February 10

Youth in the streets and YPP on the radio

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.

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…