Monday marked the YPP's first foray into public broadcasting. Two of our co-directors, Dana Moss and myself, were featured in an hour-long interview on a local university radio station. An hour on the radio is more than most talking heads get at a single time, but it goes fast. If we'd had two hours it still wouldn't have been enough time to cover everything, and I'm sure some who listen to the interview will fault us for leaving something out, or for getting something wrong. But that's how it goes. I think Dana and I did a pretty good job of covering the basics; ironically we didn't manage to talk very much about the recent and ongoing demonstrations, which were ostensibly the subject of the show. Listening back to the interview, though, I don't think that was a mistake. A number of sources have minimized (you could also say ridiculed) Yemen's February 3 demonstrations. These sources seem to be working on the assumption that every popular protest in the Middle East must have the same goals and follow the same pattern. This idea ignores the obvious fact that Yemeni politics are quite different from Egyptian, Tunisian, or Algerian politics, and that no two countries have exactly the same constellation of circumstances. The fact is that Yemen's various opposition movements, whether within the political mainstream or on the fringes of society, have different goals from each other, not to mention from their counterparts in other countries; and the regime of 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih is itself very different from the Mubarak and Bin 'Ali regimes. So if the actions of last Thursday (some participants won't even refer to them as protests, though I would disagree) did not result in an immediate challenge to President Salih's political or physical survival, or in the sustained occupation of public spaces, that does not mean that they failed.
I'll save my elaboration on the many strands of opposition for another post. I'm also not going to get into all of the ways in which Yemen differs from the other Arab states currently facing protests. For now I just want to argue the point that the February 3 demonstrations were far more important than many commentators (and participants) have made them out to be. Here's why:
- They forced President Salih to realize that he is not immune from popular discontent. This may seem like a silly thing for a politician to have to realize, but he and his fellow despots are a special breed, adept at delusion. He is also incredibly talented at dodging disapproval, or redirecting it by force.
- They forced the Yemeni people—including the leaderships of the GPC and JMP—to realize that their president is not immune from popular discontent. Again, this should be self-evident, but it's not. Even in "truly" democratic countries, people routinely forget that they wield political power. While I doubt that anyone in Yemen is under the illusion that a few protests will solve their country's deep-seated political problems, they have now seen their president raise his head at their raised voices, and that simple fact means that the relationship between ruler and ruled has changed.
- They demonstrated popular ties between Yemen and the wider Arab world. President Salih has long been bolstered by support from Saudi Arabia and other friendly (you could also say opportunistic, manipulative, exploitative...) states; now his citizens have shown that they too have connections abroad, that they can learn from and participate in regional and global developments.
- They engaged a significant number of young people. Yemen is mostly made up of young people these days, but in recent years Yemen's protest culture has not been a youth culture. Protest has been something that secessionists, Islamists, insurgents, veterans, and journalists engage in, not something for students or the non-radical youth at large. The February 3 protests and subsequent actions have appealed—and will continue to appeal—to young people who have not previously identified with any marginalized or activist group.
The points listed above all seem to favor of the opposition(s). But there is one big point in the regime's favor: the events of February 3 were completely mis-covered and misunderstood by the international media. Nearly every article in the press focused on the demonstrations in San‘a. If another city was mentioned, it was only briefly and only because some editors seem to insist that a story about Yemen include a bit of violence. But the coverage ignored the major differences between protests in different cities. For instance, San‘a's demos included very few women, while much larger demos in Ta‘iz hosted thousands of women. San‘a's protests were calm, and dispersed in time for lunch, while those in some cities lasted all day and were met with violence from the police and military. But so long as the press stays in San‘a, and San‘a stays calm, the regime retains a free hand to deal with unrest elsewhere with more force.
The list above is not exhaustive, and some people will surely argue with one or all of these points. But I think the importance of these protests will become increasingly visible in the coming weeks and months. I doubt we'll see a revolution in Yemen, and I think that's fine. Revolutions are painful things, and they're not necessary if substantive change can be achieved some other way. I think the people have found their voices, and I'm excited to see where this leads.
The JMP and other, non-mainstream groups have more demonstrations planned for February 10 and 11. The army is apparently pouring into Aden, and opposition/Southern Movement demos there will probably be met with force. We'll have to wait to see how protesters in the rest of the country will respond.