A basalt statue in Sana’a’s military museum stands as a testament to a bygone era. Two figures stand locked arm-in-arm, a traditional sword-wielding Yemeni tribesman and a Kalashnikov-toting soldier. They represent the hard-fought war in defense of Yemen’s republican revolution, in which thousands of Egyptian soldiers came to the aid of embattled tribal allies in the South Arabian nation. Nasser’s Egypt once inspired the whole Arab world to shake off ancient monarchies and colonial occupiers but the Egyptian regime today, ideologically bankrupt and under unrelenting assault from its own people, is unrecognizable in that picture of ascendant strength.
Many now wonder whether the uprising in Cairo’s streets foreshadows a new regional upheaval, especially in Egypt’s old ward, Yemen, after as many as 16,000 citizens and activists gathered in Sana’a on January 27 to express their indignation with the country’s ruling party and President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But for those hoping for a Tunis-style ‘Jasmine Revolution’ or Egyptian uprising, the signs are not good.
Egypt’s 1952 officer revolt ushered in an era of relative prosperity and national purpose, out of which grew a strong middle class and a professional army with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
Its 1962 analogue in Yemen produced more mixed results. Decades of civil war, presidential assassinations and national division have defined its troubled modern history. Recurrent crisis only served to exacerbate divisions of class, ethnicity, religion and tribe, engrained deeply in Yemeni society, and in all of these political upheavals the omnipresent weapons of Yemen, which outnumber people by a ratio of four to one, always intervened.
To the extent that political expression exists at all, it traditionally proceeds along these tired lines. This is just as true for Yemen’s 32-year reigning President Saleh as it is for his rivals, great and small, in the opposition.
Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, scion of the country’s most powerful tribal confederation, is also heir to a hopelessly corrupt empire of telecommunications outlets, banks, insurance companies and business conglomerates. He is also, not coincidentally, a major figure in the Islamist Islah opposition party and coordinates much of his political clout through a network of clients.
Despite his own checkered background, Ahmar still managed to accuse the president recently of “appropriating the natural resources of a generation and using the government facilities and monopolies to stay in power indefinitely.” He continued: “I callon massive protests to oust this government, which is the most corrupt in the history of Yemen.” The statement, notably, was distributed through Ahmar’s own private TV channel.
A less known political rival is Tawakul Kerman, head of “Women Journalists Without Chains” and a noted human rights defender and Islah party member. Her defiant rhetoric and out spoken speeches in recent protests tapped into heartfelt popular sentiment in the country, which suffers widely from unemployment, high food prices and illiteracy.
“The country is a failing state. We protestors are trying to rescue it. The current situation is so bleak, but Tunisia reassures people of their own power,” she declared, only days before her dramatic arrest by plain-clothes police officers.
Whereas in Egypt and Tunisia popular anger has spearheaded the uprisings, political manifestations in Yemen have depended heavily on party membership, significant funding and even perhaps a degree of foreign backing. One example of this is Tawakul herself. She is the scion of a wealthy family and the daughter of a former minister. The operations of her NGO, and her own substantial compensation, are heavily funded by the State Department’s “Middle East Partnership Initiative,” according to colleagues in international and feminist NGOs. Tawakul was also pictured next to a beaming Hillary Clinton during the latter’s brief visit to Sana’a last month; few of the demonstrators in Egypt or Tunisia had such friends in high places.
After a morning of massive competing demonstrations between the ruling party and opposition groups on the27th, Sana’a quickly returned to normal as the two sides tentatively agreed to renew their dialogue. As calls for democratic freedom echo throughout the region, the outcome of mass protests remains bound to the demographic and political makeup of each country. In Yemen, these indicators don’t leave much room for hope.
NOAH BROWNING is deputy editor of National Yemen