The protest that paralyzed Yemen’s main airport erupted when an air force officer hurled a boot at his commander, a relative of the outgoing president and a symbol of the corruption that divides even his supporters.
“This is all I have left for the month,” says Faris Al-Jabar, one of about 50 officers who blocked Sana’a airport’s runway this week, plucking a few banknotes from his tattered wallet.
“I earn in a month what my superiors spend in a day.”
Their mutiny last week against General Mohammed Saleh Al-Ahmar, half-brother of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, halted flights at the capital’s airport.
Riot police used water cannon to scatter the rebel airmen but they decamped to picket the heavily fortified home of Saleh’s deputy, the country’s acting leader.
Saleh’s departure for medical treatment in the United States has done little to placate popular anger in the impoverished Arabian peninsula state.
Saleh’s sons and nephews still hold key positions in the military and intelligence services, though the military is supposed to be restructured during two years of transition presided over by vice-president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s presumed successor.
A string of mutinies has disrupted military and government departments headed by loyalists of Saleh, who has agreed to step down after a year of protests, and are inspiring wider civil disobedience.
Many protesters complain the regime they sought to overthrow remains largely intact.
“They may have altered the leadership but at the ground level we see no changes. The same corrupt officials who ruled for decades are still running our country,” said Ahmed Al-Zumair, a 45-year-old civil servant.
Tangle of patronage
From petrol stations to government newspapers, workers have been turning on their superiors, storming offices to demand reforms and the dismissal of managers whom they claim are corrupt beneficiaries of the regime.
Dubbed ‘the parallel revolution’, at least 19 state institutions have been targeted by protesters, among them Sanaa police headquarters, the Armed Forces Moral Guidance Department, the Agriculture and Irrigation office, the coastguards, the traffic police and state television.
“It is a more dramatic and efficient way of effecting change that reflects the grievances of civil servants who have been controlled by corrupt officials for a very long time,” said AbdulGhani Al-Iryani, a prominent Yemeni political analyst.
“They are not willing to wait for political negotiations to deal with these corrupt officials so they’re taking things into their own hands and it’s proving remarkably effective.”
Notable triumphs for the strikers since mid-December include the sacking of President Saleh’s son-in-law, Abdul Khaleq al-Qadi, who was director of the national airline Yemeniyya, after its workers disrupted operations.
This was followed by the dismissal of General Ali Hassan al-Shater after protesters seized control of his influential 26 September army newspaper and published a damning editorial against him.
Both men were long-standing allies of the president, previously regarded by their staff as untouchable.
Culture of strikes, disobedience
The recent wave of disobedience may give Hadi, who is set to become president next month, the chance to assert himself as a political figure in his own right.
“Hadi is seeking to step out from Saleh’s shadow. Dislodging some of those notoriously corrupt men who have close ties to the president is one way of doing that,” said Abdullah al-Faqih, a professor of politics at Sana’a University.
He acknowledged, though, that the graft problem was deeply rooted and would outlive Saleh’s regime. “It will be an uphill struggle ─ patronage remains the modus vivendi of Yemen politics.”
An end to corruption was a central motivating force in anti-government protests that quickly turned into calls for the ouster of Saleh, whose forces killed hundreds of protesters in an attempt to end the demonstrations and underpin his position.
With a hugely overstaffed and underpaid civil service, Yemen has endured an epidemic of corruption, slipping in 2011 from 146 to 164 on Transparency International’s corruption scale.
Enraged by months of fuel shortages and day-long power outages residents of Sanaa have taken a cue from the strikers, forcing their government to listen.
On Tuesday a band of young men sealed off a main highway with piles of rocks and flaming car tyres to demand their homes be supplied with water after a two-month cutoff.
They fended off angry drivers, and even police cars, with shouts and nail-studded planks, and the blockades dragged on for hours until a government water-truck arrived with the promise of filling their tanks.
“These people have learned a new culture, which is the culture of strikes and disobedience,” said Maher, a 20-year-old bystander.
“They feel they can vent their anger against anything that goes against their welfare. They are tired of being ignored.”