x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

'We have known nothing but war'

Looking back, Yemen's 2011 Yemen is a divided country with a complex array of tribes, sects and opposition parties. This presented challenges during the uprising, as it will in the future.

A protester joins a rally in the capital in September, with an slogan in Arabic on his chest that says: “Don’t think that youth will be defeated”.
A protester joins a rally in the capital in September, with an slogan in Arabic on his chest that says: “Don’t think that youth will be defeated”.

SANAA // After 10 months of upheaval, Sanaa appears to be returning to some semblance of the ordinary. In the neighbourhoods that were scenes of the most intense fighting this year, burnt-out government buildings and bullet-riddled houses now stand eerily quiet. Most residents of the Yemeni capital do not seem to mind the almost other-worldly silence one bit.

At the end of a year that began with unprecedented peaceful protests against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, more than a thousand people are dead from politically related violence. An economy that was already struggling at the start of 2011 is on its knees, and the delicately balanced system of tribes and political and military factions that had kept Mr Saleh in power for 33 years is now in tatters.

Exhausted by the Arab world's longest-running uprising of the year, Yemen's 24 million people now hope the full implementation of a political deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United Nations will firm up the fragile peace.

"We have known nothing but war for months now, and I hope this will change the situation so we can go back to our work and normal lives," said Ali Al Wazeer, a shopkeeper in Taiz, Yemen's third-largest city.

With strong indications that within days, perhaps hours, the unpredictable and obstinate Mr Saleh may be on his way to the United States for medical treatment, there would be good reason for Mr Al Wazeer and other like-minded Yemenis to believe that their wishes will be realised - good reason, that is, were it not for lingering differences over the terms of the shaky peace.

Under the deal signed by Mr Saleh last month in Saudi Arabia, the president is to be spared prosecution in exchange for handing power to his deputy, Abdurabu Mansur Al Hadi, who is to work with the government, including opposition parties, before a February presidential vote.

The problem is that Mr Saleh's opponents themselves are hardly unified behind the deal, and nowhere are those differences more evident than in the tent city in western Sanaa that was set up by a few dozen self-described "independent youth" at the start of their protests last January.

Conceived as a temporary encampment, it now stretches on a main city thoroughfare for about three kilometres past the city's two university campuses. Although Islah, the largest opposition political party, has thrown its support behind the GCC- and UN-brokered transition deal, there are still thousands, if not tens of thousands, of protesters in the camp for whom that is not enough. They are determined to stay put.

"We came here because we want a new civil society, not just to get rid of Saleh," said Mohammed Al Saidi, a student. "Everything - the whole political system - needs [to be] changed to get rid of corruption and for real democracy."

Last week, in a show of unity between the activists of the two cities at the centre of Yemen's strife, thousands of demonstrators marched from Taiz to Sanaa shouting "No to immunity!" to underscore their demand that Mr Saleh be prosecuted for his alleged role in the deaths of protesters killed by his security forces.

As they completed their four-day, 255km trek, government troops opened fire with water cannons, tear gas and live bullets. At least nine protesters were killed and another 50 wounded. The protesters' determination - and the military's excessive use of force - were an apt coda on the year.

There has been no single template for the Arab uprisings of 2011. Compared to those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, however, the 11 months of protests against Mr Saleh were fiendishly complex.

The rebellion broke down along military, tribal, family, class and business lines. On top of that, there were the continuing battles between the government and Al Qaeda, on the one hand, and between the regime in Sanaa and separatist Houthi insurgents in the north, on the other. The Houthis, members of the Shiite Zaydi sect, did not take part in the transition deal.

Yemen's upheaval was different from its Arab neighbours in still other ways.

Unlike those successful North African rebellions, it does not have a large middle class nor high internet use. It does, however, have political pluralism in the form of multiparty opposition. This meant the opposition was more divided.

"This meant Yemen was never going to be able to complete its revolution like Tunisia and the others without help," explains Abdul Ghani Al Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst.

"Yemen reached the end of the road. It faced a precipice, which would have seen us fall into civil war if it had kept going. The GGC deal is the bridge on the road to a future we now get to decide. It's not telling us what that future should be. But now it is up to us to continue the journey."

The events of 2011 offer little assurance that journey will be easy. Yemen is the Arabian Peninsula's poorest country - and getting poorer. Power outages are routine. Hunger is on the rise.

And standing like an elephant in the room is Yemen's military, still the country's most powerful institution despite its internal divisions.

Despite the lack of representation by the youth movement in the transition process, the continuation of their protests will keep pressure on the development of change. February's election is a foregone conclusion. As agreed in the transition plan the vice president, Abdurabu Mansur Al Hadi, will be supported by both political sides as Mr Saleh's successor.

The Houthis are represented by one cabinet post in the new unity government but fighting continued in Demmaj against militias and Salafists until a ceasefire last Thursday. Most crucially, the Southern Movement still lacks representation and their grievances will have to be addressed in the period of transition before parliamentary elections in two years, said Mr Al Iryani.

The most pressing concern, highlighted by last Saturday's killings, remains the process of demilitarisation and unification of the fractured army. The armed forces high command is in the hands of Mr Saleh's family. His eldest son, Ahmed Ali, commands the Republican Guard, while his nephews Yahya, Ammar and Tareq hold key posts in Yemen's counter-terrorism and intelligence units.

"The military has been the source of all the problems in Yemen," says Mr Iryani. "It's a collection of military tribes." Without their support, he says, the GCC plan will founder.

At the end of a pivotal year whose consequences remain far from clear, Mohammed Al Haj prefers optimism.

"His [Saleh's] family are still in charge, they still control the military," said Mr Al Haj, a professor at Sanaa University. "But if they can be eased out bit by bit - if there is enough patience on all sides - there might be progress for Yemen."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae