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Yemen protesters share one goal but have divergent visions

Everyone wants President Ali Abdullah Saleh out, but youths are calling for a democracy and Islamist tribesmen are seeking to hold on to their power.

March 04, 2011|By Haley Sweetland Edwards, Los Angeles Times
  • Anti-government Yemeni protesters in Sana, the capital, carry army officer Hashim Abdullah Salah after he joined their protest demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh outside Sana University.
Anti-government Yemeni protesters in Sana, the capital, carry army officer… (Khaled Abdullah, Reuters )

Reporting from Sana, Yemen — The radical Yemeni feminist has almost nothing in common with the Islamic tribal sheik, except for a willingness to die for the same cause.

"I'd rather get shot on the street than live under Saleh," said Sarah, a fiery 23-year-old college graduate and social worker, referring to Yemen's longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Nasser Saber, a 27-year-old sheik from impoverished Marib province, where electricity is a luxury and female literacy is almost unheard of, spoke in similar terms. "Saleh must leave," he said. "We are ready to give our blood for our freedom."

Sarah, who asked that only her first name be used for fear of reprisals, imagines overthrowing Saleh and replacing his government with a secular, pluralistic democracy. But with a tiny middle class, virtually no civil society and a very small band of educated youths — the engine behind other Arab revolutions — Yemen, most observers think, is more likely to turn toward Saber's vision.

Saber, whose life centers on conservative Islam and tribal traditions, wants a government that can deliver services and prosperity to his people rooted in Sharia, or Islamic law.

The dissimilarities between these two equally passionate protesters underscore the central tension at play within demonstrations against the ruler of more than three decades, who has been meeting this week with key opposition figures to discuss their five-point plan on the future of his embattled government. The opposition wants Saleh to resign, but a government statement released Friday said the president had not accepted any such demand.

On Tuesday's "day of rage," students, Islamists, socialists and sheiks joined in massive, carnival-like demonstrations in Sana, the capital, where toothless tribesmen with daggers slung around their waists danced alongside college students in graphic T-shirts and jeans. A radical sheik and a human rights lawyer took turns beseeching crowds to imagine the future of Yemen, their crackling visions light-years apart.

If this awkward alliance of adversaries succeeds in overthrowing the president, "then it will be ugly," Sarah said. "We are fighting for democracy beside people who don't have any interest in democracy."

Adel Surabi, a spokesman for Sana's youth organizers, echoed her words. "The tribes are here not because they support democracy and freedom, but because they hate Saleh," he said. "They will hijack our revolution."

If the youths' thoughts of the future sound dire, it's nonetheless a widely held opinion. In Yemen, one of the region's poorest countries, tribes, religious leaders and their political arms are far stronger than pro-democracy youths. The armed forces, with branches commanded by Saleh's relatives, have thus far remained loyal to the president.

"The youths do not have the numbers in Yemen right now," said Abdul-Ghani Iryani, a prominent political analyst. "They need to rely on other groups that don't share their goals."

And that's the problem. Any revolution here must occur on the backs not only of people like Sarah, but of a large cross section of Saleh's sundry enemies, such as the separatist leaders in the long-restive south, Houthi rebels in the north and tribal leaders, like Saber, whose goals don't jibe with a Western-style democratic movement.

In Saber's hometown, from where he traveled to the protests, tribal councils, such as the one he belongs to, have served as the region's de facto law enforcement for hundreds of years. Militias are formed and justice is dispensed according to tribal traditions and the tenets of Sharia. Most tribal leaders have no interest in ceding this power to a central government that they do not somehow control.

Saleh, a tribal strongman himself, was long able to exert control by plying other tribal leaders with money and promises. When his government's coffers began drying up in recent years, he was unable to continue to purchase tribes' loyalty, which is part of the reason that many tribesmen like Saber are betting a new government could better provide the resources they need. Saber's town has no hospitals, no university and very few paved roads.

"We need the government to give us funds and professional employees who will provide those services," Saber said. "Saleh gives us nothing."

Some of the assembled leaders at the anti-Saleh protest Tuesday — including Sheik Abdul Majeed Zindani, whom the U.S. has accused of being linked to Al Qaeda — said they imagined Yemen becoming an Islamist caliphate.

Others, like Sarah, whose family comes from the liberal echelons of formerly independent and socialist southern Yemen, where a history of relative gender equality and secularism is evident, cringe at the idea. "That's not our vision," she said.

"Our only hope now is to somehow build a bridge between us and the tribes and everyone else out there," she said, gesturing in the direction of the roiling protest on the other side of town. "Is it possible? I don't know. Maybe. But it won't happen any time soon."

Edwards is a special correspondent.

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