For the last three years, Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman has led protests every Tuesday in the square in front of the cabinet building, which she nicknamed “Freedom Square,” holding banners making demands ranging from government reform to freedom of the press to the release of prisoners of conscience. But it was not until the beginning of this year that this movement gained momentum, specifically on February 3, the “Day of Rage.”
This was initiated solely by young activists who connected online through Facebook groups. These youth were acting with no guidance or involvement from the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), and their level of organization and preparedness was very low.
Three months later, the JMP reportedly will soon head to Riyadh to sign with President Ali Abdullah Saleh a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council states that lays out a controlled transition. Saleh is to step down within 30 days, handing off power to a vice president and a coalition government. Youth activists immediately rejected the initiative, which they view as providing the unpredictable Saleh with too much wiggle room, but so far they have been brushed aside. Today the youth protesters find their main demands unanswered, their future role in Yemen unclear, and a solution being decided by politicians who do not necessarily represent them.
After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted on February 11, the JMP equivocated for some time about whether to join the youth protests and in the meantime held a dialogue, albeit a faltering one, with President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh took advantage of the division between the youth and the JMP, mobilizing a street campaign to push them further apart. New people known to be pro-regime appeared in street demonstrations, holding banners saying that youth were behind the revolution and accusing the political parties of hijacking it. Saleh then reneged on all his promises to the JMP, including one on February 2 when he promised to relinquish power before the end of the year.
Saleh thus unintentionally pushed the JMP to join the youth revolution. The youth were ecstatic and felt a sense of power they had never felt before, as the strongest opposition parties joined them instead of them joining the parties. With the help of the JMP, the first tent was erected on February 21 in the square in front of San’aa University, which they renamed “Change Square.”
Many of the activists of Change Square, including Tawakul Karman, Khalid al-Anisi, and Samiya al-Aghbari, had political ties and facilitated contact between the youth and the organized opposition. At first, some of the youth who initiated the protests resented the involvement – and at times, the domination – of the JMP, and especially of the Islamist party Islah, which is the strongest and most experienced political party when it comes to mass mobilization.
In early March, some young protestors quit the square due to the domination of Islah, with its conservative Islamic point of view. The next day they returned, but their absence drew attention to the need to create a strategy to keep the protestors united. For example, in place of the traditional leaders of the political parties, younger party leaders started taking a higher profile. They were seen as the compromise between hard-line JMP leaders (especially Islah) and the modern youth of the revolution.
These new leaders gave the various youth groups, and even the women’s groups, access to the stage for two hours every day. Moreover, the youth groups were consulted in the process of drafting statements and announcements from Change Square, despite the fact that the youth comprised as little as 30 percent of those in the square, which at times hosted up to 20,000 protestors.
Another defining moment in Yemen’s revolution was the sniper killing of more than 60 protestors on March 18, which turned not only many more Yemenis, but also the international community, against Saleh. The bloody clashes caused a backlash, and the thousands in Change Square turned to hundreds of thousands. This event also united the Yemeni opposition and highlighted the importance of organization. The youth realized how important it is to have medical equipment, adequate food, and good strategies. Change Square became a bee hive buzzing with organized activities.
Although the youth were the ones to start Yemen’s revolution, they have been absent from high-level talks in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to address the crisis. Politicians on both sides say that this is because the youth are divided and do not have a unified leadership to invite. Indeed, today there are some 72 activist groups represented in Change Square, many of which are active online, particularly on Facebook. There are attempts to merge them into larger groups, but these efforts are taking longer than anticipated.
The problem for Yemen’s youth is that they had never exercised democracy in any true organizational sense before now. Except for a few activists, who are still divided among themselves on ideological and intellectual levels, the rest of the revolution’s youth have no idea how to organize themselves or how to draft a political program. Thus they remain easy prey for experienced politicians, whether they are pro-regime or opposition.
The JMP’s acceptance of the GCC initiative has shown how an organized political opposition can ride a wave of popular protest to reach positions of power. Moreover, JMP member and al-Haq party leader Hassan Zaid made a public statement on April 20 describing the youth’s role as purely revolutionary and claiming that “they should not have ambitions to be part of the new political system.” This statement angered many of the youth groups and deepened the divide between them and the political parties.
The youth’s lack of organization and leadership, as well as their insistence on strict conditions, has led to their marginalization by more experienced actors. Unless youth groups unify and define their goals and their role in the transitional phase quickly, they might find that the past few months will turn out to have been simply a waste of time and human lives.