“My daughters and I are safe. What happened is a massacre, a real massacre,” Arwa Othman, the Yemeni writer and activist, told me.
I called her on Friday after hearing of gunmen firing on a protest rally in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, killing tens of protesters. The voices of ambulance sirens were clear and loud. They stood in stark contrast to the joyful and hopeful atmosphere of the sit-in camp three weeks ago, when Othman and I participated in a women’s rally.
Othman, who is in her forties, was drawn to the Yemeni youth movement just like other members of Yemeni urban civil society. She was inspired by their unyielding belief in the possibility of peaceful political change in Yemen.
The youth, on the other hand, took their cue from the Tunisian uprising. One young female leading activist, Wameth Mohammad Shakir, explained that the day after President Ben Ali fled Tunisia they organised a demonstration in front of the French embassy: “We wanted to tell them, take your hands of Arab world’s democracy.” A day later a huge demonstration started out of Sana’a University. The uprising was launched and it spread to other cities in Yemen.
Similar to their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemeni youths under 24 – who make up two-thirds of the population – are driven by a combination of economic and political factors.
Unemployment is conservatively estimated at 35%. Poverty is rampant with nearly half of the population living on less than two dollars a day and corruption is endemic. The political system, once hailed as the only democracy in the Arabian Peninsula, has degenerated into a stagnated one-party system that stifles the little room of manoeuvre left to the weak opposition.
Not surprisingly, the simple demand that President Ali Abdullah Saleh resign proved to be a powerful rallying call. It managed to unify different groups that otherwise stand at odds to each other.
Khalid Alanesi, director of Hood, the human rights organisation, underpinned this point at the Taghir Square protest on 28 February, saying: “Did you ever imagine that you would stand in a square in Sana’a, with tribesmen, Salafi Islamists, Muslim brothers, liberals and socialists? Or that you [would] witness a moment where women would participate in a demonstration, deliver their speeches, and men start to cheer them?”
Taghir Square has certainly proved to be a melting pot. Tribesmen, who customarily dance with their daggers, opted to dance without them. Young men and women decided to create a joint committee and sweep the streets of the sit-in camp; housewives, who are unable to attend the rallies, cook the meals for the protesters; some tents of Islamists are dedicated to reading the Qur’an; and yet other activists prefer instead to sing national Arab songs or famous Yemeni songs of Ayob Tarish and dance along.
Even blood feuds seem to have less relevance within this context. Sheikh Ahmed bin Salih Almane’ay of the Bani Gaber tribe of Marib stated: “We the men of Marib cannot agree or sit with each other because of the tribal blood feuds between us. But in this square, many of Marib tribes are here; and we are sitting with each other despite our differences.”
I was filled with hope by what saw when I visited Taghir Square. I belong to a middle-aged Yemeni generation that lost hope – a fact that prompted many educated Yemenis to leave the country and build a future elsewhere. And here I am, meeting a different sort of Yemeni youths – educated, determined to make a difference, but in their own country.
But would they have a chance in fulfilling their dream? Many of the youths I spoke to in the Taghir Square were sure about only one thing: Saleh has to go. They are convinced that “when he steps down, things will be better”. But what happens after that? The question seems to startle them.
Looking at the slogans they are using in their rallies, it becomes clear that they demand a “civil state, democratic and just; ending the control of Saleh clan of state apparatuses, and the accountability of officials”.
The problem is that while implementing these objectives in a country like Egypt is difficult enough, in a Yemeni context it will not be possible without shedding blood.
President Saleh’s ability to survive recurrent political upheavals since 1978 has depended on the unwavering backing of this immediate family and clan – the Sanhan tribe. However, in the last decade there have been clear signs of divisions within the inner circle of power of the Yemeni president’s family.
All the political forces that joined the youths in later stages seem united by the demand for toppling Saleh’s regime, but each for their own reason. The head of the biggest Yemeni tribal confederation, Hamid al-Hamar, announced his support for the youth moment. Hamid is positioning himself as an alternative to Saleh, but many Yemenis see no difference between Saleh and Hamid in their “tribal politics”.
By the same token, the southern movement, which demands separation from the north, decided to support the youths’ uprising. Its decision to set aside the demand of separation is contested by its divided leadership and might prove difficult to sustain after Saleh leaves.
Change is a must. Fuad Alsalahi, a political scientist at Sana’a university, says “a total political overhaul has become a national necessity”. He suggests three scenarios: “A drastic reform implemented by the president himself; the street will explode and as a result the country enters a phase of political instability; or the Libyan scenario will repeat itself.”
The first is not realistic given Saleh’s history in sustaining the politics of corruption in Yemen. The second and third alternatives are certainly realistic given Yemen’s power and tribal structures.
There is of course a fourth course: a vision espoused by the youths dreaming of peaceful and sustainable political change – one insisting that Yemenis deserve better than a choice between war and corruption. Unfortunately, this one is smothered by the violent response of Saleh’s nervous regime.
Elham Manea, of dual nationality – Yemeni and Swiss. She is senior researcher at the university of Zurich, research member of the Asia and Europe research project and affiliate researcher with the NCCR research program Challenges to Democracy in the 21 st Century.