Saturday in Yemen: Abandoning Ship (Updated)
Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Johnsen has written for a variety of publications on Yemen including, among others, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, The Independent, The Boston Globe, and The National. He is the co-founder of Waq al-Waq: Islam and Insurgency in Yemen Blog. In 2009, he was a member of the USAID's conflict assessment team for Yemen.
The day started off bad in Sanaa when students managed to beat GPC-paid thugs* to the area outside of Sanaa University. (Michelle Shephard details the day in an excellent report for the Toronto star.) After that things got worse. In addition to the usual stick-wielding thugs, some of the men, reported to be tribesmen, opened fire on the students, wounding several. (This jerky video shows one of the men shooting.)
Initially, wire services reported one student was killed while local, Arabic reports had two killed. It appears, however, that all of the students have survived their wounds.
But the escalation is a worrying sign, even more so in the light of the fact that many reporters on the ground (local Yemeni reporters) said that they recognized security officials among the plain clothes GPC-thugs. There were also unconfirmed reports that the government has trucked in tribesmen from outside Sanaa to attempt to put down the students' protests.
Things were relatively peaceful today in Taizz after yesterday's grenade attack. One eye-witness identified the bomber to Mareb Press as Muhammad Hamud Muqbil. (Ar.)
Aden was more violent, although some of this was tempered today by security forces moving out of certain areas. Last night protesters in Aden burned a police station and several government vehicles
There are also reports coming in via twitter at the moment about clashes in Sanaa as well as ones in Aden with the Central Security Forces, although we'll have to wait a while for confirmation.
Still, the most important thing I saw today was the number of people abandoning a ship they now fear is sinking.
First, 10 MPs from the ruling GPC-party withdrew in protest (Ar.). Then several local government officials near Taizz also announced that they were resigning and going to join the protesters in the street. (Ar.)
Also speaking out against the regime was Abdullah Sattar, who used to be a popular cleric and preacher and even, for a while, an MP. He doesn't have as much clout as he did back in the 1990s (the FBI even tried to target him at one point) but the fact that he was so vocal in his criticism of the government is significant. (Ar.)
The main political opposition also announced that it was opposed to a dialogue with the government. (Ar.) This is a major blow to Salih's attempts to hang on to power, but we shouldn't get carried away too fast. The opposition is so divided and unsure of what to do, that it is going to have to have a number of different figures reiterate this position from in the coming days.
Also, the JMP has its own version of what is going on, which is as confused as the regimes. Claims that the majority of the protesters in the streets are members of the opposition is off base. These protests - as I kept harping on days ago - are significant because they are outside the umbrella of the opposition.
In response to all this President Salih gave a tone-deaf speech (Ar.) blaming the current problems on outside forces who want to harm Yemen's security and stability.
As the protests pick up in intensity over the coming week (again look for the period from Feb. 24 - Feb. 28) to be key, there will likely be more people abandoning Salih's ship.
*I'm not buying the party denial's that these guys are not paid and supported by officials within the GPC - it is much more accurate to call them "party thugs" than pro-government thugs.
Update: The trend continues. This evening another MP from the ruling party in Yemen (Ar.), GPC, announced his resignation from the party, citing the brutal crackdown on protesters.
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