The Heat of the Moment
It’s very easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment when analyzing political events. In the Middle East, it’s been clear that the utopian statements of many of the reporters covering the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen are based more on the euphoria of watching dramatic history unfold in real time than any sober consideration of the consequences these uprisings will have.
In Tunisia, the uprising happened in a dramatic, and tragic way. After his vegetable cart was stolen by a policewoman Last December, Mohammed Bouazizi, unable to get help or even recognition of his plight from the authorities, doused himself with petrol and lit himself on fire (he died January 4). The shocking suicide attempt sent ripples through Tunisian society, and his cause became a rallying cry for a series of protests that led, later in January, to the sudden resignation of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. It was a delirious moment, the first time in decades that a massive protest led to the downfall of an Arab autocrat. Now, so the conventional wisdom went, Tunisia can have freedom and democracy.
If only Tunisians felt the same optimism. The revolt and soft coup has led to a wave of emigration. The flood of refugees into Italy, for example, is so great it’s sparking a mini-crisis with the EU. The tourism industry, which is a major contributor to Tunisia’s economy, has been at a standstill for months. Even more importantly, they still don’t have a government, and people remain unsure of how to proceed with crafting a future for themselves.
Egypt faces a similar dilemma: yes, it was exhilarating to watch teeming crowds of people eventually force Hosni Mubarak to resign the presidency in some way. Yet all the protests have done so far is to replace a hated tyrant with a small cabal of Army officers. Rather than proceeding immediately to democracy, the military is instead threatening the protesters in an effort to dissolve the mass movement. As the protests change from anti-Mubarak to anti-military, it is not at all clear that Egypt will see a happy end to its revolt.
Both outcomes could have been foreseen (and were by the more cynical among us). Leaderless movements can be effective means of bringing down governments, but they are terrible at creating replacement governments—to do that requires leadership, coherent ideas (and even ideology, though not necessarily), and a plan for transitioning society from now to the future. Neither Egypt nor Tunisia have that in any great abundance.
So what about Yemen? There the situation has been different from Egypt and Tunisia: by and large, the protests have been carefully planned and proceeded relatively peacefully. One observer wryly noted after witnessing the protests, “By 3pm, traditionally Qat chewing time in Yemen, everyone had packed up and gone home.”
The main reason the protests have proceeded as they have in Yemen is because the opposition movement, while fractured and beset with in-fighting over specific issues, is still relatively organized. They have limited goals for their large protests (a reform of electoral laws allowing them a fair chance in the next election is at the top of their list), and adhere, with very few exceptions, to non-violence. This week, a smaller crowd of young protestersᾹthe New York Times says hundreds while the BBC says a thousand while the AFP says three thousand—marched at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, angrily demanding the ouster of President Saleh. They were beaten back with sticks and rocks, and there are rumors that several were beaten with batons and arrested.
Still, this is far less violence, on a far smaller scale, than either Tunisia or Egypt saw (in both of those countries, hundreds of protesters have been killed by the government). And just as importantly, the major opposition groups have not participated in these smaller, more militant protests. They are not, in other words, in the mainstream of Yemen’s opposition movement.
This is important when pondering the importance of these protests to Yemen’s political environment. In the United States and Britain, protests of under a thousand people are so common as to be not worth reporting in any real sense—even when the demands are crazy, and the crowds far larger, there’s no speculation about the “stability” of the government or its ability to remain in control of itself. Yet, in Yemen, when vanishingly small numbers of people try to make a statement and get beaten back, it’s reported as if it’s on par with the millions of people who camped in the streets of Cairo for over two weeks to force out their dictator.
It is truly exciting to see people take to the streets in protest. In fact, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the emotions of the movement, even if you don’t really have a stake in them. But this tendency, which happens even among the very educated, of assigning huge importance to very small, routine events like a few hundred people at a protest march in Yemen, can obscure our ability to think clearly about these sorts of events. We can do with a little more sobriety.