— The Erimtan Angle —

Yemen is preparing for its first presidential elections since the downfall of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Only one man is running and that is Saleh’s Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi. Some protesters feel they are being robbed of the achievements of their revolution. Al Jazeera‘s Hashem Ahelbarra reports from the Yemeni capital Sanaa.

Saleh’s wavering and lying has taken up a lot of time, costing the lives of many innocent Yemenis. As evidenced in Al Jazeera’s report, the people of Yemen have become quite politicized, while still adhering to traditional ways of expressing democratic demands, as illustrated by the hijabî lady stating that “The will of the people is divine inspiration”. The Yemeni independent online newswire established in 2005, YemenOnline, reports that ‘[d]ozens of people were hurt in clashes in southeast Yemen between rival demonstrators supporting and opposing Tuesday’s presidential election [, 21 February], witnesses said on Friday [, 17 February]. They said the trouble began late on Thursday when activists of the pro-secession Southern Movement, which opposes the election, threw stones and petrol bombs at a sit-in of pro-election activists in Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province. The activists have been campaigning for the election, which will see Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi stand as the sole candidate to replace veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is standing down under a Gulf-brokered deal. Tuesday’s election follows a year of protests against Saleh’s rule, deadly unrest that erupted last January as the so-called Arab Spring swept through Tunisia and Egypt. Saleh’s departure has been the main demand of the anti-regime demonstrators in Yemen. “Armed men of the Southern Movement” attacked their sit-in, the activists said in a statement, “injuring 60 youths of the revolution, some seriously, and setting fire to four tents” in Mukalla’s Change Place, focus of the protests. Residents also reported Southern Movement protests against the election in several other Hadramawt towns late Thursday. Thousands of people have burned their electoral cards in recent weeks at the urging of the Southern Movement. Meanwhile, government forces detained 10 Al-Qaeda-linked fighters on Friday, a security source said, after an attack in a town which underscored the security challenges of next week’s presidential elections. On Wednesday [, 15 February], militants shot dead a military officer and an election official in the town of Baydah, about 130 km southeast of the capital Sanaa. The militants opened fire on a car carrying Khaled Waqaa, the leader of a brigade of the elite Republican Guard, killing him as well as the head of Baydah’s election committee, Hussein Al-Babli, his son and two soldiers. Ten people were wounded. Yemenis vote on Feb. 21 to pick a leader to replace Saleh, now in the United States for medical treatment, amid concern that violence could reduce turnout. Militant group Ansar Al-Shariah claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack but said it had targeted only the military commander in revenge for the government’s failure to fulfill its half of a deal under which militants quit a town they had seized. Militants agreed last month to pull out of Radda, about 170 km southeast of Sanaa, in exchange for the formation of a council to govern it under Islamic law and the release of several jailed comrades. The militants’ spokesman said that instead of setting up such a council, Republican Guard forces had entered the town. He warned the assassination was just a preliminary response. Saleh formally handed power to his deputy, Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi in November as part of a Gulf-brokered plan to end months of anti-government protests that paralysed the impoverished state for most of 2011. Weakened by the upheaval, Yemen’s government has lost control of swathes of the country, giving Al-Qaeda’s regional Yemen-based wing room to expand its foothold near oil shipping routes through the Red Sea’.[1]

But, whatever the turnout or outcome of the elections, it seems certain that Saleh will be replaced by Field Marshall Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, or the right hand man will become the main man. Whether this seeming change at the top will usher in the kind of changes Yemeni protesters have clamoured for remains doubtful. On the other hand, in a country where one of the people’s main occupation is the chewing of Khat leaves, one can but wonder about crowds and their motivations. Time magazine’s Andrew Lee Butters explains in some detail that by “4 in the afternoon, most men walking the streets of Sana’a are high, or about to get high — not on any sort of manufactured narcotics, but on khat, a shrub whose young leaves contain a compound with effects similar to those of amphetamines. Khat is popular in many countries of the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa, but in Yemen it’s a full-blown national addiction. As much as 90% of men and 1 in 4 women in Yemen are estimated to chew the leaves, storing a wad in one cheek as the khat slowly breaks down into the saliva and enters the bloodstream. The newcomer to Yemen’s ancient capital can’t miss the spectacle of almost an entire adult population presenting cheeks bulging with cud, leaving behind green confetti of discarded leaves and branches”.[2]

So, the question really seems to be whether the people will choose democracy or another leaf of  Khat???  Butters explains that “khat is a social lubricant on a par with coffee or alcohol in the West. Indeed, because chewing the leaf isn’t forbidden by Islam, “khat is alcohol for Muslims,” says Yahya Amma, the head merchant at the Agriculture Suq, one of the largest khat markets in the city. “You can chew it and still go to prayers.” The leaf’s energy-boosting and hunger-numbing properties help university students focus on their homework, allows underpaid laborers to work without meals and, according to local lore, offers the same help to impotent men that Westerners seek in Viagra. Evening khat ceremonies — regular salon gatherings (usually only of men) to chew and chat about matters great and small — are the country’s basic form of socializing”.[3]  But every leaf has its flipside, as Butters reminds us: “khat’s detractors say the leaf is destroying Yemen. At around $5 for a bag (the amount typically consumed by a single regular user in a day) it’s an expensive habit in a country where about 45% of the population lives below the poverty line. (Most families spend more money on khat than on food, according to government figures.) A khat-addled public is more inclined to complacency about the failings of the government, khat ceremonies reinforce the exclusion of women from power and, as is obvious to anyone finding a government office nearly empty on a weekday morning, khat is keeping the country awake well past its bedtime”.[4]  One can but wonder about the deadly demonstrations that have upset Yemen since last year . . . were they Khat-induced copy-cat attempts to walk like an Egyptian or should they be seen as serious moves to wean the people off chewing the Khat???  Either way, it seems like a certainty that Field Marshall Hadi will be assuming the post of President of Yemen coming Tuesday . . .

[1] “Violence in Yemen election protests” YemenOnline (17 Feb 2012). http://yemenonline.info/news-2886.html.

[2] Andrew Lee Butters, “Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death?” Time (25 August 2009). http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1917685,00.html.

[3] Andrew Lee Butters, “Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death?”.

[4] Andrew Lee Butters, “Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death?”.


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