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Protests in Yemen: The Context

Jane Novak, Worldpress.org contributing editor, July 23, 2005

Yemeni soldiers secure a street in Sanaa

Yemeni soldiers secure a street in Sanaa July 22 following two days of clashes between police and people demonstrating over a sharp rise in fuel prices in which 39 people were killed. (Photo credit should read - / AFP-Getty Images)

Widespread popular protests in Yemen grabbed attention in the West even though some international journalists were prohibited from broadcasting video of the violence via satellite. Tanks and military vehicles line the streets, giving Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, an eerie resemblance to Iraq. The protests were triggered by a reduction in governmental subsidies on many commodity items in this desperately poor nation. The price of petroleum has risen by around 90 percent and the price of gas has increased almost80 percent. In a country where the per capita G.D.P. is $508 a year and half the population is in poverty, the price increases mean more people will be starving. But there is a broader context to the protests than the lifting of subsidies: governmental corruption, brutality, and repression. Much of the anger on Yemen’s streets is directed toward the government itself. “Prices have risen and we’re afflicted while not one single corrupt official has been held accountable,” said Mohammaed al-Baazany, a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate.

Yemen has gas and oil reserves. A member of Parliament, Ali Ashal, noted that “the price of Yemeni gas is slightly more than $3 / unit while it is more than $47 in the market. We don’t know really the reason why our government is throwing away this asset in this way.” In the same interview, Ashal reported, “Oil prices are estimated at $22 / barrel while it is sold at $45 or more. This means that huge amounts of money are lost.” Someone is making a lot of money from Yemen’s natural resources. Unfortunately, the Yemeni people are not sharing in the good fortune. There are many other unfortunate occurrences in Yemen.

The jailing of children is common. Amnesty International recently issued an urgent alert pertaining to Ibrahim al-Saiani, a 14-year-old boy in prison, unconscious and in need of medical treatment. Amnesty reports that he may be held solely for being part of the Zaidi community, and at risk of torture and ill treatment. The Arabic daily, al-Shoura, also reported on children in prison; the youngest listed is 9-year-old Aref Mosa al-Qusi. His condition is “wounded.”

The Yemeni human rights group, Hood, reported that security forces attempted to arrest human rights worker Ismail Mutawakel. When they couldn’t find Ismail, the security personnel kidnapped his younger brother Ibrahim and held him for three weeks. The child is twelve.

The Woman’s National Committee recently noted that about half of Yemen’s children have never attended primary school.

The harassment of reformers and journalists is common. Journalist Abdul Rahim Mohsen organized Leave, a peaceful, nonpartisan reform movement that advocates “comprehensive political reforms.” Mohsen was abducted off the street by Yemeni security forces and held incommunicado for three days before being charged with a traffic violation. Other journalists have been arrested, slandered, threatened, assaulted, and one recently received a letter bomb.

The targeting of opposition parties is another frequent occurrence. The Yemeni government recently announced a state employed security guard is now the head of an opposition party. The headquarters of the Popular Forces Union (P.F.U.), a pluralistic pro-democracy political party, was taken over at gunpoint by the state security guard. The security guard also occupied the party’s newspaper, al-Shoura, and published an issue with dubious content. The government then recognized the security guard as the legal representative of the P.F.U. party. A coalition of Yemeni opposition parties called the government’s actions “cloning the party,” and a “provocative act that cancelled a legal party.” The Socialist Party dubbed it “political terrorism.”

Yemeni religious summer schools, financed by the government, will be taught by 3000 students from the al-Iman University, which is run by Abdel Meguid al-Zindani, who is considered a “major terrorist” by the United States, and has such alumni as John Walker Lind, the American captured with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In the Saada region, where reportedly 65,000 residents are homeless due to government bombing, government vehicles have been reported dragging burnt bodies through the villages. Doctors have been arrested for treating the wounded, and the literary works of Iman Ali (noted by the United Nations as a model for his teachings encouraging democracy) have been confiscated. Mass arrests of entire villages have resulted in thousands of men held in prison for months without charges. The boys get “arrested” too. Referring to Saada, the top Yemeni Shiite cleric said Iraqis in the Yemeni military advised President Ali Abdullah Saleh to “kill the Shias in the country as Saddam did in Iraq.”

Amnesty International believes Yahia al-Dailami, a cleric who was sentenced to death in May, received a trial that “fell short” of international standards, and that he may have been targeted solely because of his criticisms of the government.

President Saleh announced he would not seek reelection in 2006. In the last presidential election, Saleh received 96 percent of the vote. At that time, he also announced he wouldn’t seek candidacy, only to be convinced by his party four days later. At this moment though, there is a real hope and opportunity for a peaceful transition of power in Yemen.

Yemen has been called a monarchy, a dictatorship, a kleptocracy, and a totalitarian state similar to Iraq under Saddam. Faced with mounting pressures from its formidable reform movement and a populace ravaged by governmental malfeasance, the Yemeni government has responded with a campaign of brutality and repression targeting children, journalists and political parties. Yet across all thegovernorates, the Yemeni people took to the streets facing tanks, guns, soldiers, police, and the Republican Guard. More than fifty people were killed. Hundreds were arrested, including children, and Amnesty International reports they may be at risk of torture.

Jane Novak is an American journalist and political analyst.

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