as it grows. This phenomenon could make a real difference in the weeks to come as well.
Finally, I want to address what the Western media and the Obama administration see as the worst-case scenario. In the case of Egypt, fear mongers in the media focused on the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood could gain control of a post-Mubarak state. In Yemen's case the leading theory is that if Saleh falls, chaos will ensue, and AQAP (al-Qa‘idah in the Arabian Peninsula) will profit from the void, if not fill it. I would point out two things to proponents of this theory: first, the revolutionary civil war of the 1960s was really a hundred little wars fought over a hundred societal fault lines. The forces that pulled the country back together afterward (admittedly an unfinished process) were not necessarily present at the outset. Second, if we look at Egypt today we can clearly see that a new force has come into being as a result of this popular revolution. "People power" is not just a cliche. It's possible that the triumphant Egyptians will now surrender to their military, but it's also possible that new forms of popular governance—formal or informal people's committees and the like—will emerge. If a significant portion of the Yemeni people can unite for change, there's really no telling what could happen next.
As I finish this post I can see from the tweets that today shaping up to be as violent, if not more so, than yesterday. We pray that Yemen's protesters stay strong, and maintain their belief in peaceful demonstration, and that the regime will somehow reverse its strategy again and pull its thugs off the streets (not likely).