Watching Cairo from Sanaa

As Egypt reels, Yemenis wonder: Will the revolution spill over again?

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.

For a few brief days, there was talk about building a Yemeni Tamarod (or rebels, as the Cairo protestors called themselves). There were unofficial discussions between activists from across the political spectrum; the date for massive protests aimed at "correcting the course of the revolution" was tentatively set for July 7. Even at the speculative stage, though, disagreements about everything from demands to acceptable protest slogans foreshadowed that things would eventually come to naught. July 7 came and went with only street protests in the south, as secessionists marked the anniversary of their defeat in Yemen's 1994 civil war. The closest thing I witnessed to an outburst of discontent came a few days prior. Driving with a friend past the home of Yemen's embattled prime minister, Mohamed Basindowa, he rolled down his car window, stopped briefly, and shouted "Leave, Uncle Mohamed!"

The absence of Egypt-style protests hardly means people here are happy with the way things are going. Hoped-for improvements in the stagnant economy and the tenuous security situation remain largely elusive: kidnappings of foreigners have increased in frequency, while security officials continue to be targeted in a string of assassinations. The recurring sabotage of power lines has left even residents of the capital at the mercy of disgruntled tribesmen. Even if Hadi has held on to much of his tenuous public support, Yemenis from across the political spectrum have condemned the unity government as a failure.

Still, it seems, no one is willing to make a move. Chewing qat with a collection of GPC politicians on July 2, their enthusiasm for the protests against Morsy was palpable; Yahya Mohamed Saleh, the former Yemeni president's nephew, had already stopped by Cairo's Tahrir Square to show his solidarity with the "revolution against the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood]." They watched as revolutionaries and remnants of the Mubarak regime joined together against a common foe, and I wondered if they thought they felt they could pull off a similar feat here, capitalizing on the longstanding misgivings many Saleh opponents hold regarding the Islah Party.

"The question is no longer ‘with the revolution or against it,'" an activist had told me a few days before. "The stage has changed. What matters now is who is truly for or against building the state."

Comments like that are music to the GPC's ears. But that enthusiasm among revolutionaries and the regime's old guard seems distant from the current political reality.

Complaints over Islah's increased influence in post-Saleh Yemen notwithstanding, the power the party currently holds is in no way comparable to that of Morsy's Freedom and Justice Party. In the event of any possible shakeup, all parties would almost inevitably be affected; while plenty may raise issue with the current balance of power, few seem willing to take the risk of upsetting it.

Perhaps, however, it's the way things have gone in Egypt that has ultimately doomed any real aftereffects here. The violence and uncertainty since the July 3 coup has led many to quiet their misgivings about Yemen's own post-Arab Spring transition. It may be far from perfect, the argument goes, but things could certainly be worse.

There were certainly plenty of Yemenis who celebrated the military's overthrow of Morsy; plenty of others cast it as a far from ideal, but necessary step. But even many Yemenis with little sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood have expressed a deep discomfort as events have unfolded, wondering if it's all a message about the fragility of the tentative gains made in the wake of the Arab Spring.

"I don't like Morsy, but it's hard not to see the army overthrowing an elected president as a negative step -- a step backwards," an activist told me. "It makes me nervous about where Yemen is heading: Wherever Egypt was [before June 30], it was far ahead of where we are now."



Beaten into Submission

Is violence the only way Egypt knows how to deal with Islamists?

CAIRO — Back in the days when Islamists of all stripes -- from the Muslim Brotherhood to the hard-line Salafists to the violent al-Gamaa al-Islamiya -- were outlawed and hounded by President Hosni Mubarak's police state, I was still a young reporter at the beginning of her career. It was the early 1990s, and outfitted in sneakers and the idealism of youth, I would beat innumerable paths between the offices of their lawyers across Cairo, the Brotherhood's headquarters (then in the vegetable market of Cairo's Souk el-Tawfikia), the military courts of Haekstep, the cramped offices of human rights groups, and village after desperate village in Upper Egypt.

One day I was interviewing al-Gamaa al-Islamiya lawyer Abdel Harith Madani at his small office, busy taking notes as he recounted the injustices of the Mubarak regime. At the end of the interview, he proudly showed me pictures of his young daughter. The very next day I was covering the news of his death after he had been taken into police custody.

I sat next to an old woman in black who cried silently as her son, a medical student in the Upper Egyptian city of Asyut, was undressed in front of a military judge to show the signs of torture on his body. I was hard-pressed to maintain a professional decorum as the judge scoffed that his injuries did not look serious.

I walked around the Cairo district of al-Darb al-Ahmar and tried to talk to people about a young man who -- it had been claimed -- was thrown out of the fourth-story window of the police station while being interrogated. All the while, security men lurked nearby, intimidating the people of the district. No one would tell me the truth.

In the city of Sohag, I looked into the eyes of an old man whose only son had just been returned to him in a sealed coffin. "He was just a good boy who liked to go to the mosque," he said. "Like all the Sunnis."

This was the cruel reality of life under Mubarak.

As Egyptians toppled President Mohamed Morsy's rule last week and as the military responded to Islamist protests in front of the Republican Guard headquarters with a heavy hand this week, we must again reconsider the crude Mubarak-era logic that "there is no other way to deal with Islamist groups" but through such repression. It is not only for the Islamists' sake that Egyptians must strive for a just government: The Mubarak regime and its security apparatus entrenched a rule of human rights violations that went well beyond the Brotherhood and enveloped the majority of this country's poor and dispossessed in the darkness.

Any semblance of a modern, democratic state cannot exist with these kinds of abuses. The discourse against the Brotherhood since the June 30 protests and the bloodshed at the Republican Guard headquarters are fearful signposts along that road. This is a cross that our Jan. 25 revolution -- which stands for human dignity and the equality of all -- should never have to bear.

That said, the task of reconciliation has been made even more difficult by the Muslim Brotherhood itself, which has revealed itself as a force intent on the annihilation of all political opposition. Ever since the Brotherhood piggybacked on the 2011 revolution that toppled Mubarak, the Islamist organization has consistently alienated every group that has tried to work with it.

The repression experienced by Islamists is not an excuse for the blunders and crimes they committed after ascending to power. There was the scissor-wielding, niqab-wearing primary-school teacher who cut off the hair of her unveiled student -- and got away with it. There was the torture that continued in prisons, police stations, and Brotherhood offices, as well as the passing of a constitution that lacked a minimum national consensus. The message was the same: We are taking over Egypt for ourselves.

And while the Islamists flagrantly flaunted the "democratic process," the opposition was held liable to the tyranny of the ballot box. We ran from election to referendum -- only to hear Islamist preachers whipping their followers into a frenzy, warning that if their side did not win this coming ballot, Christians and the forces of secular darkness would reign.

The lot of non-Islamist voters was to roast in an eternity of hell, we were told. Christians were threatened and intimidated into staying away from the vote. Anyone who was against Morsy or "the Islamic nation" was an infidel. That included fellow Muslims: On June 22, shortly after the Egyptian president sat impassively through a tirade by an Islamist preacher against Shiites, a mob dragged four Shiite men through the streets of the village of Zawyat Abu Musalam, beating them to death.

It is true the Brotherhood won the elections and referenda, but you would be hard-pressed to paint this as a victory for democracy. And it came at a price for the movement itself, which was elected by predominantly poor voters who voted the Brotherhood in because they thought it would mean extra bags of rice. The unfulfilled promises soon wore thin, and as the economy failed to improve under their "Islamic" rule, the backlash was inevitable.

True to Egyptian nature, which is in fact rather carefree and fun-loving, with a mix of BS thrown in for good measure, people got tired of being told how to be "good Muslims." They got tired of the consistent ineptitude of the government -- the power cuts, fuel shortages, and economic crises. They were even embarrassed by the president's recurrent international faux pas, from crotch-scratching to his blundering English.

Egypt is a country in revolutionary transition. On June 30, millions of peaceful demonstrators took to the streets across the country and made their voices heard: Enough of Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, they said. But leading up to these massive protests, the response of the Brotherhood and Morsy was clear: Opposition would only bring blood, terrorism, and annihilation. "We will cut off the invisible fingers that work to hinder good relations," Morsy said, threatening those attempting to undermine his presidency prior to the June 30 protests.

The head of state rhetorically gave citizens the finger.

The hate that Brotherhood leaders have expressed for their fellow citizens has been heart-wrenching. The Brotherhood incited violence against female protesters, while the movement's supporters labeled non-Islamists as "alcohol-consuming pigs, whores, and infidels" -- just to name a few choice epithets.

The effect of this hate speech perhaps finds its best reflection in the response to Morsy's ouster. The first thing that the former president's supporters did in the city of Luxor was to attack Christian homes -- before they headed off to attack a church. Meanwhile, in Alexandria, the country's second-largest city, Morsy supporters threw young men off rooftops. Were these orchestrated party directives? Or simply the fruits of their indoctrination?

National reconciliation never seemed as remote or unattainable as it does today. But I, for one, do not want to have to look into the eyes of another parent who has lost his or her child. I do not want to see the scars of police brutality on another body. Enough of the shattered minds, bodies, and souls.

The Muslim Brotherhood knows only violence in response to its opponents. But our new Egypt must not succumb. The heroes of this hour are not the Egyptian Army or the security forces. The heroes are the Egyptian people, who are just now discovering for themselves a new road to the future. As we do so, we must never forget that the principles for which we overthrew our dictator -- human rights and due process for all.

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