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Yemen protests lack grassroots base

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While the rest of the Middle East is caught up in the fervor of real grassroots change, the international media has glazed over demonstrations in Yemen as another Tunisia inspired call for democracy. 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a last Thursday to call for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after his 32 year rule. Unfortunately, a popular front of concerned citizens is not spearheading these protests.

What makes Yemen so different from Egypt or Tunisia is the marginal political freedom that the Saleh regime tolerates. The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) is a robust opposition bloc in Yemen's parliament where Saleh's party, the General Peoples' Congress (GPC), holds the majority. Unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, The GPC often makes legislative concessions demanded of them by the JMP. Recently, after JMP demands, the GPC removed a clause from a proposed constitutional amendment that would have effectively allowed Saleh to rule indefinitely. In addition, the JMP have been leading demonstrations against the newly adopted election law setting the parameters of the parliamentary elections planned to take place in April.

The most powerful party in Yemen's main opposition bloc is the Islamic reform party, known as the Islah party. Tawakkol Karman, the activist playing a large part in leading the demonstrations against Saleh, is a prominent member of Yemen's Islah party. Another leading member of the party, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, is listed by the US Treasury Department as a specially designated global terrorist in light of his past relationship with Osama bin Laden.

Of Islah's most notable legislative achievements in Yemen is the indefinite postponement of adopting a law to set a legal age for marriage. Following the stories of several child brides, the parliament tasked itself with drafting a law to set a firm legal marriage age to protect the rights of Yemeni girls. Many Islah party members cite the Prophet Muhammad's marriage to six-year-old Aisha and waiting a short period of time to consummate the marriage as an appropriate guide.

Scenes from Yemen's demonstrations last Thursday reflected the political force that was driving them. Pink sashes draped across shoulders replaced cloth wrapped around faces to protect against teargas. The signs people waved calling for Saleh to step down were printed and distributed to demonstrators. The same signs were used at four separate demonstrations at four different locations.

Karman has declared Feb. 3rd to be Yemen's "Day of Rage" and has called on the people of Yemen to take to the streets demanding that Saleh step down. Saleh's paranoia and desire to hold onto power has driven him to take anti-democratic measures, increase censorship nationwide, and ravage any semblance of a free press. However, the planned "Day of Rage" on Feb. 3rd would only serve to hand the reins of power from a paranoid old man to a body of theocrats. Yemen wants neither. 

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Jeb Boone is a freelance journalist based in Sana'a, Yemen. He regularly contributes to the Sunday Telegraph, the Independent, the Guardian's Comment is Free and Global Post. Boone is also the managing editor of the Yemen Times.
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