Thursday, March 10, 2011

YEMEN: The view from Aden

ADEN, 10 March 2011 (IRIN) - Some of the worst violence in Yemen as protesters demand the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in the southern port city of Aden, where at least 20 people have been killed since mid-February.

The first death on 16 February led to a surge of anger, and after Friday prayers on 18 February there were pitched battles with the security forces as the protesters tried to reach the main square in the city. At least one member of the security forces was reportedly killed.

“The government says the violence against the security forces is - more than anywhere else in the country - justifying their heavy-handedness, and two or three public buildings, including a police station have been torched,” said an analyst, who asked not to be named. “The demonstrators say the government is using agents provocateurs.”

There was more trouble on 7 March when masked men demanded the closure of schools in the al-Mansoorah and al-Mualla districts of Aden. According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), students and teachers were threatened and told if they did not join the protests, their schools would be burnt down. Gun shots were heard in the area.

Schools were open on 8 March, but few students turned up for class. “Our main concern is that schoolchildren should not be involved by any of the parties - schools should be a safe environment for the children,” UNICEF field officer in Aden Mohammed al-Ebbi told IRIN.

“The situation is very unpredictable, our [risk] assessment can change from day to day,” a humanitarian worker noted. “Aden can be easily paralysed; there are few access roads and they can be blocked.”

Streets in the districts of Ma’alah, Crater and al-Mansoorah have been occupied by small groups of protesters, but local observers say the demonstrators, who are demanding jobs and an end to corruption, have been less organized and coordinated than in the capital Sana’a, and other cities.

Ibrahim Shaibi, a medical doctor leading the protest in Ma’alah, which has shut down Madram Street, the main commercial centre, said he was now “keeping in touch with Sana’a”, and committees were being formed.

The students that initially spearheaded the Sana’a protest are largely absent in Aden, as the university is not due to open until 15 March. The demonstrators are far more community-based, and so far there have been none of the pro-government counter-marches seen in other cities. “Public workers have been called to go out on the streets, but they just go home,” said a local aid worker who preferred anonymity.

New element

As in the rest of the country, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of opposition groups, are supporting the protesters in Aden. But the presence of the secessionist southern movement, al-Hirak, adds an additional dimension, and Al-Qaeda is also present in the rural south.

Until unification in 1990, the south was a separate country with a socialist government. It is an era remembered as one in which the state provided free social services; jobs and housing were readily available; and women were more empowered. In 1994 the political agreement unravelled over southern accusations of marginalization, and the north invaded, brushing aside the numerically inferior southern army and seizing control of the south’s oil and gas resources.

But the south was not a harmonious idyll before the north’s invasion. There were tribal-based political rivalries which boiled over into killings in the mid-1980s, and which could still exist.

Al-Hirak is a broad movement that is particularly strong outside Aden where state control is weak. Its emergence and growth is seen as the direct result of the north’s refusal to listen to southern grievances, and the monopolization of senior local positions and economic power by northerners aligned to the ruling party. Yemen is run on a system of patronage and contacts that further penalizes southerners who do not have access to those networks, analysts say.

But the protests in the north that began on 2 February have provided a political alternative to separation for southerners wanting change: the idea that Saleh could be forced to quit after 32 years is a novel option.

“In Aden it’s now less about separation and more about regime change,” said the local analyst. “For ordinary people, if the situation changes, if there is an end to corruption and chances for the youth - that will satisfy the people here.”

Amir Ali, listening to the speakers at an anti-government rally in al-Mansoorah on 6 March, told IRIN: “There are many opinions here, but I’m a believer in one Yemen. The problem in the south is that we feel disenfranchised; we are not stakeholders in the future of this country. This is a revolution by the youth who want a stake in the future.”



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