Sunday, 6 March 2011

Protester optimism crushed by war of words in Yemen

Source: Financial Times, By Abigail Fielding-Smith, 07/03/2011

The voices emerging from the crowds in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, sound remarkably similar to those in Cairo and Tunis. Protesters have been asking in dignified tones for the right to democracy and economic development.

“We want to rebuild our country, we want to change our country,” says Sadeq al Fahd, a young man articulating a commonly heard sentiment in the newly dubbed “Change Square”, a rallying point for protesters near Sana’a University.

However, such aspirations have been cast in the background recently by a worrying war of words raging within the political elite. After a tense few days in which several more members of the ruling party resigned and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, rejected the opposition parties’ initiative for a transfer of power, the US and UK both altered their security assessment of Yemen, advising citizens against travel there.

More alarm was caused on Sunday when suspected al-Qaeda militants attacked security forces in different parts of the country, killing seven, according to a government statement.

Shouted down though they may be, the fact that voices like Mr al Fahd’s are being raised at all is startling in Yemen, where often overlapping divisions of tribe, region and party affiliation are much stronger than in Egypt or Tunisia.

Analysts caution, however, against assuming the Yemeni protest movement will topple the regime the way the Egyptian one did.

To reach out to the downtrodden masses, educated activists in Cairo had only to walk into the slums. While the row of tents outside Sana’a University encroaches a little further on the surrounding roads each day, the Yemeni protesters’ message has a long way to travel in a society where about 70 per cent of people live in often remote rural areas.

Only about 1 per cent of the population is connected to the internet compared with 16 per cent in Egypt. Illiteracy is 50 per cent, and according to one estimate, fewer than 2 per cent of people read newspapers.

On Friday, tens of thousands across the country called for the end of Mr Saleh’s regime. The crowds in “Change Square” looked a little different from the urban masses of Egypt’s Tahrir Square, the revolutionary site that inspired it. Women are mostly in a cordoned-off area. Men stroll around in traditional robes and ceremonial daggers, and, from midday, are carrying bags of qat – a mild narcotic. Cassettes of eminent clerics giving sermons are for sale.

Some of the protesters do belong to political parties. But the student activists who are trying to agree on a common message, do not want the demonstrations to be co-opted by any interest group or party. There are signs everywhere in the Sana’a encampment calling for “no partisanship”.

Protest numbers in the capital, which is seen as a government stronghold, usually peak at about 10,000. Further south in the educated but economically marginalised city of Taiz, more than 100,000 have gathered at points.

Some think the structural obstacles can be overcome. “Oppression makes you conscious even if you are illiterate,” says Waffa Hazza, a protester in the women’s area of the Sana’a demonstration.

Sarah Phillips, a Yemen expert at Sydney University’s Centre for International Security Studies, points out that information from the internet can be disseminated through traditional social networks. “You only need one person to have gone to the internet cafe,” she says.

At the same time, analysts point out, however, that while corruption, high unemployment and a bulging youth population are common factors with Egypt and Tunisia, Yemeni protesters are rebelling against a less controlling state structure. Although his regime has authoritarian tendencies, Mr Saleh is not a dictator in the style of Hosni Mubarak, and the state is scarcely present in some parts of the country.

This means the Yemeni movement has so far seemed to lack the fire of its north African counterparts, at least in areas where security forces have been relatively restrained.

Whether the unprecedented popular movement will grow into something capable of toppling Mr Saleh’s regime remains to be seen. Tens of thousands also gathered in the capital to support him on Friday. What is clear, though, is that a new channel for popular feeling is emerging, which bypasses the structures of party and tribe. “It’s like a chemistry experiment,” says one western diplomat. “You don’t know what’s going to come of it.”

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