Mark Twain said:”Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” For many, Yemen is one of the least-known countries in the world, newsworthy only for Islamist militants, or its backward, “savage” exoticism. Yet Yemen, situated on the south west corner of the Arabian Peninsula, cradled successive, significant civilisations: being ruled by Minean, Sabaean and Himyarite civilisations, each depending for their fabulous wealth on the incense trade. Myrrh and frankincense were the oil of the ancient world: they fuelled sacred rituals across myriad ancient cultures, including Egyptian, Greek and Roman. Now fast forward through 2000 years of colonialism, internal conflicts, dictorship and poverty. Today, buoyed on the tidal wave of Middle Eastern uprisings and revolts, Yemen is the subject of international attention once more.
Although peaceful dissenting voices have existed for years (such as the southern al-Hirak al-Janubi movement, and civil society groups in Sana’a and Ta’iz), the immediate impetus for the Peace Revolution came in January, when events in Tunisia stirred, and erupted the night that Mubarak of Egypt fell. Yemenis came out in their millions – men, and women, teenagers and children; townsmen were joined by unarmed tribesman (remarkable in the second most heavily armed country in the world), and then eventually by the Political Opposition. Inspired and organised, millions protested – setting up tents in the main squares. The poor people of Yemen, whom many analysts thought would not revolt out of underdevelopment, rose from their poverty and with one voice cried “Irhal” (Go!) to their tin-pot dictator. Within Yemen and beyond, Yemenis began to harness the power of solidarity and support through traditional and new media: handbills, newspapers, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, with magnificent artistry and creativity.
We tossed and turned with every coming Friday; that would be the day Ali Abdullah Saleh would Go. But the People have endured four months of misery: no electricity, no water, no gas, no oil; no life. For 33 years, Saleh was cruel and exploitative, abusing his own people; his removal would seem as long, bloody and deceitful as his rule.
First, the JMP (Joint Meeting Party – a disparate, mixed group of people representing the Political Opposition) tried to negotiate the terms on which Saleh might step aside peacefully; instead, he began his tirade and simultaneously let loose his regime thugs on the peaceful protestors, killing scores.
Then, the “Yemen file” was passed to our Gulf neighbours, especially the Sa’udi Kingdom. The GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council) Transition Proposal started a twisted drama more suited to a ghastly soap-opera. The proposal was flawed in origin and design, being a selection of Saleh’s statements stitched together, and handed to the self-interested GCC. As such, it was never going to address the root cause of the problem: the corrupt and murderous regime. The GCC’s apathy left Saleh feeling stronger; he declined to sign the deal, and began to provoke and attack the people, drawing the country and tribes into his cycle of divisive violence.
Even now, after an attack on his Presidential compound wounded him and many cronies gravely, Yemenis remain unsure of his condition, since the drama continues in some secretive hospital in Riyadh. The future of Yemen hangs equally in the balance, as his sons, nephews and lackeys jostle for position and power in his absence, and the Opposition continue to be as ineffective in his absence as they were in his presence.
Meantime, the demands and aims of the Peaceful Revolution of Yemeni Youth struggle to be heard, both domestically and internationally:
– An end to oligarchic dictatorship, and its replacement with parliamentary democracy;
– A transitional period, to build civil society and promote rights and responsibilities;
– A separation of powers to ensure professional judiciary, military and security forces;
– A rehabilitation of the educational system, the economy, and national infrastructure.
All the People know Yemen’s complexities and problems; no one is blindly optimistic but rather, cautiously hopeful. The road ahead is full of bumps, twists and turns, with the occasional crash ahead; indeed, casualities are already mounting. But to tell 24 million Yemenis that their hopes and aims are not worth the journey is to be heartless as well as mindless. We don’t know when; we don’t how; and we don’t know the cost; but we all know for sure that freedom will come to those who believe. Freedom will come to Yemen.
19th June 2011