True to form, today’s speech from Saleh was as fiery as it was predictable. As the months of protest have worn on in Yemen, these presidential appearances have become somewhat of a formality. Each week after Friday prayers, Saleh stands in front of a crowd of cheering (and likely, paid) supporters and condemns the protesters in increasingly colourful terms. Today’s target: the JMP. The unrest, it seems, it their fault, and they must be careful ‘not to play with fire’.
This accusation is worth unpacking, if only to expose how ludicrous it is. After a decade in which Saleh has turned the screw on formal politics , keeping the space for dissent to a bare minimum, the JMP have in fact struggled to gain a foothold in the protesters’ affections. The party’s obstacle has come in the form of history. Almost two decades of deference to the regime has rendered the party complicit in the perpetuation of Yemen’s weak political system, and the demonstrators know it. According to Hamza Alshargabi, a Yemeni blogger: ‘I, as many, perceive the leaders as a part of the regime; they have [been] stripped of their dignity.’ As Alshargabi’s comments suggest, the JMP’s tacit alliance with the regime provoked anger amongst many of the demonstrators who would make it clear that they neither trusted nor felt represented by the JMP leadership. This is the legacy of a political process that has co-opted the formal opposition into the President’s sphere of influence.
In pushing the label of protest ‘leaders’ upon the JMP, Saleh has only fueled the protesters anger and vindicated their sense of marginalisation from political life.When the JMP finally decided to support the protests, it was widely interpreted as yet another display of the same political opportunism, rather than a principled decision to ‘do the right thing’. Given this, it is interesting to note that figures such as Tawakkul Karman, a human rights activist who has adopted a high profile during the revolution and who is also a member of the Islah Party, have tended to emphasise the fact of their participation in a personal, rather than party-affiliated, capacity.
This newfound notion that formal politics is not an adequate forum for expression has presented particular problems for Saleh. Since the demonstrators have not mobilised along party lines, they now represent a diverse group of unlikely allies drawn together through informal links. This has been one of their biggest strengths: since the protests has no clear leader early on, the president was unable to target a figurehead and in so doing, halt them in their tracks. As a result, he necessarily had to pursue a strategy of (largely meaningless) ‘dialogue’ with the JMP as they were the only identifiable ‘opposition’ grouping he could be seen to engage with.
The claim that this uprising is the work of the JMP is further proof, if it were needed, that Saleh is clutching his final straws. The attempt to delegitimise a feeble political force is a sign of desperation.