Conflict & Justice

Yemen protests and crackdown continue despite deal


A Yemeni supporter of President Ali Abdullah Saleh wears and carries portraits of the embattled leader during a pro-regime rally on Dec. 2, 2011.


Mohammed Huwais

SANAA, Yemen — At least 25 Yemenis have been killed in clashes with security forces in the week since President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed a deal to relinquish power, raising doubts that the controversial agreement will calm the country’s nearly year-old uprising.

Saleh finally signed the initiative, penned by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional grouping of neighboring countries, after seven months of negotiations. But the deal gives Saleh and his family immunity from prosecution, and the youth who started it all were excluded from the discussions.

Protest leaders said they feel betrayed by the international community and see little in the agreement to persuade them to leave the streets.

The newly established coalition government, an equal split between Saleh’s General Peoples Congress and the opposition coalition — which is known as the Joint Meeting Parties, or JMP — is led by Saleh’s deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, heightening skepticism among youth that any real change is on the horizon.

“The JMP have betrayed the revolution,” said Motibb Al-Baydhani, an independent youth leader, reflecting the majority sentiment among Yemen’s protesters.

He also accused Saudi Arabia, which led the negotiations, of “killing the revolution.”

“This is exactly what happened when Yemen revolted against the imam in 1962,” he said. “The Saudis interfered and backed the royalists for 10 years before the revolution finally toppled the imam. The GCC is the same and the Saudis are protecting Saleh’s regime.”

Saleh himself, who ruled Yemen for 33 years, appeared reluctant to give up power. In the days after his return from Saudi Arabia, Saleh said he would oversee the implementation of the agreement and even offered “presidential” pardons for those who committed “errors” during the height of the unrest.

Saleh excluded those responsible for an attempt on his life on Jun. 3, which forced him to spend three months in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

“Although Saleh has delegated his power to Hadi, he’s still acting as if he is a president with power. And that is considered a breach of the GCC deal,” said Houria Mash’Hur, a spokeswoman for the opposition National Council. “He is still directing the defense ministry and giving presidential pardons.”

Doubts among protesters appear to be at least partly validated by recent events on the ground. The day after Saleh signed the deal in Riyadh on Nov. 23, armed, pro-government supporters killed five protesters and injured 32 others during a march in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.

Violence also continued elsewhere in Yemen, with heavy shelling on country’s second largest city, Taiz, now entering their third day. Fighting between government forces and armed tribesmen claimed the lives of at least 18 people, mostly civilians, including women and children, over the last two days. Despite calls from Hadi to end the fighting and the removal of the military from Taiz, many are now fleeing the city in anticipation of more violence.

“Hadi is now responsible for these crimes since he is the supreme leader of the armed forces, according to the authority delegated to him through the GCC,” said Adnan Al-Rajihy, a Change Square activist. “But he has proven that he is just a decoration for Saleh and his family.”

Government security forces have been particularly brutal during their crackdown in Taiz, leading some protesters there to take up arms and tribesmen to enter the city, further escalating tensions and raising renewed concerns that Yemen could slide into a civil war.

Two more people were killed in the southern port city of Aden on Thursday, when tens of thousands took to the streets to protest the deal’s immunity clause and to call for Saleh to face trial. Sectarian violence in the north of the country has also continued to claim lives.

The violence has been perhaps made worse by a delay in demilitarizing Yemen’s cities, a key component of the power transfer agreement that was supposed to begin within five days. Military checkpoints remain, however, as do the presence of armed militias in most of Yemen’s main cities.

Despite the ongoing protests, the country’s political wheels have begun to slowly turn. Hadi appointed an opposition lawmaker, Mohammed Basindwa, as the country’s new prime minister and set Feb. 21 as the date for presidential elections.

Responsibility for a number of major ministries has also been divided between the two parties, with the opposition taking control of the interior ministry, the ministry of information, human rights and finance.

The concessions to the political opposition, however, have meant little to the youth protesters, who said they have almost as little faith in them as they do the president.

Sultan Al-Rada’I, a member of the Civic Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, a coalition of independent protesters in Change Square, said the protests would not end.

“We are waiting until the JMP forms the joint government and then we will protest in front of the parliament and the cabinet,” he said.

“We will see how the opposition acts in the new government. They used to condemn Saleh’s actions, saying that we have the freedom to protest, so they cannot stop us now. After all, we were not protesting to bring them to power.”

In an effort to stabilize the country, both sides of the new coalition government agreed to nominate a single presidential candidate — Hadi. While others are allowed to run, the agreement essentially guarantees Hadi the presidency for the transitional period, and gives him an enormous advantage ahead of elections, which would give him the presidency until as as late as 2014.

“Hadi is a weak personality — Saleh’s sons and nephews control him. We already tried him out when Saleh was in Saudi Arabia for three months and he cannot make decisions,” said Al-Rajihy.