Limbo in Yemen
April 19, 2011
They’re getting desperate.
More and more Yemenis are joining the already huge pro-democracy protest movement. Provincial cities like Ibb in central Yemen have seen protests in the region of at least hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. The central city of Taiz, Yemen’s industrial heartland, is outside of government control. Aden, the former capital of South Yemen, is experiencing civil disobedience two days a week, with 80% of government employees complying with the protesters demands.
Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime isn’t happy at all and, to be frank, it doesn’t quite know what to do.
Sexism, enter, stage left.
In a rally on Friday Saleh condemned the apparent mixing of men and women at pro-democracy protests, saying that it was haram in Islam, and against Yemeni cultural norms. This is all a bit rich coming from Saleh, of 'I don’t care if he smuggles whiskey into Yemen – provided it’s good whiskey’ Wikileaks fame.
Needless to say, Yemenis have met Saleh’s conversion to a religious hardliner with derision. Tawakkol Karman, speaking to al-Jazeera, said, "Saleh has finally shown the world his real face and his hatred against women."
Amal, a university student, has been attending protests at Change Square almost daily. "How can Ali [Saleh] dishonour us this way, he is under pressure and doesn’t know what to do, so he is trying to shame us into not protesting."
Saleh’s remarks were not even met with a positive reaction from the demographic he was probably targeting, the tribes. The tribal coalition of Marib and Jawf gave Saleh a history lesson, "Women ruled Yemen numerous times in the past with success. Yemeni women lead the Yemeni revolution and men follow."
His words do work with some. Najwa, a teacher who describes herself as independent, said, "women should not be going out till 10 or 11 at night and staying at the protest, this is not part of our traditions."
Yemeni women have shown their anger at Saleh’s comments by immediately calling for demonstrations showing that they will not be cowed into silence. Saturday and Sunday saw huge protests, with a large female presence. Sunday’s protest was attacked by security forces and pro-government 'baltajiya’ – thugs.
Which leads me on to the regime’s second method, using the security forces, and hired thugs, to attack peaceful protesters.
Sunday was only one example of this tactic, designed to make people fearful of joining the protest movement.
Since the start of this uprising at least 120 non-violent protesters have been killed, with the biggest loss of life on one day being on the 18th March. 52 people died on the day that the organisers had called the 'Friday of dignity.’ There is also the worrying trend of people who have gone to protests and not returned, vanishing without a trace.
The government has tried to explain away the deaths, alternatively suggesting that the number of deaths has been exaggerated, or that the protesters attacked the security forces and Republican Guard.
State media then corroborates all of this. Switching on Yemen State TV you will find details of plots being hatched by the opposition coalition, weapons being hidden away in the protest camp, illicit relationships between the young protesters, al-Jazeera being at the centre of an Israeli plot to take over Yemen, and 15 million turning out across the country in support of the President. A particularly memorable moment was when the female presenter began crying whilst telling the viewers that Yemen has more democracy than the USA. Even the most ardent Saleh supporters cringed.
Yemenis largely ignore these lies and fabrications, state TV is seen as a joke. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that many Yemenis do not have satellite television, and therefore the state is their primary source of news. Therefore, the idea of a Zionist-Crusader plot to destabilise Yemen and the wider Arab region is seen as fact.
International media organisations are having a hard time reporting in Yemen. The scourge of Arab dictators, al-Jazeera Arabic, is now officially banned, the door to their offices "sealed with wax."
The number of Western reporters can be counted on one hand, with around half their number being deported just before the massacre on the 'Friday of dignity.’
Even Gadaffi is allowing more foreign reporters than Saleh.
One event the Saleh regime does want reporters to see is the rally held in support of the President on Friday. The numbers at this weekly charade have been quite big, however there are videos and documents which show that many of those attending are paid. Sources say that the country is on the verge of bankruptcy thanks to the millions that the regime is spending to show it has support.
Despite the payments, those attending the protests in support of the President seem to be decreasing each week, especially with the continuing defection of tribal sheikhs, a major source of a government rent-a-crowd.
The large pro-Saleh rallies only seem to occur on Fridays. This is not the case with the pro-democracy protests. The number of marches has picked up recently, and they often leave a trail of graffiti denouncing the regime. In covering this graffiti up the regime has shown an efficiency that it has sadly lacked in practically every other project it has attempted over the last few decades. Black paint is strewn over the graffiti, hardly hiding the fact that people aren’t happy with Saleh. If anything, it gives an eerie sense of a police state, which, to be fair, Yemen is not.
Yemenis are currently having to deal with intermittent power cuts, at my own count there were four on Monday. The gas shortages have led to angry locals blocking roads in their neighbourhoods, carrying empty gas barrels. A family member went to the gas station to discover that 10,000 barrels of gas lay empty.
The electricity and gas shortages are both being blamed on the protests, with state propaganda telling Yemenis that opposition tribesmen in Marib are destroying power lines, and that the opposition parties are preventing gas trucks from entering Sana’a. The accused tribe in Marib have angrily denied the allegations, saying that they announce publically when they commit destructive acts, as they have done in the past.
Evidence is growing that the gas shortages are being carried out deliberately by the government, with the only gas available being distributed to certain 'respected’ individuals in each neighbourhood, who then hand it out to ruling party supporters.
It has just been announced on State TV that gas will miraculously be available again, thanks to the Americans persuading the opposition coalition to allow it back into the capital. It appears that the tactic has not worked, just like the other tactics the regime has employed. Many of these tactics bear striking similarities with the tactics of Ben Ali and Mubarak. The end result also looks like it will be strikingly similar.
Abubakr Al-Shamahi is a Politics student at SOAS, University of London and is the editor of Comment Middle East. He is currently in Sana’a.