In Yemen, calls for revolution but many hurdles

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011

SANAA, Yemen - The pro-democracy protesters marched through the dusty streets of this Middle Eastern capital, voicing hope that the revolution unfolding in the Arab world would soon reach them.

"Yesterday, Tunisia. Today, Egypt. Tomorrow, Yemen," they shouted, trying to make their way to the Egyptian embassy.

But the small march on Saturday never reached its intended target. A line of police stopped the protesters; then a loud, unruly crowd of pro-government supporters emerged, and the two groups clashed. The protesters soon vanished, their voices muffled by pro-government chants.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years, is clearly rattled by the anarchy unfolding in Egypt. But what has happened here also shows that Yemen's situation is distinct from its neighbors, even as many Yemenis share the same grievances and frustrations driving the upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia.

Many among the Arab world's dispossessed hope for a domino effect that could see more of the region's autocratic regimes fall, like the swift collapse of the Soviet Union. But in Yemen, activists are facing numerous obstacles, straddling political, social and economic fault lines, even as they gain courage and inspiration from the momentous events unfolding in the region.

"The situation in different Arab countries is similar, but there's a big difference in the enthusiasm of the people in the streets as well as the ability to go to the streets," said Aidroos Al Naqeeb, head of the socialist party bloc in Yemen's parliament.

"In Yemen, the living conditions are far worse than Egypt. The services are far worse than Egypt,'' Naqeeb said. The anger and resentment is also larger than Egypt. But civil society is weaker here and the culture of popular opposition is far lesser here."

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, impoverished Yemen has a small middle class and a large uneducated and illiterate population. Social networking sites such as Facebook that helped mobilize the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are not widely used here.

Yemen's internal security apparatus is at least as sophisticated and deeply entrenched as in Egypt; the army is staunchly loyal to Saleh, as are powerful tribes in a country where tribal allegiance is more significant than national identity. The opposition, while strong in numbers, is divided in its goals.

"There is a popular movement and a political movement in Yemen," said Khaled al-Anesi, a lawyer and human rights activist who helped organized many of the recent protests. "But there is no support from the political parties for the popular movement, which is not organized. It is still weak and in the beginning stages."

Ever since the reunification of north and south Yemen in 1990, Saleh has marginalized political opposition groups and installed relatives and allies to key political, military and internal security posts.

Still, the popular uprisings that have ousted Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power and propeled Egypt into chaos have shaken Saleh's weak regime, marking the latest threat to a nation grappling already with a rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and a resurgent Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda.


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