Game changer in Yemen as protests swell
In Egypt and Tunisia, the stance of the military was pivotal in the success of popular uprisings; in Yemen, it may be the tribes that are the determining factor.
Anti-government protests across Yemen show no signs of abating. In Taiz, Yemen’s largest governorate, many who arrived last Friday are still in the city center a week later. Their numbers have grown as citizens from outside the city center have joined the sit-in demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. A grenade attack today injured eight.
In Aden, security forces were reported shooting from rooftops. Four protesters were killed by gun fire this week and dozens injured. Demonstrations against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978, were also held in Hodiedah, Hadramout, Dhalie, Abyan, Ibb, al Beidha. Lahj and other governorates. The protests in the capital, Sana’a have gained the most international attention, because thats where the reporters are. In Sanaa, the state deployed deniable proxies, supposed pro-government protesters, to attack democracy activists with clubs and knives.
State violence from Aden to Sanaa increased public frustration and numbers of protesters. International media coverage of the violence has outraged not only the world, but Yemenis themselves. Internet activism hit a new high in Yemen as twitter accounts and facebook groups work to spread the news from governorate to governorate as never before.
Political momentum is shifting as major allies of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh peel away and long time adversaries coalesce in the unified demand for his departure. Fractures in Saleh’s alliances and opposition give space to new political formulations and creeds. However, the alliance of opposition parties, the Joint Meeting Parties, is still calling for dialog and reform, not an end to the corrupted and dysfunctional Saleh regime.
In Yemen, political institution have little impact on public policy. One effective check on executive power in Yemen is the tribes and Saleh has long ruled as the Imams centuries before, by relying on tribal muscle. It is pro-Saleh tribesmen from outside Sanaa that have occupied Yemen’s Tahrir Square and are attacking the university students, for a fee. It was a game changer when the Council of the Alliance of Marib and Al-Jawf Tribes denounced “the massacre of Aden and salutes Tai’z youth, the station of change and train engine of freedom.” Sheikh Hussain al Ahmar, from Saleh’s privileged Hashid tribe, promised Hasid tribal protection for the protesters in Sanaa. Long time Saleh ally Sheik Abdulmajid al Zindani, head of al Iman University where Saleh announced his candidacy in 2006, is calling for a national unity government and for the people to go peacefully to the streets.
In terms of Saleh’s real opposition, Abdelmalik al Houthi, denounced the states violence toward its citizens and calling for a just state. Al Houthi is leader of a Zaidi revivalist movement known as the Houthis that fought a six year war the state fought a six year war that ended only last year with a shaky ceasefire. One local paper characterized his statement as a declaration of war, although it is only a message of support and Houthi fighters have not been mobilized.
In the south, Hassan Baoum and Nassar al Nuba at the forefront of the southern independence movement, al Hirak, both issued statements calling security officials “occupation forces,” as they have since 2007, and urging supporters to march to Aden. Following 1990 union of northern and southern Yemen, and a civil war between the two former states in 1994, many in the south say Saleh’s regime treated the south as war booty and complain of economic, political and social discrimination. However, many south protesters have discarded the terminology of secession and are calling for the fall of Saleh and a democratic state. Protests in Aden and many around the south began spontaneously and outside the channels of al Hirak. Heads of state of the former southern state, Haider bin al Attas and Ali Nasser Mohammed, issued a statement noting over 300 protesters have been killed by police since 2007 and calling for international pressure on the Saleh regime.
Al Qaeda is nowhere in the mix and will probably be relegated to the dust bin of history in a shorter time than many expected. Yemenis are clearly demanding democracy, not just regime change. And the pluralism of the country precludes a Talaban style state. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula responded to the onset of protests last week by declaring jihad on the Houthi rebels who are an offshoot of Shiism.
The US and western allies have long been muted about years of violence toward civilian protesters in the south of Yemen and aerial bombing of residential village in Saada province that displaced 300,000 according to UN figures. Human Rights Watch and others have called for an international investigation into potential war crimes by the state.
Both the US and EU have recently urged a return to dialog between the Saleh regime and the JMP opposition parties. However the protests are beyond the control of the JMP which as little credibility as a representative institution. The US’s primary concern in Yemen appears to be building counter-terror capacity. The US recognizes that Yemen’s “Deterioration of governance will present serious challenges to U.S. and regional interests, including leaving (al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula) better positioned to plan and carry out attacks, exacerbating ongoing civil unrest and worsening humanitarian and socioeconomic problems,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in prepared remarks to the House of Representatives intelligence committee
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