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Protesters may not get a say in Yemen's future

Despite their tenacity and desire to fashion a new order, protesters face a threat that it is the contest between President Saleh's family and a rival clan that will decide what change, if any, comes.

June 12, 2011|By Alice Fordham, Los Angeles Times
  • A Yemeni tribesman loyal to anti-government protesters demanding an end to the nearly 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh patrols a street in Sana, the capital.
A Yemeni tribesman loyal to anti-government protesters demanding an end… (Wadia Mohammed, EPA )

Reporting from Sana, Yemen — For months, the protesters have made their home in Change Square, a colorful patchwork of improvised tents, generators with snaking wires, bags of mildly narcotic khat leaves slung over handles of ceremonial daggers and stalls selling the ubiquitous snack of egg-and-potato sandwiches.

It looks and sounds like the camps pitched in Cairo and other cities during the "Arab Spring," with posters honoring those killed in attacks by state security forces, slogans urging President Ali Abdullah Saleh to relinquish power, and a festive atmosphere of proud activism after decades of autocratic rule.

Despite their clear tenacity and desire to fashion a new political order, however, the protesters face a real threat that Yemen's future could be decided without them, as Saleh's family competes with its main rival, the powerful Ahmar clan, to decide what change, if any, should come to Yemeni politics.

Saleh is now in Saudi Arabia being treated for injuries from a rocket attack on his presidential compound. But his possibly temporary exit was not the result of popular pressure from Change Square. It was propelled by the clashes in the streets of Sana, the capital, between Saleh's forces and fighters loyal to the Ahmar family, a battle that some analysts say was instigated by Saleh to marginalize the popular protesters.

With Saleh unlikely to return any time soon, slow negotiations on the way forward are taking place between the ruling party, international mediators and a coalition of opposition politicians who have kept their distance from the demonstrators who planted the seeds for Saleh's nearly 33-year reign to end.

And despite their resolve, there are differing opinions about the future in the protesters' encampment. Some lean toward the Islamist party Islah, and others are diehard democracy activists who want to build a new civil society, untainted by the military or the tribal conflicts and patronage that have long defined the country's politics.

Many observers believe that Yemen after Saleh will be far from the democratic state envisaged by Change Square's idealistic crowds. Saudi Arabia, Yemen's rich and influential neighbor, is likely to take the lead in attempts to stabilize the violent and impoverished country, and creating civic structures probably won't be a priority.

"Saudi Arabia does not want to see state collapse in Yemen, but neither does it wish to see the emergence of a genuinely democratic and inclusive political settlement that could threaten its own internal political arrangements," said Sarah Phillips, a Yemen expert at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Others say that Yemen's tribal society is incapable of democracy.

"You think there will be a populist Yemeni government that's going to focus on development?" said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There are no real political parties; the civil service is corrupted and weak."

In Change Square, the buoyant revolutionaries dismissed such pessimism.

Adel Muozzab, a doctoral candidate in governance and democracy, pointed out that guns weren't permitted in the camp, and that the peaceful revolution had persuaded even tribal sheiks to lay down their weapons.

"The youth is the best way to a modern state," he said.

Mahfouz Dabwan, a member of the army who defected to the protest movement, said that a lot of soldiers had done the same thing and that commanding generals had promised them they would be included in the new Yemen.

"Our steadfastness is our main guarantee," he said.

Ghadeer Dahwan, a 19-year-old student, said she wanted the new era to include equality for women.

"We must change the view of the community," she said, to approving interjections from women clustering around her. "They undermine women's rights and consider them fit just for cooking and cleaning."

Others, who had been part of the old guard, had no regrets of casting their lot with the people.

"I feel overwhelmingly happy among the people, because they are born again," said Fouad Dahabeh, an opposition member of parliament who resigned to join the camp three months ago. "The oldest and the youngest are learning at the same school, learning freedom, cooperation, how to sacrifice for others, bravery and freedom."

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