Monday, February 28, 2011

The Confused Mess of Ill-defined Social Groupings that Make Up Yemeni Politics

Here is a brief look into how the politics is shaping up here and why it is so hard to get an idea of what will happen.

The Yemen Times published today an interview between Nadia al-Sakkaf, the paper's editor in chief, and Leslie Campbell, regional director of the U.S. National Democratic Institute. The interview suggests that the JMP (coalition of major opposition parties in Yemen) will soon reach an agreement with the GPC (the ruling party) that will enact changes in the Yemeni government and will allow president Saleh to stay on as president before finally stepping down at the end of his term in 2013.

However, the same issue of the Yemen Times published an article about the growing divide between the opposition coalition and the student activists at the forefront of the protests . The article leads one to believe that students do not think the JMP represents their goals, consider the coalition part of the broken system, and fear they will hijack their revolutionary movement to place themselves in power.

Gregory Johnsen, author of the well-regarded Yemen blog Waq al-Waq, contends that in the Yemeni political arena, interpersonal family relations, especially those of the tribal nature, trump party politics anyway.

In this discussion of shifting blocks of political parties, members of parliament jumping ship, tribe confederations backing so-and-so, who gets lost in the process are the unaffiliated student protesters. Will they back the results of the JMP and GPC dialogue? If the dialogue fails and the JMP joins the protests, will they accept their presence? Do they even have the ability to contest these outcomes?

Although I went out on a limb and earlier made a prediction, the only thing you can really do is sit back and watch how this all plays out.

P.S. – As I finished typing this, Al Jazeera English announced that president Saleh will announce a new “government of national unity” sometime in the next 24 hours.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Recent Developments

Protests have been cracked down on more violently, either by police or by government supporters. A handful of people have died over the past few days during protests in Tai'z and Aden. I expect Sana'a to remain stable, as the government is well entrenched and has brought in many of its supporters from the surrounding countryside. Quite a few people not aligned with the government still favor Saleh over the instability of fighting that could result from his ouster.

Things could end differently in Tai'z and Aden. Tai'z is a poorer city than Sana'a, and many people resent the current government's Sana'a-centric policies, which has forced many of the city's educated population to seek employment elsewhere, leaving behind those who cannot. Protests there have been more violent in nature. Aden is the center of the secessionist movement in the south, and the protesters demands might not stop at government reform, seeing this as a possible opportunity to gain greater autonomy or even independence.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Protests in Yemen

The following is my non-expert opinion on current events in Sana’a, as many of you have asked about them: I left last weekend for a three day tour of southwest Yemen, including Ibb and Tai’z (two of the most important cities in Yemen, even though you’ve never heard of them). We got the news of Mubarak’s departure via cell phone on the road between Mokha (or Mocha, as in the coffee) and Khokha and watched the celebrations on a small TV in the lobby of our seaside hotel. The area is a flat coastal plain and sparsely populated compared to the other cities I’ve been in, so I was unaware of how the rest of Yemen was taking the news.

Finally arriving back in Sana’a on Saturday evening, I could tell things were different. In addition to the one guard who usually sits at our gate, there were now six police officers in purple uniforms. The pro-government tents were back up in Tahrir. I was told that the night before spontaneous parties had broken out in the street to celebrate Mubarak’s ouster, which later turned into anti-government protests.

Protests have continued daily, with anti-government protests usually occurring on the Sana’a University campus or in Sharia Hadda, while the pro-government people have set up camp in Tahrir Square. It’s rumored that a number of the pro-gov people are being paid, and perhaps even some of them are army in plain clothes.

Media outlets have recently reported “clashes” between police and protesters and pro-gov protesters brandishing knives. I can tell you that half the men in Sana’a wear the traditional Yemeni dagger, or jambiyah, on a daily basis. It’s part of the wardrobe, just like a watch would be for Western men from my father’s generation. That protesters were seen with knives is unremarkable, especially since the pro-gov people seem to be fond of dancing, and male Yemeni dance often incorporates the jambiyah.

Police clashes with protesters would be a more realistic cause for concern, but it seems that these are not all they have been cracked up to be either. The word “clashes” conjures images of Egypt, with lines of police in full riot gear advancing like a phalanx on protesters. Protesters here began marching to the president’s office after being pushed out of the university campus by pro-gov people. The police intervened and stopped them from reaching the building. People were hit with batons, but it wasn’t the street battle we now picture after witnessing events in Egypt or Tunis.

Also, remember that when newspapers say “thousands” take to the streets, they mean two to three thousand, not eight or nine. The pictures that accompany these articles are often taken from ground-level, which can make a small, contained crowd seem huge, implying that the lines of protesters continue far past the edges of the camera lens. Finally, the last I’ve heard is that the coalition of opposition parties is still participating in talks with the ruling party about reforms. Those taking to the streets are going out on their own.

People from Tai’z to Sana’a have told me that they expect little to be gained here from protesting. People want to change the system more than they want to change the president; hatred for Saleh is not broadly shared as was hated of Mubarak in Egypt. Yemenis have also told me that the habit of qat chewing also limits the potential of protests, as this afternoon activity prevents the sustaining of multi-day, or even full-day, demonstrations. I believe this is a simplification, but it is definitely a contributing factor.

Finally, I just don’t sense the groundswell of enthusiasm and dedication that pushed the Egyptian protests to critical mass, transforming them from demonstration to revolution. This could all prove to be just the beginning though, as every political analyst worth his degree said that Egypt was too divided and too apolitical to revolt as Tunis did. But for the time being, I’m not worried. I know people have asked about me and how I’m doing here, and the answer is great. I hear about the protests the same way everybody else does, via CNN or BBC or Aljazeera. I have yet to encounter an anti-government protest, which makes me skeptical of headline about protests “sweeping Sana’a” or “rocking Yemen.” The pro-gov people are hard to miss as Tahrir square is two hundred yards from my apartment and they like to drive around town blasting nationalist songs on speakers blown long ago. Added security in my area was visible the past few days, but all the extra guards spend the day napping and chewing since there haven’t been any mass protests to put down.

Bottom line: until the news starts giving you aerial shots of protesters to contextualize their huge numbers, or starts reporting deaths at the hand of riot police, I would not be worried. Life goes on in Sana’a as it always has since I got here in November.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Frogs and Shooting Stars

Today I got an insight into the flirtation patterns in conservative Muslim societies like Saudi and Yemen. We met Yusuf, a friend of a friend at a cafĂ© today. He is a Syrian college student who has also lived in the United States, Saudi, Kuwait, and Yemen. We got on the subject of same-sex relationships, which are apparently more common than you would think among young people. The conversation then turned to relationships between young people in general. Yusuf told how when he first moved to Saudi he learned from friends how you could tell which girls were conservative and which were more “open.” He also described how guys would go cruising in Saudi or Kuwait and toss their mobile numbers at girls as they passed. A more modern development is to write your number on your iPad to flash to girls at traffic stops. Receptive girls would call you back if the car was nice enough and the man handsome enough. Once in Yemen, he even saw a girl toss her number into a car as it passed. He told the man, who was chewing a large wad of qat at the time, that the number was for the car, not him.

We then asked how one could tell in a place like Yemen, where the vast majority of women wear the full niqab, whether a girl was hot or not. He answered with this saying: “Taht al-buraqa difadaa wa najoum sataa,” or, “Under the burqa are both frogs and shooting stars.”

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Some Angry Rallies but Things Kept Peaceful

I woke up to the sound of helicopters circling the neighborhood rooftops. Soldiers in camouflage-purple uniforms had already taken up positions on our roof and the roofs of other tall building in the area. I hadn’t expected much out of today but these guys were clearly prepared in case the unexpected happened. Ten or fifteen soldiers in red berets were milling about the street on my walk to work. A scooter zoomed by with a giant poster of Saleh’s face pasted on the front.

No one was in the mood to sit at a desk today. We all wanted to see what would happen, and the atmosphere of uncertainly teased us as we sat in our enclosed office. The accountant and I decided to “get tea” at his dad’s restaurant, which just so happens to be on the same street as the cabinet ministers’ office. A few extra guards were out and an armored vehicle was parked in the gate of the broadcast building. After tea we decided to head to the roof of the school where soldiers had also been posted. We made small talk with them for a little bit before heading back down to our office.

Tahrir, where the anti-government protests were supposed to have been held, was occupied all night long by the pro-government rally. The anti-government protest location was forced to switch back to the familiar grounds of the Sana’a University Campus. From the we could hear aggressive chants, songs, and loud addresses in support of the president coming from Tahrir. One banner read “Yes to security, yes to stability.” The protest was dominated by males, but a special women’s enclosed area was set up for female supporters. A high fence shielded them as they publicly protested in private. Sitting at our desks we heard a low murmur coming from the street just outside crescendo as it approached closer to our building. We ran to the roof to see what was going on, but it was only a group of 25-35 people waving Yemeni flags and chanting over a loud speaker.

A few of the other students went to Sana’a University to check out the anti-government protest there. What they described sounded to me like a rally. Perhaps 8,000 people had gathered and calmly chanted slogans between listening to speakers address the crowd

Despite Aljazeera’s premature headline that “Dueling protests rock Yemen,” from what I saw I would characterize these demonstrations more as political rallies, where supporters of each group, the pro-Saleh and collective opposition, gathered to engage with each other and publicly express their political views. My impression is that this day never had a chance to boil over into something more, and nor did those in support of the opposition seek such a result. By three o’clock this afternoon the soldiers posted on the roof of my apartment building had moved downstairs to sit in the mafraj and chew qat. Today was a good display of political activism, and hopefully the opposition’s concerns will be addressed with an equal degree of true political engagement.

Tents set up for the pro-Saleh rally in Midan Tahrir forced the opposition rally to an alternate location

A car plastered with the president's portrait and playing supportive slogans

Pro-Saleh march from the roof of my work

Soldiers posted on the roof of my apartment

An army helicopter observes the days events from the air.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In Anticipation of the "Day of Anger"

Tomorrow is slated as Yemen’s “Day of Anger,” borrowing a recent line from Egypt, as anti-government demonstrations are planned for Thursday in Midan Tahrir (yup, we’ve got one of those too. Boy I bet the media would love that if things became real news-worthy here). As Egypt has taught us, anything can happen. I was one of those people who thought the protests in Egypt wouldn’t amount to much, and felt a sense of awe wash over me, watching live as Jan. 25th’s protests in Egypt turned into something more as troop transport trucks were set on fire and one was nearly toppled into the Nile.

I do not expect the same for tomorrow. Let me first say that I am not an expert on Yemen, nor claim to be. I only base what I’m writing here on the very unscientific and unrepresentative conversations I’ve had with the small number of people I know here. That being said, I think what sets Yemen apart is that the opposition will accept genuine reform. They are not stuck on the idea of President Abdullah Ali Saleh’s immediate resignation, as the people of Egypt are with Mubarak. It seems that the opposition will be satisfied with significant democratic reforms.

Secondly, I don’t think the situation will reach the critical mass it did in Egypt. While media outlets reported one demonstration last week that totaled upwards of 10,000 participants, I personally have seen and heard nothing. I only learned about the protests when concerned relatives sent me articles. Yemenis I’ve talked to estimated the numbers were much lower.

The seeing and hearing things part changed today, however. In anticipation of tomorrow’s protests against the Saleh regime, pro-government demonstrators have been setting up camp in Midan Tahrir all day. I walked through the square on my way to lunch and passed a camera crew set up in front of the parliament building. When I reached the square, nearly its whole surface area was covered in metal skeletons as people worked through the early stages of erecting large tents. I had at first assumed these were preparations for tomorrow’s protest but later found out that they were for the pro-government pre-party. Rumors went around that pro-government people were being bused in from outlying areas (this was later confirmed by the nytimes).

On my way back from dinner today I had to walk through the square again. There were crowds gathered but they didn’t seem huge. Slogans and songs were played on loudspeakers, and I can hear them wafting in through my window as I type this. Saleh announced today that he will not seek reelection (he promised this once before and reneged), that his sons won’t run, and that he will postpone the parliamentary elections that were set for April according to the request of a group of opposition parties. This after last week cutting the income tax rate and raising army salaries. In my view, it’s a smart move making these concessions before any sort of movement starts. Afterward would have been too late.

Hopefully tomorrow brings a peaceful protest and everyone goes home satisfied at noon.

Tents are set up for today's pro-government demonstrations