|Mass anti-government demonstrations have roiled Yemen’s cities since January [EPA]|
Across the Middle East and North Africa, youth have used their newfound sense of dignity to create change that previous generations only dreamed about. But as the so-called Arab Spring progresses, the youth voice often gets buried under individual interests and political posturing.
Nowhere is this truer than in Yemen, where the youth face both a resilient autocrat and stubborn allies. Yet still, their determination to change the status quo through peaceful, democratic and selfless tactics has become one of the few constants in a decidedly unstable country. Over the past six months the younger generation has made it clear that if Yemenis hope to realise their revolutionary aims, the solution must include a prominent role for youth.
The uprising began even before Tunisia revolted with a handful of young activists endearingly known as the “pioneers”. Every week, they would hold demonstrations against the regime. Soon after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell, more people joined. At its height, the popular movement drew hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to the streets, demanding President Saleh’s ouster. Change Square in Yemen became a symbol of resistance, just as Tahrir Square had in Egypt.
By the middle of May the situation was deteriorating rapidly. The plan brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to transfer President Saleh from power had collapsed three times, tribal violence was escalating, and the opposition was beginning to see its own internal splits. From the Youth’s perspective, they were being pushed to the side of their own revolution.
At first the Youth expected figures aligned with the traditional opposition party (the Joint Meeting Party or JMP) – including, among others, tribal leader Sheikh al-Ahmar and General Ali Muhsin (the defected officer whose forces joined the revolt) – to cooperate and unite. However, many of these latecomer revolutionaries ended up undermining the movement’s principles in order to promote their own agenda.
The JMP, which is dominated by the religious Islah faction, frequently takes a hypocritical and manipulative stance towards the youth. The JMP relies on them to take Saleh’s blows on the front lines and organise logistics, but when it comes to more “adult” issues such as security and political platforms, the youth are rarely taken seriously.
One glaring example is the development of the committees in Change Square. All the committees began committed to the ideals of the movement, but unlike less influential groups such as the cleaning crew, the security committee eventual became a wing of the JMP. Ultimately, members ended up beating and dispersing the very activists they were supposed to protect.
Sheikh al-Ahmar’s greatest offense was helping turn a remarkably peaceful revolution into violent chaos. As other, mostly younger, tribesmen were laying their weapons aside, al-Ahmar immediately abandoned non-violence after Saleh attacked his compound in late May. This transformed a peaceful movement into a conflict within the Hashid tribal confederation, of which both al-Ahmar and Saleh are members.
In the press conference announcing his defection, General Muhsin declared his “peaceful support of the youth revolution”, which sounds nice, but was not his true motive. He joined the uprising in large part due to a personal rift between himself and President Saleh. He knew that his time as the top military leader was coming to an end regardless. Not surprisingly, he has now positioned himself and his troops ambivalently between the revolutionaries and Vice-President Hadi, refusing to support any particular plan or endorse youth demands.
Inexperience: both weakness and strength
The Youth are not without their flaws. Most notably, they lack political experience, and routinely disagree among themselves about specifics. However, ironically, it is through these imperfections that the youth commitment to democracy shines through.
One worry is that the youth have not designated spokesmen or leaders. But what they have done is organise themselves into a number of smaller groups and committees. According to activist Atiaf al-Wazir, representatives from each of the main groups (one per group) meet regularly to discuss issues and share ideas. There is also a more fluid network of collaboration built upon mobile phones, text messages and the internet. Overall, the youth appear to understand and are implementing at least the beginnings of a solid democratic process.
Another example of their use of the democratic process actually originated as a controversy. On July 16, youth activist and member of the religious Islah party Tawakul Karman announced a detailed transition plan. It named a 15-member preparatory committee that would run the country for no more than nine months. The plan was highly controversial because members of the committee were picked through an undemocratic process, in which a few of those named did not even know they were selected. Instead of becoming polarised, the youth voiced their opinions, worked together and solved the problem. By the third draft, the representatives were, to the extent possible, democratically chosen.
On July 17, taking the youth lead, the JMP announced the formation of the “National Council for the Forces of the Revolution”, which aims to become the body overseeing the revolution. Although all sides (the Youth, JMP, Islah, etc.) viewed one another’s proposals skeptically, they have since been working together to come to an agreement.
Earlier this week the opposition announced that an umbrella council is set to elect its members on August 17. They will be chosen from a pool of 700 remarkably diverse candidates. Even though this proposal is bound to have critics, it marks an incredibly important step towards establishing the credible transition plan that has been sought by the international community.
The key to these recent political developments was the youth movement, which acted as both a spark for the initiative and a role model for success through compromise.
In the end, it is naive to believe that the youth alone have the skills necessary to lead Yemen, but they have proven their ability to play a substantive role. Vice-President Hadi, General Mushin, the JMP, the newly formed “Alliance of Yemeni Tribes” (headed by Sheikh al-Ahmar) and others would be wise to respect them as equals, rather than pawns in a political game.
With the looming prospect of a humanitarian crisis and civil war, Yemen’s future is far from clear. What is certain is that if the youth’s commitment, determination, and talent are not fully used, the prospects of the country ever becoming a stable, liberal democracy will be considerably slimmer.
Tik Root is director of Mideast Reports, a site dedicated to spreading news and ideas from and about the region.