Tanks and excessive force are not the answer [Archives:2005/862/Opinion]

July 25 2005

The events of the last few days have certainly been a clear indication that all is not nice and rosy, as the Government media would like the world to believe. Most certainly, the large-scale and widespread public protests reflect a high degree of discontent that is obviously not centered in one location or social or factional grouping. Furthermore, the handling of the demonstrations by the Government could never be described as being exemplary by any means or language. Too many people, most of whom are probably innocent, were killed wounded or arrested (Exact figures are hard to come by). Surely the Government was not so naive as to expect the latest economic bombshell or “dose” to be implemented, as part of the obviously unsuccessful reforms, which the Government has been fumbling through over the last ten years, to be taken with applause and acclaim. Needless to say, the latest catapulting of prices was viewed as catastrophic by the majority of the Yemeni people, most of whom are subsisting below the poverty line or very close to it, up or down. Yes, the people took to the streets, not so much because they were hit with a stroke of anarchy or desire to disturb the peace. The tens of thousands of citizens that were demonstrating last Wednesday and Thursday (and probably even now) were only trying to tell their government, “Hey you guys, where are you taking us to with these crazy price hikes? We simply can't go any further down the pit, because we have already reached rock bottom”. Why did the demonstrations get “unruly”? There are many postulates that are circulating, including some that suggest the involvement of government agents that are deliberately inciting the demonstrators to switch to “violent mode”. Moreover, because the Government has literally closed all normal channels for public expressions of opinion, which are open to citizens of a supposedly democratic society, one is bound to see public reactions be shown in the loudest and sometimes even most physical of ways.

The observer is not at all here trying to justify violence or civil disobedience, for surely no sane mind would ever suggest that it is all right to go wild in the streets and destroy property, etc. But then again, what channels could the people have used to make the government realize that this is one dose, which is beyond what they can handle? With one decision, the Government may have added at least a 150% rise in prices (on average) for just about every major essential commodity on an already struggling people trying to survive, let alone make ends meet. If we can buy the argument that the demonstrators overreacted somewhat (notwithstanding their legitimate gripes}, surely the reaction of the government was even more flabbergasting! For the government to send all the military hardware at its disposal to the streets was beyond what anyone has seen in any country, where civil disturbances have arisen. This was not war that we witnessed last week. However, the extreme overreaction of the Government would normally be taken only when the country is threatened by a foreign invasion or an organized attempt to overthrow the Government, neither of which were close to happening. Surely the Government could have considered several more civilized alternatives to dealing with the demonstrations turned disruptions. The first exclusion would be putting the tanks and heavy military gear on the streets. These tanks and other high handed military displays, created the impression that the Government was telling the people, “If you want war, we are ready”. The Yemeni people are not prone to violent disruptions on a massive scale, unless they have become really fed up with Government failure in managing their affairs. Even then, had they found a listening ear, the extent of violence in the demonstrations would have remained significantly subdued. But with overzealous reactions and the random use of firearms on a large scale against mostly unarmed demonstrators, this only fuelled more discontent and is certainly bad public relations for the Government, locally and internationally. No one is sure of the number of casualties, beatings or arrests, but according to various eyewitness accounts here and there, the scale was beyond what the demonstrations deserve in any context.

Power and muscle are never a remedy for dealing with popular discontent and Yemenis are by their nature even more resentful of its excessive use against them, when they feel they have a right to express their opinions against what they see as a legitimate gripe against the Government.

Part of the trouble lies in the fact that the opposition and independent press has been warning for years that the people of Yemen are not really getting their proper dues from their Government in just about all aspects of management of public affairs, But rather than heeding such warnings, the Government harnessed all of its resources towards clamping down on press freedom and political pluralism, under all kinds of moribund rationalities, while carrying on pretty much on a “business as usual attitude”. The social contract is a give and take arrangement and unless there is give and take coming from the Government as well (the people see themselves now as really not having any more things or leeway to give, and see themselves as hardly enjoying anything on the “take side”), then what should the Government expect from a disgruntled population? The fact that the protests were simultaneous – almost throughout the country – should be a clear sign to the Government that there is something definitely wrong on the Government's performance end of the social contract. The Government's overreaction and reliance on firepower will not remedy the problems at hand. When will the Government seriously and transparently start looking inward for solutions to most of the problems that Yemen is currently facing and start initiating real genuine reforms in its own apparatus and modus operandi? The people said last week that, as far as they are concerned, the Government has exhausted all the means that are at their disposal. The public is unable to bear any more burdens emanating from the continuous inefficiency and incompetence of Government and the horrendous corruption that has characterized all facets of its functioning for far too long now. All the tanks and firepower in the world can not do anything to address these legitimate gripes.