Sunday Protests in Yemen: The Other Dialogue
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.
On Sunday morning President Ali Abdullah Salih gave a speech in front of roughly 30,000 supporters in Sanaa. Foreign journalists were invited to document the event and see the widespread support that Salih argues he still enjoys.
During the rally Salih said that "dialogue" was the only way out of the current crisis. To long-time observers of Yemeni politics this comes as no surprise. Every time the government in Yemen finds itself in trouble, President Salih calls for a dialogue. That act, it seems, is starting to wear a bit thin.
At this point, given the current environment in Yemen, no one can come out and say they are in favor of a dialogue with Salih. Even the JMP as confused as they are can't come out and say they agree with Salih that there should be a dialogue.
Not that the idea of dialogue is dead, just that it is losing its appeal with Salih overseeing it. Instead, I think we are starting to see something else taking place. It seems that different groups in Yemen - the Huthis and the Southern Movement - are starting to move towards dropping their own demands (at least temporarily) in favor of calling for the end of Salih's regime. This scenario, I would be willing to bet, is keeping Salih up late tonight.
News Yemen is reporting that a spokesman for the Huthis, Muhammad Abd al-Salam, is promising demonstrations in various districts around Sa'dah tomorrow calling for the end of the regime. There are also reports that youth in Aden are no longer calling for secession and separation but now for the fall of the regime. For Salih this is the nightmare scenario - all his enemies unifying (for the moment) and focusing their rage on the removal of his person from the office of the president.
This opens up the possibilities that both of these groups will say that they think the unity of Yemen can be saved, but only if Salih steps down. This argument, I think, would sway a lot of people and could put more people in the streets - basically all the problems the Huthis and the people in the south complain of could be pushed off on Salih. (I don't think this would actually hold long-term, but I think it could in the short-term).
I would also not be surprised if some enterprising figures in Yemen - those who want a chance at power in a post-Salih country - are already reaching out to figures in the Huthis and the Southern Movement, making this very argument. Now, given the way these groups are organized it is much easier for the Huthis to have a single position and a hierarchy to negotiate with than it is for the Southern Movement (not to mention all the street leaders - the ones no one talks about in the press - are in jail).
Still, I think we will start to see these groups crystallize around the single demand of the fall of the regime in coming days.
The other big news of the day: students in Sanaa finally got organized. The people in Taizz have been organized for days, and it seems that they all learned a lot of lessons from the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square - self-policing, checking identities and so forth. These guys, especially the ones in Taizz, aren't going away anytime soon.
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