It’s hard to pinpoint the decisive moment when a burgeoning revolution goes from “possibility” to “inevitable.” However, if we look at Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya we see that it was in the moments that the army decided not to attack its fellow citizens that the tides really began to turn. Today, in Yemen, something equally as monumental took place.
Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the half-brother of the president and a man who controls 60% of the Yemeni Armed forces, announced that he would fight to protect the protesters and their cause. This could be the game changer that the Yemenis have been waiting for. In addition to Maj. al-Ahmar’s announcement, a number of other high ranking Army commanders and generals, including numerous diplomats and tribal leaders, have also dissented from the president.
This past month, most protesters have been camping out at Sana’a University in the capital. The numbers have been swelling and the chants are getting louder. A banner that hangs over the beginning of the encampment at the University reads: Welcome to the First Kilometer of Freedom. While there have been numerous skirmishes with the police here and there, it hasn’t acted as a catalyst, as the violence has been both random and contained.
However, on March 18th, an incredibly brutal crackdown took place. President Saleh imposed a State of Emergency as 41 people were shot down and hundreds more wounded when police opened fire at University Square. That day also saw its first journalist death with Jamal al Sharaabi, a photojournalist with the independent paper al-Masdar, succumbing to his bullet wounds. Curfews were put in place and a atmosphere of fear and panic descended on the capital.
This prompted Yassin Noman, the current rotating leader of the Yemen Opposition, to release a statement rejecting all future talks with President Saleh. He has become completely illegitimate now in the eyes of the civilians. Protests were set to continue despite the heavy police presence patrolling the streets. Meanwhile President Saleh, in what looks like a desperate bid, dismissed his entire government (because that worked so well for Egypt, right?).
This is when Maj. al-Ahmar stepped in and made his announcement. Immediately protesters took to the street, dancing and cheering and declaring the day a new national holiday. They were also seen handing out flowers to a number of troops that are now surrounding them with vehicles and weapons, pledging to protect them. However, there are some rumblings that more struggles are yet to take place. The defense minister, Mohammad Nasser Ali, stated on state television, “We will not allow, or let any attempts to overthrow the legitimacy and constitutionality and democracy, or to shake the stability and security.” There have also been a number of tanks assembled at the Presidential Palace, as it looks like President Saleh is gearing up for a hold-out.
What happens in the coming week is going to play a crucial role in the future of Yemen and the stability of the Gulf region. Remember, Yemen is a stronghold for a number of extremist groups and right next door to Saudi Arabia. So there are other interest involved besides just the ones of the pro-democracy protesters. However, the opposition is both well organized and united and so far we’ve heard little from neighbouring countries or extremist factions. Now with the support of 60% of the military, it seems the opposition has nowhere to go but up.