In Yemen, a Wary Alliance of Students and Tribes

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A revolution can't happen without tribal support, but do tribes really want democracy?

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The young revolutionary knelt on the floor of a red plastic tent, oblivious to the roar of ten thousand people chanting and howling just feet away from where he was perched, his hands on his lap, his eyes tired behind smudged wire-framed glasses.

"I shouldn't tell you this," he said a few minutes after I knelt beside him on the red tarp floor. "Maybe I shouldn't even be thinking this."

When I first arrived at the organizational epicenter of the youth uprising in Yemen, at the gates of Sana'a University in the country's dusty capital, I expected this young man, Adel al-Surabi, the revolution's self-assigned press liaison, to be euphoric. I expected him to tell me that the revolution was on. That for the first time in almost a month of pro-democracy protests in Yemen, there are finally tens of thousands people on the streets of Sana'a calling for the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year reign.

I expected him to tell me that just two weeks ago, there were only a few hundred protesters here; that on Tuesday, after pro-government forces fired on the peaceful crowd, killing two of his friends, there were a few thousand; and that today, there are thirty thousand, dancing and singing and chanting in rhythmic Yemeni Arabic: "The people want the regime to leave! Leave, Ali, Leave!" The mood outside is part music festival and part campaign headquarters, joyful, expectant, proud.

To be fair, al-Surabi had said all those things. "I know for sure now the revolution will be a success," he said. "There is no doubt in my mind we will succeed in overthrowing the president." At first, he'd even smiled a bit.

But now, kneeling on the red tarp floor, his voice dropped. "I am not afraid of this revolution," he said. "I am afraid of what will happen after this revolution. I'm afraid there is no way we will be free."

I've heard versions of Al-Surabi's fear repeatedly in Yemen -- from professors, analysts, politicians, storekeepers, and taxi drivers -- and it makes sense. Many of Yemen's young revolutionaries want the same thing as their Egyptian, Tunisian, and Libyan counterparts: a free and democratic government, elected by the people, for the people. But Yemen is not Egypt or Tunisia.

Much of Yemen is rural, illiterate, and tribal. There is a very small middle class here, a nascent civil society, and little in the way of a common vision of what a democratic Yemen would look like. Less than a fifth of the country, at the very most, has regular access to organizational tools such as Twitter and Facebook, which have facilitated revolutions elsewhere. Perhaps most damning, the consensus seems to be, is that the power structure in this country is largely dependent on tribes, a formidable and fickle force that pro-democracy revolutionaries can't live with -- and they can't live without.

Yemen's young, pro-democracy revolutionaries need a large swath of tribal support to get enough people in the streets to overthrow the government. But they don't want these same tribes -- which, in general, are not democracy-minded institutions -- to then wrest control of what could be, potentially, a free and democratic Yemen. And they certainly don't want a tribal split, in which some elements of the tribes support Saleh but others to support his ousting, possibly thrusting this impoverished nation into yet another civil war.

And that, al-Surabi says, is the rub. "We need them now," he says, gesturing at the thousands of tribal men, the hems of their long white robes gray from the pavement, just outside these red tarp walls. "But I am afraid they will hijack our revolution. The tribes are here not because they support democracy and freedom, but because they hate Saleh. They will hijack our democracy."

Earlier that day, I'd met with tribesman and out-spoken opposition politician Hamid Al-Ahmar, whose family heads the most powerful tribal confederacy in Yemen and who is widely expected to either become the next president, or the puppet-master behind the next president, of Yemen. We sat in his marble-floored living room, lounging on silk pillows and sipping tea, when a journalist asked him the question that everyone -- al-Surabi most of all -- wants to know: What will the tribes do after the revolution?

"The people of the tribes are members of the Yemeni republic," al-Ahmar had said, pulling his legs up beneath him on the silk sofa. "We believe in a constitution in Yemen and institutions. We believe that power should be distributed, not continue [to be run] as a one-man show. Power should be distributed between the president, cabinet, parliament, and court system, and maybe local administrations. It should be transparent - it should be a good democracy."

Back in the red tent, I related Al-Ahmar's sunny dedication to democracy to al-Surabi, who scoffed. "Someone like Hamid Al-Ahmar wants to get rid of Saleh so he can have a larger piece of the pie," he said, his face cast with deep shadows from the light of a naked bulb strung overhead. "We will either oust a dictator to get another dictator. Or there will be civil war in Yemen."

Al-Surabi, perhaps seeing the look in my eyes or simply anticipating my reaction, laughed. "Yes, it is depressing," he said, still smiling. "Very, very depressing."

Knowing all this, I asked, why keep fighting for a revolution that may end up only empowering the tribes? Why put yourself in the street, to be beaten and shot, to have your phones tapped, to have your friends kidnapped and murdered? Why walk hours across the city because you're too afraid to trust Sana'ani cabbies, who are thought to work for the government? Why overthrow Saleh if his demise means either a tribal dictatorship or civil war?

Al-Surabi laughed again. He is not, he told me, afraid of being arrested or tortured or anything else.

"It is like our Prophet Mohammed says: If you have a shrub, plant it. Even if you will never see it grow, it is your duty. So we are planting the shrub now that will become a revolution in ten, twenty, fifty years, I don't know," he said, still kneeling, prayer-like, on the red tarp floor. "I just hope I am around to see it turn into a tree."

Photo by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty

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Haley Sweetland Edwards is a journalist who covers Central Asia and the Middle East and currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia. She recently lived in Yemen on a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant.

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