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Yemen: After Saleh, What?

6 June 2011

Yemen: After Saleh, What?

By Gwynne Dyer

President Ali Abdullah al-Saleh, in power in Yemen for the past 33 years and under siege for the past three months, left the country on Saturday night with a large piece of shrapnel lodged just below his heart. He may not come back.

Accompanying Saleh to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment were the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the speakers of both houses of parliament, and Saleh’s personal security adviser, all of whom were also wounded in the Friday explosion at the al-Nahdayn mosque in the presidential compound in Sanaa. It’s a pretty clean sweep, so the question is: who comes next?

Nobody even knows whether the explosion was caused by a bomb planted in the mosque, a shell, or a rocket. The situation is very complicated, so you’d better take notes. (There will be a brief test afterwards.)

The turmoil in Yemen is really two separate conflicts. One is a traditional power struggle between two elite factions. The other is a non-violent, pro-democratic youth movement inspired by the popular revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world. They were linked at the start (though most of the young idealists didn’t realise it), but they will be disentangled by the finish.

One of the elite factions is dominated by President al-Saleh’s own family: his son Ahmed Ali commands the Presidential Guard, and his nephews Tariq, Yahya and Ammar control other vital elements of the security and intelligence apparatus. The rival faction is led by the al-Ahmar family, whose current head, Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, is the leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, one of the two most powerful in Yemen.

Sadeq al-Ahmar’s brother Himyar was deputy speaker of parliament, and another brother, Hussein, was a member of Saleh’s Governing People’s Council, until the two men resigned three months ago in protest against the regime’s brutal shooting of student demonstrators. That was the signal that the long truce between the two factions was at an end.

The most important al-Ahmar brother is Hamid, a businessman and a leader of the opposition Islah party. There is ample evidence that Hamid helped to get the student protests underway, making his Sabafon mobile network available to send out messages organising the protests and then covering the demos lavishly on his Suhail TV network (whose head office was burned by Saleh’s troops last week).

So far, so bad. What makes it worse is that the quarrel is among such a narrow and unrepresentative elite. The Saleh family, like the Ahmar family, belongs to the Hashid tribal confederacy. They both therefore follow the Zaidi tradition of Shia Islam, whereas a majority of Yemenis are Sunnis. Eighty percent of Yemenis don’t even have a dog in this fight.

But the young Yemeni protesters in the streets are not interested in a mere reshuffle of the elite, and the Ahmar family has never controlled them. They actually do want democracy, and they have already paid a high price for their idealism: about half of the 350 people killed since the first “Day of Rage” in January have been unarmed youths.

The other half, in the past two weeks, have mostly been tribal fighters backing the Ahmar family and military forces controlled by the Saleh clan (plus lots of innocent bystanders). In terms of how Yemen has always been run in the past, the Ahmar family is now on the brink of victory. But the drama will not end there.

One of the student leaders, Hashem Nidal of the Independent Movement for Change, put it well in a recent interview with the BBC. “They wanted to push the revolution towards violence and we refuse this completely….We are co-ordinating with many protesters across the country to make sure they don’t fall into the trap of violence.”

“After three months of great efforts in raising awareness among people to avoid violence,” he added, “we managed to reach a level of understanding that refuses violence. We are looking to topple this regime by peaceful means.” By “regime”, he means the tribal, sectarian, undemocratic way in which Yemen has always been run.

The departure of President Saleh won’t be the end of the story. The Ahmar family’s allies may take over the government, but they will face just the same demands from Yemeni youths who want a non-sectarian, democratic, non-tribal state that offers them a decent future regardless of their tribe, their sect, or even their sex.

If they get the chance to build that state, they will face horrendous challenges. Yemen is the poorest Arab country, and its modest endowment of oil is running out. So is the underground water it depends on for irrigation, and the population is growing at 2.6 percent a year. Half of the 24 million Yemenis are illiterate, and half the population is under 18.

The kids may fail, but who stands a better chance of surmounting these challenges? A democratic government run by the younger generation of Yemenis, or a regime controlled by the Salehs or the Ahmars?

It’s all quite simple, really. So there will not be a test after all.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Sadeq…end”; and “After…run”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Greatest Ruritanian

11 November 2004

The Greatest Ruritanian

By Gwynne Dyer

“The only thing it proves is that white South Africans have telephones,” said Max du Preez, a South African journalist I once made a film about. He always did have a talent for understatement.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation had bought the “Greatest Britons” TV format from the BBC, and invited the viewers of SABC 3, an English-language channel mostly watched by affluent whites, to nominate their candidates for the hundred “Greatest South Africans” by phone, e-mail and text message. (Nelson Mandela got a free pass to the top of the list.) It then dutifully made hour-long television documentaries about each of the ten leading candidates after Mandela, with well-known personalities (“champions”) advocating each nominee’s cause — and failed to notice until the series began to air last month that not one of the top five was black.

Predictably, there was uproar. Not only was the list laden with whites in a country where only a tenth of the population is white, but some of them were heroes of the apartheid era like former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who placed 19th, and neo-Nazi leader Eugene Terre’Blanche, who placed 25th. The series was suspended after the broadcast of the first two episodes, and the head of the SABC, Peter Matlare, announced: “We’re going back to the drawing board on this one.”

Some other people urgently need to go back to the drawing board, too. When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation bought the format and called for the public to nominate the “Greatest Canadian”, the top ten included a ranting bigot called Don Cherry, a hockey commentator whose specialty is ethnic slurs against the players (but at least they didn’t nominate Celine Dion). The Dutch voted the assassinated anti-immigrant extremist Pim Fortuyn into second place in the “Greatest Dutchman” stakes. And there was a serious risk that the British public would choose Princess Diana over Shakespeare, Darwin and Newton.

She did get more votes than those luminaries — after all, they only wrote plays, discovered gravity, and created the theory of evolution, whereas she made a bad marriage, threw herself down the stairs, and made bulimia fashionable — but she was overtaken in the end by Isambard Kingom Brunel, the great Victorian engineer. The loyal students of Brunel University voted early and often, and only the BBC’s tactic of running the Winston Churchill show last ensured that the old imperialist (“I have not become His Majesty’s first minister in order to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire”) finally came out on top.

The list that really impressed, though, was the “Greatest German” list: Luther and Marx, Bach and Einstein, Gutenberg and Goethe. The Germans have had a profound influence on the world over the past four centuries — and yet you did have this nagging feeling that the list was incomplete: that if “greatest” means having had the greatest impact on the world, and not just being the cleverest or the nicest, then there ought to have been one more name on the German list. And there might well have been, except that the organisers refused to record any votes for Hitler.

That’s the problem with this format, you see: many countries have large skeletons in their closets. The French, for example, will undoubtedly include Napoleon on their list.

In real life, Napoleon was Hitler without the racism and the death camps, and he had a considerably longer run in power because he wasn’t quite as bad a strategist as Hitler. Enough time has passed by now that the French will probably get away with putting Napoleon on their list, but he did invade practically every country in Europe, some of them several times, and that’s bound to leave a lingering resentment.

Any list of “Great Mongolians” would start and end with Genghis Khan, hands down history’s greatest killer, and there are places (like China and Iraq) where that is still remembered and resented. The list of candidates for “Greatest Arab”, currently being voted on, would undoubtedly feature Osama bin Laden somewhere near the top if the organisers did not ban him. And if the Russians do not ban Lenin and Stalin from their list, they’ll be near the top, too.

It’s an awkward thing, history, and this “greatness” business is doubly awkward. Some interpret it to mean historical importance, and by that criterion Hitler certainly belongs on the German list and Stalin on the Russian list. Others see it as a popularity contest, however, and that’s certainly how foreigners would interpret it if the great killers made it onto anybody’s list. On the other hand, what if your country is so small or so new that foreigners don’t even recognise any of the names on your list of “Great Ruritanians”.

Best to stay away from the whole topic, and avoid the resentment and the ridicule alike. So when the BBC salespeople come around touting their fascinating new format, just say a firm “No, thanks” and get back to doing reality shows and soap operas: that’s where the audiences and the money really are. The minority who want challenging intellectual content can go listen to radio. Well, all right then, they can go read books. Both of them.

Oh, and a prediction: Bill Gates will top the list of “Great Americans”.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“In real…top, too”)