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YEMEN: Protest Goes Out With the Candles

Yazeed Kamaldien

SANAA, Feb 15 2011 (IPS) - Many are baffled that Yemen’s anti-government protests have so far failed to deliver revolutionary regime change. But a complex context here demands a different kind of political dialogue with power.

Yemeni protesters in Sanaa carrying pictures of arrested men. Credit: Yazeed Kamaldien

Yemeni protesters in Sanaa carrying pictures of arrested men. Credit: Yazeed Kamaldien

Yemenis were inspired to take to the streets after the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia ousted that country’s two-decade long President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14. Two days later students at Sanaa University called for their country’s three-decade long President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign.

An Arab revolt was gaining momentum outside. By Jan. 25, Egyptians flooded major cities across their country in a civil society movement that pushed Hosni Mubarak out of office.

On Feb. 11 – the night of Mubarak’s fall – at least 2,000 anti-government protesters rejoiced in the capital. But their seemingly postponed revolution has been like the candles the protesters carried that evening. It brought a little light but never took on the lightning bolt seen in Tunisia and Egypt where protesters forced regime change.

One of the first apparent obstacles to political reform is that the citizens and opposition parties are divided. Thousands demand regime change but there is little by way of a viable political alternative. In Yemen that seems in the way.

Saleh’s proposed national dialogue between his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and the opposition coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) has not had much success although it is being continued.

The conversation has meanwhile moved to Yemeni streets where thousands of anti-government and pro-Saleh supporters have sloganeered.

People all want food and jobs, but they are divided on the political route to achieving these goals.

There is also growing resentment against the opposition coalition. Anti- government protests were initially ignited by Sanaa University students and encouraged by opposition politicians. The university gates in the capital Sanaa have been a rallying point but since the opposition parties took centre-stage, involvement in the protests has fluctuated.

Students want to separate the general struggle from the opposition. The Revolution of Independent Youths says they “equally accuse GPC and JMP of corruption.” The youth group wants anti-government protests to remain a “march of the people without leaders and middle-persons from the ruling and opposition groups.”

Rana J, a young Yemeni woman who did not want her last name published, was among the crowd that celebrated Egypt’s “sacrifice for a beautiful thing” on Feb. 11 in Sanaa.

“I was a big supporter of the opposition until I went to their protests. They have failed to connect with the street. They asked people to gather and then they shout through a microphone whatever they want to say. Then they ask everyone to leave.

“They’re failing to connect with the grassroots. Political parties in Yemen are playing a game. They’re manipulating the illiterate masses. It’s always been top-down for political parties and elites. It’s just using citizens for political gain.”

Abdulaziz Al-Sakkaf, a student and youth activist who also joined the march to the Egyptian embassy, says the opposition parties “are as incompetent as the ruling party.”

“People get excited about the protests but when they find that the opposition parties are involved, they lose motivation. We don’t believe in the opposition parties. If the opposition parties could have done something good they would have done it already.”

A security crackdown has made protest difficult. Anti-government protesters have been rounded up and arrested since the start of their public dissent in mid-January.

From a peak of about 20,000 who gathered for Yemen’s ‘Day of Rage’ Feb. 3, fewer than 100 persons gathered at Sanaa University the following day. Four student protesters were arrested at this gathering and this prompted a second protest at the police station where they were held.

Khaled Al-Anesi, lawyer and human rights activist in Sanaa, said that the police wanted to use fear to halt anti-government protests, but they were also afraid that this could incite further gatherings.

A young Yemeni woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said Yemenis are still getting used to rebelling.

“We don’t really know what it’s like to say no to the government. Egypt especially has had a positive effect in encouraging people to take to the streets and voice what they feel. But we are used to people telling us what to do from a podium,” she said.

“We are happy about what happened in Egypt and hopefully it will happen here. But it’s been tough on students. They don’t have support and there’s been more of a crackdown on them.”

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