Government’s response to public protests [Archives:2007/1078/Opinion]

August 20 2007

Last week, the peaceful protest of Taiz proved that protestors did not seek riots or chaos as the government had claimed. The people took to the streets not to abuse the Thawabit Wataniah “National Fixed Norms” or ask for the overthrow of the political regime. The public protest did not call for separation or expressed sympathy with al-Houthi rebels in Sa'ada and the terrorists behind the Marib attack as President Ali Abdullah Saleh claimed in his interview with al-Wasat weekly published last Wednesday. They rather protested rising price of wheat, gas, and other foodstuffs; they demanded an immediate address to the severe water shortage crisis afflicting their city as well as other social and economic ailments. Similar protests were staged in Dhal'e, Abyan, and Lahj to denounce price hikes. Hunger is their driving force.

However, it seems the government is not taking such protests seriously, considering such protests a violation to Yemen's stability and unity. Nay, it is washing its hand of its responsibility in addressing such problems that majority of the people are going through. I was shocked to find President Saleh telling al-Wasat newspaper he is not in charge of providing water for the citizens, alleging water comes from the sky. This is really a bizarre discourse. Okay, water comes from the sky. We do agree about this fact. However, Mr. President, we understand it is the government's business as tax collector to provide services including water for its taxpayers. In other words, such discourse is disappointing and depressing to the people whose smoothly-run protest impressed everybody. The governor of Taiz, the police, and the opposition coalition behaved in a very civilized manner.

We should expect from the President to acknowledge the problem and understand the agony of his people. However, his statement is a signal to the government not to work hard to solve their long-aged water shortage problem. We know that Saleh has to refute the opposition claims. Again, the opposition has its own political agenda and has to strike the ego of the citizens and address their pains.

But, this is not time for political fight and media barrage. The situation is intolerable. People across the country are facing very severe economic hardships and the government has to move more aggressively to address their agony and comfort them. The protests are not for fun. They are a democratic instrument to get their voices heard. The government, therefore, should not give deaf ears. Rather, it has to respond to them more positively.

I believe, however, if the opposition has been able to maintain a peaceful protest in Taiz, next time neither the opposition nor the government will be able to control the hungry people.

Mohammed Al-Qadhi ([email protected]) is a Yemeni journalist and columnist.