Taking a chance on a democratic Yemen
August 8, 2011, al-Jazeera
by Abubakr al-Shamahi
The Yemeni youth movement represents the country's best chance for democracy - but it needs outside support to succeed.
Yemen finds itself in the fifth month of mass anti-government protests that have left the country with a severely injured President seeking treatment abroad, an economic and humanitarian disaster, and a seemingly intractable stalemate. The youth, who comprise the vast majority of a population whose average age is 18, are increasingly divided, yet increasingly adamant that all the corrupt remnants of the old regime should be replaced by a fully-functioning democratic system.
This wish, in line with the aspirations of millions of Arabs inspired by the events of the "Arab Spring", may appear to be idealistic and even naïve in a country like Yemen. Poor education levels, the lack of an established middle class, the prevalence of qat, and, perhaps most importantly, various armed uprisings, secessionists, and militant activity, are seen as roadblocks preventing any realistic democratic enterprise. However, the events of the past few months have given hope that a new, more democratic, Yemen might emerge out of the ashes of the current crisis.
There is no denying that the current anti-government movement is supported by the majority of the Yemeni people, especially in the restive areas of Taiz, Aden, Saada, Ibb, and Hodeida. Even in the capital Sanaa, where pro-Saleh sentiment is seen as strongest, the biggest and most regular rallies have been those calling for his removal from power.
The anti-government protest movement encompasses a wide cross-section of Yemeni society, centred around a student-based youth movement, and growing to encompass various civil society groups, the traditional opposition parties, women's groups, and a significant tribal element. The cultural change that may bring hope for the future of the country can be seen in the seemingly uniform calls for a pluralist state by the protesters, and the conferences, town hall style meetings, and even poetry nights that are held at the protest squares around the country.
Nonetheless Yemen, in keeping with its history, is different. Yemenis have not had their "resignation moment", as Egyptians and Tunisians did, and yet they have a President who has left the country, unlikely to return. Ali Abdullah Saleh's son, Ahmed, has taken his father's role in the palace, without officially taking over, nor having the power to. Vice-President Abdu Rabbo Mansur Hadi, whom the constitution designates as acting President in light of Saleh's absence, is seemingly powerless, and torn between the various sides who all want to influence him. Some revolutionary groups have set up transitional councils, yet the details are shady. State media, usually a good indicator of the control of an authoritarian government, remains the official mouthpiece of the Saleh regime, and still labelling protesters as criminals and mobs.
One of the main reasons that the regime has carried on without Ali Abdullah Saleh is that his sons and nephews, especially his son Ahmed and his nephew Yahya, have effectively been running the show for the past few years. This period has seen the President replace his old advisors with these family members, and the accompanying period of instability in the country can be seen as evidence of this transfer of power. Although the figurehead is no longer in the country, the Salehs have been busy building on their established military and security power bases to consolidate power for themselves.
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