Opposition demonstrators wave Yemeni flags as they take part in a ‘day of rage’ in Sana’a. Photograph: Hani Mohammed/AP
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Arab Protesters Face Tactical Retreat From Moral High Ground
In Syria and Yemen, Arab Spring protesters have the moral high ground, but may have to dirty their hands with politics before they can make any progress.
By Faisal Al Yafai
One of the dangers of the Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations is that it is unlikely to change the facts on the ground of the Israeli occupation, but will remove the moral argument of statelessness. One of the most important elements of the Palestinian cause is their moral claim on the conscience of the world for an occupation that has lasted decades.
Morality is surprisingly important in resisting power, whether resistance to occupation or resistance to a government.
That moral standing is also on display in Yemen and Syria. Months into the uprisings, both governments are still in place, with few signs of change. The moral superiority of the protesters is still strong, but their alliances have been fractured. As difficult as it is to say, the grubby hand of politics could yet save their clean revolutions.
An impasse has been reached. The protests in Syria are growing, week on week. In Yemen, vast numbers are calling for Saleh to go. Yet in the face of such opposition, each regime remains in power, its position assured as long as it and its supporters control the state's military apparatus.
Events this week in Yemen - which saw government forces open fire on unarmed protesters with anti-aircraft guns - will only serve to galvanise protests and may lead to more defections from the army. And as the killings in Syria go on, it is more likely that actors within the army will seek a way out. But in neither country does this seem likely in the near future.
Nor is there any scope for outside intervention. In Syria, Arab and European leaders can only apply political pressure, chiefly because they will not contemplate a military solution.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the GCC and the United States have played their part in trying to persuade President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step aside. Yet outside powers value stability on the peninsula above all.
That does not mean that Mr Saleh will stay in power. His rule is finished. The real question is the survival of his regime. One of the reasons why Mr Saleh's supporters want elections delayed until 2013 (either through Mr Saleh finishing his term, or through a caretaker until then) is that his son will turn 40 that year, thus passing the minimum constitutional age limit for presidential contenders. That would mean the survival of important parts of the old regime.
Yet the situation is moving against protesters. The removal of Mr Saleh from Yemen during his convalescence has actually bought him time and space to manoeuvre. Without the president as a focus, fissures within the protest movement have become clear. The longer Mr Saleh drags out negotiations, the more likely it is that ordinary Yemenis will tire of the instability and look for a solution, any solution, even one with fragments of the old regime. Yemen's rocky economy only adds to the pressure to make a settlement.
That suggests that protesters need to get their hands dirty in the complex politics of the country.
Power in Yemen is not centralised in the regime. There are rival factions that are not now allied with Mr Saleh, but which nonetheless represent the old politics. Most of the senior figures in the revolution fall into this camp, including General Ali Mohsin, a former close confidant of the president.
This means that Yemen's protesters have to work hard to make sure that figures of the old regime do not dominate any new power structure. And for that to happen, they will need to get involved in politics, in making alliances with powerful figures who are likely to support a transition to a more representative parliamentary system.
To be sure, this carries risks. Seeking support from figures such as Gen Mohsin will provoke Mr Saleh's supporters to label the revolution a coup. They will argue that the president was democratically elected in 2007 and should serve out his six-year term. This is a real danger for the revolution.
The same applies to Syria. The meeting this week of opposition figures is important precisely because it included the new guard of young activists, allowing the opposition to speak with the - at least tacit - approval of demonstrators. Yet the danger is the same: it is one thing for a mass movement to call for an end to the presidency, quite another for opposition politicians to try to take power.
This is the risk of playing politics. Protesters have had the moral power of calling for change on their side; once they start to play politics it will dissipate.
But they are running out of options. On some days, it seems like time is on their side - against such numbers, what government can stand? - and on others it seems like the regimes can wear them down. Syria hopes to wear down protesters by force; Yemen hopes to wear them out over time.
Yet the protesters retain an important advantage: they can adapt. The regimes are stuck in their strategy but the people can find other ways to achieve their goals. They should take that chance, risky though it is.
As with the Palestinians, politics might buy them a political victory at the expense of moral claims. But to save a revolution, that may be a high price worth paying.
This commentary was published in The National on 20/09/2011