Jonas Brännberg Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI in Sweden) spoke to an exiled activist from Yemen about the situation.
In the last two weeks, the nascent protest movement in Yemen has exploded into massive demonstrations. Demands for democracy and self determination, and on social issues, are all coming together in the protests. On Thursday 3 February, more than a million people came onto the streets when Yemen followed suit with an Egypt-style ‘Day of anger
In November, the president’s party, the General Peoples Congress (GPC), stated that it wanted to change the constitution to make it possible for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to be re-elected indefinitely. This resulted in all parts of the opposition leaving parliament in protest and calling for demonstrations. Tens of thousands took part in demonstrations in the capital Sana’a and several other big cities in the north part of the country with slogans like “No to hereditary, No to Kingdom”. (Like Hosni Mubarak, Saleh had planned for his son to take power after him.) They compared Ali Abdullah Saleh with former Imam kings saying ”Imam Yahya 20 years, Imam Ahmad 15 years, Imam Ali 33 years”.
But the real change in the situation took place after the protests began in Tunisia. The students in Sana’a University started. First, there were just a few hundred but the protest spread through Facebook and other means, and in three days they became thousands who protested in the university area. After the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia, tens of thousands of students came out with slogans like “Leave before we force you to leave!”.
Police tried to stop those without student identification that wanted to join the demonstration in the university area but they could not. Then the students decided to go outside the university area, to make it possible for more people to join them. Despite attacks from the police, the students occupied the main street in Sana’a.
The students also went on strike but on the third day of the strike the military came in and broke it up. Some students were arrested, others were just beaten up on the spot. This created a huge anger and, together with the calls for demonstrations by the opposition, the demonstrations became much bigger.
On the 25 January there were demonstrations of 50,000 in Sana’a and 300,000 in Ta’izz (close to the southern part of the country). The GPC sent thugs to attack the demonstration in Sana’a. In Ta’izz, the police and army attacked the march. On 3 February, the Yemen ‘Day of Anger’, 100,000 demonstrators occupied the street outside the Justice Ministry saying: “The people want the regime to change!” Helicopters flew overhead but there was no attack on the demo. In Ta’izz 400,000 took part and in Ibb 200,000. The demonstrations have generally been smaller in Sana’a than in other cities. This is probably because Sana’a is part of the tribal area that the Saleh family originates from. The tribal system is still very strong, especially in the northern part of the country.
In Aden, the reports say that one million came together but in two different demonstrations of approximately 500,000 each: one for the fall of the regime and one for complete separation of the south from the north.
But the protests are not only connected to the question of regime change and the national question. In the city of Mukalla in the south, a women and a man were killed by the police in a demonstration of teachers demanding that their wages should be paid. Since then there has been a demonstration every day in that city, but this has not been reported in the media.
In the southern part of the country there have been mass protests since 2007. The main demand is self-determination in a separate state (like it was before the 1990 unification). The call for self-determination is based on the fact that:
1The wealth from the natural resources (especially natural gas) is funnelled to the president’s regime and foreign companies.
2The people of the south feel colonised by the Saleh regime and their supporters among the sheiks from the north who, for example, illegally grab huge, valuable pieces of land in the south. After the civil war in 1994 almost all state employees in the south were fired and the regime brought in people from the president’s party from the north.
345 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. After Saleh’s election promise of an “End of poverty programme” in 2006, poverty has increased from 30 to 45 per cent of the population.
The massive demonstration has forced the president to say that he will not run for election again, and that his son will not stand in the coming elections. But his term does not end until 2013. Saleh has also promised to “end poverty” and called for “national dialogue” with all the parties.
It is a bluff. The president has not given us anything yet. In 2006, he also promised not to run in the election but “changed his mind” just three months before election day. “Under the demands of the people, I will run again,” he said, after staging a paid demonstration in his support.
You say that after Thursday’s massive demonstration, the minister of defence has opened the military draft again and thousands have joined the army. Do you think the regime has the strength to crush the protests in blood?
No, those who joined the army ranks do it because of the huge unemployment, not because they support the regime. The soldiers are part of the people. Especially the new recruits are close to the people, even though there is massive propaganda against ‘separatists’. On top of that, a Fatwa has been issued by the Muslim sheiks close to the regime against all who take part in the demonstrations. Despite this, the protests continue. The students are still on strike and some university teachers have joined them and are now threatened with losing their jobs and eviction from the state-owned houses they live in.
Saleh is trying the scare tactic of the threat of civil war and chaos if he falls. On Sunday 6 February, there was an attempt to assassinate a prominent member of the opposition with a road bomb. Hamid El Ahmar is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and part of the same ‘red family’ as Saleh that economically dominates the country. He owns a bank, the biggest mobile phone company and much more.
Despite the big protests, the opposition does not have much credibility. Religious fundamentalism does not have strong support and no one wants the former Communist Party back. Until 1990, backed by the Soviet Union, it ruled the south in misery.
There is an urgent need for an independent force of the working class and the poor, which can unite people against this dictatorship backed by imperialism, but also respect the legitimate demands from people of the south for self-determination. A political revolution must be connected to a social revolution.