Will president Ali Abdulla Saleh leave this Friday or will Yemen become another Libya?
When Middle East historians look back on the twenty first century, they will recognize it as the century of the Arab revolution. This political and cultural revolution will reverberate for years to come, as the youth who rose against dictatorial regimes build their nations according to their ideals of human and national rights as well as freedom of expression, speech, and religion. As the youth driven uprisings in Tunis, Egypt, and Libya continued to create massive change in the way Arabs viewed themselves, Yemen’s long awaited revolution was brewing in the wings. The uprisings in Bahrain and Oman along with protest movements in Kuwait suggest that even the regimes of the oil rich Gulf states may no longer be immune to the anger of their people. Though we are not yet able to process the speed and logic of this revolutionary movement, we curiously ask: Which country will be next? Which dictator will be the next to fall?
Through telephone and Facebook communication, the head of Sanaa’s Shabab.net radio Mohammed Al-Selwi stated, “The situation in the Arab world and the revolutionary youth movement is a wonderful creative phenomenon that I personally support and encourage.”
He describes how Yemen’s revolution came after the situation became unbearable in terms of decision makers ignoring the will of their people, especially the youth demographic which constitutes the largest majority in the Arab world. While many demonstrations were organized in Sanaa by Yemeni opposition factions, according to the New York Times, the youth revolution started as ad hoc protests partly organized via text messaging and, to a lesser extent, internet technologies. Most likely, due to low internet penetration, word of mouth and traditional means of communication played the most important role. Al-Selwi said “It all started with small demonstrations near the University of Sanaa in support of fellow Egyptians, but when the youth were faced with the violence of the authorities, they protested.” Saleh’s government used tear gas and live ammunition against the peaceful demonstrators. Since then the protests increased exponentially and reached millions in numbers in various parts of the nation last Friday. Most recently, according to Aljazeera.net, as the death toll exceeded forty and hundreds were injured, many tribesmen and soldiers joined protesters in what came to be known as Change Square near the University of Sanaa. In a promising move, many soldiers in Mareb handed their weapons to the tribes and joined in the protests as well.
So far the Yemeni revolution has followed a trajectory quite similar to the revolutions in Tunis and Egypt. Every step of the way, the regime remains a few steps behind. Throughout the past month, the demands of the revolutionaries escalated and the regime’s delayed concessions were continually rejected. At this time, the demand of the youth is clear: President Saleh and his regime must go. Yet, Yemen is different from Egypt and Tunis in its entrenched tribal social fabric, a historic phenomenon that values tribal kinship and alliances. The tribes are armed and capable of protecting themselves. Will tribal alliances protect Saleh from a certain downfall or will the situation quickly descend into a civil war? With great faith in the people of the republic, Al-Selwi stated, “Many tribes said they will protect the youth.”
If the pattern of events in Yemen continues to follow the previous trajectories, the rising tide of the revolution will force the Yemeni president or the armed forces to make a decision on the Friday when the largest number of protests is expected. Tunis’ Ben Ali departed on Friday the 14th of January, while Mubarak resigned on Friday the 11th of February. If last Friday’s protests are any indication, this week’s protests will escalate events to a new unprecedented level. How soon will the breaking point come? AccordingAl-Selwi, “There is a dangerous escalation and events are accelerating quickly. Every day, the gap keeps increasing between all the parties of this conflict, and I don’t believe there are signs of a solution to the crisis in the horizon.”
Several key events are setting the tone this week: many protesters were killed in Sanaa, Al-Jawf and Mareb, the governor of Mareb was stabbed, a police station was burned in Aden, foreign journalists were deported, and the University of Sanaa delayed the beginning of the new semester until further notice. The official Yemeni news sources continue to operate as usual, claiming that the defecting soldiers were fired or retired and accusing the revolutionaries of vandalism. As the ailing regime buys more time, the revolution’s power is rising, but the question remains, Will Saleh peacefully resign like Mubarak, shamefully flee like Ben Ali, or recklessly set his nation ablaze like Gaddafi?
On Friday the 18th of March, the youth of Yemen may get their answer.
SAMER AL-SABER is a PhD student at the University of Washington. His academic work is concerned with the cultural and political history of the Middle East. Currently, he is writing a dissertation on the cultural history of theatrical activities in Jerusalem.