The people of Yemen today are waging an unwavering battle for democracy and independence. Their struggle is one of many being carried out by the people of the Middle East and North Africa against the undemocratic rulers of the region and their colonial masters in Washington and elsewhere.
The protests in Yemen began in January 2011, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Tens of thousands of people marched in the streets, demanding the government address issues of unemployment, poverty and corruption. These demands for democracy and social justice were soon followed by demands for the resignation of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Protests escalated throughout January and February 2011. On March 18, 2011, a march in the capital city of Sana'a saw Yemeni security forces open fire on demonstrators, killing 52 people. However, the crackdown only served to steel the protester's resolve, and also sparked the defection of a number of high ranking officers and ministers from the military and government.
Negotiations began for Saleh to leave office, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Many of its members, Saudi Arabia most prominent among them, were concerned that protests would escalate if Saleh did not leave office, potentially threatening to spill over Yemen's borders into their own countries. However, Saleh did not leave the country until June 2011, after he was injured in an attempted assassination. In November 2011, he officially transferred power to his Vice President, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Although the official opposition council accepted this deal, many protesters were angered that Saleh would not face justice and that essentially the same government would continue with a new face.
Presidential elections were held on February 21, 2012, in which al-Hadi was the sole candidate. Not surprisingly, he won. Despite this absolute farce and mockery of democracy, the elections were hailed as a success by the United States administration and many of their allies in the Persian Gulf. In an official statement on the elections, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “on behalf of the United States, I want to congratulate the people of Yemen on today's successful presidential election. This is another important step forward in their democratic transition process and continues the important work of political and constitutional reform... Today's election sends a clear message that the people of Yemen are looking forward to a brighter democratic future.”
Although many in Yemen celebrated the departure of Saleh, it is clear that little will change under al-Hadi's rule, despite his promises to address conditions of poverty and unemployment. Every Friday, tens of thousands have been gathering in cities across Yemen to demand the removal of Saleh's relatives and allies from key military and security positions and an end to interference in Yemen by the US and Saudi Arabia.
Social and Economic Roots of the Protests
The Romans called the area which is today Yemen “Arabia Felix”, or Happy Arabia for its lush land and fertile soil which supported thriving communities within a mostly dry and barren desert landscape. However, despite the country's plentiful resources, the people of Yemen today do not live in the fortunate circumstances the Romans once coveted. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, ranking 154th out of 187 countries on the UN's Human Development Index. Although its major cities like Sana'a and Aden look thriving and modern from an outside view, the reality is that most of the country's citizens are struggling to survive. Forty-two percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations Development Programme, and over half of the population is chronically malnourished. The depth of the problem is revealed jarringly with horrifying images of skin-and-bone children from across the country. UNICEF reports that over a million of Yemeni children are severely malnourished, resulting in stunted growth and chronic health problems. This number of starving children is second only to Afghanistan.
Yemen also faces the challenges of low levels of development. Over half of the population has no access to an improved water source such as a well, instead getting their water from often-contaminated rivers, lakes and streams. More than three quarters of the population do not have access to even such basic improved sanitation facilities such as an outhouse, resulting in outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.
The already desperate living conditions in Yemen have been recently exacerbated by a skyrocketing unemployment rate, pushing hundreds of thousands more people into poverty. Overall unemployment in Yemen sits at about 35%, according to the World Bank. However, the Yemen Education for Employment Foundation estimates that unemployment rates among Yemeni youth are around 50%. Even many university graduates cannot find jobs. As in many other Arab countries, this frustrated and dissatisfied youth population has been a driving force in protests against the government.
Desperate social conditions, together with widespread government corruption and mass killings of activists have led to the uprising in Yemen today. Although there are a number of different groups and factions among the protesters, the demands for democracy, social reform and independence from foreign interference are common to all.
The issue of foreign interference in Yemen's affairs is not a new one. Ishaan Tharoor writes in Time Magazine, “by the 19th century, Yemen's modern political contours were taking shape with the region a chess piece in the hands of foreign powers. The Ottoman Empire extended its control over Arabia south from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, seizing Sana'a and nearby towns. In 1832, soldiers of the British East India Company captured Aden, which they saw as a strategic waypoint between Europe and their colonial possessions in India.”
The southern port of Aden and its surrounding area were ruled directly by the British East India Company until 1937, when Britain made the port a crown colony. Yemen remained under British control until 1967, when an uprising against their rule forced them to leave. However, the colonial powers were not going to give Yemen up so easily. Today, the port of Aden remains a critical shipping and trading point between the Horn of Africa and major markets in India and East Asia - and an area of strategic and economic interest to the United States.
The Secret US War in Yemen
It is of critical importance to the U.S. government and capitalist class to maintain allies in the Middle East, an area rich in resources and the site of many important trade routes. Yemen, like many other countries, has fallen victim to a no-win scenario presented by the US administration. The choice presented to them was to ally themselves with the US, allowing the plundering of resources by US-based corporations direct or indirect interference in their country's affairs, or stand up to Washington and face the constant threat of becoming the next Iraq or Afghanistan. The Yemeni government chose the former option.
However, despite their government's capitulation, Yemenis have not escaped the bombs and terror brought by the United States. With the cooperation of the Yemeni government, the CIA has been carrying out a covert “drone war” in Yemen, supposedly carrying out attacks in the name of killing al-Qaeda militants. Washington-based think tank the New America Foundation estimates that between 531 and 779 Yemenis have been killed in drone strikes.
In a June 12 report, CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen wrote, “on April 25, the White House approved a new policy inaugurating a more aggressive campaign of drone strikes in Yemen allowing so-called "signature" strikes. These are strikes on individuals whose patterns of behavior signal the presumed presence of an important militant or of a plot against the United States, even if the targeted individual's identity is unknown.”
The CIA and the US administration claim they are making “every effort” to avoid civilian casualties. How is this possible when a person can now be charged, tried, and executed based merely on their behaviour by someone sitting in a control room in a foreign country?? What the US is doing in reality is waging a campaign of terror and fear against the civilian population in Yemen to send the message: “if you defy us, this is what we will do to you”.
As for their claims of supporting the Yemeni people in their call for Saleh to resign, this was simply another strategic and opportunistic move. The US administration backed the resignation of their ally, Saleh, because they did not want to give more fuel to the opposition and risk a full-fledged uprising which could see a truly independent and democratic government in Yemen which would not capitulate to US interests.
Hands Off Yemen!
The Yemeni people have been waging a courageous battle for their human rights, democracy and independence. As people living in Canada, the United States, and around the world, we must support them in their calls for democracy and independence by demanding an end to the ongoing drone war and US interference in the country. The victory of the Yemeni people in their struggle would not only mean defeat for the US, but a victory for people all around the Middle East and the entire world who are struggling for their democratic and human rights.
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