Yemen has proved to be one of the biggest surprises since these Middle Eastern revolutions began. It has long been overlooked as a dusty, conservative backwater. In terms of other Gulf states, it has neither the wealth of Saudi Arabia or the prestige of the UAE. Yet the Yemeni citizens, who are still holding out and camping alongside soldiers in Change Square and beyond, have shown themselves to be peaceful, tenacious and refreshingly modern.
Of course there are women in the liberation camp who come in full veil (called a niqab) ,which is customary in the Gulf region. But these women are not sitting around passively. They are speaking out and demanding that their questions and needs be answered. One of the main figures at the start of these protests, Tawwakol Karman, is a woman who has made it her life to press the boundaries of Yemeni society. Her arrest back in February caused men and women alike to stage massive peaceful sit-ins and rally until she was released. She helped rally and communicate the wants and needs of the opposition even in the movement’s infancy.
Then there are the massive defections. After a number of incidences that saw police shooting into peaceful crowds, military leaders, tribal leaders and government members stepped down and spoke out, siding with the protesters. Troops encircled the crowds at University Sq and were met with roses and kisses from their citizens.
However it didn’t take long before more violence ripped through the country. In a town down south, a weapons factory exploded and it killed a number of civilians. Then on April 5th, there were reports that government thugs in civilian clothes were seen attacking oppositional protesters. This left a number of people dead and dozens more wounded. The president called for negotiations with the opposition, but his request rang hallow. Just a week earlier, talks had led to a rather startling betrayal as President Saleh discussed stepping down and instituting a transitional vice president, and then, as soon as the cameras began rolling he reversed course, pledging to stay until the next elections.
However, most recently the Gulf States have come together to urge the president to put an end to the violence and leave office. The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) will be meeting soon in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to discuss this issue. This is also an interesting change as just a week earlier, Saudi Arabia, who has undergone numerous border clashes (sometimes even resulting in casualties) with Yemen was in support of President Saleh in fear that destabilization would lead to extremist factions gaining more power.
President Saleh has welcomed this round table discussion as has Ali Mohsen, a general that defected from the president and pledged his allegiance to supporters. It seems that other than power, Saleh is most concerned about stepping down with some level of dignity. However, the more he puts it off the more difficult this will be to achieve. With protests heating up in the capitol as well as smaller towns such as Ta’izz and Jaar (where more extremists tend to congregate) something needs to change. Frustrations are building and while almost all protests have been peaceful on behalf of the opposition, it is not hard to imagine that the people are nearing their breaking point.