News / Middle East

Yemen's Opposition Binds Young Activists, Armed Fighters

A former army officer, who defected to join anti-government protesters, shouts slogans during a rally demanding the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana'a October 4, 2011.
A former army officer, who defected to join anti-government protesters, shouts slogans during a rally demanding the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana'a October 4, 2011.

Young activists in Yemen spearheaded the uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, turning grassroots protests into a national movement.  Now, with pro-democracy demonstrations in their ninth month, many fear their efforts have been co-opted by other opposition groups. 

The aims of the Yemeni youth movement are clear, and echo a call heard across the Middle East and North Africa all year. 

A member of the Media Committee for Change, activist Adel Abdo Arrabeai, says the main goal is to form a modern civil society.  In order to make that happen, he adds, Yemen's long-time leader must step down.

And that is a central dilemma of the pro-democracy movement: wanting President Saleh gone has won the protesters many allies, but many of them may not want a civil state.

Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee says defecting military commanders and anti-Saleh tribal leaders are exploiting the youth movement, a development he feels is very dangerous.

"The pro-democracy movement is very weak," said Arrabyee. "If it were strong, the Yemenis would have succeeded.  Now, we have been nine months [and] we did no succeed. Why?  Because of the old and traditional rivalry, because of the tribal leaders and defected commanders."

Foremost among the military-trained leaders is Ali Mohsen, a major general in command of Yemen's armored units who has switched to open support of the opposition.  Others in the anti-Saleh movement include fighters loyal to Abdel Hamid al Ahmar of the influential Ahmar family.  Activist Arrabeai says he is well aware of the limits of some of these partnerships.

Their only point in common so far, he says, is the focus on removing the president.  None of the activists' allies in the opposition, he adds, have shown any indication they want a civil state.

More immediately, military violence has often eclipsed young protesters' efforts.  Running gun and rocket battles in the capital have left ordinary citizens terrified, while fueling government claims that the opposition offers only chaos.

Yemen's foreign minister recently dismissed the pro-democracy movement as having been co-opted.

In addition, the increasing use of armed supporters to protect protesters has led some to question whether the youth have let their position be compromised.  Journalist Arrabyee says it is only natural that unarmed demonstrators, under attack from government forces, would seek protection, but activist Arrabeai concedes that some parties are forcing the movement toward violence.

He says the youth movement adheres to one principle and that is peaceful protest, and the greatest challenge of any revolutionary is keeping that as the basis for action.

Journalist Arrabyee worries that peaceful or not, the pro-democracy movement has a bigger problem:  it is, he says, simply outnumbered.

"The young people could not do anything because they are few.  The independent people, the real independent people, are very few among the whole protesters," said Arraabyee.

Independence, in the broader sense of the word, may be more deeply rooted in Yemen than first imagined.  

The director of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, Stephen Steinbeiser, believes the youth movement could yet find a binding, common cause with another temporary alliance - Yemen's anti-Saleh tribes.

"Yemenis are generally very proud of their democracy," he said. "Now how they define that is very different than how people who come from a European or a North American background [might].  There is a sense that the people have the power in Yemen, and in fact that's also a very tribal notion, to some extent: that the tribes have more power than a central government."

It's an unusual idea, and according to Steinbeiser a complicated one.  But, he adds, he thinks the Yemeni people consider themselves "controllers of their own destiny" - a concept that could be fundamental to a Yemeni idea of democracy.

It may take some compromise and adjustment, but ultimately the youth movement may have more enduring allies than it seems right now.

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