Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis demonstrated in major towns across the country today, demanding a transition of power and the prosecution of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his close associates. But observers expect the youthful pro-democracy protest movement will be “squeezed” out of any transitional process.
In the capital, Sana’a, protesters marched on the official residence of Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s acting president, where he was meeting opposition parties for the first time since Saleh was flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment following the June 3 attack on the presidential compound.
In the largest protests since Saleh’s departure, the demonstrators chanted “The people want a transitional council” and “No dialogue with the remnants of the regime,” calling on Hadi to support democratic reform.
The government and opposition failed to agree on a transition of power to end the four-month-long crisis, but they will form a joint committee to prepare the country for a “democratic transition in the future,” opposition figures claimed.
A senior government official told the Financial Times that political transition was “out of the question” before Saleh’s return.
The opposition expected to discuss the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, which calls for fresh elections and Saleh’s formal resignation. But Hadi would only discuss restoring order and the withdrawal of the al-Ahmar tribal militia, Saleh’s principal rivals, from Sana’a.
“Both sides described the meeting as a first step toward reconciliation,” The New York Times reports.
Vice president Hadi also met with Leslie Campbell, Middle East and North Africa director for the National Democratic Institute, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. Campbell recently encouraged the U.S. to engage the credible interlocutors it will find within Yemen’s vibrant opposition.
Washington needs to support the youth-based protest movement which has been pressing for democracy but lack the leverage needed to ensure genuine reform and seems likely to lose out to well-armed tribal opposition groups in a settlement brokered by autocratic Gulf states.
“Their voice is the one’s that’s going to get squeezed out,” says Chris Boucek, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We have to make sure that voice doesn’t get drowned out by the elites just reshuffling the deck chairs and restating the status quo.”
Some civil society activists were willing to give Hadi a chance to prove his reformist credentials.
“We not have any problem if Hadi takes control of the government. He is respected by the people,” said Tawakkul Karman, head of Women Journalists Without Chains. But today’s protests suggest growing wariness, and she has warned that Saleh’s return as president would provoke violence.
These protests have taken many different forms: slogans, photo displays, revolutionary songs, theatre, poetry, exhibitions and artists’ workshops, festive and family gatherings, newspapers, websites and community groups, debates and civil disobedience training. Unexpectedly, thousands of tribesmen laid down their arms in favour of peaceful protest and joined the sit-ins. This new form of resistance has shaken received ideas about tribal behaviour (conservatism, backwardness and violence)….. The national flag and anthem have replaced the sectarian and regional symbols of previous protest movements. Many participants and observers wonder whether they should fear Yemeni unity unravelling or whether it is being strengthened. The growing mobilisations and collaboration of different movements have made credible the idea of convergence.
Women Journalists Without Chains is a media rights NGO supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.