"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Thursday, January 27, 2011

More on Protests

Nasser Arrabyee (who is also quoted in today's Times) gives the lowdown on the today's rallies, both pro-and-anti Salih.    Nasser talks about how there hasn't been much in the way of violence, with security forces showing both strength and restraint- a good sign that could be interpreted many different ways, depending on how you lean.   He also wryly points out that the two sides have chants that are almost diametrically opposed to each other- yes/no on elections, constitutional "reform", and Salih- but found a meeting point on "yes to dialogue".   So far this has: not happened.

In the comment section in the post below, our buddy Will at the Yemen Peace Project made some interesting points, so I am going to rescue them from that ghetto and yank 'em up here.  One important question he asked was, essentially, why would I think that the military would be reluctant to shoot the protestors, when they haven't shown that reluctance in the north or the south?  I meekly responded that it might be different in the capital, that at some point Salih won't be able to say the entire state is an enemy of the state.   Here is part of the response:

A sizable portion of the university population comes from elsewhere, especially Ta'iz (where there is and long has been plenty of anti-government animosity). It's quite possible that Salih can rhetorically "other" these treasonous students just as he does the Zaydi sadah (not that he invented anti-sayyid racism, but you get the idea). As you point out above, Yemen doesn't have Tunisia's educated middle class. If "Huthis"--many of whose families have been a part of the social fabric of the rural highlands for centuries--can be transformed in the state's propaganda into foreign agents, how hard could it be to turn poor, simple soldiers against uppity, westernized university brats?

I think this makes sense, but I think that regardless of who they are, there would be a psychic shock to seeing a police riot in the streets.  Not for much of the country, perhaps, but for the residents of San'a, the capital of the soul.   And I think Salih knows that.  This kind of dovetails with a point also made by Will.  "There may be hundreds rallying with Tawakul Karman, but there are hundreds of thousands minding their shops, shopping in the markets, cooking bread, driving cabs, going to school, and, of course, unemployed, who still have no interest in revolution."    

This is correct, of course.  "People power" revolutions are always exciting and heady, but they also contain only a small percentage of the people.  Maybe the represent the hopes and dreams of many more, but those many more are just minding their own business, so how can we say what is in their hearts?  It is not always accurate to say that the passion of the streets is representative, or that "the people have spoken" when a small but loud group comes in.  Being in the middle of that group, and surrounded by thousands of people who think the exact same way, is intoxicating, and you come to believe that there are only a small, entrenched few against you.   You can see this in everything from the awesome puppet-wielding Iraq-war protestors to the Constitutionally-confused Tea Party.*

And that is where police restraint comes in.  A dozen or so kids being mown down, beaten, dying in the streets, can have a way of making the rallies grow.   Truncheon-wielding riot cops right out of a Radiohead nightmare hitting students yelling slogans about elections has the possibility of turning fence-sitters one way.  I don't want to romanticize it; many will think they got what was coming to them.  But I think Salih is going to want to let this play out and hope a series of grand gestures can placate the mob, and then call the remaining protestors dead-enders.

And this is where the US can sort of come in.  Part of me wishes we could stand entirely with the students, but that can, of course, help their enemies.  I like the admin's strategy of standing with their rights, if not their goal of toppling Salih.  This puts Salih, like Mubarak, in a bind, and can help to force his hand.  He might have to give up some power and make large concessions in order to remain in the Presidential palace, or even alive.  One could see the an ambitious general thinking Salih has lost control and inducing him to leave, and while I don't think he would be killed, that possibility doesn't exactly go against the grain of Yemeni history.  So we have a possibility to help manuver Salih into letting go of some power while still being able to fight al-Qaeda, opening up in the near future the path toward an actual peaceful transfer of power (Mark Lynch thinks it will come out that the US played a behind-the-scene role in Tunisia).

I also don't want to overstate these protests- these fit the exciting new trend in the Middle East, and work nicely with the current narrative.  But what is happening in the South is still more important and explosive.  However, for the first time, some of Salih's enemies have similar rhetoric about democracy.  Linking the "three rebellions"- Houthi, Southern, and Qaeda- was a paranoid game.  These protests aren't really linked, but they aren't that far off either.   And here is a chance to institute real reforms that can also at least partially bring the restive south back into the fold, avoiding the chaos of total collapse.  This is about as likely as the Bears still winning the Super Bowl, but not impossible, either.  The next few weeks are crucial.   There is a chance for reform, for change, but a return to the status quo will be brief, and the next time it shatters will be even more violent.

*That seems like my best attempt at Broderian middle-splitting, but really, I just don't like loud people who think America is a police state.

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