SANAA — The protests in Egypt have not only ignited unrest in Cairo, they've unleashed a flurry of debate across the rest of the region. It's not just about where things are heading in Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, or what the current uncertainty means about the country's post-Mubarak transition. It's about their resonance in the whole of the Arabic-speaking world and the potential spillover effects. From Sanaa, all that's truly clear at the moment is that Yemenis are watching a nearly absurd amount of Egypt coverage on TV.
Local Muslim Brothers and sympathizers watch Al Jazeera with trepidation. Politicians from former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) party watch Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya with a newly awakened revolutionary fervor. Leftists watch al-Mayadeen, the year-old Beirut-based "alternative" to Gulf-funded channels, wondering aloud whether the tide may have shifted against political Islam.
It can feel at times like they are looking at Egypt for cues for where things in Yemen could be heading; over the course of the past two and a half years, events in Cairo have tended to feel a few steps ahead of those Sanaa.
While large-scale protests aimed at the Yemeni dictator's ouster began almost immediately after Mubarak's toppling, Saleh didn't formally cede power until the following February. Demonstrators stayed in the streets in months-long protest encampments across the country, but the voices of Yemen's revolutionary youth were soon eclipsed. The military split between supporting the government and the protestors, and Sanaa erupted into urban warfare on two separate occasions. Al Qaeda-linked militants seized control of a series of towns in the south, and, all the while, opposition politicians engaged in a series of on-again, off-again negotiations with Saleh and his allies. In November 2011, the two sides finally reached an agreement, inking the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, an internationally backed power transfer deal granting Saleh immunity in exchange for his ouster. The deal set Yemen on a two-year long "transitional period" presided over by longtime Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and formed a compromise government split between the GPC and the opposition. Presidential and parliamentary elections are tentatively slated for early 2014.
There's plenty of heady talk about the building of a "new Yemen," but in Sanaa it often feels as if things are paused. Some things have moved forward elsewhere in the country: Once the target of a series of devastating wars, the Houthi movement has carved out a virtual state-within-a-state in their base in the far north, while rising secessionist sentiment has made it seem almost as if the only thing preventing the south from regaining its independence is a series of brittle divisions among the separatist leadership. The ongoing Conference of National Dialogue may have forced politicians in the capital to recognize the Houthis as a legitimate political force, while providing for a comparatively open forum for the discussion of southerners' grievances, but its deliberations often feel like rehashing long-running factional squabbles.
Even if new parties have been formed, the post-2011 political map often feels indistinguishable from the old one. Discussions in Sanaa tend to devolve into debates over the divide between the GPC and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an ideologically fractious coalition of leftist and Islamist factions dominated by the Islah Party, which incorporates the bulk of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, and the Socialist and Nasserist parties. In that sense, there's been little change since 2005, when the JMP was initially formed.
The activists who spurred the former president's ouster -- and, for that matter, many politicians here -- have been open about their misgivings about the shape of Yemen's post-Saleh transition. But it has generally been accepted as the only option aside from further violence and instability.
Gathered around watching news coverage with activists on June 30 and July 1, however, it seemed the scenes in Cairo and other Egyptian cities had provided a potential course of action.