For the past seven months, Yemen has been trying to resolve the dysfunction it has fallen into over the past 17 years. It looks as if many evasions have not helped in staving off chaos. For millennia, anarchy has been the enemy of Arabia Felix, especially when a tyrant tried to rule it without sharing power with the constituent parts of its mosaic structure.
The revolution for change of Feb. 11 has articulated the demands of a total revision and complete overhaul of the Yemeni political system. These demands for inclusive participatory politics, federalism and moving toward a parliamentary system emanate from months of dialogue that culminated in the signing of the Agreement of Accord and Reconciliation in Jordan in February 1994.
Instead of shifting toward decentralization and a parliamentary system, however, President Ali Abdullah Saleh became more arrogant following the capture by his northern forces of the south after the 1994 civil war. After only serving as chairman of the Presidential Council of the Unified Yemen from 1990 to 1994, he moved toward a questionable and ostentatious presidential system that made him omnipotent. These totalitarian powers formed the basis for the patrimonial system created gradually by Saleh following the 1994 civil war.
It is fair to say that, unlike other parts of the Arab world, the recent revolt in Yemen was not directly instigated by the events of the “Arab Spring.” Nonetheless, these regional changes added a new momentum and dimension to the long-standing instability and upheavals in Yemen, giving them their current form. The Southern Movement, or “Hirak,” which erupted in 2007, has been a manifestation of these widespread upheavals.
The important geostrategic position of Yemen and its 1,500 kilometers of shared border with Saudi Arabia seem to have been a liability rather than an asset in the stance taken by Yemen’s global and regional partners towards the Yemeni revolution.
A group named The Friends of Yemen, formed in London in January 2010, committed itself to the objective of preventing Yemen from sliding into a failed state. Unfortunately, this objective has not produced positions similar to measures taken against the tyrants of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Unlike Saleh’s counterparts, the dictator and his regime have not been subjected to any punitive measures, such as United Nations sanctions, embargos on importing arms, a freezing of assets, travel bans or a referral to the International Criminal Court for the perpetration of war crimes, atrocities and crimes against humanity.
For the past three months, the regime has been launching airstrikes against supporters of the revolution in Arhab, 30 kilometers north of the capital, where these supporters have managed to block the entry of three brigades into Sanaa. These brigades were attempting to join other brigades of the Republican Guards, which have been positioning themselves in the surrounding hills and mountains and threatening an overall assault against the eight-month long sit-in of peaceful protesters in the capital.
By any norms and all standards, the brutal crackdown on peaceful unarmed protesters on Sept. 18-20 amounts to indiscriminate genocide. Perpetrators committing such crimes with impunity are relying on a controversial article in the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative that offers the president and his entourage amnesty and immunity from future prosecution.
In a letter dated Sept. 18, addressed to the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Yemeni National Council, a broad umbrella organization of opposition parties and revolutionary forces, called the international community to meet its obligations and respect the Yemeni people’s choice.
The letter concluded that: “Without international intervention, Yemen will explode and disintegrate. This explosion will spill over into the neighboring region and international trade routes. Action must be taken now to prevent the crisis from spreading and reaching a point far beyond repair.”
Six months following the indiscriminate killing of 60 peaceful protesters during the “Friday of Dignity” on March 18, last week’s massacre of 80 peaceful protesters with heavy and medium-range weapons has taken Yemen past a turning point in the trajectory of its revolution.
It looks certain that events in Yemen have crossed the point of no return. The question is, a point of no return toward what destination? Is it toward the grip of anarchy as the history of Yemen usually entails? Or has it crossed a threshold toward inclusive participatory politics? I am inclined to bet on the latter. However, the true answer will only be known over time.
(Mohamed Qubaty is an opposition political activist and the spokesman on international affairs for the Yemeni National Council. He served as ambassador to Lebanon and Cyprus and as senior political adviser to the last two Yemeni prime ministers. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of Lebanon’s The Daily Star on September 28, 2011.)