with Colette Rausch, Director of Rule of Law Programs at USIP
Over the last nine months there has been a lot to divide Yemen. Popular uprisings in several governorates across Yemen led to a division between pro-government and opposition members across several cities. The one thing that the different factions seemed to agree on was that the youth, who had started popular uprisings, had legitimate complaints and, along the way, had somehow become marginalized from the negotiating table.
A key turning point took place last week with President Saleh signing a transitional plan initiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council. One of the key elements for a successful transition, and to stave off the potential for continued protests, will be to ensure that youth find their way back to the negotiating table. Several youth have emphasized that they will not be satisfied with simply having a voice, but are insisting on playing an active decision making role.
Most youth that have been camped out in tents occupying Change Square in Sanaa for the past nine months described a strong commitment to staying until they see long-term change. There was little confidence that the GCC initiative would translate into the changes they would like to see. Many of the changes, such as trying the President in a court and freezing all of his assets, are not included in the plan.
Nadia has been working with the Media and Information Center, a tent fully equipped with wireless internet and satellite news facilities to keep the outside world briefed on the demands of Change Square. "Everything proposed so far is only a half solution. The negotiations have been with the Joint Meeting Party, who are only part of the movement. They only represent the political parties. There are still missing voices that include independent youth and women, the tribes, the Hoothis in the north, and the separatists in the South."
Among the key criteria for success that Nadia outlines is an overhaul of the army that is accountable to a parliament, establishment of an independent judicial system, and an inclusive process for constitutional reform.
Like many of the youth in the square, Nadia remains hopeful and committed to having her voice heard. Many youth explained that there were several changes to the spirit of the protests that made them feel more and more marginalized. They admitted that in the beginning when the large political parties joined the camps they eagerly welcomed them.
"They brought with them an organizational capacity that we were missing. In a matter of days they helped form active committees and brought structure to the square. However, within weeks it became clear this meant our actual role was being marginalized," one young activist explained.
Nonetheless, there was a commitment to stay. Despite their grievances against the opposition leaders, many of the youth felt that in order to have influence they needed to remain present in the square and to continue to voice their concerns.
Yet not all youth agreed. Several youth who were in the square during the first few months, felt that their initial call had been hijacked. Mohammed, like many youths who have retreated from the square, has transferred his activism from the streets to the internet café. He has founded a debate club in Sanna, and the first topic was pro and anti change movement. Abbas explains that his decision to leave the square was based on the fact that he believed those that were taking center stage did not share the same ideals that initiated the protests. Like many others, he was afraid of creating a platform for a more conservative voice, when in fact he was hoping to promote liberal change.
In fact, the most vocal opposition to the signing of the GCC agreement has come from the youth, who represent more than half the country. During interviews in Sanaa, youth from different governorates expressed concern that the original issues that led to their occupation of public squares may not be realized given this was a political negotiation that included provisions with which they did not agree, most notably the immunity provided to Saleh, a solution that did not came from within Yemen but was pushed from outside. The youth fear they will continue to be marginalized, and that this will be a change of regime but the same political process.
The concerns of the youth are not falling on deaf ears. Over and over there has been an acknowledgement that the rush to find a peaceful solution has led to the marginalization of the youth. There is also an open recognition that the movement for change would not have not progressed if it were not for the enthusiasm, energy, dedication, and personal sacrifice that came from the youth. Leaders of the opposition understand the concerns expressed by the youth, but have emphasized this is the first step in a gradual process that will lead to the change long term. Opposition leaders expressed the need to take time to explain to the youth of the necessity of taking things one step at time. Further, compromises were crucial in order to ensure a peaceful transition and avoid violent confrontation.
For many youth the revolution is not over. They remain committed to a peaceful nonviolent revolution, and are not quite ready to leave the square. If anything, Wednesday's events have confirmed suspicions that their voices have been marginalized. There is a possibility of a crisis of faith, and protests in Taiz are chanting "All Leave," emphasizing that the GCC agreement does not represent the will of the youth within the square.
One thing remains certain. In order to move forward, there must be a strong commitment to ensure youth are put back at the center. A representative from a major political party within the JMP said, "I am humbled by how much the youth have taught me in this revolution. When I see youth speak on television, I feel that I am a mere student."
** The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.