Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 13:45 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 13:45 | SYDNEY

Yemen is not Egypt, but...

14 February 2011 09:33

Vanessa Newby is a PhD candidate at Griffith University. She is in Yemen as part of her research on public diplomacy among Islamic states.

'Why have you come to Yemen at such a tense time'' asked a journalist and activist the day after I arrived in Sanaa. She continued, 'I am very afraid tomorrow there will be violence'. 

Her words took me aback, because anyone wandering around the sleepy streets that comprise Sanaa's old city last week could have been forgiven for forgetting that Yemen is considered a state on the brink of failure, with regular anti-government protests. Perhaps it's the Qat, the warm sun, or maybe the thin mountain air, which yields lower levels of oxygen. For whatever reason, there appeared to be an atmosphere of relaxed calm about the place. The ancient souks bustled with life and the Qat trade maintained its usual vigorous pace. 

Sanaa old city market. Photo by the author.

The violence in the protests of the last few days has taken me by surprise. I took a walk to the new city on 3 February, which had been announced as Yemen's 'Day of Rage', to take a look at what the pro-government protesters were doing. The first thing I noticed was that crowds were already heading home at 10am, many of them with children and all of them carrying official-looking, uniform placards and leaflets. Later, my friend informed me that she had witnessed breakfast being handed out at around 8am for the hungry demonstrators. 

When I rounded into Tahrir Square where the demonstration was being held, I saw a thousands of protesters chanting and jumping up and down, and plenty of people standing around watching. Security appeared minimal and restricted to the rooftops surrounding the square. 

Sanaa, Yemen. Photo by the author.

My friend, who was at the anti-Government protests, noted their peaceful nature and that no-one was calling for the departure of President Saleh; rather, they were simply calling for change. The military kept the two protests entirely separate without needing to use force. By 3pm, traditionally Qat chewing time in Yemen, everyone had packed up and gone home.

But for some in Yemen, the changes occurring in Egypt and Tunisia do remain an inspiration. 

I spent an afternoon with some students in an upmarket café in Sanaa listening to their plans for change. One common theme was how inspired they felt by regional events. One female journalist I met wanted to take the opportunity to push for more women's rights. She complained that, despite the strict dress code in the north of Yemen (which comprises the niqab and which is worn by very nearly all women), there remains a great deal of sexual harassment. Another student leader wanted to use the current mood to start a student political party.

Despite the worthy sentiments of these activists, I was left with the impression that they had no clear goals. Clearly the experience of just being able to talk more freely about these things was novel.

On my limited travels around the northern mountain areas of Haraz I took any opportunity to ask people what they thought about the protests. People wanted change — they wanted less poverty and more development. Otherwise, the responses I received had two common themes. First, that the people in the north did not want the country to be divided; and second, a sense that many of the security problems in Yemen were occurring with the full knowledge of the Government. 

In the north, people are very conscious of the separatist movement in the south and were concerned that swift, radical change would mean the division of Yemen, not just between north and south but potentially into more fractured states (for example, a breakaway of S’ada province in the north, where the Houthi live). Yemen is described as a tribal state, but these sentiments suggest a stronger concept of statehood in the north than perhaps is acknowledged.

There were several different conspiracy theories about the Government, though it was impossible to gauge how widely shared these are. One said that the government had interests in using Al Qaeda for its own purposes. Another was that the Government had used US bombers to silence separatist movements in the south by telling the Americans they were connected to Al Qaeda. Another theory was that the Government prefers to encourage tourism from the Gulf states because they don't question Yemeni social traditions or the political system, whereas Westerners are more inclined to do so; hence threats to Westerners from Al Qaeda were not dealt with seriously.  

My overall impression of the protest movements in Yemen was that the percentage of people advocating a presidential overthrow is relatively small. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, my sense is that Yemen does not yet have a sufficiently large, educated middle class to initiate a revolution; the majority of rural people simply want higher living standards.

The one thing everyone I spoke to agreed on is that people are no longer afraid to talk about the current political situation. Whether this development and recent changes in Egypt will be sufficient to initiate permanent change is impossible to predict.