Source : Toronto Star, 15/02/2011
By Michelle Shephard, National Security Reporter
SANAA, YEMEN –The face of Yemen's revolution is lightly powdered and framed by a baby-blue hijab.
Tawakul Karman is not the image that comes to mind when thinking of Yemen, a poor and unstable Arab nation of nearly 24 million, and a country whose name is most often associated these days with Al Qaeda.
But the 32-year-old mother of three and human rights activist has emerged as a leader among those fighting to end President Ali Abdullah Saleh's three-decade rule.
“All Yemeni people say enough, really, enough,” she said, crammed in the back of a Land Cruiser on her way to a student demonstration last week.
“The only solution in Yemen is that he has to go.”
Karman has been a thorn in Saleh's side for years, agitating for press freedom and staging weekly sit-ins to demand the release of political prisoners.
But now, inspired by the revolution in Tunisia and Friday's resignation of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, hundreds are joining her on the streets of the capital.
Among those shouting “Mubarak first, Ali next” is Samia al Agbhari, a petite 30-year-old journalist who has a framed picture of revolutionary Che Guevara on her living room wall and little fear of confronting the regime that she has endured her entire life.
In an interview in her home Friday, al Agbhari said she believed the demonstrations would grow increasingly violent as Yemen's police and the country's omnipresent security services cracked down on dissidents.
Her words proved prophetic. Two days later, riot police swinging their batons indiscriminately attacked demonstrators as they walked near the Yemen Mall.
The Star was warned to stop shooting photos and told more than once to leave the area by plain clothes security officers. Reuters photographer Khaled Abdullah had his camera smashed in the melee and was arrested by the military's Republican Guards before being released an hour later.
Tensions flared on the streets again Monday as pro-Saleh forces attacked student demonstrators.
Ala'a Jarban, a 21-year-old university student in Armani glasses, is another face often seen at demonstrations. He is one of the country's youth leaders pushing for “peaceful change” after losing faith in the political process.
“It somehow sparked a flame in all of us. People saw the impossible happening,” he said of the uprising in Egypt, sitting with other students as they planned future action over coffee at an upscale café called Mokha Bunn. “People are thinking it can happen here.”
NOTWITHSTANDING the youthful exuberance, most analysts are saying slow down, this is not Egypt.
“You can hear the murmur, you don't hear the roar,” said Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, Yemen's leading political analyst. “I think it will take time.”
While the root causes of Egypt's revolution exist here — frustration with autocratic rule, corruption, poverty, unemployment and widespread human rights violations — there are many differences.
Egypt's protest spread quickly throughout the country's middle class, with the help of Facebook, Twitter and Al Jazeera.
Yemen doesn't have a sizable middle class; the country is divided instead into the rich and the poor. There is little access to the Internet and urbanization is low, with only 35 per cent of the population living in cities, “and not all of these are really cities but overgrown villages,” adds al-Iryani.
There is also, of course, khat. The leafy narcotic is a national pastime and by 2 p.m. every day, the majority of the population is kicking back, stuffing their cheeks to cartoon-like proportions with the plant's leaves and talking about revolution rather than waging one. Protests in Yemen typically take place in the morning so as to not interfere with the afternoon chew.
Thousands of demonstrators backed by opposition parties took to the streets earlier this month in a Day of Rage protest, while the government also organized a rally of hundreds of pro-Saleh supporters. The two groups kept their distance and the demonstrations peacefully wrapped up in time for lunch.
Still, few are foolhardy enough to rule out revolution here — not after watching unlikely protests in Tunisia and Egypt bring two stalwart dictators to their knees.
Last week, The Economist rated Yemen the country with the highest potential for unrest in the Arab world. The rating was based on a cocktail of statistics, from the years the government has been in power to corruption and demographic indices.
Last month, Hillary Clinton met with Saleh to emphasize the importance of his cooperation in fighting a Yemen-based Al Qaeda group. It was the first visit of a U.S. Secretary of State to Yemen in 20 years.
The U.S. doubled its military aid to Yemen last year to more than $155 million after Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was tied to high-profile attacks on the U.S., including the failed attempt by the so-called “underwear bomber” to bring down a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day, 2009.
The 69-year-old Saleh has derisively said ruling Yemen is like “dancing on the heads of snakes.” Aside from AQAP, his so-called snake pit today includes an insurgency in the north and a secessionist movement in the south.
“The danger in Yemen is that we already have so many different uprisings,” said Gregory Johnsen, a renowned Yemen scholar at Princeton University. “So if all these different strands of the opposition would coalesce into a single strand against the regime of Saleh, then we're dealing with something the Yemeni government is quite worried about.”
Yemen's state news agency reported Monday that Saleh postponed a trip to Washington next month due to “circumstances in the country.”
Saleh has been offering concessions since the first whiff of a revolution here.
On the eve of the Day of Rage protest, Saleh vowed not to seek re-election when his term ends in 2013, and promised parliament that his son Ahmed would not succeed him. (He has twice promised not to seek re-election, only to run each time due to what he says is popular demand.)
He also said he would lower income taxes and university tuitions, raise the salaries of soldiers and civil servants and tackle the country's unemployment.
Saleh has been in power since 1978 and was appointed president of the Republic of Yemen following the 1990 unification of the north (the conservative home to Saleh's tribe) and the south (once British colony and then Marxist republic).
The north and south have been stuck in this acrimonious marriage for nearly two decades, punctuated by the 1994 civil war. The prospect of another war looms large, and demonstrations in the southern city of Aden happen weekly, if not daily.
Saleh's success in conquering the south during the civil war was thanks in part to the jihadists returning from the Afghan-Soviet conflict. They were only too happy to fight the president's socialist foes.
Not until Al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in Aden's harbour in 2000, killing 17 American sailors, was Saleh forced to confront the Islamic fighters in his midst.
But like Pakistan's intelligence service, which had difficulty severing ties with the Taliban once the U.S. came calling, many within Saleh's government continued to keep these radical elements close. In 2006, 23 Al Qaeda suspects tunnelled out of the political prison in Sanaa in a spectacular escape that few doubted had inside help. Two of the escapees went on to establish AQAP.
It is difficult to draw clear lines here between political parties or allegiances, which undoubtedly frustrates Western leaders, who like to neatly package foreign players as either friend or foe.
Take Karman's party affiliation, for instance.
Yemen's official opposition is an alliance of three groups known as the Joint Meeting Parties, or JMP. Karman is a member of the Islamist group Islah, the most popular of the three political parties.
Islah's party membership is a diverse mix of tribesmen, businessmen and moderate Islamists who believe in the separation of state and religion. But the party has raised red flags in the West, mainly because of its most notorious member, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a former Osama bin Laden adviser whom the U.S. considers a terrorist.
Last October, Islah made international headlines when its ultraconservative members blocked a bill that would make it illegal to marry girls under the age of 17 (some as young as 9 become brides).
But in an example of what Yemenis call a political system that is merely “democratic democracy,” Zindani is both a leading Islah member and a supporter of Saleh. He even backed the president during the 2006 election when the Islah party fielded its own candidate.
Observers say Saleh has managed to hang on to power for so long thanks to his careful adherence to the rule of keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer. So Western support for the autocratic president in an effort to keep people such as Zindani at bay has been foolhardy, analyst al-Iryani says.
“Yeah, I think it's a problem for the West to support Islamic extremists,” said al-Iryani, adding dryly, “as they are doing now.”
THE LATE AFTERNOON sun glows warm through the stained glass windows of Mohammed Abu Lahoum's sitting room in central Sanaa.
He is relaxing against plush crimson pillows, discussing tribal politics with the six leaders who sit on cushions against the opposite wall. All are chewing khat, as is customary at this time of day.
Abu Lahoum is a senior member of Saleh's ruling party and chair of the foreign committee. He is a respected member of the Bakeel, the largest tribal confederation, but only the second most influential. The most powerful tribal confederation is Saleh's.
Abu Lahoum is discussing a killing with the tribal leaders and mediating what compensation is required. A gift of money or weapons is customary. He is asking for patience and by the end of the chew, they have agreed they will meet again.
Yemen's tribes are another important factor that differentiates this country from Tunisia and Egypt.
But as American scholar Johnsen notes, it's a mistake to refer to Yemen's tribal regions as “ungoverned” or “lawless.”
The tribal areas are governed, but by local laws and customs, rather than the laws imposed by the central government.
Abu Lahoum is blunt when he explains why the tribal culture still exists today.
“The people are affiliated to tribes. Why? Because the political parties did not fill in the gap they needed,” he said. “Democracy has not been felt in this part of the world and we hope now that we see change, and I would hope to see real transfer of power, real sharing of power. That's what this area really needs.
“Yemen needs some honesty and sincerity right now, and I cannot just take the position that I have to criticize the opposition and defend the ruling party. It doesn't work. Yemen needs compromise. We have to work in finding this and not collapse into chaos.”
Chaos is a reality in this armed nation, where more than five million are starving, more than 60 per cent of women and 30 per cent of men are illiterate and an even dimmer future looms with dwindling oil and water reserves.
Abu Lahoum said he personally supports the student demonstrations and hopes they continue, as he feels they only increase the pressure on the government and opposition parties.
But he also hopes the majority of Yemenis will remain patient and give the government and opposition breathing room to make concrete changes before they form a mass street movement.
On Sunday, opposition parties agreed to continue talking with the president and hold him to his promises. “Once you start these serious reforms, people will sympathize with you,” Abu Lahoum said.
“But if you keep postponing and you think this problem is going to go away, and you don't do anything, I'm sorry to tell you it's going to come back and it's going to come back much bigger, like a snowball.”
TAWAKUL KARMAN, for one, has run out of patience. She no longer believes her own party can negotiate real change and does not take Saleh at his word.
Her cellphone rings constantly, at least every 90 seconds. A former soldier calls to tell her he will join her next protest. One of the student leaders checks in. Then someone from the city of Taiz, Yemen's former capital, reports that police have arrested demonstrators and the violence seems to be increasing.
“See, it has begun,” she says excitedly.
Behind her are three large framed photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, alongside a family portrait in which she smiles with her husband, Mohammed, who is also a human rights worker, and her 6-year-old son and two daughters, aged 13 and 7.
It is a world apart from her life demonstrating on the street, here in this living room oasis with a potted sunflower and the aromatic smells of lunch wafting in from the kitchen. The television is on in another room, where her husband watches news reports from Taiz.
Karman says she didn't sleep well last night — her shoulder was injured by a police baton at Sunday's demonstration.
“But I was happy. Do you want to know why?” she asks. And then quickly, she answers herself: “Because we are fighting for our freedom.”
She wants the demonstrations to remain peaceful but knows that police brutality will only help her cause and bring more people to the streets.
Sit-ins outside Sanaa University are now held daily, but each Thursday — the first day of the weekend here — Karman plans on staging mass demonstrations to march through the streets.
She is also buoyed by the news from Taiz, where the tribal influence is not as great as it is in Sanaa and the population includes more of the Facebook crowd — young and educated.
“When we have demonstrations here, all the people fear that some of the tribes will come and cause problems,” she says.
“But when Taiz is angry, they are one, and they will export it.”
Like all Yemenis, Karman is unfailingly hospitable and seems near tears when she explains she must attend a meeting and cannot sit together for lunch.
“Tomorrow, or this week, I'll call you,” she says as she rushes into the kitchen.
Planning a revolution, she laughs, is busy work.