Thursday, April 28, 2011

Yemen's Crisis: Opposition Splits from the Street

By Erik Stier

On Tuesday, when Yemen's opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), agreed to a weekend initiative that offered immunity to President Ali Abdullah Saleh in exchange for his resignation in 30 days, street protesters throughout the country were enraged. The way the mostly young activists of the demonstrations saw it, their grassroots movement was being usurped and their voices drowned out. "They think they can end this without us," said Mohammad Al-Sayadi, a demonstrator in Sana'a, "but they're mistaken."

On Wednesday, thousands of protesters staged a march to oppose the initiative, streaming towards the state television building, a long-contested area in a city where army brigades that had defected from the regime traded fire with government troops just weeks ago. Along the path was a stadium that had for months been a campground for Saleh supporters bused in from out-of-town. It was no surprise when the march was met by Kalashnikov-wielding loyalists. (See scenes from Yemen.)

At least 10 were killed in the melee, according to doctors on the scene, making it the capital's bloodiest battle since March 18, when 52 people were gunned down by snipers just after Friday prayers. Dozens more were injured in Wednesday's gunfire, some critically. "They were ready by the time we arrived — on the streets, on rooftops, inside buildings," says Sadeq Abdel Hudaima, 27, a demonstrator laid up in a field hospital. Three bullets had been removed from his leg.

Yemen's protesters are no strangers to violence. At least 130 have been killed since calls for Saleh's resignation began in January. Demonstrators know well that every time they march, they are almost guaranteed to encounter violence. "We're going to show the world who Ali Abdullah Saleh really is," says Salah al-Sharify, a youth organizer who has been injured in marches on numerous occasions. "And if the JMP wants to join Saleh and become part of his government, these deaths will be on their hands too." (See "Yemen in Crisis: Last Impasse Before the Storm?")

In addition to rejecting the immunity offer, protesters continue to harbor a deep distrust of Saleh's regime. They are appalled that the initiative gives the president 30 days to hand in his resignation, believing that it is tantamount to letting him stay indefinitely. Indeed, according to the initiative, Saleh's resignation must be accepted by the parliament; and, at the moment, the President's General People's Congress party has a majority in that body.

Amid Wednesday's chaos, with the injured pouring into a mosque-turned-hospital by way of ambulance, taxi, and motorcycle, protesters were already talking about further escalation. A speaker on the protest's center stage called out for a march on the presidential palace, the most heavily fortified section of the capital, to take place after prayers on Friday. Thousands in the crowd beneath him cheered. "Martyrs are loved by God," they shouted. (See "Saleh: The President Who Cried 'Al-Qaeda.'")

There's a new urgency to Yemen's protest movement, and with reason — on Sunday May 1, representatives from the government and opposition are slated to meet in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to finalize the initiative, which was sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council and endorsed by the U.S. and E.U. Whether a sudden increase in violence will derail the deal remains unclear, but according to analysts, it could present an opportunity for either side to back out of an unpopular proposal. "There are factions within both the JMP and the regime that feel that the military option is in their interest, that they can gain much more through violence than they could by going down the democratic path," says Abdul Ghani Al-Iryani, a Sana'a based independent political analyst. "If a pretext for violence is given to those who want to undermine the initiative, they're going to take it. And as soon as the real shooting starts, the possibility of a peaceful transfer becomes impossible."

The threat of widespread violence has loomed large ever since Saleh's longtime ally Major General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar defected from the regime a month ago and pledged his troops to support demonstrators. The president responded with a series of sharp references to the prospect of civil war, and mere hours before accepting the GCC proposal, accused the JMP of pushing the country closer to the brink. (See TIME's video on volatile Yemen.)

But now that both Saleh and the JMP have publicly accepted the deal, withdrawal could create a backlash in the international community, which has a vested interest in returning a semblance of stability to the frail nation. Yemen is home to the region's most active al-Qaeda franchise, and is a focal point of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. More likely to sway political leadership than U.S. coaxing, however, is GCC leader Saudi Arabia, Yemen's largest aid donor and the only country to contribute direct budgetary assistance to Sana'a. Whoever ends up leading Yemen will need support from its northern neighbor.

Neither the government nor the JMP have indicated that they're stepping back from the deal yet, but given the capricious nature of the country's political leadership, a resolution to Yemen's crisis could still be a long way off.

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