Watching Cairo from Sanaa

As Egypt reels, Yemenis wonder: Will the revolution spill over again?


SANAA — The protests in Egypt have not only ignited unrest in Cairo, they’ve unleashed a flurry of debate across the rest of the region. It’s not just about where things are heading in Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, or what the current uncertainty means about the country’s post-Mubarak transition. It’s about their resonance in the whole of the Arabic-speaking world and the potential spillover effects. From Sanaa, all that’s truly clear at the moment is that Yemenis are watching a nearly absurd amount of Egypt coverage on TV.

Local Muslim Brothers and sympathizers watch Al Jazeera with trepidation. Politicians from former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party watch Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya with a newly awakened revolutionary fervor. Leftists watch al-Mayadeen, the year-old Beirut-based "alternative" to Gulf-funded channels, wondering aloud whether the tide may have shifted against political Islam.

It can feel at times like they are looking at Egypt for cues for where things in Yemen could be heading; over the course of the past two and a half years, events in Cairo have tended to feel a few steps ahead of those Sanaa.

While large-scale protests aimed at the Yemeni dictator’s ouster began almost immediately after Mubarak’s toppling, Saleh didn’t formally cede power until the following February. Demonstrators stayed in the streets in months-long protest encampments across the country, but the voices of Yemen’s revolutionary youth were soon eclipsed. The military split between supporting the government and the protestors, and Sanaa erupted into urban warfare on two separate occasions. Al Qaeda-linked militants seized control of a series of towns in the south, and, all the while, opposition politicians engaged in a series of on-again, off-again negotiations with Saleh and his allies. In November 2011, the two sides finally reached an agreement, inking the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, an internationally backed power transfer deal granting Saleh immunity in exchange for his ouster. The deal set Yemen on a two-year long "transitional period" presided over by longtime Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and formed a compromise government split between the GPC and the opposition. Presidential and parliamentary elections are tentatively slated for early 2014.

There’s plenty of heady talk about the building of a "new Yemen," but in Sanaa it often feels as if things are paused. Some things have moved forward elsewhere in the country: Once the target of a series of devastating wars, the Houthi movement has carved out a virtual state-within-a-state in their base in the far north, while rising secessionist sentiment has made it seem almost as if the only thing preventing the south from regaining its independence is a series of brittle divisions among the separatist leadership. The ongoing Conference of National Dialogue may have forced politicians in the capital to recognize the Houthis as a legitimate political force, while providing for a comparatively open forum for the discussion of southerners’ grievances, but its deliberations often feel like rehashing long-running factional squabbles.

Even if new parties have been formed, the post-2011 political map often feels indistinguishable from the old one. Discussions in Sanaa tend to devolve into debates over the divide between the GPC and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an ideologically fractious coalition of leftist and Islamist factions dominated by the Islah Party, which incorporates the bulk of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, and the Socialist and Nasserist parties. In that sense, there’s been little change since 2005, when the JMP was initially formed.

The activists who spurred the former president’s ouster — and, for that matter, many politicians here — have been open about their misgivings about the shape of Yemen’s post-Saleh transition. But it has generally been accepted as the only option aside from further violence and instability.

Gathered around watching news coverage with activists on June 30 and July 1, however, it seemed the scenes in Cairo and other Egyptian cities had provided a potential course of action.

For a few brief days, there was talk about building a Yemeni Tamarod (or rebels, as the Cairo protestors called themselves). There were unofficial discussions between activists from across the political spectrum; the date for massive protests aimed at "correcting the course of the revolution" was tentatively set for July 7. Even at the speculative stage, though, disagreements about everything from demands to acceptable protest slogans foreshadowed that things would eventually come to naught. July 7 came and went with only street protests in the south, as secessionists marked the anniversary of their defeat in Yemen’s 1994 civil war. The closest thing I witnessed to an outburst of discontent came a few days prior. Driving with a friend past the home of Yemen’s embattled prime minister, Mohamed Basindowa, he rolled down his car window, stopped briefly, and shouted "Leave, Uncle Mohamed!"

The absence of Egypt-style protests hardly means people here are happy with the way things are going. Hoped-for improvements in the stagnant economy and the tenuous security situation remain largely elusive: kidnappings of foreigners have increased in frequency, while security officials continue to be targeted in a string of assassinations. The recurring sabotage of power lines has left even residents of the capital at the mercy of disgruntled tribesmen. Even if Hadi has held on to much of his tenuous public support, Yemenis from across the political spectrum have condemned the unity government as a failure.

Still, it seems, no one is willing to make a move. Chewing qat with a collection of GPC politicians on July 2, their enthusiasm for the protests against Morsy was palpable; Yahya Mohamed Saleh, the former Yemeni president’s nephew, had already stopped by Cairo’s Tahrir Square to show his solidarity with the "revolution against the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood]." They watched as revolutionaries and remnants of the Mubarak regime joined together against a common foe, and I wondered if they thought they felt they could pull off a similar feat here, capitalizing on the longstanding misgivings many Saleh opponents hold regarding the Islah Party.

"The question is no longer ‘with the revolution or against it,’" an activist had told me a few days before. "The stage has changed. What matters now is who is truly for or against building the state."

Comments like that are music to the GPC’s ears. But that enthusiasm among revolutionaries and the regime’s old guard seems distant from the current political reality.

Complaints over Islah’s increased influence in post-Saleh Yemen notwithstanding, the power the party currently holds is in no way comparable to that of Morsy’s Freedom and Justice Party. In the event of any possible shakeup, all parties would almost inevitably be affected; while plenty may raise issue with the current balance of power, few seem willing to take the risk of upsetting it.

Perhaps, however, it’s the way things have gone in Egypt that has ultimately doomed any real aftereffects here. The violence and uncertainty since the July 3 coup has led many to quiet their misgivings about Yemen’s own post-Arab Spring transition. It may be far from perfect, the argument goes, but things could certainly be worse.

There were certainly plenty of Yemenis who celebrated the military’s overthrow of Morsy; plenty of others cast it as a far from ideal, but necessary step. But even many Yemenis with little sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood have expressed a deep discomfort as events have unfolded, wondering if it’s all a message about the fragility of the tentative gains made in the wake of the Arab Spring.

"I don’t like Morsy, but it’s hard not to see the army overthrowing an elected president as a negative step — a step backwards," an activist told me. "It makes me nervous about where Yemen is heading: Wherever Egypt was [before June 30], it was far ahead of where we are now."

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