Mon, Feb 10, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Yemen’s dream for civil society throttled by traditional powers

By Ghaith Abdul-ahad  /  The Guardian, SANA’A

The room darkened and fell silent. A single battery-powered neon light placed next to the door cast long shadows against the dark walls. Beyond the window, Sana’a swam in darkness. A disgruntled sheik had cut off the city’s main electricity supply lines, which passed through his tribal land.

Hours later the men gathered up their cigarette packs, bottles of water and what was left of the qat into plastic bags and moved out of the room. They retreated to their homes, filling their Facebook pages with warnings of coming civil wars.

Leaving the meeting, Ghaleb accompanied a poet and another friend to a nearby cafe, a place with sooty walls, narrow metal benches and a stove piled with huge copper kettles. They sat in silence drinking sweet milk tea spiced with cinnamon and cardamom.

‘NO RUNNING AWAY’

Ghaleb, the eldest of the three, had once run one of Yemen’s most progressive newspapers, but under Saleh, the paper was closed and Ghaleb was put on trial with two of his writers. He was pardoned later, but the paper never again saw the light of day.

He said that most of the recent history of Yemen had been the struggle to build a modern civil state, with each attempt facing resistance from traditional powers of authority — religious or tribal.

Sometimes through political intrigue, at other times through civil war or outside interference, these traditional powers had managed to repeatedly subvert efforts to change Yemeni society.

“These traditional powers are very adaptable and can change their shape to ride the revolutionary tide and subvert the change from within. The same is happening now. These same tribes, the same people and their sons, have co-opted the revolution and became so-called revolutionaries to save their interests,” Ghaleb said.

One of the friends, a journalist who had turned to a more lucrative job in advertising, said: “Every day I feel I’m suffocating, I want to run away from politics. Go somewhere I tell myself, take a holiday. Then I wake up and I start calling the same people and I end up talking about politics again — there is no running away.”

Outside the cafe, under a concrete flyover, a group of soldiers gathered around a small fire lit next to their military truck. Ninety people were killed in the revolution when the army opened fire at demonstrators at that same spot.

“I want a coup d’etat now. At least we can have a clear enemy — the people who are destroying this country now are calling themselves revolutionaries,” the third friend said.

Late at night, the streets of Sana’a were empty save for a few soldiers in oversized Russian trench coats and people scavenging through piles of garbage. Pools of light from humming generators interrupted the darkness and a million stars shone brilliantly in the sky. The poet walked aimlessly through the quiet streets, passing the ancient walls of the parliament building.

“During the revolution, people walked like they had wings. Any time they could unfurl them and fly,” he said, opening his arms and stretching them into the darkness.

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