By Fernando Carvajal, MA
Consultant based in Sana’a
It has now been nearly twelve months since a group of young independent youth decided to raise the stakes after Yemen’s ‘Day of Rage’. Protests extending from widespread rage against a number of constitutional amendments introduced by the ruling party eventually merged with the tsunami that became the Arab Spring that gripped the Arab world.
This movement has led to a liberalization of thought and speech among ordinary academics, activists and politicians. Yet this ‘liberalization’ has also suffered from stagnation as result of a lack of answers to the basic question, what’s next after President Ali Abdullah Saleh?
The idea of ‘the minute after’ the president’s exit created internal divisions as well as a diplomatic nightmare for the international community. In the case of the latter, the uncertainty of the so-called alternative immediately led to fears of civil war, power vacuum allowing the boogie man al-Qaeda to establish yet another safe haven, and finally the sense of uncertainty served to uncover the lack of understanding on the part of foreign governments and their inability to multi-task in response to a wave of popular revolts. As for the internal divisions, this has been the greatest obstacle to any potential change over the past twelve months. It has prevented the development of a cohesive leadership among the youth; allowed political actors to co-opt the youth; marginalized the youth within the process leading to the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative of April 2011; obscured the demands by independents in Aden, Sana’a and Taiz; obstructed the much needed debate over vital issues that were often the subject of discussion at the Academic Tent; and foremost it contributed to a failed strategy to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the ‘silent majority.’
The answer never came in April, nor after June 3rd, not the moment before November 23rd, not even after President Saleh signed the GCC Initiative in Riyadh and after his most recent exit from Sana’a. Most people I spoke with here in Sana’a search for an answer only to merely say ‘it will come soon insh’allah.’ Since I first asked this same question in late February Yemenis gave two answers; people fear repercussions from publishing their vision or we don’t yet have the people to produce a comprehensive vision for the future of the country.
My response has always been that there are a number of capable people within the political establishment, academia and the business sector to produce a vision for the country, and often I dismiss fear of repercussions as a tired excuse. In particular, this has been the case with regard to work on constitutional amendments. Everyone claims they are in the works by people at Change Square, but not once has anyone referred to written projects on any of the 136 articles.
It has been difficult to find signs of optimism in Yemen, while the outside is simply remains stuck on a dark and violence-prone outlook. Ongoing divisions, even after the swearing in of a coalition government, have prevented positive developments with regard prospects for a reconciliatory dialogue. The Southern Movement has become more vocal in its objection to the presidential election of February 21st, and security continues to deteriorate around the country. The failure to address basic access to fuel supplies and electricity has also contributed to increased pessimism among the people with regard to the potential of the interim government. Such reality continues to support expert opinions from outside Yemen. As Özgür Tüfekçi recently proposed, there is no end in sight to Yemen’s ‘continued crises.’ Many government employees continue to express their anger at the pace of ‘change’ since November 23rd, and it continues to manifest in the form of the so-called ‘parallel revolution’ that recently led to the dismissal of a number of officials including President Saleh’s half brother, Mohammed Abdullah Saleh (Commander of the Air Force).
The truth is that developments on the ground are far more complex and it remains unrealistic to think that a two month-old interim government will be capable of introducing major change. In a recent online exchange I replied to a question over prospects for light at the end of the tunnel. My reply indicated that it would be foolish to expect major change in the next twelve to twenty-four months, but the outlook is tremendously positive if we look pass the next parliamentary elections. This is because the crisis, the revolution of 2011, has shifted the balance of social power from the old guard to the hands of a surprisingly vibrant youth bulge that has gone beyond talk and has engaged in active participation. The independent youth, a growing number of them, took their lead from the first ten youth who cleaned the streets after the JMP rally on February 3rd, and now begin their own initiatives and groups like the ‘Let’s Start Together’ initiative which aims at restoring the areas affected by the protests. Many youth are joining civil society organizations and creating programs for civic engagement. This shift to direct participation within the non-partisan civil society movement illustrates the last break with the old monopolies on mobilization. While they primarily represent the seeds of a new future, this shift will also become the political establishment’s greatest challenge. The youth will eventually leave the squares, but their demands will persist until a government is elected to fulfill them. They are no longer waiting for the government to act — a growing number of them will become proactive as in the days of local cooperatives that contributed to the pace of development following the Septemberist Revolution.
We must move beyond the mirrors of insecurity and be patient from outside Yemen, and within there should be increasing trust on the abilities of many leaders to contribute to a gradual, yet sustainable pace toward reform. The government and the international community must keep in mind that without an immediate and realistic economic recovery nationwide, without neglecting any region, there will be no sustainable stability in Yemen. A person’s priority is to feed their family, maintain a stable income and reliable fuel sources for entertainment and productivity. A stable economy will breed security, and a secured homeland will breed an even greater economy.