February 11


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).

YPP urges US Gov statement on violence in Yemen

We have send a letter to the US Department of State asking that the United States condemn the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations in Yemen. The text of the letter is below. You can help us by pasting this text, along with your signature, into the State Department's online contact form, at http://contact-us.state.gov/cgi-bin/state.cfg/php/enduser/ask.php?p_sid=1Fm9ysmk&p_accessibility=0&p_redirect=&p_srch=0

On the night of Friday February 11 a peaceful gathering of demonstrators in Yemen’s capital, Sanʻa, was attacked by hundreds of armed men apparently supported and organized by uniformed security forces. These attacks were documented by eyewitnesses, including representatives of the international NGO Human Rights Watch (http://bit.ly/i9RW46). While Yemen’s President, ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih, has overseen harsh crackdowns of popular protests in Yemen’s south and far north in recent years, such violence in the country’s capital is nearly unheard of. The right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed by the constitution of the Republic of Yemen, and unlike Egypt or Algeria, Yemen is not currently under any form of emergency law, so these violent actions by the state have absolutely no legal justification.

Last week President Salih offered token concession to Yemen’s main opposition parties in an attempt to preempt planned demonstrations. When demonstrations were subsequently held in Sanʻa, security forces did not interfere. It seemed that the regime was willing to tolerate public protests, given the relatively stable state of affairs in the capital. But yesterday’s events shattered this assumption. In addition to the vicious attack on peaceful demonstrators in the capital, Yemeni security forces are reported to have fired live ammunition at protesters in Aden and other cities in the south of the country, where human rights abuses and extralegal killings of demonstrators have become almost commonplace.

President Barack Obama was quick to praise ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih on his promises of political reforms last week. We ask that the President and the United States Department of State act just as quickly to condemn the Yemeni state’s illegal and violent repression of demonstrations. Given the current climate in the Middle East, it is now more important than ever that the United States make clear its commitment to human rights, democracy, and the right of popular protest. These principles must form the basis of America’s relationship with other nations, particularly Yemen, where popular grievances against Salih’s government contribute to the growth of al-Qaʻidah and other anti-state actors.

We hope to see a statement of condemnation from the Department of State as soon as possible. Thank you for your time and your attention to this matter.


Pro-government thugs in San'a

Scattered reports throughout the day on Friday mentioned Yemeni security forces using live ammunition on protesters in 'Aden. Worse news has now emerged from San‘a: According to a Human Rights Watch report, a gathering of about a thousand peaceful demonstrators in San‘a's Tahrir Square was attacked by "hundreds of men armed with knives, sticks, and assault rifles" as they chanted slogans in celebration of the Egyptian revolution and against the Saleh regime.

Human Rights Watch witnessed at least 10 army trucks carrying men in civilian clothing to Sanaa's Tahrir Square, where a crowd of around 1,000 Yemenis had been demonstrating in support of the historic changes in Egypt and against the Yemeni government. Hundreds of men, their arrival coordinated by uniformed security agents, attacked the anti-government protesters with knives and sticks, prompting the majority to flee.

The full report is here. I should note that while HRW calls the demonstrators "anti-government protesters," I really have no idea just what these people were demonstrating for. The point is, Saleh's forces have used excessive violence against civilians in the capital. I was confident, a week ago, that something like this was possible, but given everything that's happened since then, I really thought Saleh had chosen another path. This was not only brutal and appalling, but politically stupid.

The JMP, which was likely not behind this particular gathering, will have no choice but to respond to this, in their own self-serving way, while non-mainstream protest groups will probably react as well. As always, we hope that their reactions are peaceful, but I'm not going to pull an Obama and ask the kid throwing a rock at a tank to "show restraint." Twenty-four hours ago I was feeling very critical of those tweeters who rushed to say that Yemen is next in line for revolution. But honestly, if Saleh doesn't know better than to pull crap like this, there is no telling what could happen in the next week or month.

سقط النظام

The adjective most heard this hour on Al Jazeera has been "indescribable." Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has resigned and turned the country over to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, after an eighteen-day popular—and mostly peaceful—revolution. All of us at the Yemen Peace Project are overjoyed at this development, though I for one am also apprehensive. Military governments have a spotty track record, and have been known to hold onto power beyond their original mandate. The future of Egypt is still in question. Yemen today has also seen another round of popular protests, especially in the south, where February 11 was a day of mass demonstrations for independence. It's not clear to me to what extent the pro-secession movement has merged with other popular demonstrations against the regime. It does seem, from preliminary reports, that today's protests were handled peacefully by the Yemeni security forces, which is a change, and may be a result of the increased scrutiny that Arab regimes now face in these situations.

Hopefully we'll have more news about today's demos later on. For now, Jane Novak has posted some videos from 'Aden and Zinjibar (despite Jane's insistence, Zanzibar is still in Tanzania, not Yemen).


Alaa Isam, an activist and blogger from 'Aden, has new videos from today's protests in the south: http://opinions-alaaisam.blogspot.com/

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.