Growing unrest in Yemen

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. The similarities between Egypt and Yemen right now are striking. The leaders of both countries have been in charge for about 30 years and during that time, corruption, poverty, and oppression have been a way of life. And both countries receive substantial amounts of military aid from Washington. Here's one more similarity, the opposition in both countries is stronger than it's been in a generation. The BBC's Natalia Antelava has just spent the past week reporting in Yemen. She just arrived back in London. There are as we said, Natalia, so many similarities with Egypt, but what are the differences in Yemen? Do the activists in Yemen represent a critical mass of people who are internet savvy as we see in Egypt?

Natalia Antelava: There are very striking similarities as you said, but of course underneath these similarities if you dig just a little deeper, the differences are too striking. The discontent is widespread and massive in Yemen, and there is no question that Yemenis have been glued to their television sets watching every single development in Egypt, really cheering for the Egyptians. I've not met a single person in Yemen even among the government people who didn't feel for the Egyptians, who didn't support them. But Yemen is also a very different case. It's an extremely poor country; it's much poorer than Egypt. It's a very tribal society. It's a society where internet as you said, is not available to the masses the way it is available in Egypt. There are about only 200,000 users, which is of course, a tiny number for a country of 23 million. Another difference is the fact that women are not participating as much as they did in Egypt. It's a very conservative society and some of the women that I've been talking to when I was in Sana'a were very anti-government, very anti-president, but when it came to me asking them well, will you go out and protest, they would say oh, no, no, no, that's not our place; that's for men to do.

Mullins: And does that make a difference by the way in terms of the power of the activists? Because it does seem like in the past...

Antelava: Oh, absolutely! I think it makes a huge difference. You're basically eliminating half of your population. And if you look at what's happening in Cairo and how active women have been in participating in this protest, of course that makes a difference. Another thing, another difference is the fact that President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for many, many years, one of the things that he's best for is his ability to just maneuver his way out of trouble. It's a tribal Yemeni society, it's still very much a tribal society, and for decades President Saleh has had to play these different interests, different groups, and different tribes often against each other, but basically, balancing their interests and balancing them. He's very good at it. And he proved his shrewdness once again when last week just before the Yemenis day of rage as they called it, he came out and made a whole load of concessions to their position; told them that we will have a national dialogue, he promised to step down in 2013, he said that he would not appoint his son as his successor...once again the echoes of Egypt. And it does seemed to have appeased the opposition somewhat because now they're saying well, we'll have to give it a chance. We'll have to wait and see. We'll have to see if he lives up to the promises. When it comes to the young people it makes them only more angry because they're saying that we've been there before, he's made exact same promises before, he has said he wouldn't run and then he did run. They don't believe him, they just want him out.

Mullins: Right, and at this point he's saying that he will step down in 2013. He won't allow his son to run for president, we've heard that in other countries as well. President Saleh has also said that he's gonna boost the standard of living of his people, but this calls for money that he doesn't have. Is there any way that he could make good on that?

Antelava: The poverty is shocking and some areas outside the capital it's even worse. And they are heading toward economic decline. It's a country that's running out not only of oil, they are running out of water. Some of the forecasts say that by 2014 Sana'a is not going to have drinking water. It's a country that faces massive problems, including two insurgencies that are being fought in the north and in the south, including active A-Qaeda cells throughout the country, including the capital. And the government simply doesn't have the money. Of course that the corruption levels are so high doesn't help either. So no doubt, he's in an extremely difficult position.

Mullins: All right, just back from Yemen, the BBC's Natalia Antelava. Thank you very much.

Antelava: Thank you.

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