Last updated: March 27, 2013 7:27 pm

Unfinished uprising

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Yemenis yearn for Arab spring success but fear a proxy conflict between Riyadh and Tehran

Chewing it over: a demonstrator with a mouthful of qat in Change Square in Sana’a, where protests have dragged on for two years  

Revolutionary songs blare from loudspeakers over the shabby tents of Change Square in Sana’a, where Faris al-Sabri and other members of Yemen’s permanent rebellion have been living for almost two years.

When he pitched camp in April 2011, during the uprising that eventually forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office, Mr al-Sabri could not have expected he would still be sheltering under blue cloth and green canvas hung shapelessly over the pavement in 2013. The unemployed physics graduate is part of a marathon protest against a precarious national political deadlock which, he notes wryly, seems to confirm Newton’s dictum about how any force exerted provokes a reaction equal and opposite to it.

“We have to be patient because some of our friends have been killed and are martyrs now,” says Mr al-Sabri, 25, chewing the narcotic qat leaves that are used widely to lubricate conversation. “We have made a commitment to stay here until we achieve the goals of the revolution.”

It is a reminder of how much is still at stake in a revolt that is one of the less heralded in the Middle East but is of strategic importance and has so far been more orderly than transitions in some richer and superficially less divided countries. While great powers squabble over Syria and struggle with post-dictatorship Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, there is international unity in support of a successful transfer of power in Yemen, with President Barack Obama of the US promoting it as a possible model for Syria.

The contentious use of drone strikes by the US against alleged terrorists is just one indicator of what is at stake in a state that shares a 1,500km-border with Saudi Arabia and holds a strategic position on the Gulf of Aden, gateway to the Suez Canal. If Yemen were to fail, it would have the potential to join Syria as the site of a proxy regional conflict, pitting the west and Sunni Gulf powers against Iran and its Shia allies.

The future sought by many Yemenis – and envisaged by diplomats desperate for an Arab spring success story – is that a country notable for a history of brinkmanship and survival against the odds transcends its regional tensions, deadly political rivalries and Islamist militancy. As one foreign government official puts it: “Yemen is the chance.”

This month Yemen took perhaps the most critical step in its fragile transition, launching a national dialogue between political parties to discuss constitutional reforms before elections in 2014. It is hoped that the dialogue will help resolve the pressing questions that underlie both Yemen’s historical conflicts and the stalemate since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office last year. Many Yemenis and foreign observers think it will be hard, if not impossible, to reach a political settlement.

But many people, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, also consider the dialogue as the only available means to prevent a return to the turmoil that claimed the lives of hundreds of people in 2011 and brought the country to the brink of implosion.

“If the alternative is war, we already tried it – and it didn’t work out,” says Khaled Surih, an Arabic teacher in Sana’a, the capital. “May God save the country – we don’t want any more chaos and crisis.”

Yemen is a unique case in the tumult of the Arab Spring. It is the only country where a leader left under a transition plan agreed with the opposition and backed internationally, by both the UN and a group of 10 comprising the five permanent UN Security Council members, Gulf countries and the EU.

Faced with an uprising in February 2011, Mr Saleh went neither for the quick departures of Zine al-Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, nor the fight to the end that Colonel Muammer Gaddafi lost in Libya and which Bashar al-Assad continues in Syria.

Instead, he battled to a stalemate with both protesters and General Ali Mohsen, a former intimate who joined an opposition that is itself a varied mix of Islamists, liberal activists and tribal representatives. Only then did Mr Saleh agree to a peace deal after 33 years in power that offered him immunity from prosecution. He also retained the extraordinary privilege of heading the ruling General People’s Congress, above President Hadi in the party hierarchy.

The looming presence of Mr Saleh and Gen Mohsen in public life is one sign of the many difficulties facing Yemen as the transition continues. Still standing in Liberation Square in Sana’a are the tents put up by the former president’s supporters to prevent the area becoming the rallying point for opposition that its Cairo equivalent did. Amid photographic montages of the ex-president, a crafty leader whose balancing of Yemen’s competing power brokers has been likened to “dancing on the heads of snakes”, a poster warns the security forces against trying to clear the area. It appears to have worked.

A debate about drones

Yemen is at the heart of global antiterrorism concerns and an intensifying debate in Washington about targeted killings by missile strikes launched from drones.

Opponents of the strategy say that it is killing civilians and creating potential new recruits for al-Qaeda – charges that President Barack Obama’s administration denies.

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Sana’a offers plenty of other clues to the forces that are roiling beneath Yemen’s surface. Distinctive red and green stencil images sprayed on walls around the capital, probably by the northern Shia Houthi rebel movement, threaten death to America and Israel and a “curse on the Jews”. Western residents of the capital have been further disconcerted by December’s kidnapping of a Finnish couple and an Austrian man in broad daylight in the Liberation Square area, one of the busiest districts of the city centre. A Saudi Arabian diplomat was abducted a year ago in the southern port of Aden, while western envoys in the capital are under near lockdown at night, with the US annexing the Sheraton hotel next door to its embassy to provide more secure residential accommodation.

Outside Sana’a, the fluidity of a country where significant parts lie beyond government control is even more palpable. In Aden, once a vital shipping way station for Britain’s imperial rule in India, the flag of the Hirak southern separatist movement is plastered on every street and flies from every pole other than those on official buildings. Grievances here run deep after the 1990 unification of the country unravelled quickly and triggered a civil war in 1994 in which southerners were defeated and then suffered mass property seizures and sackings from public positions.

Now street protests attract tens of thousands. Two people died in clashes in February after security forces intervened when Hirak held a march to counter a demonstration by Islah, an Islamist group that enjoys significant popular support, particularly in the north, but is criticised by opponents for its links to the former regime.

“What is the point of unity if neither northerners nor southerners benefit from it?” asks Ayesha Taleb, a southern activist, echoing a view held widely among analysts that southern secession, whether partial or total, will happen eventually.

In the southern countryside, the 14 government checkpoints on the two-hour journey from Aden to the town of Dalea, a Hirak heartland, show how tenuous the government’s hold is there. The town feels as if it is under colonial occupation, with military outposts in positions above a community whose loyalties lie elsewhere.

Graffiti on one wall call for the death of Mr Saleh and other political figures. Beneath it, someone has written “death to infidels”, leaving open the question of whether this is a reference to those named or to non-Muslims targeted by al-Qaeda militants in the south.

The journey also highlights the extreme poverty that persists outside the main cities in a country where international relief agencies estimate that 10m people, or 40 per cent of the population, go hungry.

Beggars cluster around damaged sections of road, pleading for money in recognition of the impromptu repair work they have carried out on potholes.

Outside a roadside restaurant, Mohsen Ali, a 38-year-old bus driver, said he could not provide for his 11 children in a country where the average person’s income is estimated at a few dollars a day. “It’s all messed up,” says Mr Ali. “Life is really hard – there are no jobs, nothing.”

Yemen’s shattered economy has been propped up by other countries for a while now, the riyal stable only because Saudi Arabia pumped $1bn into the central bank. Riyadh, eager to avoid the collapse of, if not bring democracy to, its southern neighbour, has also sent as much as $2bn of refined oil products. That input, along with billions of dollars more of promised but as yet unrealised international investment, has partly masked a dire set of economic indicators.

Gross domestic product plunged 10 per cent in 2011, according to the World Bank, while the oil industry that delivers the bulk of government revenues and export earnings was plagued last year by sabotage and shutdowns attributed variously to tribal problems, old-regime agents provocateurs and Islamist militants.

Mr Hadi, the man presiding over it all, is an enigmatic figure, both of the regime – he was defence minister and then Mr Saleh’s vice-president for more than 15 years – and outside it. While the president’s opponents accuse him of inertia, in particular for seeking conciliation with the south, his supporters say this scion of the southern province of Abyan is a careful balancer of interests.

Some observers say he is all too aware of the vulnerability of his position, not because he is a weak man but because he lacks the kind of constituencies his rivals have. “He’s a foreigner here,” says Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, an analyst in the capital. “He’s a transplant into the northern power elite that runs things in Sana’a. He feels completely unsafe and he wants his own power base.”

Plenty of international money and political capital are invested in Yemen, and many diplomatic fingers are being crossed. Some critics say western countries, Gulf powers and Iran are gaining too much influence over Yemen’s future even though the transition is formally overseen by Jamal Benomar, the UN envoy.

Gerald Feierstein, the US ambassador, is even known in some circles as the “Sheikh of Sheikhs”. Washington has invested heavily for more than a decade in the Yemeni military’s counter-terrorism capabilities and it shows no signs of changing either that policy or its strategy of targeted drone assassinations.

Back in Change Square, Mr al-Sabri expects that he will be there for the long haul. Once a teacher, he quit because he could not live on a salary of less than $120 a month. Yemen’s still-unfinished uprising has left him chastened and uncertain – although not yet despairing.“We feel disappointed because the spirit and enthusiasm of the revolution is not present any more,” he reflects. “There is still a little hope – but we have to find where our path is going.”

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